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Chuck Basil Remembers Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch in a guest conducting appearance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. (photo by Nancy J. Parisi)

When Marvin Hamlisch died this week, one Buffalonian felt a stronger connection than most. Local cabaret star Chuck Basil had some meaningful and memorable interactions with the famed composer, beginning with Buffalo Star Search in 2002. By the time Basil met Hamlisch, the composer was already one of the few stage and film composers who was instantly recognizable to the general public. His quick wit, combined with three Oscars for his scoring of The Sting, his Tony and Pulitzer winning score for A Chorus Line, and hit songs like the title tune for The Way We Were and the Carly Simon recording of “Nobody Does it Better” from the James Bond picture, The Spy Who Loved Me, made Hamlisch the darling of the talk show circuit—back in the days when all of America actually watched talk shows.

Hamlisch began to take work as pops conductor for various symphony orchestras, including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was resident pops conductor from 2003 to 2007, and with which he appeared as recently as 2010.

“I met Mr. Hamlisch at an audition for Buffalo Star Search in 2002,” recalls Basil. “Well, I suppose you could call it ‘meeting’ him. I couldn’t actually see him. He was sitting n the darkened theater. Each participant came out, we did our little spiel, and performed two numbers. You had two minutes. When I was finished, he said, ‘Thank you.’”

Basil made the first cut, and so he got to meet Hamlisch properly later. He recalls that on the night of the competition in April of that year, they actually had “a nice little talk.”

“He’d been told about my cabaret work, and he asked me about my cabaret experiences,” says Basil. “I told him what I did and where I performed. Then he told me that he had also worked in cabaret, early in his career, and that he’d actually played for Judy Garland a couple of times, when she would go out. He was fascinating.”

Basil continued to be on the Hamlisch radar when he made it to the next round of competition and performed on the second night. Finally Basil won the competition.

“Part of the prize was that you got to perform with the BPO at their Christmas concert,” recalls Basil. “Mr. Hamlisch was in the process of writing a Christmas song, and when I won, he decided that he’d let me perform that song. He was delighted that a vocalist had won.

“The song was called ‘Take Me to Christmas Past.’ A lot of people think it was written for me, but that’s not really true. Mr. Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia were already writing the song. I was just lucky enough to perform it. I felt very honored.”

Basil’s connection to Marvin Hamlisch did not end there.

“I recorded the song and sent it to Mr. Hamlisch,” says Basil, “and he was delighted. He gave me permission to put it on a CD and to sell it if I wanted to. He said I was welcome to see if it could get any radio play. That’s what I did. He let me do my own interpretation, which didn’t surprise me, because that’s what he liked to do with music himself. He was remarkably kind and generous to me. The following year, he invited me back to sing the song with the full orchestra.”

Basil also encountered a bit of the famed acid wit of Marvin Hamlisch.

“I had done research on him in case I ever ended up in conversation,” says Basil. “Once, when we were talking I hesitated. I couldn’t remember if he had written the James Bond theme, ‘Nobody Does it Better,’ which is one of his most famous songs. So I asked him. He looked at me coldly and said, ‘Didn’t you know that?’ Then he laughed! He was a wonderfully generous, funny, and gifted man. His death is a huge loss.”