Tommy Blaize is the voice of Strictly Come Dancing. For 14 years he has been at the heart of Saturday night television, singing his way through more than 1,000 performances and taking on everything from Marvin Gaye to The Killers to Ed Sheeran.
Nestled in between those sweeping staircases in the studio are four amazing singers, accompanied by musical director Dave Arch and his “wonderful, wonderful orchestra”.
“Every Saturday I look forward to going in and striking up with the band, even if it’s 8am in the morning – it just sounds fantastic,” Blaize tells RadioTimes.com.
The singer, who’s just about to release his debut solo album, is just as in love with Strictly as ever.
But how does the musical side of Strictly actually work? Blaize let us in on a few secrets…
Musicians only get their parts a few hours before they go live
This sounds absurd, but it’s true. Dave Arch’s orchestra is so talented that these musicians just rock up at the studio on the Saturday morning and get to work.
“The musicians on stage, they don’t actually see the music until the day,” Blaize explains. “The singers are allowed to get the songs a little earlier and learn them, get them in their psyche, but all the musicians sight-read that stuff on the day – which is incredible.
“Dave handwrites everything in pencil. It’s meticulous, it’s just brilliant. But he picks the best players so it sounds exactly like he wants.”
Luckily for Tommy and the rest of the singers – including Lance Ellington, Andrea Grant and Hayley Sanderson – they get a bit of a head-start. They get sent the song list on Sunday and spend a few days mastering up to 15 new songs, before heading to the studio at the end of the week.
“We practise with the rhythm section on the Friday evening; no brass, no strings, no anything else. Just rhythm section and vocals,” Blaize says. “We get everything tight, and then on the Saturday morning the rest of the band come in and we hit it. And just keep hitting it until we go live.”
Foreign lyrics are an absolute nightmare
Remember Ed Balls’ Gangnam Style? (Of course you do.)
To learn that particular song, Blaize had to actually master the Korean lyrics – a task he took very seriously.
He explains: “It’s always a challenge. Languages are always a good one, they’re always throwing in language – I’m a Scouser, and they’re throwing Spanish at me!
“We’ve done Korean. We’ve done Tamil. We’ve done German, French, Italian. They’re always a challenge – the rest of the stuff you think, yeah I recognise that song, we’ll leave that until near the end of the week!
“But anything with languages, we get on it really early in the week and try to get into it, so it sounds authentic. Because we don’t want to go out there and say something in Spanish where we might have insulted somebody.”
The singers have to be versatile enough to do ANYTHING
The singers must be able to cover a wide range of genres, from jazz to pop, because the Strictly producers like to keep the musicians on their toes. Aston Merrygold’s dance to Mr Blue Sky is a case in point.
“You’re doing that with all the lovely harmonies, and then right at the end it goes baroque,” Blaize says, demonstrating the transition. “You’ve got to immediately switch. So a millisecond ago you’ve come off doing this three-part, four-part harmony stuff, and then you’ve got to switch your head and jump into classical style.”
There’s no back-up plan if one of the singers gets sick
Is there a contingency plan for illness? Of course not.
“It’s always risky,” Blaize admits. “What I tend to do is, if there’s other lead vocals, I’ll learn everybody’s lead vocal. Not the girls of course, but all the other male vocal parts – I’ll learn them just in case someone goes down, which has happened.
“Lance [Ellington] got sick last Christmas on the main show; his voice just went completely – you can’t help it. Once it’s gone it’s gone. So we just had to jump in and help him out and learn them songs.”
In Strictly season, sickness is an ever-present danger.
“I always fear that, that’s one of my biggest fears,” Blaize tells us. “We hit the songs quite hard; by the time you get to do it live on the actual main show, you’re hoping that there’s something left.
“And you feel really tired, and you think, oh god please be something left! Just for the main show.”
The celebrities only start practising with the band on Saturday
The first time the celebrities and their pro partners will get to hear their music actually performed is Saturday morning. All the way through the week they’ll have been rehearsing with a recording, but now they’ll dance along to the live band.
On the day of the live show each couple gets two run-throughs with the band, and then the dress rehearsal in the afternoon.
Blaize explains: “It’s just tweaking at that point and checking that they can hear all the sounds that we’re playing in the orchestra on the floor. And it comes together. It always seems to come together.”
The singers and musicians must never be show-offs
“I don’t like to do all the riffs and things,” Blaize says. “People will see your personality in that song anyway if you just stick to the melody, and if you go off wobbling and trying to sell yourself, you’re not doing the music any good, you’re not doing the dancers any good out there.”
It’s the same philosophy he uses on his album, Life & Soul: “Simplicity, great melodies, no over-singing and just selling you a song. I think if you can sell one note it’s much better than trying to cram 50 notes in.”
Sometimes things go wrong – but that’s live TV for you
The singer admits: “There’s been a couple of times where I’ve come in the wrong times, the wrong cue. So there’s one of them, Do You Love Me, and I came in when I shouldn’t have. So it was just me on my own, and you could feel everyone wincing. ‘DO YOU LOVE – DO YOU LOVE –’ I had to do it twice!”
But he adds: “Things like that are going to happen, it’s a live show. You’re going to croak now and then, you’re going to make mistakes – it’s not as though you’re making a record in a studio trying to make it perfect all the time. It’s live.
“And I quite like things like that, it keeps you on your toes.”
Having live music is absolutely vital for Strictly Come Dancing
“I think it’s the most important thing,” Blaize says. And while he would say that (being a Strictly singer), he makes a compelling argument: “If you haven’t got a live band there, you’re just doing karaoke.”
He adds: “Just having real musicians on the stage who feed you, you feed them, you bounce back off each other – for me it’s really, really important. And I just love to hear that live element.
“The dancers adore it. All week they’re doing all their choreography with the tracks, so when it comes to the Saturday they’re all astounded. Because everything’s bigger. It’s ten times bigger than what they have been listening to! And you can see it, and they all come off going, ‘OH that feels great!’ Because it’s BANG BANG instead of compressed, like a record would sound.
“So for me the live music is so important. I wish we had more of it on TV on a Saturday.”
Nobody thought it was going to work when they signed up (including Len Goodman)
Blaize wasn’t convinced this weird Saturday night dance show was going to work when he signed up for series one – and neither was anyone else.
“I thought it wasn’t going to go very far,” he admits. “All of us, even Len, I remember – we were at the set at the BBC, we’d take a break, everyone would go up there and have their fag breaks or whatever, and none of us thought it would turn into the beautiful monster it has turned out to be.”
The show has come a long way since then.
“Who’d have thought? But it’s been fantastic for all of us, the whole orchestra has had a lovely 15 year career,” Blaize says.
“It’s employed so many people and it’s a lovely lovely programme to look at and watch; you get live music, big band, you get beautiful dancing, you get costumes, you get entertainment, you get little bits of comedy.
“I think it gives everything that people need of a Saturday night. Not that people want, but they need it. We need a show like that all the time and Strictly delivers every week. It’s brilliant.”
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