Michael Bolton Talks Memoir, Hits and What 'Jack Sparrow' Has Wrought

 Joyce Culver

"Word is out," quipped Michael Bolton, "that I might have a sense of humor."

The superstar singer who has sold out arenas was speaking Monday night in a much more intimate venue, the 92nd Street Y (92Y) on Manhattan's Upper East Side.   

Bolton was describing the aftermath of the viral YouTube hit "Jack Sparrow" which he recorded in 2011 with The Lonely Island, the "Saturday Night Live" comedy troupe of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer.

"The clip emerged from "two 17-hour days [filming] in New York -- and laughing every hour," recalled Bolton.

The occasion of Bolton's comments was an on-stage interview with award-winning broadcaster and media personality Valerie Smaldone to promote his recently published autobiography "The Soul of It All—My Music, My Life" (Hachette). The event was webcast via Livestream.

Smaldone, a five-time winner at the Billboard Radio Awards during her tenure as a top-rated radio personality at New York's WLTW-FM (106.7 Lite FM), is the producer and host of the 92Y's "Legends of Music" series. Smaldone also has created, hosted and produced nationally syndicated programs and interviewed Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins and Mariah Carey among others.  She is well-known as a voice-over artist and the unseen "voice of God" for events ranging from Broadway on Broadway to the Clinton Global Initiative.

"Before we begin," said Smaldone, alone on the 92Y stage, "there's an important phone call I have to make." As she dialed her smartphone, out walked Bolton -- with his phone ringing.

"Valerie, please don't call Michael Bolton." the singer deadpanned, an allusion to his humorous ad for the cable provider Optimum.

The Optimum ad is just one of the unexpected opportunities that have come Bolton's way after "Jack Sparrow" went viral. To date, "Jack Sparrow" as been viewed more than 112 million times. Bolton recalled his grown daughter, Isa, monitoring YouTube traffic after the clip began airing in May 2011. "She looked up and said, 'You're not going to believe what's happening right now.'"

To the laughter of the 92Y audience, filled with longtime fans, Bolton remarked that "kids who never heard a record of mine were becoming big fans."

Bolton's engaging biography recounts his rise from his boyhood in New Haven, Conn. through a string of unsuccessful record deals and career setbacks to his breakthrough in 1987 with his Columbia Records album "The Hunger" and its singles "That's What Love Is All About," which he co-wrote with Eric Kaz, and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," Bolton's cover of the Otis Redding classic.   

For the next decade, Bolton was a constant hit maker on the Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary Songs charts while his albums including "Soul Provider," "Time, Love & Tenderness" and "Timeless (The Classics)" earned multiplatinum status.  During the Nielsen SoundScan era, he has sold more than 22.2 million albums and has twice won the Grammy Award for best male pop vocal performance.

Most recently, Bolton recorded his versions of Motown favorites for his latest album "Ain't No Mountain High Enough: A Tribute to Hitsville U.S.A."

Monday night's event was for the fans, not the industry.  But throughout the evening, Smaldone and Bolton mentioned the names of executives who played a key role in the singer's success including Al Teller, the former president of CBS Records; former Sony Music chiefs Tommy Mottola and Don Ienner; and Jerry Lembo, former VP of national promotion for Columbia Records.

Smaldone guided Bolton through highlights of his story—from his performance with Luciano Pavarotti to his friendship with Coretta Scott King—and brought the singer to the tale of a songwriting session with one aspiring young performer, Lady Gaga. The session yielded the song "Murder My Heart" which Bolton released on his 2010 album "One World, One Love."

After the session with the young Stephani Germanotta, Bolton recalled thinking, "This is a star, about to lift off."

Asked by Smaldone about the current state of the music scene, Bolton expressed concern about what he saw as the focus on single downloads and video clips, at the expense of full-length albums.  

"That's going to make it very different, not for artists to be heard," he said, "but for artists to endure."