By MICHAEL HIXON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Actress-producer Rita Wilson grew up listening to the radio in her parent’s car in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Songs that were about the romanticized version of love from that era evolved into the singer-songwriters that dominated the radio in the early 1970s when she had control of the wheel and the radio dial.
After a long career in film and TV, Wilson is releasing her first CD, “AM/FM,” on Tuesday, May 8. The CD includes Wilson’s take on songs like the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” Joni Mitchell’s “The River.” It’s like a soundtrack of her life, according to Wilson.
“Each song that I chose, I really wanted to tell a story,” Wilson said. “I remember hearing them and creating scenarios in my head of who the people were and conversations they might have had, who they would be telling the story to and who’s the woman or the man they’re singing about. For me, just like a good movie, you start with a good script.”
Wilson, who is married to Oscar winner Tom Hanks, ended up with 14 songs on “AM/FM,” and she said she can tell stories about every song, but the one that has the strongest memories for her is “Angel of the Morning, ” written by Chip Taylor and sung by Merrilee Rush in 1968. The song was also a hit for Juice Newton in 1981.
“Hearing that song for the first time as a teenager I really thought, ‘This is a cautionary tale of what you don’t do. Don’t let some guy talk you into bed and leave you there in the morning to figure out how you’re going to get home.’ It was really important for me growing up that my reputation (was) respected, that the family wasn’t going to be embarrassed by anything. Then, as I got older and I started listening to ‘Angel of the Morning,’ it reminded me of a different thing, like if you were an older woman singing this song now and you were alone and yet you wanted some kind of companionship. Maybe this song could be about your experience of … ‘Listen, I can take care of myself. You’re not obligated to be anything other than who you are. I know what the circumstance is, I’ll figure out a way to get home. Don’t worry about it.’ There was a different resonance looking at it as a woman as opposed to a young girl.”
Starring as Roxie Hart in a Broadway revival of “Chicago” in 2006 reignited Wilson’s love for singing, which started at a young age. But she fell into acting and modeling on her first day at Hollywood High School when she was approached to be part of a photo shoot by Harper’s Bazaar of “real” high school students. Her first acting gig was a 1972 episode of “The Brady Bunch,” where she played a cheerleader, something she was at the time. That cameo role earned her a Screen Actors Guild card, which eventually led to numerous TV roles and commercials until 1992’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” That film also starred her future husband, with whom she has two sons.
After her Broadway experience, she felt it was time to record an album.
“I thought if I’m going to do something like this, I should probably think about doing it sooner or later,” said Wilson, a youthful-looking 55. “But then years went by.”
Wilson had an idea to do a musical play that dealt with songs from the 1960s and 1970s. She contacted Decca Records senior vice president of A&R Jay Landers to help her select songs for the project. Eventually, Landers suggested she send him the few recordings that she had done. This included “Lessons Learned” by Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren, which she had recorded for a short film she directed called “The Trap.” After hearing her songs, Landers suggested they record an album together.
On the album, she is joined by a number of specials guests including Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne, Faith Hill, Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb, Chris Cornell and Patty Scialfa.
For the first time in her career, Wilson is on the road promoting her own project instead of a film she acted in or produced like “Mamma Mia!” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She will appear at Joe’s Pub in New York City May 10 and atthe Greek Theatre in Los Angeles with Kristin Chenoweth on May 12. More dates will be announced on Wilson’s Facebook page in upcoming weeks.