Nick Apollo Forte on working with Woody Allen...and on cruise ships

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Nick Apollo Forte, who'll perform in Denver for the first time in two decades on Sunday, April 22, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret, is best known for playing the lounge singer Lou Canova in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. But Forte is much more than a singer: He started off as a drummer and has been playing piano for decades.

We recently spoke with Forte, who's been married 54 years and has seven children and 22 grandchildren, about Broadway Danny Rose, performing on cruise ships for fifteen years, and how he got his middle nickname "Apollo."

Westword: How are you doing?

Nick Apollo Forte: I'm doing great. I'm working outside a little bit today, getting my boat ready to go up to Rhode Island.

I hear you're into fishing.

Oh, yeah. Of course, I worked on cruise ships for over fifteen years, performing on cruise ships. I keep pretty busy. Shows here and shows there. It's so nice to play back in Denver. I'm going to tell you something: The most money I've made on any recording was a song that I wrote called "Love Your Country" -- though I'm a city-slicking guy. That's when they were trying to get country music in the New York area, here on the East Coast.

So when Lannie called me up on the phone and said, "Would you consider coming out here? I got a little place here," I said, "Listen, we'll work it out." We're going to work it out so I can do my show. I know I've got a few fans out there. I just got an e-mail from an attorney in town and said he was going to bring a little gang down there.

My whole show is well-rounded. We'll play Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin. Anywhere from country to '50s, '60s stuff. I mix it all up. Of course, I'm known for the movie with Woody Allen, Broadway Danny Rose. I wrote a funny song for it called "Agita," which is about acid indigestion, and the other one was called "My Bambina." The song "My Bambina" has sold two CDs for me over time. I'm looking very forward to performing there.

The thing about it is that Lannie has gotten me a couple of good musicians, which is very important because the guys have what they call in our business "big ears." The guys have to have big ears because I'm so spontaneous; if they're not top-shelf, they're not going to make it. Believe me. In back of me, I've had anywhere from the Tonight Show band to Sands Hotel big orchestras, but when you're talking about me on keyboard, a drum and a bass, you can't go wrong. Years ago, I was asking Tony Bennett, "Why are you always using a trio?" He says, "Less chances of mistakes," which makes sense because when you don't have that small combo, you're at the mercy of the weakest link in an orchestra. And you become very mechanized. In other words, it's a set, fixed thing.

I gave the musicians a list of songs I'm going to play and said, "They're all stock songs." If they know them, they know them. If they don't, don't worry about it because I play left hand bass, anyway. A drummer just has to follow the beat. I know they'll like what I do because it's well-rounded. My show is well-rounded. It touches all the bases.

When was the last time you played out here?

Oh, my god. That's twenty years ago.

So this will be the first time since then?

Yeah. First time back there. It's just amazing. I get phone calls, because I get a lot of work in New York, New Jersey, Boston and all around here. See, when I did the movie, Woody didn't want me playing piano. A lot of people, they know me as an actor. They say, "This guy's an actor. He's a funny guy." I mix in some humor with my show. It's not just stiff music. It's happy. I don't like down songs. But in the movie, Woody says, "I want you to stand up." I said, "Woody, I play a lot of piano. I'll stand up at the keyboard." He says, "no, no, no... we'll have musicians behind you. We want that type of thing." I say, "Okay, whatever you want." So I did it, but for years, people never knew that I played piano.

If you go around the world on a cruise ship, you'll say, "That's the guy, Nick Apollo Forte." But they never really got behind it to say, "Geez, that's the guy who starred in the Woody Allen movie." I was doing the cabaret in the smaller lounges. I got letters from cruise directors saying, "Anytime you want to play, it's definitely main stage entertainment."

But truthfully, I would rather play any day for 500-seater places than I would play outside concerts. It's not personalized. They're going to see me in a cabaret and they're going to say, "My god, I could hear all the words. I could hear what he's talking about." It's not a lot of noise out in the field or something like that.

What am I going to do? I've got arrangements for 22 musicians. How can you forget about the small guys, where my roots are? You know, my roots are all small cabarets, small clubs and this and that. And I do them. It's very personalized. I know that people are going to have a nice time because we touch the bases with all kinds of music. I'm what you'd call in the business "underexposed." [He laughs.]

I like the everyday person to say, "You know what? He did that song. That's one of my favorites. He did this or he did that." Or I just did St. Patrick's Day -- two different locations. They said, "How the hell do you know so many Irish tunes?" It's the same with Jewish tunes, Italian songs. If I don't know Italian songs, I don't know anything. But you know what, I'm a proud Italian American. I'm not off the boat. I'm not Italian Italian. So when I sing a song, it's not Italian Italian, it's Italian American. My song "Agita," what does it say, "acid indigestion." "My Bambina" is all about my daughter getting married. Just remember her heritage. That alone has to say something to everybody -- be proud of your heritage no matter what it is.

You know, I have a gift. I don't know what I'm doing on keyboards. Really. I don't know what I'm doing. I know I have a gift maybe because I played at church for over twenty years and I didn't know what I was doing then. Maybe I got a little angel on my side that says, "Nick, here's your gift." So that's what it is. I like to always make people feel happy. I don't sing any down songs. It's all happy. Everything's got to be happy. That's what I like.

From what I understand, Woody Allen's people kind of found you through your record at Colony Records in Times Square.

Yeah. I can still remember it to this day. I put maybe five or ten albums in there, right, and they were looking for music for the movie. Then I guess Woody was in an upholstered sewer in the Bronx and they were listening to the jukebox and they started playing one of my funny songs called the "Scungilli Song." It's one of the crazier songs that I wrote. So he said, "Let's look at this guy."

I went in and I met with Woody and he looked at me up and down. I'm talking about ten minutes. He says, "Could you do a movie with me?" I says, "Yeah. No problem." But let me tell you something, I never saw one of his movies. As a matter of fact, I don't really go nuts on a lot his movies, especially the first one I really saw was a thing called Zelig. I went to the screening of it and I sat back and I said, "Oh, my god, this is like a joke." This thing was just a terrible movie.

It was history from then because when I walked into the studio, I couldn't believe the people that were there. I know for a fact that Tony Bennett tried out, Bobby DeNiro tried out. The other guy that did Moonstruck. They were all in there for the part. And my part was only supposed to be a small part. Woody asked, "Would you mind if we dyed your hair?" I said, "Yeah."

But there's more of a story to it than this. The story was that guys pulled pranks on me all the time. I got a call from someone who said he was with the Woody Allen studio and asked if I could send them a resume. I said, "I don't have any resume." He said, "Here's an address, mail me something." Anyway, it was Woody Allen with some girl. I took a piece of yellow paper and I wrote I play the piano, I sing and I fish. And that's all I wrote on a yellow piece of scrap paper. I put it in there with a commercial I did where I'm singing one of my crazy songs. Fortunately, it was one that Woody had heard. So Woody looked at me and I saw all those other heavy hitters that were there for the movie.

I was saying, "I wonder how much they're going to pay me?" Believe you me, they paid me peanuts. When I did that movie I made peanuts! I didn't know what my music worth. I had no idea. These people, if they can buy something and instead of giving you $25,000 for a song, they give you $2,000. You understand?

One thing I know is the business. I know the entertainment business. People call me all the time and say they want to get into acting or this and that and I say, "Listen, keep pushing. Do what you're going to do. And who knows, you need a little luck or something like that." But you have to go out there and put a record out like I did and suddenly somebody picks it up and you're lucky. It's like winning the lottery."

I was reading about how you got your middle name, "Apollo," from playing the Apollo Theater when you opened for Della Reese.

Yes. I played the Apollo Theater with Della Reese in 1958. I played second bill to Della Reese playing the bass guitar. That's when the bass guitar first came out. The only thing I had to learn was four or five chords. It's not like playing the keyboards. Originally, I'm a drummer, you know. Then I always played piano. I've always fooled with piano. But believe me, I don't really know what I'm doing on piano. It just comes out and people love it. Don't ask me why. I know a million songs.

How long had you been playing before Broadway Danny Rose?

All my life. Listen, Woody broke down, like in the movie, there are a couple of lines that I donated in there. You call it contributing, but of course you don't get a writing credit for that. You can't be greedy. I mean, I got a starring role, why am I going to be greedy? But I told Woody, "Just like you, I've played a lot of upholstered sewers." He broke up. So did Sinatra. Sinatra played upholstered sewers. Anybody that's in the cabaret business.... One week you're playing between the kitchen and the living room. The next week you're playing in a church hall. Then they'll pass around the hat and the church is going to get 95 percent, so you get $6. That's what it's all about. Believe you me.

Have you done any other films besides Broadway Danny Rose?

The only thing I can say about that is a lot of times, timing is everything. I had a couple of scripts that were clean, number one. When the Sopranos came out and they offered me a part, I threw it in the garbage. I couldn't do the Sopranos. My wife said, "You won't get past the first page." Every other word was F-you, F-this. I may be a proud Italian American but I don't use that kind of language. I did Johnny Carson and all the shows and I never used any filth. It's not filth today, it's accepted. But maybe they didn't want a Nick Apollo Forte in something, or they're afraid of Woody Allen.

I can't understand why I didn't get a good movie. This day, you say, "Maybe the phone's going to ring," but I do not pursue it. I get scripts every year. But you know what they don't have -- money. They don't have money to do the movie. That's what it's all about. If something comes up, I'm going to look at the script and say, "I like because I can identify."

When I handed Woody the two songs that are in the movie, I says, "Woody, here's two songs you might want to consider for the movie." Well, he came back to me a day later and he says, "Nick, I'm not going to use one of those songs, I'm going to use both of them. You know why? Because they fit right into the movie."

When the movie was done, the executive producer said, "It was a great day when you met Woody Allen, but it was a better day when Woody Allen met you." And that was the highest compliment I could ever have, especially when I know my music is all over the world. I still don't make money. It took me twenty years to collect money. I got sued for one million bucks. People tied my money up because they thought I was infringing, and then in the long run I wasn't infringing. I don't have the money to go up against some of these big bandits that are out there.

I'm a small guy and I want to put on a good show for people. I keep myself in good shape. I don't want sleep on the stage. I want to go out there and I want people to say, "Jesus Christ, he's got some electricity going here," you know?

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