William Shatner is a rare cultural phenomenon, an actor and celebrity who has become a worldwide household name. Most people instantly think of James T. Kirk. The starship Captain on his five-year mission “ to boldly go where no man has gone before” aboard the USS Enterprise, from the classic and groundbreaking 1960’s television series, or from the various Star Trek films. Some people think of Shatner in his role as the Police Sergeant, T J Hooker or the attorney, Denny Crane, in Boston Legal, or even the voice of Rescue 911.
For me, and a few friends, William Shatner is Kirk, Hooker and Crane but, to us, he is also affectionately known as “Willy Shatters.” The man who gave the world one of the greatest, tongue in cheek, spoken-word albums from the 1960s, The Transformed Man. Released on Decca Records in 1968, only in Canada and the USA, Willy Shatters delivers a wildly exaggerated, over-theatrical and interpretive spoken word recital of a mix of poetry and pop songs. Full of elongated pauses and ridiculously weighted gravitas, Shatner creates a scenario with the song lyrics, as if performing an acting scene. It’s impossible to know if it’s all play-acting or if it’s all done deadly seriously and this is the beauty of Shatters spoken word albums. I urge everyone to listen to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” or “Mr Tambourine Man,” where the delivery and timing is exceptional. Of course, The Transformed Man regularly makes it into the list of the Worst Albums Ever Made, normally finding its way into the top 10.
Then in 1977, a bizarre “one-man show” live album was released. It was a long wait for Shatner’s second album, the wonderfully titled, “Has Been.” The album was co-written and produced by Ben Folds. Folds also wrote the accompanying music. A version of Pulp’s “Common People” was the standout hit. The 2008 release Exodus. An Oratorio In Three Parts written and produced by David Itkin, finds Shatner reading passages from the Haggadah and the Bible, whilst being accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony orchestra and 350 choral singers.
At the 1978 Science Fiction Awards, Shatner performed, his now legendary, version of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man.” Eventually “Rocket Man” was released on Shatner’s fourth album Seeking Major Tom. The 2011 album is a collection of covers, mostly based around a space theme. However, there’s a typically bizarre and slightly unsettling version of Queens “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Seeking Major Tom” features a remarkable roster of noteworthy musicians, including Bootsy Collins, Steve Hillage, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Toots and Johnny Winter. 2013 saw a similar wealth of musicians performing on Ponder The Mystery, with Billy Sherwood taking production and composing duties.
2018 was a busy year for Shatner. Joining forces with Jeff Cook to make Why Not Me. An album of Country and Western songs and also releasing Shatner’s first-ever Christmas album, the fantastically titled Shatner Claus. Yep, he really did call it that. The latest release The Blues finds Shatner “singing” The Blues. It’s a brave and surprising musical direction. Covering some extremely well known and loved Blues songs with his unique staccato spoken-word vocals is never going to be a popular choice. People take the Blues very seriously. People don’t take Willy Shatters musical output very seriously.
However, Richie Blackmore (of Deep Purple and Rainbow fame) plays some outstanding barn-storming blues on the lead single “The Thrill Is Gone.” Blackmore belts out the rhythm, every lick and rift sounds authentic while Shatner delivers the spoken-word lyrics strangely wistfully. The belted out version of Screaming Jay Hawkins cannibalistic classic “I Put A Spell On You” works extremely well, Shatner’s exaggerated delivery matches perfectly the original menacing vibe. On “Smokestack Lightning” and “Born Under A Bad Sign” as well as “Mannish Boy” (featuring Ronnie Earl) the spoken-word style also works together with the firey Blues riffs and licks. Brad Paisley rollicking and powerful playing on “Sweet Home Chicago” is nothing sort of excellent. The anthemic “Route 66“ is covered so lovingly it’s hard to believe Shatner hasn’t been performing the song since the ’60s.
However, on songs like Creams “Sunshine Of Your Love” and Willie Dixons “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the spoken-word style doesn’t quite blend together with the superbly played rhythms. It’s impossible to find fault with the band and the guest guitarists throughout the album, it’s just that some songs don’t really work in an exaggerated spoken way. The Blues is just great fun. Willy Shatters is clearly a lifelong Blues fan. If you don’t take it too seriously then you’ll find some real joy here. If you’re a bit protective of music then steer clear.