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A great duet that didn’t happen

By Frank Roberts

I spent a half-century interviewing and reviewing many of the country shows that came to Hampton Roads.

The usual schedule for reviewing a program was, obviously, one per night. I returned to the Virginian-Pilot office in Norfolk to write my review, and then I rode back home to Hertford, N.C., and tried to catch up on my sleep. Then, it was back to my regular job with the paper covering first the Elizabeth City area, later taking care of business in Suffolk and vicinity.

Each day was enjoyable and productive. The day that sticks most in my memory was when I covered two concerts in one night.

It was in the early ’90s when Julio Iglesias appeared at the nTelos Pavilion in Portsmouth, and Willie Nelson was at The NorVa in Norfolk. It was sort of appropriate, since the two had a big hit at the time, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

The two venues were separated by only a few miles and I was wondering if they would get together for their duet. Would Julio take a limo to Norfolk and do a sing-along with Willie, or would Willie visit the Pavilion to re-create their number?

Each was told the other would be nearby; each expressed a desire to join forces. It evolved into a “my-people-will-talk-to-your-people” situation. That was followed by rumors about who would make the trip through the Downtown Tunnel.

A duet was feasible, since Julio’s show ran from 8 to 10 p.m., and Willie didn’t get onstage until almost 10:30. Initial conjecture had it that Willie would hightail his ponytail to nTelos. Julio, speaking from his Miami home, told me he would make the trip, “because I’m younger than he is.”

In the end, both sang the song — separately. At about 9:45, Julio soloed the piece and, about an hour later, Willie did the same.

In Portsmouth, the more talkative Julio suggested that his fans, “go see Willie after this concert. He’s an incredible man and an incredible singer.”

Willie’s fans had already packed The NorVa, as did the Julio enthusiasts who filled the Pavilion. Willie returned to The NorVa the next night for another sold-out concert.

Those who may have heeded Julio’s advice got the best of both worlds. Willie is very country, and Julio is every country in the world. The common denominators are their crisp, clear voices, their ability to sell a song, their bundles of choice material and a blessed scarcity of gimmicks.

The resemblance ended there. Julio dressed like a bank president — suit, vest, tie. Willie dressed like — well, Willie. Julio is like a glass of fine wine, neatly filled to the brim. Willie is a plastic cup of Bud with its foam spilling over. Willie even sang about the brew, an old gem called, “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It, And I Can’t Buy No Beer.”

That was no problem at The NorVa. There were suds a-plenty, and those plastic cups of beer were often raised in salute to the man in front of the giant Texas flag.

There was a lot to cheer about. Julio spotlighted John Michalak, an exciting sax player, plus three talented backup singers, and the Argentine tango dance team of Lorena Ermosida and Osvaldo Zoto.

Julio sang in both Spanish and English. Even if you can’t understand the words, you know very well that it has to do with romance. One audience member summed it up during one number. “I loved that song, whatever it is.”

The duet would have been a killer idea, but they did not record “All the Girls” together originally; the magic of electronics brought them together, even though they were coasts apart.

“The lyrics, I really didn’t understand, because my English was so very bad then,” Julio told me. “Willie recorded his part — then he found I couldn’t speak a word to him. Willie said, ‘This guy doesn’t speak English.’ He was so funny about it.”

My wife and I joined a crowd of others to meet Julio backstage — lots of young ladies. My wife — not in that category — was singled out for a “hug picture,” the only one, of all the stars we met, that she keeps bedside.

We met the amiable, easygoing Willie several times over the years. He is a regular Mr. Nice Guy.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.