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Rocket man looking to lift off once again

Before you ask, William Shatner knows that he has a, uh, distinctive singing style.

Before you ask, William Shatner knows that he has a, uh, distinctive singing style.

And he’s okay with that. “My intentions for The Transformed Man (Shatner’s 1968 debut record) was to combine great literature of the past with great song lyrics of the present,” he says, “but not everyone understood that.

“I was invited on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to perform. But in rehearsals, the producer said ‘Bill, this is a six minute piece. Do either the literature or the song because you can’t do both.’ So I did the song.

“As I was doing my thing, I looked over at Carson who mouthed to Ed McMahon ‘What. The. F-ck? It wasn’t my finest hour.”

The Transformed Man languished for years and nothing else was forthcoming from Captain Kirk. Until, that is, a young musician named Ben Folds found a copy and became transfixed with it. That led to some collaborations on Folds’ 1998 album, Fear of Pop. Then in 2004, Folds produced Has Been, a Shatner album that featured everyone from Aimee Man to Henry Rollins to British writer Nick Hornby. His cover of Pulp’s Common People became something of an alt-radio hit.

Things snowballed. A ballet — William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet — was staged by a company in Milwaukee to great acclaim. Which brings us to Seeking Major Tom.

“We came up with this concept of exploring what happened to Bowie’s Major Tom character after he left the capsule. That story is told through a series of 20 science fiction-theme songs featuring some of the biggest names in music.”

The album features Peter Frampton, Dave Davies (The Kinks), Mike Inez (Alice in Chains), Nick Valensi (The Strokes), Sheryl Crow, Zakk Wylde, Alan Parsons and Brad Paisley. There’s a video for Bohemian Rhapsody. I especially like his take on Sabbath’s Iron Man. And the last time I checked, the album was at No. 112 on the Billboard charts.

“The vinyl version is destined to become a collector’s item,” he says. And he’s not wrong. It’s been released as a very limited edition.

“Do you have any vinyl copies of The Transformed Man left?” I ask.

“Are you kidding?” he smiles. “I’ve got a garage full of ’em, still in the shrinkwrap. Imagine that.”

How Time Flies with William Shatner rolls into Massey Hall in Toronto on Nov. 3 and Place des Arts in Montreal Nov. 4.

– Alan is the host of the radio show The Secret History of Rock. Reach him at alan@alancross.ca

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