Twenty-Five Sweet Years at The Bitter End

New York Songwriters Circle Celebrates with Special Guests John Oates and Billy Porter

New York Songwriters Circle celebrates its 25th Anniversary today, Wednesday, November 17 with talent past and present saluting an organization that nurtures songwriting talent and has seen major superstars come through the ranks, from Norah Jones and Lana Del Rey to Gavin DeGraw and Big and Rich. Headlining the evening are John Oates (both 7:30 and 10:00 PM performances) of Hall & Oates as well as Tony-winning star Billy Porter (10:00 PM performance only). Curated by Artistic Director, songwriter and vocal coach Tina Shafer, the Songwriters Circle event takes place where all the magic began, at West Village York landmark The Bitter End. Tina herself has written songs for Celine Dion, Sheena Easton and Phoebe Snow and has been instrumental in shaping voices like Avril Lavigne, Charlotte Sometimes and Jesse Harris for many years, not to mention being a gatekeeper of sorts.

“I’ve been listening to submissions for 25 years,” said Shafer. Previously signed to Warner Chappell music publishing, Tina shared that the Songwriters Circle was the brainchild of Kenny Gorka who was looking for a feeling similar to the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. After original host Randi Michaels moved to Nashville, she recognized Shafer’s budding songwriting talents and thought she should take over.

“It’s like the whole vibe of that place goes back to a time where songwriters were the troubadours of the era and you know, people listen to songs to find out about life and the Bitter End represents the people who represent that kind of music,” said Shafer. “I know other clubs I’m extremely loyal to but I always felt such great support and love from The Bitter End and now with Paul Rizzo, they give me love and I give it back.”

“Back in the day when I started this circle, I listened to cassette tapes, I had a partner named Kathy Beers. We went through hundreds of tapes, one which was Lisa Loeb, then came CDs and then submissions by the internet. The business has changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the great content. In fairness to Ian [Axel], that guy said yes to everything. Ian was a contest finalist, he was always a finalist and he always put it out there. When his song got cut by Christina Aguilera (“Say Something” by Axel’s duo A Great Big World), I was just thinking, God could not give a nicer two people a hit.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee John Oates of Hall & Oates and Billy Porter, Tony and Grammy-winning entertainer of Broadway smash Kinky Boots headline the night’s festivities, with many other singers taking the stage including Everett Bradley, Julie Gold, Tina Shafer, Hugh Prestwood, Jane Kelley Williams and many more. Shafer has known both headliners for a while and looks forward to looking back at all the years. “Most of us have had multi-platinum hits and John has been a friend for many years,” said Shafer.

There was a time Shafer was a vocal coach for Billy Porter and she and her ex-husband Peter Zizzo got him signed to A&M records before he was on Broadway. “We’ve known each other for twenty years,” said Porter. “Peter Zizzo was a producer on my first album and she and Peter were co-writers with Denise Rich on “Love Is On The Way” by Celine Dion, featured on The First Wives Club soundtrack.

The New York Songwriters Circle has been known to showcase talent across genres, with names like piano-pop artist Vanessa Carlton, R&B and pop songwriter Siedah Garrett and country duo Big and Rich starting out there.

“Big and Rich came many years ago, they were amazing,” said Shafer. “Billy Porter was one of the greatest singers ever that I have worked with and Vanessa Carlton who was about seventeen at the time, she was kind of rough around the edges but super bright, really writing unusually as a prodigy for her age and she blew up. Billy took many more years to blow up but he certainly rightfully has come into his own. When I first worked with Lana [Del Rey], “Video Games” was getting so big, she was just so different than anyone else I have worked with, a deep voice, 60s voice, poetic, but she went viral in a really weird way. She got bullied but part of the crowd started rooting for her and started to take over the bullies. When I first saw her, she was just this little fawn and I listened to her words, she brought all these beautiful poems and I thought this woman is the real deal. You know, none of these artists can expect this fame and what performance can do to us.”

While Billy Porter is best known for his role of Lola in Kinky Boots, as much as he enjoys performing, he values his talents as a songwriter. “I became a writer out of the need to fill the gap that exists and speak for a group of people that don’t get represented very often,” said Porter.”

As a voice teacher to some of the greatest talent to come through New York, Shafer shared some insight into her many years observing and grooming singers. “You really get to see behind the artist, being an artist you know how vulnerable that is and to be fearful about whether you’re going to miss a note,” said Shafer. “To give someone the tools to get over that fear – knowledge is power – so implementing that has been the greatest gift. Back in the day when I was just writing and performing, there was a stigma that used to be that I would feel that they shouldn’t know I’m teaching too, like that doesn’t mean I’m performing. I got over that and I had a lot to give and noticed a lot of artists had no clue about technique and how it fits together. I’ve been really blessed.”

The Bitter End opened in 1961 and it’s safe to say it’s an institution. The home of the New York Songwriters Series, over the years the small neighborhood Village venue has welcomed the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Woody Allen, T-Bone Burnett, Neil Diamond, Curtis Mayfield, Randy Newman, Billy Crystal and more.

Twenty-five years later, Shafer agrees with Billy Porter’s closing thought: “It’s where it all begins.”