Music is actor Hugh Laurie's newest calling
When Hugh Laurie talks about work as a piano-playing blues singer, there is none of the gruffness that was part of his life as Dr. Gregory House.
No, the film and TV star who has been in productions from “101 Dalmatians” to “The Man in the Iron Mask” talks about music with words that never shy from enthusiasm.
“Music is the greatest exercise I have,” he says in a mild, British voice, far removed from the American accent he used for eight seasons on Fox's “House M.D.” “It is just the greatest thing to stand out there in front of 1,000 or 5,000 people and deal with them in such a different way than you do acting.”
Laurie will be showing off that aspect of his multisided career Oct. 17 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall. He is touring in support of his second album, “Didn't It Rain,” and Laurie says the show has matured steadily in its 100 stops.
Even at the beginning of the tour, the London Times said: “Close your eyes, and you could be in a club in New Orleans.” Another paper there, The Upcoming, added: “Hugh Laurie is charming, charismatic and wildly entertaining.”
Laurie says performing musically is important because “music is the most all-consuming thing for most people. People get home from a day at work and they put on some music. They don't go to their Shakespeare and decide to take a look at ‘Hamlet.'”
Life in a musical setting is a definite change for Laurie, 54, a Brit who has made himself known in many ways on TV and in theaters. Besides his eight-year run as the grumpy, cane-carrying doctor, he has done guest roles on “Friends,” “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” In England, he starred in two popular comedies — “Black Adder,” in which in played a variety of roles, and “Jeeves and Wooster,” based on the P.G. Wodehouse books about wealthy but lazy Bertie Wooster (Laurie) and his butler Jeeves (Stephen Fry).
Laurie got his start in theater as a comedy team with Fry, whom he met in college. The two had their own BBC comedy variety show, “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” from 1987 to 1995.
These days, he's in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is working on a new film, “Tomorrowland,” a sci-fi adventure movie starring George Clooney.
But singing is something completely different, he says. In acting, the performer is telling a story by playing a role — by being something that is not real. In music, a singer tries to tell a story or convey an idea by being as real as he or she can be.
“Singing is not trying to be someone else,” he says. “How many people can you think of who failed trying to be Hank Williams or Robert Johnson.”
Laurie says he is trying to be as real as he can be in singing blues rooted in New Orleans and America's South. He says he was hooked the first time he heard that music.
“I was riding in a car with my family and it came on the radio — I think it was a Willie Dixon song — and I sat bolt upright and thought, ‘That's the greatest stuff in the world.'”
Even though his study at Cambridge University in England and his work as an actor never really went in a musical direction, he did study piano and kept in touch with the blues.
“I sang all the time around the house,” he says. “I tried to make sure the neighbors wouldn't hear me, though.”
At one point, a professional acquaintance did hear him.
“A few years ago, an agent heard me and suggested I should do a record,” he says. Then, he adds with a chuckle: “It would seem right if he had a big cigar. I don't remember if he really did, but you can put that in if you like.”
Of course, putting a musical act together requires certain skills, such as finding a producer.
“I didn't even know what a producer did outside of driving around in a Ferrari,” he says.
But he says he was introduced to Joe Henry, “who has a little, black book filled with all the greatest players,” Laurie says. Henry's work led to the first album, “Let Them Talk” in 2011, this year's “Didn't It Rain” and the tour.
Laurie is performing with the Copper Bottom Band, which has David Piltch on bass, Vincent Henry on horns, Elizabeth Lea on trombone, Jean McClain and Gaby Moreno with backup vocals, Herman Matthews on drums and Mark Goldenberg on guitars.
He says putting together this band is something similar to comedian Steve Martin performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers in his banjo work.
“With a little help, anything is possible,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.
Laurie on film and TV
An abridged look
“Tomorrowland” — In production for 2014 release
“House M.D.” — 2004-12
“Monsters vs. Aliens” (voice) — Dr. Cockroach, 2009
“Stuart Little” — as Mr. Little in both the live action movies and animated TV series, 2003-06
“The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything” — French ambassador, 1999
“101 Dalmatians” — Jasper, 1996
“Sense and Sensibility” — Mr. Palmer, 1995
“Peter's Friends” — Roger, 1992
“Jeeves and Wooster” — Bertie Wooster, 1990-93
“A Bit of Fry and Laurie” — 1987-95
“Black Adder II,” “Black Adder the Third” and “Black Adder Goes Fourth” — various roles, 1986-89
• Several other roles on British television dating to 1982
The Laurie story
• Attended the Dragon School, a British college prep school in Oxford, and then earned a degree in anthropology and archaeology from Cambridge University
• Won the National Junior Championship in rowing for pairs in England in 1977, and the same year represented England in the World Junior Championship
• Is an avid motorcyclist and bought a replica of a 1960s all-black Triumph when he moved to Los Angeles for work in “House” in 2004
• Was cast as editor Perry White in “Superman Returns” in 2006 but was too busy with “House” and lost the role to Frank Langella
• Was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2007 for his work in drama
• Has played keyboards in the Band From TV, which features several television stars, and Poor White Trash
• Has one published novel, “The Gun Seller,” 1996