A Man And His Music
Is a singer’s life about the music or lyrics? Is it about smooth vocals, fluid transitions, fine phrasing and crescendos? To Jimmy Borges, Hawaii’s premier jazz vocalist, it’s all of that and more.
On the occasion of his latest CD release and upcoming concert with Hawaii Pops, we catch up with the singing ambassador of the Great American Songbook.
At 80 years old, he is in great voice and swinging sweetly into the prime of life.
“Life has purpose, and I refuse to go quietly into old age,” Borges declares.
His hero, Frank Sinatra, would applaud his verve and endurance. This year marks Sinatra’s 100th birthday, and singers everywhere are paying tribute to the renowned artist who inspired many musical careers, including Borges’.
But make no mistake. Borges is his own brand of vocalist and not a Sinatra mimic. No one truly can duplicate an original and unique talent like Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Pops conductor Matt Catingub hails Borges as “Hawaii’s greatest interpreter of the Sinatra songbook.”
“It was Sinatra himself who allowed Jimmy the use of the actual music arrangements,” the maestro notes.
Borges’ articulation and interpretation of classic American pop standards put him among the “great ones” in this genre.
His new CD, titled Jimmy Borges, is said to be a gift of his musical legacy to fans everywhere. An autobiographical resonance to this recording speaks to the life force and emotionality of his music.
“All songs are personal to me,” says Borges. “I tell a story, expressing myself truthfully so listeners can interpret it to become their story.”
I’ve been so many places in my life and time
I’ve sung a lot of songs, I’ve made some bad rhyme
I’ve acted out my life on stages with ten thousand people watching
But we’re alone now and
I’m singing this song for you. (A Song for You, 1970).
Musician DeShannon Higa, who plays trumpet on the recording, puts it poetically and perceptively on a Facebook posting: “There are singers who know not what they sing. There are singers who do. And then there are singers who sing as if they wrote the song.”
“This album is very much the yin and yang of my life,” Borges says. “God gave me the gift to communicate through music.
“It is not a perfect album, and I am not a perfect man … but it is real,” he says.
Yet “perfect” is the grade his CD gets from musician Herb Alpert and singer-wife Lani Hall. Borges has celebrity fans who affirm his broad appeal and reach.
Album producer Jon de-Mello of Mountain Apple Company calls the recording a “work of love.”
“At 80 years old, Jimmy’s doing his thing better than ever,” he hails. “The songs were chosen very carefully, so this is a collective life work for him. It feels world class.
“His wife Vicki was quality control,” he adds. “If she had chicken skin or tears, we knew we were doing something right.”
And if by chance that I should hold her
Let me hold her for a time And if allowed just one possession
I would pick her from the garden to be mine. (Wildflower, 1973)
“Doing something right” is the meticulous standard by which the kid from Self Lane in Kalihi has pursued his six-decade profession.
“Music is a passion,” Borges states. “Once I realized that this is what I wanted to do … that it was my dream … I never let anything deter me. All you need is one chance to show you’re real.
“Yet I always feel something can be done better,” he admits. “That’s just my nature.”
It’s the pursuit of excellence proclaimed by Sinatra himself, who said, “You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but an audience is like a broad — if you’re indifferent, Endsville.”
The spirit of the Chairman of the Board will prevail Saturday, Nov. 28, as Hawaii Pops presents “Franksgiving Weekend.” The concert with Borges as special guest is at 7:30 p.m. in Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Coral Ballroom. Tickets are available at hawaiipops.com.
“We will pay tribute to the swinging Sinatra,” Borges says. “We also pay homage to the Sinatra who went profoundly into our hearts, especially toward the end of his life.”
Fans won’t want to miss Borges’ special treatment of My Way and New York, New York.
Although My Way is a signature hit, Sinatra thought at first it was self-serving and self-indulgent. It took his inspiring and aspirational interpretation of the Paul Anka composition to sell it with declaration, building with progression to a big finish.
“I thought it very coying and overdone lyric-wise,” Borges concurs. “When I hit 70, I finally understood the song. Now when I do it, it means something to me.”
And now as tears subside I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that And may I say, not in a shy way (My Way, 1969)
Borges has performed dozens of tribute concerts since 1991, including one with Honolulu Symphony that was voted “Best Concert of the Year” by Honolulu magazine.
“I was a singer with a career before the Sinatra tributes,” he once told the Star-Bulletin. “I started singing in 1955 (age 20), so I have a lot of years before I did Sinatra music.
“I never tried to imitate Sinatra’s vocal style. I sing the music the way it’s written. I’m faithful to the music,” he says.
For that reason, when Borges was given access to Sinatra’s arrangements, the Chairman of the Board ordered, “Let the kid have what he wants.”
No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you’ve got. (Here’s to Life, 1992)
Considering Borges’ illustrious career, it’s likely that the “Franksgiving” pops concert will illuminate Hawaii’s own keiki o ka aina with the golden voice.
From his humble start in Kalihi saloons to star billing at concert halls, Da Voice of the Islands is in a class of
his own. His footprints in the sand include memorable gigs at Keone’s, the Jazz Cellar and Trappers in Waikiki.
Borges bounced back from a bout with liver cancer a few years ago. His schedule has slowed considerably since, and he admits, “I can’t hold a note like I used to.”
So we don’t expect him to do Johnny One Note and Alika anytime soon. There’s enough in the Great Borges Songbook to hold him steadfast in fans’ hearts.
He’s moved gracefully into the next phase of his musical peak, paced by a hot-selling CD with rave reviews. So it begs the musical question:
What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?