Matt Ford, an award winning vocalist, chats with Kevin Cooper about performing on the Royal Festival Hall stage, working with John Wilson, his ideal Christmas and the forthcoming Simply Sinatra UK tour.

Matt Ford, a former teacher, is now an award winning vocalist, and is widely regarded as the finest Big Band singer in the UK. He has performed with many orchestras including the Halle, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, City Of Birmingham Symphony, BBC and RTE Concert Orchestra as well as the BBC Big Band and Syd Lawrence Orchestra.

In May 2011 Matt recorded That’s Entertainment for EMI Classics with the John Wilson Orchestra and in September 2011 he made his BBC Proms debut in Hooray For Hollywood also with the John Wilson Orchestra which was broadcast on BBC TV and radio. Matt returned to the BBC Proms in August 2013 in Hollywood Rhapsody with American jazz star Jane Monheit.

Bringing the songs of Frank Sinatra to life, he works regularly with acclaimed conductor John Wilson, and featured on the 2014 award winning John Wilson Orchestra, Gershwin In Hollywood which was recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015.

In 2006 he won the Best UK Male Big Band Vocalist and has toured extensively singing the great songs of Frank Sinatra.

Whilst busy rehearsing for the show Simply Sinatra, which will also see guest vocalist Victoria Hamilton-Barritt together with ballroom champions Chris and Emma Burrell, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Matt good morning how are you?

I’m fine thanks Kevin how are you?

I have to say that I am very well thank you and before we start let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure.

And just how is life treating you?

Well I have to say that life is good at the moment. I could complain but nobody would listen (laughter). I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming tour, and to be honest there are a lot of exciting things happening at the moment so all is good so thanks for asking.

Just how did music start for you?

Oh crikey. Well music was always there around the family. My grandparents were both trained opera singers but don’t get me wrong, they still worked. My grandfather worked at Rolls Royce and my grandmother worked in a newsagents, but they were both trained amateurs. They would go around the Working Men’s clubs, stand next to the piano and sing operatic arias from when they were kids really. So music was always around and I just sort of fell into it. A friend of mine who ran a club a few miles from where we lived, knew that I was keen on singing and said to me “why don’t you come up to the club and I will see if I can get you a spot in a charity show”.

So I went along with him and he asked the organisers of the event if I could sing for them and I suppose, as they say, the rest is history. I started performing on the club circuit, then I got a bit of TV work on shows such as Stars In Their Eyes, and from that I got working with a few of the Big Bands. From working with the Big Bands I got to know John Wilson who in turn got me involved with the orchestral thing. Everything suddenly seemed to flow from one thing to the next. I have always worked hard and tried to be as least a pain in the bum as I can and fortunately I have progressed along the way.

Who were you listening to when you were growing up?

(Laughter) well my parents only had around four records; one was a Frank Sinatra compilation called Portrait Of Sinatra. There was a Jack Jones record, they also had a double album of 60s pop hits called Stardust, and the other was a Neil Diamond album. So those albums are what I was listening to. Obviously I would listen to the radio as well but when I was at home I would be listening to those four albums and I suppose that music resonated with me and stuck.

If music hadn’t worked out for you did you have a Plan B?

Yes I did, I trained as a teacher. I did a four year degree in order to teach in secondary schools. In fact I did teach for a while in Further Education Colleges and also in some smaller schools when we lived down in Eastbourne together with a nice little prep school so I would most probably have been a teacher.

What subject did you specialise in?

It was science and physical education which had nothing to do with music at all (laughter). It was great walking around in a track suit all day. I would throw them a ball and tell them to go off and play football for two hours (laughter).

In 2006 you won the Best UK Male Big Band Vocalist; that must have felt good?

That was magic because I had only been performing with The Syd Lawrence Orchestra for a short while but there really are some great singers around; people like Jeff Hooper and Tony Jacobs who I followed into the band. These people were, and still are, great singers. For me to be even set alongside them was a real honour but for me to pip them to the title was simply magic.

Did you have to buy yourself a larger jacket because that sort of thing really does make your chest swell?

(Laughter) I had to have a bigger doorway built in order for me to get into the house as my head had grown so much (laughter).

You have performed and sung with some of the biggest bands out there. Is there anyone who you have not performed with who you would like too?

Oh crikey, what a question. There are a few orchestras who I would love to work with, especially some of the German Radio Big Bands. I would really love to work with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in particular. Big Bands are massive over there in Germany and as yet, I haven’t worked an awful lot over there. I would love to get myself over there and have a go with them. It would be fantastic for me to hear them playing live. Having said that there are still a lot of orchestras in the UK that I have yet to work with; some of the London based orchestras in particular would be nice. I’ve not worked with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra so I would love to work with them.

Now I have to ask the question, why Frank Sinatra?

When I first started playing the clubs, no one was singing Sinatra. It wasn’t on anyone’s mind to do it because, being totally honest, it was all old fashioned stuff. So I thought that there was a bit of a niche in the market plus it suited my voice and personality. You have to do a bit of everything when you are playing the clubs but I started doing it and pretty soon I was predominately doing Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole and people really did like it. They would say to me “that’s a bit of a change” because all of the other artists were doing 60s and 70s pop stuff predominately in that period in the clubs.

It was the late 80s and early 90s but they were still performing 60s and 70s pop. So with me doing Sinatra I just fitted into that niche in the market quite nicely and gathered momentum by doing that. So it was partly that and partly the way that it suited my voice.

Last year you toured the UK with the Celebration Of Sinatra. How did that go?

It was absolutely fantastic. It is a real thrill for me to be doing that. The biggest thrill that I got was standing on the Royal Festival Hall stage where Sinatra had stood himself. I sang My Way on that stage where he had stood and sung My Way. That really did make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Its moments like that which you actually work so very hard for. You think to yourself ‘hang on a minute, this is something really special’ and whilst the whole tour was a great thrill, it’s those little moments like that which make it something special.

How was it performing in Hollywood with The John Wilson Orchestra? Didn’t you have a funny moment whilst you were over there?

(Laughter) yes we did. Being out there and performing with John was absolutely fantastic, but as you say there was a funny thing when we tried to organise a tour of the Capitol Studios for me and a few of the musicians in the band. One of the guys went to the studio and told them that we had been over there in Hollywood performing with The John Wilson Orchestra, and that we were heading back to the UK the following day and would it be possible for us to have a look around the Capitol Studios to which they replied “no” (laughter). We took a few photographs from outside and that is as close as we got (laughter).”

You have mentioned John (Wilson) a few times now; do the two of you get along?

John is a really good friend; we have known each other for over fourteen years now. I first met John when I was performing with The Syd Lawrence Orchestra. He subsequently invited me to sing with his Big Band and then subsequently with his orchestra in 2006 and we have been good friends ever since. He really is a hard taskmaster; he pushes you and pushes you, but he will push you in order to get the best out of you so that you improve. And I have to say that over the years I have improved so much through working with John. He will not accept any second class work, it has got to be the top effort and the top results every single time. I have to say that it really does drain you; it is a real proving ground (laughter).

If only some of the youngsters of today would take a leaf out of your book.

Well it’s funny that you should say that because I get a lot of correspondence from young guys who are starting out and they all ask me “what do I need to do, can you give me any tips” and I say the same thing every time “stay away from my turf” (laughter). Joking aside I always tell them that they have got to listen to the Masters. Every one of them, every single one of them will always listen to Michael Bublé and Robbie Williams doing the swing stuff. I always tell them that they have got to listen to the guys who are the best at it, people like Matt Monro, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin and just listen to how they do it.

The trouble is that a lot of guys think ‘I can stick my hand in my pocket, lean back on my right leg, sing, and it will be easy listening’ (laughter). However, easy listening isn’t necessarily easy singing. Singing Swing is a very technical thing. It’s the typical swan thing, it looks calm on the top, all relaxed, but paddling like billy-o underneath. A lot of the guys don’t seem to get that. What they see is the hand in the pocket, they put the hat on and suddenly ‘wow, don’t they sound like Frank Sinatra’, well the answer is no, they don’t actually. They are missing the whole point. These songs are stories and you have to tell those stories which is something that Sinatra excelled at.

Sinatra would tell the story and he was telling it to you and you alone. He drew you in and made you feel special because of the way that he phrased it, the way that he timed it and most importantly, he was sincere in what he sang. Or at least he sounded it whether he was or not, he convinced you that he was. That is what is missing with a lot of the guys out there at the minute.

Twenty years after his death, what do you think makes Frank Sinatra’s music still so popular?

Well apart from anything else they are great tunes and they are timeless words. So if you start off there then you really can’t go far wrong. However, you have also got the arrangements, you’ve got Billy May and Nelson Riddle arranging all of these tunes, and they still sound fresh today. Sinatra released his album Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! back in 1956 so it is really old, but it still sounds as fresh as a daisy. I know that it’s been done to death but whenever you listen to I’ve Got You Under My Skin on that album it still sounds amazing. It carries with it a freshness and I think that coupled with his unique style, let’s not forget that he was a pioneer of that particular style, Bing Crosby came first but Sinatra had that attitude, that hip style, he was a pioneer of that so he really did set the benchmark. So that is why Sinatra still sounds fresh today. It really does have that X factor.

It always makes me laugh when people say “oh but Sinatra didn’t write his own music or his own songs” but he didn’t have to. When you have got the best writers in the business writing for you, you don’t have to worry about writing yourself.

That’s so true, when you are singing the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harry Warren and all those kind of people, what is there for you to worry about (laughter).

You will shortly be touring the UK once again this time with Simply Sinatra. Are you looking forward to being out on the road once more?

I am, absolutely, yes I am. We have recently had a full day’s rehearsal where I met Victoria Hamilton-Barritt for the first time. Victoria is the female vocalist on the forthcoming tour. Richard Balcombe is conducting and I have worked with Richard many times now. We worked together on Friday Night Is Music Night and things like that. It’s nice also because there are a lot of old friends in the band. So whenever I turn up it really does feel like a reunion and I have to say that they are all top class. Plus we are playing some great venues; the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham for sound is one of the best venues around. I know that it is a fairly modern building compared to some of the others but for sound quality it is certainly one of the best ones.

It must be because even Sir Cliff Richard sounded good here recently (laughter).

(Laughter) I couldn’t possibly comment (laughter). I know that whenever I go there with John Wilson, he really rates the venue and says that it has one of the best acoustic sounds in the country. I tend not to bother about the way that a venue looks; I am more concerned about the feeling inside it. I know it sounds corny but the minute that I step out onto that stage, I can feel that there is a warm, welcoming feeling, and that’s okay with me. You can step out on some stages and you don’t get that at all but in Nottingham it really is a great place to perform. Also the audiences up there always seem to be fantastically supportive right from the word go. You don’t have to warm them up.

With some audiences you have to work your way in, but in Nottingham they always tend to be so enthusiastic from the word go; they are always smiling and let me tell you, that makes a massive difference (laughter). Whenever you see smiling faces it really does make the whole evening go a lot smoother.

Which period of Sinatra’s career will the show cover?

Well naturally there will be a lot of the favourites, but we are not trying to educate people with songs that they have never heard before. However, having said that, not all of the songs are obvious. There will be something in there for everyone. We have to do Come Fly With Me, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, New York New York and My Way but we also do I’ve Got A Crush On You, plus we have got songs from Kiss Me, Kate such as So In Love which is a duet I perform with Victoria, and Too Darn Hot. During the show Victoria sings Cry Me A River and Moon River so there really is a good mix of tunes. There are plenty of old favourites there to keep everyone happy.

Is the set list mainly comprised of your personal favourite Sinatra songs?

No, fortunately I have nothing to do with it. They simply give me a list of songs and say “make sure that you know these” (laughter). And then I go out there and perform them. That is all taken out of my hands. The powers that be take care of all that kind of stuff.

Do you have a favourite Sinatra song?

To be honest I have been asked this a lot and I have to say that at the moment I really do like All The Way. But thinking about it I really do like In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (laughter). It all depends upon my mood I suppose but it would have to be a ballad. I like singing the swingers, the up tempo stuff but I really do like the ballads. There is something about those songs, his voice, and the arrangements that really make those songs special.

You will be performing in front of a twenty-seven piece show band. That should sound pretty special in the Royal Concert Hall.

Absolutely, yes and as I have said, they really are all top guys. They are all familiar faces to fans of Big Bands, and let me tell you, they make a hell of a sound. They really are fantastic. There will be a seventeen piece Big Band, standard four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, drums, bass, and a couple of guitar’s which are all augmented with a string section.

What will Victoria bring to the table?

Well Victoria and I rehearsed all of the material last week and I have to say that her voice is fantastic. She has a sultry voice together with a great style. She is a West End performer so she is used to the concert hall stage. She really brings that sassy, sultry kind of tone to the songs.

And it’s always nice to have a bit of glamour on stage.

Yes it is, as I am well past glamour (laughter). I will wear a suit and I will have a shave but you certainly won’t get any glamour from me (laughter).

What was the first record that you bought?

I have to come clean and admit that it was Crazy For You by Madonna (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live?

That was my mate’s band, and they were called Festive Road.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That would have to be Soliloquy from the musical Carousel.

And as the festive season is fast approaching, what would be your ideal Christmas?

It would be snowing, there would be a log fire, a cosy sofa, my family would all be there, a lovely dinner, and we would all be sitting enjoying a beer.

On that note Matt let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful. I will see you here in Nottingham as I will be coming along to photograph and review the show.

It’s been lovely to talk to you Kevin. You take care and make sure that you come and say hello. Bye for now