All Things Entertainment (ATE) interviews: Danny Elliott
Multi-talented maestro: meet award-winning variety performer Danny Elliott
Danny Elliott adds new meaning to the idea of “variety performer”. Whether this multi-talented artist is singing, tap dancing or puffing away on the bagpipes, he conjures up spectacular shows to entertain all audiences. And there are so many of his shows to choose from: The Peter Allen Tribute “From Tenterfield to Rio”, his salute to The Beatles “The Musical Mystery Tour”, the Elton John Experience, the Whole Lotta Jerry Lee Lewis show or the Strung Up and Blown Away Variety Show… It’s no wonder Danny’s been awarded multiple “Mo” and “ACE” awards in Australia for Versatile Variety and Variety Entertainer of the Year!
All Things Entertainment had a chat with him…
An ear for a tune
The jury’s still out on whether Danny emerged from the womb whistling a showtune – but given his talent, we’re willing to bet on it! He was only three years old when his pre-school teacher gave his parents a nudge: get this child to a musical instrument pronto. “I showed a very strong sense of music, even at that early age,” he says. “Thankfully, I started with my Suzuki piano teacher at four years of age. It’s a great method for little ones, very much an ear-based method, wish has led me to have a great ear now.”
Since then, Danny has mastered a variety of instruments, including piano, clarinet, saxophone, country fiddle, guitar, classical flute, chromatic harmonica, the Irish penny whistles, the didgeridoo, and, of course, the bagpipes! Is there any instrument that has thwarted his attempts at musical world domination? “I have a trumpet sitting on top of a cupboard at home. I gave it a good blow when I got it but had to put it away for a while as I was travelling. It’s an instrument that needs constant practice to ensure good lip pressure, and the thought of that now scares me too much!”
Danny describes himself as a shy child, “an only child that was quite happy with my own company”. His parents would ask him to play for social gatherings on occasion, but he “didn’t mind, as I’d always been in front of an audience at piano concerts from an early age”.
Despite the strong focus on nurturing his musical abilities, Danny describes his childhood as fairly normal. “I guess I didn’t know any different. I had a pretty normal childhood, playing sports and hanging out with friends, it’s just that my music practice was part of my day too.”
Once Danny discovered the stage, his fate was sealed. “I’ve been doing music as long as I can remember, but when I started entering talent quests around the Sydney club circuit, I knew what I wanted to do as a career. I just loved being on stage and entertaining an audience!”
Given how young he was when his talents were discovered, and how music formed a part of everyday life, was there ever a moment where Danny felt like rebelling against it? He muses about a moment that wasn’t quite rebellion, but still important… “I remember in my early days of learning; my Mum would sit next to me every time I would practice (she is a very dedicated and wonderful mother). When I was about twelve, the practice all got a bit much and I ‘asked’ Mum to go and do something else while I practiced, as I knew what to do and didn’t need her sitting there the whole time (pre-teen tantrum I think)! But that was significant to me, because from that point, the music was then for me. I didn’t feel pressured and I really started to enjoy what I was doing.”
The thrill of an audience
Danny has performed for tens of thousands of people, both on land and on the ocean as a regular entertainer on luxurious cruise liners such as Cunard, Silver Seas and Royal Caribbean. He’s traveled the world, making people laugh, cry and cheer. But he still remembers his very first moment on stage… As part of his piano tuition, Danny had to perform in a biannual concert along with other students, in front of an audience of his peers and their parents. “We were required to introduce our song, bowing before and after the performance. This was such a confidence builder. At that age, kids don’t seem to have as much fear to do such things as an adult might.” His first public performances took place in restaurants around Parramatta, where he grew up. “My folks would take me out for dinner, and most places we went to just happened to have a piano/singer or one-man band. We got to know a couple of the guys well and they let me have a sing when we would dine there!”
These days, whether performing on a mammoth cruise liner or in an intimate theatre nestled in a landlocked suburb, Danny gives it his all. “As soon as I go on stage, it’s all about the same thing. Fun! I love what I do, and I have such a great time on stage… With any luck, the audience will come along for the ride and have a great time too!”
He has no real preference for audience size but admits that it can be a great thrill to perform to over a thousand people. “The buzz you get from a huge crowd applauding on their feet is like no other feeling I’ve ever had!”
Danny’s become adept at reading a crowd and has also learned how to be ready to deal with whatever it is he “reads” in them. “If I’m on a ship expecting an older audience and it’s full of young families, and I only have music for the older crowd with me, it does become a challenge. I can’t just zip home and get the other music! But generally speaking I know what I’m going to get before I get there and can prepare accordingly.”
Home is where the heart is
Music and performing lead Danny to his wife, Sharna. “She’s a singer, too, and we met when we were just kids, about 16 years old, at a performance teacher we had in common. Nothing happened between us then, but the seed was planted… Years later we met up at an industry Christmas party and we hit it off!”
Their young family grew up with their parents on stage, and a travelling showbiz dad is thus par for the course for them, even if it sometimes gets tough due to Danny’s travelling and long periods away from home. “Communication is becoming easier with faster internet on ships and more countries that associate with telco’s from Australia, so calling home is becoming better. It is still very hard though. I miss everyone so much when I’m away!”
His kids seem to be following in his musical footsteps, too… His oldest daughter is doing music for her HSC, while the second daughter has a lovely voice, enjoying acting and modelling. But Danny laughs when describing their young son: “he’s just really loud!”
And do they think their dad is still cool, despite his skills on the bagpipes? “Ha! I think our son still thinks Mum and Dad are cool, but the girls are teenagers, so I doubt it! We went to the US in 2016 on a family holiday and plugged the phone into the car to use the GPS. The car started playing random music from the phone and some of our recordings came on. When we returned home, he told all his friends that Mum and Dad’s songs were on the radio in America. We didn’t correct him.”
And, of course, since it’s every parents’ responsibility to embarrass their kids every chance they get, this happens too, chortles Danny. “We quite often give them a shout out from stage, dedication or even happy birthday, even if it’s not their birthday!” His family is where Danny recharges when his batteries run out. “I spend time with my them, and love going to the movies. I do DIY around the house. Simple things. When I’m not working, I’m a real homebody.”
Sailing the seas…
Danny travels extensively for his career and believes the support of his wife makes it possible, and much easier. “Sharna is incredible. She’s also a singer and we perform together when on land. However, she can only come on the ships a couple of times a year due to our family commitments. She’s very understanding, and so are our children…”
Besides missing home, what are the biggest challenges he faces during his travels? “It’s extremely tiring, especially when you have to carry 15 instruments with you everywhere you go! I hope for lounge access when I fly to relax, a seat with leg room (I’m 6’3”), which is becoming rare, and a comfortable bed!”
His most magical tour was a 3-month trip to Europe with Cunard. “That was incredible! I ship-hopped around just about all of Europe, form the North Pole to the Med. I was 23 at the time and it was just mind blowing!”
Danny and Sharna have loads of weird and wonderful travelling stories. They’ve met incredible people from all walks of life. Been around the world, nearly missing planes, ships, taxi’s and trains. They’ve worked with incredible musicians and entertainers… And one of these entertainers just happened to be Dame Shirley Bassey – according the Danny, the greatest show-person he’s ever met.
Working with greatness
“I was support for Dame Shirley Bassey when she last toured Australia,” he remembers. “I’d heard a lot of nightmare stories from musicians and behind-the-scenes people. When performing the first show in Canberra, I was in the adjacent dressing room and Sharna said, ‘We have to go and meet her, it could be our only chance.’ So, she grabbed my hand, walked up to the very large bouncers guarding Shirley’s door, knocked and walked right on in, introducing herself and me! We had a lovely conversation and had one of her bouncers take a photo of us together. (He could possibly have lost his job after this!)
“A week later we were in Brisbane setting up in a corridor. Miss Bassey arrived in her limo and as she walked past said hello to us by name. She had remembered our names from the previous week! Very impressive. Despite the stories, we found her to be a warm and friendly lady.”
Danny treasures the opportunity to watch Bassey perform. “She was captivating. Her unique and powerful voice was matched by her accentuated arm movements, which would embellish the dramatic effect of a song. Simply stunning.”
Danny believes that there are three important aspects to a successful show. The first, and most obvious, is variety – “as an audience member, I want to see different things happening on stage. It’s a fact that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, and I think it’s important to keep things interesting by changing it up during a performance.” He does this by mixing up the instruments he uses, changing the pace of a show from fast to slow to fast again. “There has to be ebbs and flows in a show, and it’s all about the variety.”
The second point is to know what you’re doing! After all, if an audience goes to a show, they want to see an expert at the ‘craft’ of entertaining performing on stage. “I believe this involves so much more than just being a great singer or musician,” says Danny. “Entertaining an audience is a skill in itself.”
Thirdly, engage the audience. “It’s so important to make a connection with the crowd, through the music or stories that you tell during the show. The audience want to be moved in some way and feel part of the experience of the show.”
Danny balances all these elements when planning his performances, and tries to include as much as he can, whether the shows are 20 minutes or 2 hours long. “In a shorter show, I look at the variety of content and put as many instruments and different styles of songs in as I can. When the show is longer, I can relax a lot more when on stage. This is where the stories come in and I can have a bit of a laugh with the crowd.”
Audiences can look forward to high-energy performances on stage – in fact, sometimes so energetic that injuries occur! Danny laughs. “My hamstring! Sometimes I throw my leg up on to the top of a piano and thump away with my hands. This has caused a slight twinge from time to time!”
Hard work rewarded
Danny was fairly young when he won his first Australian Entertainment “Mo” Award and remembers it as “a big deal”. “The events, back in the day, were huge and the prestige was enormous. I was so excited to win a Mo, to be recognised as the best act in the country in my field is an overwhelming feeling!”
Since then, he’s gone on to be honoured in similar ways several times – but hasn’t let it go to his head or impact how hard he works… “It’s a wonderful thing to have on your bio, but in reality, it ends up being your performances that get bookings (and re-bookings). There’s an old showbiz saying, ‘You’re only as good as your last gig’. There are many fantastic acts that have never even been nominated for an award. When I won, it drove me to want to be better, to keep up the work and show people that I was deserving.”
Danny believes young entertainers need to focus to avoid certain fundamental errors. “The young generation have incredible voices, but entertaining a crowd is so much more and it comes from experience. Big lessons I’ve learned involve things like song choice, researching the audience and performing appropriate material for them. Practise your patter: the ability to introduce a song with an interesting story about the tune or about yourself, without being too self-indulgent. Always perform on the stage if there is one, not on the floor where nobody can see you. Also, keep your eyes open! If you close your eyes, you’re singing for yourself, not for the people in front of you. There are so many things you pick up through years of doing and watching shows.”
What it’s all about
Music might be his life’s work, but it’s also still something he truly loves. Whether he’s enjoying some quiet time in front of his piano, or performing up on stage, he’s constantly finding the joy in it. “It’s really not a job, I just happen to get paid for having a great time!”There’s another, very compelling, reason to do it, too – and that’s when you make a real difference in someone’s life. When asked about some of the touching moments he’s experienced, Danny chose to share the following letter he received after a performance:
“Hi Danny, my name is Kelly. I am from Melbourne, Australia.
I wanted to send you a message to let you know that you won the heart of my 7-year-old son Max with a recent show we were lucky enough to see.
We saw you perform on the Voyager of the Seas (Sydney to South Pacific) early November and Max was completely awestruck! You see, Max is blind. He was born that way & is very musical. The fact that you could play 15 instruments amazed him & he has been talking about you ever since. We brought your CD on the night and listen to it every day.
Now, when he practices the piano at home we have to call him Danny Elliot!
So, I wanted to thank you for your inspiration & for your wonderful performance. One Max will no doubt remember forever.
We hope to see you again one day & would love it if you are ever in Melbourne if you could let us know so we can come along and see you again.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas
From Kelly & Max”
Danny’s future is looking bright and jam-packed with shows – as long as he can keep on performing, nothing can bring him down. “It would be nice to get more gigs on land so that I can be at home with my family more often… And I’d also like to still perform with Billy Joel or Elton John. Or both! Legends!”
He’s focused on expanding his musical repertoire, identifying and arranging songs that stand the test of time and appeal to all ages. And he’ll continue providing exactly what audiences expect from one of his shows: “Variety! Fun! A lot of different songs, instruments, styles of music and a fun show!”
Danny’s attitude gels perfectly with Team All Things Entertainment’s enthusiasm, and that’s why we love working with him. “ATE has a great stable of shows and I’m honoured to be a part of it. I’m new to the stable, but it’s challenged me to push myself artistically and to create and re-invent myself!”
What is your most beloved instrument to play?
Danny: I love a piano. Hey, that would be a great song…
And the one you play if you feel like being challenged?
Danny: Fiddle and Banjo.
Who inspires you?
Danny: Musically, I grew up with the great singer songwriters (and mainly piano players) of the 70’s onwards, so Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka, Australia’s Peter Allen. My folks also brought me up on Hot August Night, so Neil Diamond is a huge favourite of mine.
What captures your imagination?
Danny: I love playing with audio software on my computer, sequencing and arranging, there are some great pieces of software that attract my attention, hardly any I can afford!
Person you wish you could meet – and why?
Danny: Any of the previously mentioned “idols” growing up. To chat about their life experiences, song writing and lives would be very cool.
Five people you’d invite to dinner… And why!
Danny: I could easily find 5 close friends to invite to dinner. I’m away so much and to just be at home, relaxing with friends is a simple pleasure that I rarely get to indulge in.
Text: Donnay Torr from Torr Collective