‘Wayward octogenarian’ a cabaret hit

May 26, 2015
Ray Jessel on America's Got Talent.

Ray Jessel on America's Got Talent.

Cabaret singer Ray Jessel was in his 70s before he began performing, but the man dubbed the “witty, wayward octogenarian” is now recognised all over America thanks to an appearance last year on a TV talent show.

His chosen song for America’s Got Talent was a cheeky original number called “What She’s Got” – now more widely known as “The Penis Song”.

“It was amazing just how wonderful a reaction it got from the audience and judges,” Jessel, who is heading to Adelaide for next month’s Cabaret Festival, tells InDaily.

“And the really amazing thing for me was how many hits there were on YouTube and Facebook for the clip.”

The YouTube video – which shows Jessel chatting with the talent show judges and fumbling with the mic before launching into his humorous song – garnered more than 12 million hits in just six months.

But while it may seem like he became an overnight sensation at the ripe age of 84, Welsh-born Jessel is actually a music industry veteran – it’s just that most of his career has been spent composing, writing lyrics and producing.

In Hollywood, he wrote musical material and comedy sketches for television programs such as The Dean Martin Show and The Love Boat. He also worked on Broadway, and has had artists such as Louis Armstrong and Michael Feinstein record his songs.

“I never got recognised before as a composer, but the minute I got my face on TV I had people coming up to me in the street,” says Jessel, still sounding slightly surprised by the fuss created by his Amercia’s Got Talent performance.

Naughty or Nice: Ray Jessel.

Naughty or Nice: Ray Jessel.

As a singer, he performed his first public show in 2002, at a nightclub called The Gardenia in Los Angeles.

He says that at the time, his television career was winding down and he had been writing comedy songs he could sing at parties to amuse people. Feinstein was a guest at one of the parties and suggested Jessel should be performing them to a wider audience.

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Jessel has some regrets that he didn’t embark on a live performance career earlier, but says he grew up at a time when “writers wrote and singers sang”.

“The 1960s ushered in the time of the singer-songwriter but I wasn’t part of that.

“I guess I also felt that I wasn’t much of a singer but I found out that I do it just fine … I’m not a Sinatra or anything like that, but for my material, it works just fine.”

Jessel’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival show is called Naughty Or Nice, and will consist of all original songs. About two-thirds of the set will be comedy tunes – including the likes of “Life Sucks and Then You Die” and “Short Term Memory Loss Blues” – while the rest will be ballads or show tunes.

The self-described romantic promises there will also be love songs, many of which were written with his wife of 35 years, Cynthia Thompson, even though they are “mostly about love that isn’t working out; tragic love”.

Audiences can be sure the now-infamous “Penis Song” will also make the set list.

“I couldn’t possibly do a performance now without doing that song!”

Ray Jessel will perform two shows at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, on June 20 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which opens on June 5.

More Adelaide Cabaret Festival stories:

Marney McQueen: Hair to the Throne
High-flying SongBird bound for Adelaide
Christa Hughes set to rock the cabaret
Humphries unveils 2015 Adelaide Cabaret Festival line-up



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