Most of us are fortunate to find even one
thing we excel at, so some of us get jealous of people who seem to be able to do exceedingly well at just about anything they put their minds to. If you’re one of those folks who gets jealous, then you might not want to read about Andrew Heller.
Andrew Heller is a gifted vocalist who has sung with the Austin Symphony, the Philadelphia Philharmonic and the Texas Playboys, just to name a few, and performed at events from the inaugural ball for President Obama to the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, where he resides. He’s twice been nominated for the Entertainer of the Year award by the Inspirational Country Music Association (he lost out in 2010 to Christian megastars Point of Grace), but he also sings show tunes, songs from the Great American Songbook, Christmas music…well, in other words, the guy can sing the phone book. But let’s back up a little.
As a youth, Heller placed first in the New York Young Artist Metropolitan Opera Auditions. From there he was mentored by the late Leonard Bernstein, longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic who composed the music to West Side Story among others. But where many of us would have continued to pursue the artistic dream and live on popcorn and cheeseburgers while we struggled, Heller decided to do something more cerebral, and probably more practical: he got advanced degrees in science and mathematics. He took those degrees and went to work for IBM, where he eventually became president of IBM’s Independent Business Unit. Renowned in corporate computer circles as an innovator with a head for business, Heller is the youngest person ever to be named an IBM Fellow, a lifelong honor, and has helped found or consulted to numerous tech companies since leaving Big Blue.
But as many of you reading this know, once the music bug has bitten you there’s no cure for the disease. So Heller returned to the business a few years ago, thrilling audiences with his silken smooth tenor and affable, but charismatic, stage presence, and making it onto the charts – several different charts, in fact – with a catalog more diverse than anyone except maybe Alison Krauss. Heller’s latest single is “The Way the Wind Blows,” written by 95-year-old songwriting legend Royce Swain, and it can be found on his new album Reach Out, produced by Grammy winner Eric Paul (Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson). So just what does he sound like, anyway?
Heller sounds like a trained pop tenor who sings only one type of song: those he loves. “I have to believe in a song to want to sing it,” he said, “and to make the audience believe it. If I don’t believe in what I’m doing, I don’t expect them to. If you listen to Willie, Sinatra, even Pavarotti, they’ve never sung songs they didn’t believe in. That’s what I do.”
Those songs can range from Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” from Heller’s El Paso album, to Lerner and Loewe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” from his Broadway Love CD, to the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Georgia on My Mind” from his album Places. And of course, there’s the old-time Gospel-tinged title track from Heller’s Reach Out CD, which features background vocals by the three surviving Jordanaires and Nashville country legend (and frequent Alan Jackson backup singer) John Wesley Ryles.
“We cut ‘Reach Out’ the day after the Cumberland River crested last year,” Heller said, “and gave the song to the City of Nashville to use in its campaign to raise money for people who lost their homes in the flood. That song climbed the charts in inspirational country.”
Ever modest, Heller, like Garth Brooks, often speaks in the plural “we” when discussing his career, making it clear that he alone is not responsible for his success, and that he doesn’t step out on that stage without support from so many others who have helped his career flourish.
Heller’s albums are distributed on DiamonDisc, the label owned and operated by Heller and his wife, Maryann. The label also carries a small catalog of recordings by Nashville music legend Charlie McCoy (whom Heller sometimes utilizes as his bandleader), Willie Nelson and Don Cherry, and the late saxophonist Boots Randolph.
Heller said that he doesn’t plan to change his strategy anytime soon, no matter how many charts he may or may not end up on. “I just like to do music that’s fun and uplifting, no matter what genre it is or isn’t,” he said. “We don’t sing for genre. We don’t sing to get on certain charts. We just do music we love and let the rest take care of itself.”
For more information, or to hear Andrew Heller, go to www.heller.com.
By Rick Moore