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10 Minutes With Wayne Brady

The performer discusses his musical heritage, Funny or Die videos, and his upcoming stint at the Kennedy Center.

Photograph of Wayne Brady courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

He’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and some of the country’s most prestigious venues, but Wayne Brady says when he was approached to play at the Kennedy Center, he jumped: “They came knocking, and when the Kennedy Center comes knocking, you say, ‘Yes, absolutely, when can I get on the plane?'” Brady, musician, actor, comedian, and current host of CBS’s Let’s Make a Deal, brings his tribute to Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr. to the KenCen’s Concert Hall this week, performing “Wayne Brady sings the Sammys” with the NSO Pops. We caught up with him to discuss music, reunions with the Whose Line Is It Anyway? cast, and the time he got to play dice in period costume with Michael K. Williams, a.k.a. The Wire‘s Omar Little.

What’s it like to perform at the Kennedy Center?

It’s historic. It’s absolutely amazing. You definitely feel every single opera or symphony or incredible theater piece that’s been performed there. It’s major, so it’s not like you just shamble into town and step onstage. It’s a huge opportunity to be a part of it.

You were nominated for a Grammy on your 2008 album, A Long Time Coming , for a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” What appeals to you about his music?

I think it’s real music. Sam Cooke was a true soul artist–he sang from his soul, being someone who came from the church, and he used gospel melodies to get his message across, and I think that resonates with me. I grew up with Sam Cooke playing in my household, and it’s one of those things where he touched me in a way that the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan might touch someone else. On a mechanical level as a singer, I think he was unparalleled in the ease with which he could sing, and the heart and soul that infused every single word. That’s what I loved even as a kid, and when I became a musician later on in life. And most important, as a fan of music, that’s what I want to hear, and I don’t think we hear enough of it on the radio–so if it takes doing concert performances like this to keep the legacy around, then that’s what I’m going to try to do.

How do you strike a balance between doing a tribute to someone and making the music your own?

It just happens. There’s no conscious thought of, Oh, I have to sing it this way. As a fan you just sing what it is, and I don’t sound exactly like Sam Cooke and I’m not Sam Cooke, so by virtue of it coming out of me, it’s going to be different. It’s, I think, just like when Rod Stewart does his tribute to the great American classics. You’re always going to be the filter.

And what about Sammy Davis Jr.? What appeals to you about his body of work?

Sam was a showman, and had an amazing voice, and was a true multi-hyphenate–he was a singer and dancer, and played the drums and the saxophone.

Have you performed with the NSO Pops before?

This is my first time, so I can’t wait to hear them. Normally I come in the night before so I can get up and get ready for sound check the next day, and it’s always the best surprise to walk in and hear that happening. If you’ve never played in front of an amazing symphony orchestra, you can’t imagine the feeling of having that sound at your back.

Is music your first love?

It’s one of them. It impacts everything I do, even as an actor, because I started off in musicals, and then went on in TV to do Whose Line, where a lot of the improv was music-based. Music is definitely my filter to everything else I do. I’m lucky enough to be able to do a lot of things, but that’s the thing I personally love the most.

Do you still keep in touch with the Whose Line Is It Anyway? team?

Not particularly. I see Drew [Carey] once in a blue moon, and it’s always wonderful to see him. I saw Colin [Mochrie] and a couple of the other guys when I taped a show for ABC in Britain a few months ago, but it’s like any job–you move on. I think people think we sleep in bunk beds at each other’s homes or something, because I think folks enjoy seeing us together. But it’s like the Friends cast–they don’t have tea together every Sunday.

You did a Funny or Die video where you played Crispus Attucks. Was that fun to make?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t have done it or written it if it hadn’t been fun. I wanted to do something different for Black History Month, and I came up with the concept and approached Funny or Die because I’d done a couple of videos with them before in the past and I like to think a little outside the box sometimes when it comes to musical parodies. It shocked me how few people had paid attention in school and knew about Crispus Attucks, so I thought it’d be really funny to take this guy who, whether he wanted to or not, became one of the faces of the revolution. I wrote it to the Ice Cube song because I thought that it was a funny juxtaposition–Attucks was killed on that day, so I guess it wasn’t such a good day for him . . .

And you got to play dice with Omar?

I absolutely love Michael. He was great for coming down and spending all day on the shoot. That was a high for me, because I was a fan of The Wire and now I really like him on Boardwalk Empire.

Is there anything else you have planned for 2012?

We’ve got the next season of Let’s Make a Deal, and I’ve got a new improv show on ABC that I’ll actually be co-starring in with Colin Mochrie, called Trust Us With Your Life. We don’t have a definite air date yet, but we’ve shot eight episodes of it, and it’s a mixture of This Is Your Life, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? We get a celebrity and they’re interviewed by Fred Willard, and we break their life into improvisational scenes. We’ve had Jerry Springer and Mark Cuban, Serena Williams, Florence Henderson, and a few more. It’s funny as all get-out, so I’m really thinking people will love it. Then I’ve got a new record coming out later this year, around September–it’ll be a little soul mixed with some contemporary R&B. Something for everyone–something to dance to, and something to take you back to ’65.

“Wayne Brady Sings the Sammys” plays at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall March 29 through 31. Tickets ($20 to $85) are available through the Kennedy Center’s website.