[Spoiler alert: This story contains the identity of the eliminated contestant on Wednesday night’s (May 13) The Masked Singer.]
It’s been a long, crazy season on The Masked Singer. We’ve had pop, R&B and hip-hop icons, skateboarding legends, TV/movie stars and everything in between march on and off the stage before being unmasked.
And on Wednesday night’s (May 13) semi-final featuring Rhino, Frog, Turtle and Night Angel, we had some of the best performances of to date, making season three’s penultimate episode one of the hardest ones ever.
Sadly, it was the end of the line for the tall drink of water that is Rhino, who wowed America and the judges for months with a mix of seriously on-point pop, rock and country tracks, with his final run through Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” bringing Nicole Scherzinger to tears. His time included takes on such iconic songs as the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber’s “10,000 Hours,” Niall Horan’s “Nice to Meet Ya,” the Jonas Brothers’ “What a Man Gotta Do,” Linda Rondstadt’s version of “Tracks of My Tears” and John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
It was a very eclectic selection of songs from a contestant whose clues pointed to a far-out, but also super grounded vibe, with pit stops at meditation and hints that he was a heavy hitter. His height made it seem like he was potentially an athlete, but his excellent vocals and ease on stage suggested he was just a towering professional, sensitive singer under all that tough Rhino exterior.
The guesses ranged from Blake Shelton to Jason Aldean and JAG star David James Elliott, but in the end, the biggest curveball was that he was none other than former legendary Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito. The major leaguer known for surfing and aligning his chakras off the field spent time during his pitching days dabbling in music, writing songs and performing with his sister Sally. Not surprisingly, he comes from a musical family — both his parents worked with Nat King Cole — and he even released an EP, No Secrets, in 2017.
Billboard caught up with “Captain Quirk” before his elimination to talk about the sports-music connection, how his time growing up around the biz shaped his run on the show and why facing your fears and failing is the ultimate path to success. Check out our chat below.
What is it about athletes wanting to be rock stars?
I’ve always tripped out on that. Throughout my career, I was always trying to get backstage and calling my agent to get backstage for the hottest band coming through the Bay Area. I think there’s this kinship because both vocations are similar in that you’re on stage, you’re performing and you’re just kind of out there chasing your dreams. It’s scary along the way and huge failures along the way and huge payoffs. I do think it’s a beautiful thing. A lot of musicians I know in Nashville really wanted to be athletes and they actually fell into their music career when sports didn’t work, so I think they maintain that love in their heart for it.
It’s not like this came out of nowhere. Both your parents were in the music business as performers as well as behind-the-scenes, so it seems like that’s in the Zito genes. Was music a big part of your life growing up?
Yeah, it was a huge part. There was a bunch of instruments in the house growing up. I grew up in Vegas and my dad had his music career in New York when he was working with Nat Cole and my mom too, but then they moved to Vegas and he became a talent manager when Nat passed away. He was managing all these acts and bands and was still in the business on a different side.
I have a memory of when I was 5-years-old there was a valve trombone in the house. I didn’t even know there was a trombone that had little buttons on it like a trumpet. I was playing those things: There was a French horn, a drum set, all these instruments in the house growing up and always great music playing, the Great American Songbook was always on in our house. My mom and dad were always in church singing.
How did baseball train you for the rigors of The Masked Singer?
I learned all of my life lessons on the field though the discomfort and the pain and suffering of performing terribly on a big stage. It really made me who I am. Performing great is cool, but we don’t really learn anything when we succeed. It’s like, “OK, keep doing that. Whatever that was, keep doing it.”
But when you fail at things you have to make adjustments and you got to learn lessons and rethink the way you’re approaching things. I took those lessons onto the stage in The Masked Singer. I was as shocked as anyone that I made it this far. Those lessons were things I approached in my baseball career when I was pitching in the World Series, like there are only certain things I can control. I can control being on the stage, emoting and being as authentic as I can, picturing my wife like I’m singing to her in our living room and really just coming from a heartfelt place.
If I went out there to impress the audience and the judges, it would have been as disastrous as when I went out there to impress the fans and win over my coaches and teammates to justify a big contract. Whenever I did that, it was a disaster.
You talk about taking a chance on failing. You’re known for a more country-leaning sound, but you definitely veered hard into pop on the show with the Niall Horan, JoBros and that ultimate reality show pop nugget from the Righteous Brothers. Were you trying to show your range, confuse the judges? What was the play there?
The music I’ve released so far is a little more acoustic country, but my heart is in pop music. I never even listened to lyrics until I met my wife. I’m more of a melody/harmony/rhythm guy, and songwriting and music production has always been my goal, and I’m finally getting to do that now.
For me, pop music was always something I wanted to do, and I think my voice is better suited at times on the show for more of the ballad-y, emotional love songs. I did keep going back to that well because it was working. But I was fighting hard with the people on the show, “No! I want to sing a pop song!” And they’re like, “But we really think you’re going to excel at this love song.” And I’d be like, “No, I want to sing Niall Horan. I want to sing Jonas Brothers.”
They were pushing on the Righteous Brothers song. I was like, “Whoa, this is definitely out of my comfort zone,” but I’m really glad I did that because I think that was my probably my best number.
It definitely showed off your range and what you’re working with. In your final performance you drove that home with “Humble and Kind,” which made Nicole cry a bit. Clearly it worked.
That was a great one. I have young children — three boys — and that song … [the song’s writer] Lori McKenna, I’m just a huge fan of the songwriting world in Nashville. The way these people put together a lyric is just bananas, no pun intended. The fact that she just wrote that song by herself … so few great songs are written by one person, especially in Nashville. So that song really meant a lot to me.
In baseball, people sometimes keyed in on the wackier things you did, so did the idea of dressing up as a giant rhino to sing on national TV appeal to that more creative/out-there side of your brain?
For me, the goal in music is songwriting first and trying to understand how songwriting works, which I did in Nashville for a while. Music production for me has always been the end goal and songwriting, so performing on stage is something I really, really love, but I’ve also lived that artist life of being never home. That is something I love to do, but I’m not leaning that hard … so singing on stage is quite scary to me actually. And hiding behind a guitar is usually my comfort zone, so being on two feet out there with a microphone totally exposed and me and my voice that’s super scary.
But I learned also in baseball that if I run towards things that scare me — thank you, Tim Ferriss from the 4-Hour Workweek — for the inspiration of “do what you’re scared of, run to discomfort.” You always just become a better person when I force myself to be uncomfortable, and that’s why I did the show.
Had you watched it at all before you were asked to be on?
Yeah, we loved it. We would watch with the kids. I just think the concept is so brilliant. It’s essentially a fun guessing game and you also get to see people you’ve heard of sing.
Looking at the guesses of who you were — David James Elliott from JAG, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton — not terrible company right?
Yeah, when they were throwing out the country singers, it was incredible. Vince Gill? Sam Hunt? Some of these guesses … I was just in the mask going, “Wow! This is amazing!” For me, I was having as much fun in real time when the judges were throwing those guesses out as anybody else.
When you’re up there singing in that costume, do you think there were any physical “tells” that your old teammates might have picked up on in your stage maneuvers, even in a mask and giant costume? Especially for a pitcher whose movements are so scrutinized?
That’s a good question. For me, the only thing I was trying to be inconspicuous about was the microphone hand. I’m actually dominantly right-handed, the only thing I do left-handed in life is pitch, kick and hit. Everything else is right-handed: play guitar right-handed, brush my teeth and all that stuff. So I was cognizant of microphone placement and I realized I was always trying to put my microphone in my hand that was away from the audience.
A real pro move!
There was a point on one of the B-roll things they were shooting where the Rhino was interacting with the camera and they were having me throw paper airplanes at the camera and I consciously threw them right-handed to throw people off.
Great mind games! Were you surprised that you lasted as long as you did? You outlasted some hall of fame singing talent. I mean, Lil Wayne went out on night one.
I was shocked, man. In fact, my manager was just as shocked and he was telling me he thought the show was rigged, jokingly, because I had made it so far [laughs]. At first I was kind of mad, like, “Man, what are you talking about!? I feel like I’m busting my tail over here doing this and you’re saying it’s all rigged.”
But once I did get eliminated, I came in and I was like, “Dude, I told you it wasn’t rigged!” I just wanted to know that my hard work was paying off. But I was quite shocked. My goal going into this thing was don’t get eliminated on the first show. I’m a huge Antonio Brown fan and I know Antonio got eliminated on his performance, so I just didn’t want to be the guy that just went out and got eliminated.
Was there anybody in your world who guessed early on?
I started getting text messages about four weeks ago. But nobody ever texted me personally before Jenny McCarthy threw out my name. I think everyone was totally off the path, but Jenny threw that out. I have no idea how Jenny was throwing out my wife’s name. I’m sitting there going, “What?” At that point people started texting me and of course I had to do the obligatory, “Oh that’s so funny, yeah, somebody else mentioned that. We love the show but that’s preposterous.”
What about anyone in your family, or friends? Who did you tell?
My sister lives in L.A. and it was a surprise from her. I really had to keep it from everybody. I was flying to L.A. every three days from Nashville, so it was tricky because my sister was there and I lived in L.A. for 15 years, so I have a ton of friends there. I couldn’t be like, “Hey man, wanna hang out? I’m in town.” That would lead to a bunch of questions. It was really tricky.
After this great run on the show, what’s next for you in music? What are you hoping to parlay this into?
My heart is really divided in two. I love songwriting and we released a song last Friday, the first song I’ve released that’s not my own. It’s my take on an old Kenny Rogers song called “The Greatest” about a kid who plays baseball. It’s written by Don Schlitz, who wrote “The Gambler” and a ton of other great songs. And I think we’re gonna release another baseball-oriented type song because I’ve never done that kind of thing.
But I’m really diving into music production, which is where I’ve always wanted to be, even during baseball. I’ve got new music coming out later this year that has a totally different sound. There might be some synthesizers in it and programmed drums and try to pair that with the songwriting.