Let’s Duet: Inside Gary Barlow’s Quarantine Hit ‘Crooner Sessions’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Leena Tailor
·10-min read

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It started as a gesture for fans stuck in quarantine, but in just six weeks, Gary Barlow’s “Crooner Sessions” have snowballed into a hotly-anticipated Instagram event attracting everyone from fellow boy banders like JC Chasez and Niall Horan, to Jessie J, Queen rocker Brian May and British icon Sir Cliff Richard.

The Take That singer dreamed up the duet series after observing the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on fans. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if once a week, I do them a little duet,’” Barlow tells Variety, while making tea at his countryside retreat in the U.K. “We can’t go on stages or into theaters. Maybe this is our new stage.”

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Emailing pals, he promptly heard back from Ronan Keating, who performed his Boyzone ballad “Baby Can I Hold You” with Barlow. Bandmates, like Robbie Williams, and others followed suit, including James Bay, Jason Donovan, Lulu and Chasez, who tackled Take That’s 25-year-old smash “Back for Good.”

The song marked the peak of the group’s remarkable reign, which saw counseling hotlines created for distraught fans following their 1996 split. Reforming in 2005 and now a trio comprised of Barlow, Mark Owen and Howard Donald, their phenomenal impact is highlighted in upcoming film, “Greatest Days.”

Based on the stage musical “The Band,” the film centers on five fangirls. “It would have to be Brad Pitt, who played me. They have to match my looks, right?” jokes Barlow, who’s guiding filmmakers as needed, but otherwise leaving writer, Tim Firth, and director, Coky Giedroyc, to it. “I’m kidding. The women characters are the focus. It’s about the people sitting watching, who have supported us and how the music’s been part of their lives.”

Away from Take That, Barlow, 49, has carved out an extraordinary career — releasing solo albums, writing and organizing a concert for Queen Elizabeth, judging “The X Factor,” scoring Broadway productions and acting. He has almost completed his first solo orchestral album, which he hopes to drop later in 2020 and tour next year.

“Thank goodness we got our 60-piece orchestra into one room before lockdown!” he says. “It’s a great change for me. Making an album with an orchestra makes you write and sing differently. There (are) no laptops — just humans playing music together. Sixty people can make the most incredible sound, that brings you to tears. It’s an example of the great things we do as big groups, so it feels very of-the-moment.”

However, it’s the “Crooner Sessions” that are the pinnacle of Barlow’s professional achievements as he approaches 50, with hopes for a musical birthday celebration in London next year.

“These sessions have shown me what brilliant friends I have, who I can message saying, ‘You wanna do this?’ and the next minute, it’s changing people’s days,” says Barlow, who has also included fan duets. “All these years I’ve been in music, this is the result — not the songs or tours. It’s seeing people you’ve known for years, or months, supporting one another and making people feel great.”

With the series transitioning from daily to sporadic instalments from Friday onwards, here are 10 of our favorite duets so far:

JC Chasez, “Back for Good”

Chasez says singing with Barlow was “a bucket list moment.” “I’ve always been a fan of Take That, and Gary and I have a close relationship,” he tells Variety. “This was the perfect way to feel connected creatively while staying home. It almost felt like we were in the same place recording.”

“It’s been so nice hooking up with people like JC, who I haven’t seen for years,” Barlow adds. “And that song’s been with us so long. It’s like a family member and takes me back to an amazing time. It’s records like that (that) made it possible for us to reunite because those songs take people back to times in their lives, friends they had. They’re great portals to chunks of time.”

Sir Cliff Richard, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”

Barlow says singing with Richard was an “absolute dream,” while the 79-year-old musician was thrilled to be asked. “Lockdown was never going to be easy, but probably the only thing to do in our struggle against COVID-19,” Richard says. “So, when Gary asked me to duet, I was grateful to have something interesting to do. Now, where was I going to do this? Where does everyone have a warble? In the bathroom! Because all bathrooms have an echo. If it brought a smile to locked-down faces, I’m happy.”

Robbie Williams, “Shame”

“I talk to Rob every week,” says Barlow, who collaborated with Williams on “Shame” in 2010. “We’re all family and especially in times like this, we’ve kept in touch a lot, which has been nice.”

Matthew Morrison, “Neverland”

In 2015, Morrison played J.M. Barrie in Broadway’s “Finding Neverland,” scored by Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. “A highlight from my career was singing the beautiful work of Gary and Eliot on Broadway,” Morrison says. “I love Gary’s ‘Crooner Sessions,’ especially during this time when us, as creators, feel so isolated.”

Adds Barlow: “Matthew was amazing in that role. When I think of ‘Finding Neverland,’ I think of his face. He was such an important part of that production — and after every show he ensured everyone at the stage door got a signed picture or selfie!”

Brian May, “Get Back”

“Brian’s my neighbor,” shares Barlow, who covered The Beatles with the Queen musician. “He’s a true legend, so to get him was incredible. I had the most messages from my male friends about that one.”

KT Tunstall, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”

Says Tunstall: “If I had to pick one silver lining to lockdown, it’s this video. I joined Gary on tour a couple of years ago, but we never got to sing together, so covering this iconic (song) with him was a blast. Then it led to a photo-shopped image of ‘that’ lift … which left me wanting Jennifer Grey’s legs!”

Shane Filan, “Right Here Waiting”

The Westlife singer’s been a “huge” Take That fan for years and meanwhile loves the Richard Marx track. “‘Right Here Waiting’ is one of the best ballads ever written and it made sense Gary and I duet on a power ballad,” he says. “Richard Marx is a great singer-songwriter. I’m happy he approved!”

Beverley Knight, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”

“It was a good laugh performing with Gary,” Knight says. “It was a fun way to pass time with a friend at the beginning of lockdown. It’s lovely to see the ‘Crooner Sessions’ have grown beyond that and become such a success.”

Rick Astley, “Together Forever”

Astley says the duets are exactly the “fun and uplifting sessions we all need” right now. But 30-plus years ago, Astley was exactly what Barlow needed. “When I was trying to break into the business in 1989, it was so amazing to see Rick make it,” Barlow explains. “I realized, ‘Maybe I don’t have to live in London to make it — this guy’s from 10 miles away!’ It spurred me into getting back to London with my demos, so he’s a big part of my story.”

Niall Horan, “Slow Hands”

“I did X Factor for four years so One Direction were always around,” Barlow says. “When I see those guys doing it solo, I remember how scary that was to step outside the group, so (I) try to be as supportive as I can. I hate to be the old guy emailing like, ‘Guys, come on my Instagram,’ but Niall hit me straight back and was brilliant. I love that he turned up with his guitar.”

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