Ben Vereen interviewed by Tonya Pinkins

March 10, 2014 | By

Ben-VereenMulti-award-winning actress singer Tonya Pinkins interviewed Ben Vereen for the Bistro Awards.

TP: You are legendary. Who do you emulate and say, “I’ll steal a little of this and a little of that?”

BV: Oscar Brown Jr—I love Oscar, Little Jimmy Scott, Carmen McRae. These are my cats. Charles Aznavour!


TP: I don’t think most young people know who they are.

BV: You’re right, they don’t.  Jimmy Scott is ridiculous…ridiculous! He can take a word, a note, and you hear an entire story unfolding and you’re captivated. He is a source. These are the people who, like wow, tell the story. I like that!


TP : Do you have a daily practice before your performances?

BV: Always. I don’t go into a show without asking permission, without asking my divine self, my higher self. I can do nothing—I gotta show up. God says, “Show up and I’ll work through you.”


TP: When you begin creating your shows, where does it start—a song, a lyric, a step?

BV: It starts with the story. A lyric tells a story, then it becomes music, then it becomes movable. Music starts with a story. A symphony tells a story, jazz tells a story, about a journey. How do you feel today La Da Di Da Da Da Da.


Tonya: You sing, dance and act; what’s the process in the room when you create a piece?

BV: It isn’t just me. I may have an idea for a song. An arranger may come up with a song. A choreographer may say, “Try this step there.” I’ll say, “Let’s try it here,” or “I feel it over there.” It all works together, collaboration. You get in a room and you play with it and come up with a gem.


TP: Who have been some of your greatest collaborators and music directors?

BV: Nelson Cole, David Loeb, George Gaffney, Rob Lipscomb, a cellist, Marc Diccianni, Tom Kennedy, Mike Boone. Great cats! Forgive me if I don’t mention all their names…there have been so many. I can remember sitting with Sammy [Davis Jr] and him saying, “I’ve been in the business 50 years.” Wow! Now I’m sitting here saying, “I have been in the business over 35-40 years.” Wow! But it doesn’t feel like it.


TP: This business keeps us young.

BV: Yes! I was doing a gig in Venice, Florida. We were sitting around afterwards and I said that I thought I could explain what it’s like to be up there, but I can’t. There aren’t any words to express the euphoria that comes over me when I’m able to give and it’s received—when I can open myself up to be a channel and not get in the way of the message.


TP: Who are the young entertainers who you see as carrying on the tradition?

BV: I like that kid, piano player, singer John Legend. Timberlake is branching out in that direction, Usher is trying to go in that direction.


TP: Are there any disappointments?

BV: Too many to mention. Mostly time wasted. The time I didn’t spend with my children. Those are the important moments. If I’d known better, I’d have done better.


TP: Tell me about your connection with God and Spirit and how that impacts your work?

BV: It is my All in All. I’m teaching now. I’m teaching at colleges and seminars. I’ve learned that a lot of people approach acting from the outside in. Acting is an inside job. I’ve always been a seeker of higher consciousness or enlightenment—whether I wanted to or not—in this humanness that I am going through. It’s never been my career; it’s been my higher consciousness—Jesus, Allah, Buddha, I, Yaweh, whatever you call that divine divinity. It’s been the steerer of my life. I’ve taken some side courses and some terrible journeys that I wish I had not. But all in all, when I look at the big picture I say, “There but for the grace of God…” Spirit has lifted me and carried me up. I’m getting a Bistro Award. I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know about a Tony when I got that. I didn’t know these things. Yet the hand of the divine has been upon my life lifting me up and guiding me. I’m like this small child pouting, “I wanna do it this way.” Spirit says do it this way and in the end you’ll be happy.


TP: I don’t think a lot of people know that you’re a minister.

BV: We are all ministers.


TP: When were you “called”?

BV: I never felt that I was called. I enjoy being a minister to officiate at friends’ weddings. I love giving, being and delivering service. I study. I study a lot of religions. I’d love to have my own church. But mine would be different from any of the churches I’ve been in. Mine would really be about the people. There are more components you can do to help the people and I would want my church to be on that path. I’m trying to get to the top of the mountain—there are many paths on the mountain; I’d rather be on the mountain top.


TP: When we did JELLY’S LAST JAM, 1993, was the same year you had been in an auto accident and they thought you would never walk again. I have a fear of ever becoming maimed, and if that had been me, I would have felt like “give me the morphine drip—I don’t want to go now.”

BV: I went there… I woke up in ICU at UCLA. They had operated on me three, four or five times. They’d taken my spleen, I’d had a stroke, my femur was broken. I had a tracheotomy. I couldn’t talk, I could only mouth. I tried to ask the nurse, “Am I gonna die?” And I was saying in my mind “let me go, ’cause I can’t do it like this. You all are doing a great job but don’t do this. I’m ready to go.” And something in me spoke through the nurse and said, “No, you’re not gonna die. We’re not gonna let you die.” And with that…it wasn’t about singing and dancing it was about living.

And I began to talk about Steven Hawking. The man has Lou Gehrig’s disease, in a wheel chair. He was on my favorite show, Star Trek, before I was on there, and I thought, “If spirit can do that, if the universe can use this man, then spirit use me, use me. I surrender.” And it became about living, not about walking, but about living. And life becomes a song.

I had to become teachable. I had to teach myself to eat again. Never mind walking—I had to learn to put a fork to my mouth. I had to let spirit rebuild me. I would wake up and I couldn’t move, but I would say all right, that’s just for today. I had to show up so God could work through me. I would show up in my mind. And the first time I could move a finger, just a finger on my stroke hand, tears went down my face. I couldn’t wipe them, but I cried.


TP: What performances came through in your dreams and in your mind when you were laying there in the hospital dreaming, visualizing?

BV: Mostly about other people’s performances. Pippin, Grind, my club acts, Hair, they all came through as I lay there.

There was a movie—every time I opened my eyes this movie was on—What About Bob?, starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. It seemed that I’d be sleeping and every time I would wake up this movie was on. It made me laugh. Spirit said, “Open your eyes now.” I’d be asleep, I’d open my eyes in laughter. Laughter made a big difference.

Charles Grodin said, “It’s the body that keeps us standing. It’s soul that keeps us going. But it’s the spirit that carries us through.”

I wanted to see Jelly [‘s Last Jam] on my birthday. Y’all up there doing what I wanted to do. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand up to give you the standing ovation you deserved. I was in a brace. And that was the night Gregory said, “Come this way. Don’t lay down.” What a beautiful man he was. He was one of the angels in my life.

I gotta give it up to those angels who showed up in my life too. The nurses, occupational therapists, aids that do their jobs. the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, they put me back together. They came and saw Jelly and said, “We can do this.” The stage hands and the crew—we had a fabulous family. They built me a dressing room on the stage so I wouldn’t have to go up the stairs. The crew did that! Then one year later on the stage of the St James theatre, I did my first turn and the cast went NUTS. Jelly was my holy grail, my healing ground.


Tonya: What do you want to do next?

BV: I want to do it all! Work. I love to work. I’ve written a few things. I’m bidding on some directing projects. I feel it. I have visions. I’m talking with Emily Mann and Stephen Schwartz about a new project.


TP: When was the first time you remember captivating an audience?

BV: When did I wake up to being an artist?


TP: Yeah, as a child.

BV: There was a lady. Her name was Mary Eddy. Her husband was the Reverend E. Eddy. She was my Godmother. I was about six and she took me to the church and sat me in front of the congregation and had me sing. I’ll never forget that feeling. Something inside me said I was home. I felt, like, “Can I do it again? Can I do it again?” It started a craving. I’d find myself singing around the house. Showing off at dances, taking the floor. Ahhhh I love this business. I love this talent.


TP: What would you say to young people who want to do what we do?

BV: You are all you need. Hear you. You are the most important thing in the universe. Work on yourself—not just the physical, but your entire self— and take it easy greasy…you got a long way to slide. (Laughter)

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