Five decades ago, William Shatner brought Captain James T. Kirk to life each week on the original NBC network run of Star Trek. His popularity among audiences was such that it led to an offer from Decca Records – one he couldn’t refuse.
“I always wanted to sing,” Shatner admits to Billboard. “I took some singing lessons as a young actor, but I didn’t have time to follow through. I probably could have learned to sing, but I never did. I’m filled with the realization that I can’t sing, but as an actor, I had a feel for poetry. I did a lot of Shakespeare on my time, and poetry readings. There is a very definite road from music to poetry – and it’s one I’ve walked so many times. When Decca Records asked me to make a record, I jumped at the chance. I had a concept, which was to put music to great literature and segue into the great literature of the time.”
His first album for the label, The Transformed Man, was a chance for him to do just that, though it threw some off. “I got into trouble when I only did the song, and there was no explanation as to why I was doing it so dramatically. There are instances in that album of what I was wanting to do, and there were some successful moments. That eventually led me to Ben Folds, who had picked up the album, and had gotten in touch with me and said he wanted to work with me. Then we did an album – which was far more successful – called Has Been (2004). For that album, I actually wrote some of the songs, and did a cover song or two. Working with Ben, who is a musical genius, was a great thrill.”
Shatner has released a few albums since then, and his latest foray into the recorded world takes him to the country genre. The actor has teamed up with Alabama’s Jeff Cook for a new album titled Why Not Me? It’s a collaboration effort with each man doing what he does best. Cook says that the project was one that definitely came out of left field.
“I had known Bill for a while, and I didn’t know he could sing. When he does a treatment for a song, it’s different, with his recitations. We have a mutual friend in Heartland Records, and not knowing that Bill and I were acquainted, Brian Curl got this idea and thought we could make it work.”
The two recorded the album at Cook’s studio in Fort Payne. The longtime member of Alabama said he marveled at Shatner’s work ethic in the studio.
“He got in there, did what we went in to do. He was really great to work with. We had to find something that really lent itself to what we were trying to do. I think we got a good recording out of it.”
A prime example of what Cook and Shatner wanted to do is on the set’s first single, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Alone,” of which Cook said, “We get into the verse, and Bill does this narration on the verse. When it gets to the chorus, I provide the three-part harmonies on it.”
Another standout on the album is the humorous “Too Old To Be Vegan,” which Cook said grew on him. “The first time I heard it, I thought – that’s not going to fly. But I have had time to re-evaluate my opinion on it. It’s a novelty, but I think it will be a type of song that people haven’t heard before.” That’s also a statement that he believes is true for the album itself. “We were looking for something different – that people might find interesting. Once again, it’s a unique project. I don’t know of anyone who has done anything quite like it.”
The album also contains appearances from Cash Creek, Home Free, and Neal McCoy. Though it’s his first country-themed recording, Shatner says he has always been a fan of the format.
“Country music is the epitome of reaching out in pure terms from a musical and a lyrical standpoint. It’s that purity that I love. When Brad Paisley sings a song, not only are you humming the melody, but you are understanding the words. He’s the perfect country singer – he has such a simple tone of his voice, and the extraordinary extravagance of his guitar, he’s wonderful,” he says of his longtime friend. Shatner appeared as a Simon Cowell-type talent show judge in Paisley’s 2003 video for “Celebrity,” and also appeared in the video clip for “Online.”
“I hold him up as an example. But I have to be my own unique voice because of my limitations that I’m working with, which I try to deal with on this album.”
At age 87, Shatner isn’t slowing down one bit. Besides his acting career, he’s also got plans to release another album before the end of the year. “I’ve actually got another album coming out at Christmas called Shatner Claus. In some of the songs, you will hear echoes of what I’m trying to do – to make old songs new, and the new songs sound meaningful. So I have two albums out this year, which I think is extraordinary.”
That description can also be said of his acting career, which has lasted over sixty years, and included Emmy Awards for his role as the eccentric lawyer Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal. Still, it’s his 1966-69 run as the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise that makes him a fan favorite over five decades later. Shatner says he has no problem with that. “I’m here on the phone talking to Billboard Magazine, which is one of the great musical magazines ever, purely as a result of having been Captain Kirk some 52 years ago. So the intertwining of celebrity that led me from Star Trek to Billboard is very clear.”
Why Not Me? will be released this Friday (Aug.10).