The crucial moment came when he was five and he was taken to see The Jungle Book at the local cinema. Watching Mowgli, King Louis and the rest of the Disney characters cavorting across the screen left an indelible mark on the little boy.
That memory provides some of the inspiration for Songs on Film, the show the genial singer-pianist and his band are taking on a national tour. Blending music from the likes of Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc as well as classics from the golden age, the evening is much more than a run-through of silver screen greatest hits. Stilgoe is just as interested in unearthing numbers that have a quirky quality of their own. Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, for instance, conjures memories of the famous John Travolta-Uma Thurman dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.
Stilgoe loves that kind of unexpected juxtaposition of mood and melody “It’s easy to do Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris or Top Hat,” he says. “But that’s not as memorable as really well chosen moments in music that spring out at you. Whatever your views on Tarantino’s films, he has a way of choosing music that’s really subversive.”
What you get in a Stilgoe show is, in a way, a throwback to an era when artists were allowed to roam across boundaries. It’s easy to forget that no one used to bat an eyelid when Frank Sinatra tried his hand at comedy sketches or Dean Martin did a soft-shoe shuffle. Like one of his idols, Harry Connick Jr, Stilgoe is reviving a neglected tradition. Yes, you go to his concerts to hear quality musicianship. But you also go to have fun. When he plays his regular shows at that temple of jazz, Ronnie Scott’s, you can’t help noticing that people in the audience are not striking hushed, reverential poses at their tables. They are simply enjoying themselves.
These are hectic times for the 37-year-old all-rounder. His debonair performance at the recent Olivier Awards, where he paid homage to classic show tunes (not to mention a hit by The Kinks) gave TV viewers a chance to see just how versatile he is. Singing and dancing alongside the likes of Michael Ball, he looked every inch the West End veteran.
Next month he will also be hosting a live Jump, Jive & Swing show at The Lyric Hammersmith as part of Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night series. Preparing for another season in Edinburgh, and with the studio album of “Songs on Film” due out in August, He is also embarking on a new chapter in his domestic life. Londoners until six weeks ago, he and his wife, the actress Katie Beard and their daughter Sylvie are now settling into a new existence in Hove. When we meet at Brighton’s Grand Hotel, the dapper Stilgoe – dressed as if ready to play a laid-back stint at the establishment’s grand piano – bubbles over with enthusiasm at the thought of living a short stroll from the beach.
The atmosphere was certainly a lot more pressurized at The Old Vic last year, where, as one of the stars of the Cole Porter musical High Society, Stilgoe had the task of warming up the audience each night with an improvised sequence. Seated at the piano, he requested song titles from the audience and then wove them into a glittering medley. It is a trick that had long been part of his act, but it must have been quite a burden knowing that he could put the production into a fatal stall before the other actors had even arrived on the stage?
Stilgoe doesn’t quite see it that way. Performing in the show gave him an opportunity, he says, to extend his range, allowing him to flex his theatrical muscles. “I loved it. Having to do it in an American version of myself, I learned a lot. I’ve got every medley written down in my diary, 146 of them. Every night whatever I did, Postman Pat or whatever, I’d scribble it down.”
Wasn’t he ever worried, though, that someone might call out a title that was completely off-the-wall? “I was hoping they’d do that,” he replies. “I loved that danger. After about two months I got to see who was in the audience, and I could almost predict what they would say. There were always the guys who wanted to show off a bit.”
His laid-back stage persona is no doubt part of his inheritance from his father, the songwriter and erstwhile TV celebrity Richard Stilgoe. (His mother, Annabel Hunt, enjoyed a distinguished career of her own as an opera singer.) Classical music reigned in the family home. The youngest of five children, Joe developed an early passion for Elvis Presley, of all people, and even spent part of his teenage years drumming in a grunge band. It was after discovering Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole that he began to venture down a different path.
At Southampton University, he initially studied philosophy before realizing that music was his real passion. After switching courses – he studied jazz piano and classical singing – he later set his sights on doing a Master’s degree at Guildhall in London, only to be turned down. He then spent a year playing on cruise liners. “It’s strange that I say it was the best thing that ever happened,” he explains, “because it was pretty bleak at the time – just practice, practice. But I got to know loads of songs with children and 90 year-olds coming up to me.”
Back in London, he enrolled at Trinity School of Music while playing cocktail piano to pay the bills. On one nightmarish occasion he ended up doing a set at The Dorchester soon after running eighteen miles as part of his training for a marathon. Exhausted, he struggled through his usual inoffensive programme before noticing that the great Tony Bennett had wandered in and ordered a drink. When a wealthy guest asked Stilgoe to play “Misty”, the youngster duly embarked on the famous melody and then realized to his horror, that he did not know the middle section. Naturally, Bennett was, not impressed. As Stilgoe recalls: “He gave me a look as if to say ‘C’mon, I’m Tony Bennett.’ And then he glanced at the waiter, paid his bill and left.”
Stilgoe smiles at the memory. “He was by no means my worse audience. I had two or three years playing piano bars and just thinking ‘I’m better than this, but maybe I’m not better than this.’”
A painful experience it might have been, but that period in the wilderness it taught him a lot about how to win over a listener. His lucky audiences have been benefiting from the lesson ever since.
Joe Stilgoe: Songs on Film is at The Lamproom, Barnsley on February 2, Otley Courthouse on February 3 and Leeds City Varieties Music Hall on February 18. For details visit www.joestilgoe.com