Back in early February I had the opportunity to hear Aaron Akins perform at The Marsh Berkeley. The program was a tribute to Nat King Cole and it didn’t take long to understand why Akins put together the show. As he worked his way through such hits as “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” and “The Christmas Song,” Akins channeled the Cole magic. His voice embodies many of the characteristics that defined Nat King Cole’s sound – the smooth vibe, impeccable pitch, and expert phrasing that when taken together, just made you feel relaxed.
Interspersed between songs Akins told stories, many of which revolved around his experience of the LA music scene. They piqued my interest and led me to interview him. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
CLA: Where did you grow up?
AKINS: In Chicago.
CLA: What brought you to LA?
AKINS: I came to Los Angeles when I was 22 to pursue a music career. I chose LA because it’s the entertainment capital of the world.
CLA: Who are your musical influences?
AKINS: Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole.
CLA: Which musicians do you admire?
AKINS: I admire many musicians and singers, such as Michael Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, and Miles Davis to name a few. They’re some of the best in the field.
CLA: Which musicians have you learned the most from?
AKINS: I think I’ve learned the most from Nat King Cole, though I’ve picked up stuff from many musicians like Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Michael Franks.
CLA: Is there a particular song that really moves you?
AKINS: I’m really moved by Mona Lisa and it resonates with me on a deeply emotional level. I believe I’m moved by it because of the masterful way Nat King Cole sang it and the intrigue that surrounds every aspect of the song, the picture and Leonardo Da Vinci.
CLA: During your performance at The Marsh Berkeley you told many wonderful stories about your experience as a musician in Los Angeles. What do you consider to be your most memorable LA music stories?
AKINS: One of my most memorable experiences is the day I was walking down the street with my friend, Darryl Phinnessee, and he asked me if I would like to sing for the Pope. The next thing I knew I’m off on a plane going to the Vatican to sing for Pope John Paul II. It was all very exciting and fascinating!! I sang Ave Maria and a song called Magnificent with a small group. That was in 1999.
Another exciting LA experience happened a few years earlier in 1997. I was giving a concert in Hollywood and a gentleman approached me for a CD. I gave him one and then received a call from a guy named Peter Gontha, a music businessman from Indonesia. He asked me if I would like to sing at the North Sea Jazz Festival with an Indonesian band called the JAMZ All Stars. Peter Gontha played piano in that band. The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Holland.
Another time I was performing at a Hollywood club and was approached by someone who told me Henry Nemo wanted to meet me. At the time I didn’t know who Henry Nemo was – it turned out that he had written some of the biggest songs of the 40’s and recorded with the biggest names such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, to name a few. I ended up doing an album with him called Mr. Nostalgia and Friends, but I’m not sure where to find it. It was released on Henry Nemo’s own label called Omen Records.
CLA: You also told many stories about LA based musicians / or musicians who have played in Los Angeles. Can you share one of those with us?
AKINS: I’ve had a lot of fun playing in LA with a group of guys called New Genesis. Some of those musicians play with people like Stevie Wonder, The Jacksons and so on.
CLA: What’s the source of your admiration for Nat King Cole?
AKINS: Nat King Cole simply had a unique delivery and style. There is just no one like him. To me, he is the best!!
CLA: What inspired you to create a tribute to Cole and his music?
AKINS: I discovered I had a sound like Nat King Cole while participating in a singers’ workshop in Los Angeles. I decided to do a solo performance of Cole’s music because it’s a natural part of my style.
CLA: When friends visit you in Los Angeles, where do you take them to listen to music?
AKINS: I take visitors to the E Spot Lounge. It’s upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City and is owned by Sheila E. I will be performing there in June.