During the past few years, William Shatner has tackled everything from progressive rock and country to classic rock and even Christmas songs on his eclectic spoken-word/music albums for Cleopatra Records. But when the label approached him with the idea of a blues record, he was slightly taken aback.
“A white guy from Montreal knows nothing of the blues,” says the 89 year-old actor. “Montreal is a very musical city and I would hear the blues not knowing, necessarily, that it was the blues. But I was very young and didn’t come from a musical background.”
But he was up for a new challenge and the end result, The Blues, arrives on October 2nd. It features blues classics like “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Route 66” recorded with an impressive slate of guest musicians that includes Brad Paisley, Ritchie Blackmore, James Burton, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
Shatner began the process by reaching out to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons to learn more about the genre. Gibbons gave him a list of books on the blues that Shatner eagerly read, but his education really began when he sat face-to-face with 76-year-old blues icon Arthur Adams, who plays guitar on “As the Years Go Passing By.”
“He said, ‘When I was very young, I picked cotton in Mississippi and sang in the fields,'” says Shatner. “I said, ‘Show me.’ He got up and started to mime the picking of imaginary bolls of cotton and putting it in an imaginary bag, all the while singing something bluesy. This kind of insight really allowed me to understand the reverence people who sing the blues have for the music.”
The vocals were recorded at a Los Angeles home studio prior to the pandemic. First up was the B.B. King classic “The Thrill Is Gone.” “When I first heard it with the music backing, I thought I was sounding too much like B.B. King,” Shatner says, “so I went back and re-recorded it, trying to stay with that emotion of disappointment and sadness in the song.”
“I have approached all this music that I’m doing as an actor would in a scene, relying on the musical background to help me musically,” he continues. “I found that I’m getting closer and closer to melding the spoken word with the singing word. I’m trying to tread that line. I think I do it most successfully on this blues album.”
He’s taking these lessons into the sessions for his next record, which he says will be an “autobiographical” album featuring new songs he’s creating with the help of a New York City–based poet. It’s still somewhat early in the process, but they’ve already settled into a groove where Shatner tells the poet stories from his life that are then woven into song lyrics.
For example, Shatner told the writer about a time many decades ago when his youngest child called out to him in the middle of the night from her crib. She saw the reflection of a tree on her wall and thought it was a lion. “I comforted her by explaining it all,” he says. “She then went to sleep. I had done my job as her father in assuaging her fears. That story has remained with me all my life, how easy it was to take away that fear and how difficult it is to take away other fears. I wish I could take away her other fears as easily as that first one. That’s the basis of the song.”
There’s also another genre-based covers album in the works (“I”m restricted from talking about it, but you’ll laugh when you hear what it is”) and continued work on his History Channel show The UnXplained, along with an eight-part documentary about a motorcycle trip Shatner recently took from Chicago to New York. It’s a lot of work for a man who turns 90 in March 2021, so it’s no surprise that the actor hasn’t had the time to watch his friend Patrick Stewart’s new show Star Trek: Picard.
“I’ve sent Patrick messages, but I haven’t watched it,” he says. “I’ve seen the Star Trek: The Next Generation guys at many Star Trek conventions and they’ve all become buddies of mine. But I’ve never seen the show. I’ve never seen these other shows that everyone talks about. I don’t watch it. I watch movies. I watch sports. I’m a news-aholic. I watch a lot of television, but I don’t watch fictional television of that ilk.”
The return of Patrick Stewart to the world of Star Trek after an 18-year absence has caused many fans to hope that Shatner might follow with a series of his own. Captain Kirk’s death in the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations might seem like a hindrance to such a show, but Spock died at the end of The Wrath of Khan and was resurrected in The Search for Spock just two years later. And Shatner personally authored The Return, a 1996 novel in which Kirk comes back to life.
But Shatner has little desire to star in any sort of Captain Kirk show at this point in his life. “I filmed a commercial yesterday and it took 12 hours,” he says. “I got home and fell into bed. I got up this morning to do these interviews and I’m exhausted. I don’t know what Patrick is going to do to film the way a series takes it out of you. A series is 14 hours a day and then on the weekend you’re doing publicity. It’s all your time. I’m having a good time and I have time to ride my horses and pay attention to my family, so I’d never do another series like that.”
He also has little desire to celebrate his 90th birthday next year. “I just want to keep breathing,” he says. “I’m going to celebrate breathing.”