Michael Buble was stumped. He could not name the last Canada-based male singer to land at No. 1 on the U.S. album chart before he accomplished it last month.
Bryan Adams with “Reckless” in 1984.
“You’re (bleeping) me,” blurted Buble. “I’ll be bragging to my family in about three hours.”
Buble, 32, croons like Sinatra, curses like Eddie Murphy and charms like Bill Clinton. Those traits may help explain why he has joined Nickelback, the Vancouver rock band, and Celine Dion, the Montreal pop diva, at the top of the U.S. charts.
But why is it hard out there for a Canadian-based vocalist trying to score in the States?
“There are to things to jump over - become a success here and then it is a jump to the U.S.,” said Larry LeBlanc, Canadian bureau chief of Billboard. “The barrier is there. We can’t go back and forth across your border like you can with ours.”
Why did Buble’s third album, “Call Me Irresponsible,” debut at No. 1 in May? Buble (boo-BLAY, it’s Italian, not French) will tell you it’s because of career mometum. Adams told us in an e-mail it’s because Buble is a good singer. Music marketing experts will tell you it’s because of a one-two punch: appearing on “American Idol” and “Oprah.”
“I was so (bleep-y) on `Idol’ that I think it would be the opposite,” Buble said with a hearty laugh. “There were probably 80,000 people about to buy the record who went `Oh, he’s really not that good.’ I don’t know how much that helped. Maybe it put you in the consciousness of some of the American public.”
“Oprah,” however, was another story. “They say she’s good for 35,000 or 40,000 records for that week and the next couple of weeks,” he said this month from his Vancouver home. “That kind of power is pretty amazing. People believe Oprah as a tastemaker. They trust her. It was quite shocking to me to see that kind of impact.”
The “Oprah” appearance effectively captured this modern-day lounge singer, who is one of those artists who must be seen live to be fully appreciated. Plus, he’s a charming talker.
Onstage, he’s ham and cheese, slathered with lots of romantic dressing on two slices of dark and handsome. He sings and swings. He does shtick and turns on the charisma. As a London writer put it: He’s like Bill Clinton - he’ll come on to whomever is in front of him.
“Call Me Irresponsible” presents Buble’s personality and stage essence more successfully than his first two discs, which were slickly produced by David Foster, the L.A.-based Canadian who has worked with Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban and Dion.
Buble attributes the improvement to his singing live instead of recording multiple takes and slicing them together for a pristine version. “David and I sometimes go to war over our sense of style,” said the singer, who again worked with Foster on this album. “I like things to be a little more loose and dirty, and he likes things to be perfect.”
Once again, Buble takes on standards, including “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “That’s Life.” He also reimagines contemporary pop hits, including Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” (as a bossa nova duet with a man) and Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (as a duet with a woman).
At dinner one night, Foster pitched “Me and Mrs. Jones,” a 1972 soul hit, to Buble. He didn’t even know the song but his girlfriend, actress Emily Blunt of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame, proclaimed: “Oh, my God, this is wonderful!”
Said Buble: “If looks could kill, my girlfriend would have been dead. I walked out of the restaurant and said, `Emily, you’ve empowered David.’”
They went home, put “Me and Mrs. Jones” - about a man’s affair with a married woman - on an iPod and Buble concluded: “It sucks.” But after six or seven more listenings, he started to appreciate the melody and later the lyrics in a “sexy yet kitschy” way.
While recording it, Foster suggested adding a dark, moody female voice. Buble recommended Blunt, a cellist who can sing. So the producer auditioned her and she got the part.
But now when the recording comes on in front of unfamiliar listeners, right when it gets to Blunt’s vocals, she always turns down the volume. “I don’t usually say anything,” her boyfriend said. “She cringes easily.”
So she’s not going to go on tour and sing it with Buble? “No, never,” he laughed. “I really don’t want to cross the line of cheesiness. I think we already got close to that.”
While his salmon-fishing parents were out to sea, young Michael, the oldest of three children, got hooked on the standards in Grandpa’s record collection. When the family realized the youngster could sing, Grandpa, a plumber, would go to bars and offer to fix toilets in exchange for letting the kid sing on the bandstand.
After years in Canadian clubs, Buble got his break in 2000 when he sang at the wedding of the Canadian prime minister’s daughter. Producer Foster was there, and the assertive Buble asked for a recording opportunity. Foster said the singer would need $500,000 to have a shot at making it in the business.
Buble found investors and eventually released his first U.S. album in 2003 through Reprise, the label that Frank Sinatra founded. With heavy touring and many TV appearances, the Canadian built his career to the point where his second CD, 2005’s “It’s Time,” stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s traditional jazz chart for a record 80 weeks. In addition to receiving two Grammy nominations, he has sung on Tony Bennett’s 2006 duets disc and on a new Ella Fitzgerald tribute CD, on which he’s the only male vocalist.
For his own new project, the retro popster co-wrote two songs in a more contemporary vein. “Everything,” his current single, is the bubbliest thing Buble has recorded.
“I love pop music, and I was hoping I could do what I do and delve a little closer to acoustic pop without being called schizophrenic,” he said. “I wrote a melody with a nice `70s summer feel, and I sat with a lyricist to write about being newly in love.”
Then to add a pop-rock edge, he enlisted Canadian producer Bob Rock, who has helmed hits for Metallica, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue.
The album also includes a cover of “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen, who rivals Joni Mitchell as the greatest Canadian songwriter to not hit No. 1 in the States. Buble had a conversation about the song with its legendary composer.
“I said: `OK, Leonard. I’m a bit afraid of how this is going to come off live.’ He said: `Why?’ I said: `Because I’m afraid it’s just too sexy. I don’t know what’s going to happen when men start throwing their underwear at me.”
“He didn’t laugh. He just said (imitating Cohen’s deep whisper): `I don’t think that will be a problem.’”