David Campbell: A Star Already, He's Ready to Restart

YOU go away for two years, and look what happens!" David Campbell, the cabaret and musical-comedy star, just back from Australia, was taking a break from the first rehearsal for his current engagement at the Cafe Carlyle (through March 23).

The scene: a Greenwich Village pastry shop a few blocks from the apartment of Mr. Campbell's music director and pianist, Christopher Denny. His old hangout, a neighborhood deli that Mr. Denny had frequented for years, where people knew Mr. Campbell's name, too, is shuttered now. So is Eighty-Eight's, the downtown shoebox of a nightclub where a very, very young Mr. Campbell played his first sold-out New York engagement six years ago. In his voice, the old standards from the American songbook sounded nostalgic yet new. Rainbow and Stars, a jewel-case bote in the sky at Rockefeller Center, has folded, too. That was where Mr. Campbell proved he could belt.

"He comes, he closes, he goes away again!" Mr. Campbell said, with a flash of cheek familiar from his earlier shows.

His return to Oz two years ago, without one Australian offer in his pocket, took the close-knit cabaret and musical-theater world of New York greatly by surprise. Mr. Campbell was hot. Two classy CD's bore witness to his impeccable diction, emotional openness and a tenor voice that moves with pitch-perfect ease through a rainbow of pop styles.

His show-biz potential seemed limitless. He was collaborating with exciting new songwriters like John Bucchino, Tom Andersen and Michael Pemberton. As other hopefuls his age waited tables, Mr. Campbell was tapped by Cameron Macintosh for a big spot in a royal gala. What's more, the singer had starred in the City Center Encores! concerts of Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms" and landed a leading role in the first production of the young Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night." The doors were wide open.

The Sondheim a project so tardy as to verge on the archeological gave Mr. Campbell his first American break as an actor. His character, a Wall Street runner less streetwise than he pretends, might have suited him to a T. In some way hard to pinpoint, Mr. Campbell's performance missed the mark, but not so much as to tarnish his image. Still, he decided to pull up stakes. His line at the time, delivered in those clipped, chipper tones that by then were familiar to viewers who had seen him on "Charlie Rose" and "CBS News Sunday Morning," was that he wanted a shot at rock 'n' roll before it was too late. He was, at the time, all of 26.

And good as his word. Next New Yorkers heard, Mr. Campbell was blazing across the sixth continent in "Shout! The Legend of the Wild One," a new musical biography of Johnny O'Keefe, the granddaddy of Australian rockers. The engagement lasted a year.

"You're on Broadway!" friends called to tell Mr. Campbell in Australia.

"What are you talking about?" he wanted to know.

` "Shout!' is at the Virgin Megastore!" they told him. Produced for the Australian market, the CD (on Epic) had made it to New York.

Running through charts stacked a foot high on Mr. Denny's upright, Mr. Campbell is and is not the artist a New Yorker remembers. "Today is the first time we've set eyes on each other in two years," Mr. Denny said. "David's jet-lagged, and I'm acting more tired than he is." So much by way of preliminary excuse for any glitches. "David doesn't like to get over-rehearsed."

Mr. Campbell, relaxed and easy, cut in: "We're going for something new. Not too polished. Anything above semipro is fine." Sure.

Together, the partners launch into "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a Campbell specialty, full of spontaneous new inflections, rising from dreamy anticipation to an explosion of euphoria. Then it's straight on to "In My Life," a quiet Beatles beauty. Mr. Campbell sang it seated in a captain's chair, eyes closed in meditation. And on to "You Know What I Mean," an unexpected nod to gospel. "We won't do `Higher and Higher' at the Carlyle," Mr. Campbell volunteered out of the blue. "Can't do `Higher and Higher' at the Carlyle. It's not right for the room."

That song, officially listed as "Higher and Higher (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me)," belongs less to Mr. Campbell than to Jimmy Barnes, Australia's answer to Bruce Springsteen. And Mr. Barnes's connection opens up the subject of Mr. Campbell's irregular personal history. Growing up, young David knew "Jimmy" as a family friend who showed up a lot on television. In fact, Mr. Barnes is Mr. Campbell's father. The woman Mr. Campbell knew as his sister and seldom saw is actually his mother, and the "mother" who raised him is his grandmother. The boy was 12 when he was told the truth.

Newly arrived in America in the mid-90's, Mr. Campbell made no secret of all this. Traumatic as some may have thought the tale, he told it with a brisk show of nonchalance: just one more case history from our confessional age of the no-fault family. Mr. Barnes flew 7,000 miles for Mr. Campbell's debut at Rainbow and Stars. Against the twinkle of the uptown bridges, father and son (and what a picture they made: Jimmy blue-collar grungy, David styled and slick) joined forces in "Higher and Higher."

So why that departure from New York two years ago? Mr. Campbell at first mentions (perfectly plausibly) homesickness and (much less so) a sense that he couldn't take chances. But surely America offered any creative challenge Mr. Campbell could have hoped for?

All right. He'll go there. "I wasn't happy with my work," Mr. Campbell replied. "I was chasing what I thought I should be. People were all around me telling me I was great, and I knew I wasn't. I did `Saturday Night' on antidepressants. I didn't know who I was. I had to go home to grow up."

Come to think of it, Mr. Campbell's stage patter and interviews always seemed somehow at variance with the spontaneity and truth of his singing. The bright, brittle facade of evasion is gone now, maybe for good. But the voice, the intensity of the message, the love of singing are intact. Good omens for a CD of all-new rock material he is working on now, for the Sony label. "My goal has always been to do an album that has to be in everyone's collection, like `Abbey Road' or `Hotel California,' " Mr. Campbell said.

He is thrilled to have landed the rights to a number from a songwriter in Sweden, where (as it happens) the likes of Britney Spears and the Back Street Boys have found hits. The title? "It's called I won't tell you," Mr. Campbell said. "It's called the `I Don't Want to Jinx It Blues."' Expect no previews at the Carlyle. It's a rock song. It doesn't suit the room.

Why cabaret again after that year growing up with "Shout!"? Is this another kind of homecoming?

"A homecoming?," Mr. Campbell said. "Yes. Performing live is the most important thing to me."

Live need not mean small. "I want to fill up Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall!" he said, eyes hungry. "I want to fill up big houses with song. It's my heritage watching Dad play stadiums with 25,000 people. I'd like to know if it's in me to do that. Stretch myself. It's an addiction, you know. You do something big, why not do something a little bigger? So that means rock or pop. After that, I'll want more cabaret. The job is to delve deeper."

The New York Times - March 3, 2002 - by Matthew Gurewitsch