MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. - Peter Gallagher's green eyes sparkle as he leans back in his dressing room and hums a tune. He looks excited, nervous and expectant. And he should. The "O.C." dad is putting out his first record... at age 50.
"I knew I was going to have to put together an evening of music before I hang it up, because if I didn't do it, it would be a real terrible thing for me," says the actor on the set of his hit show.
Gallagher's album "7 Days in Memphis" was released in early November by Epic Records. Bluesy and heartfelt, the collection of mostly Memphis soul covers is a great opportunity - albeit a daunting one - for the longtime actor and Broadway singer to showcase his singing chops.
"What's scary about doing a solo record like this is admitting your own taste," he says. "I don't have a character to hide behind."
Not that fans of "The O.C" haven't already heard Gallagher belt out the blues.
Last season, Gallagher's TV alter-ego - jolly attorney and hip father Sandy Cohen - jumped up on a stage and brought down the house with Solomon Burke's passionate "Don't Give Up on Me."
Fans and critics praised Gallagher for his warm, thunderous voice, and record executives came calling. Epic executives urged Gallagher to record a slew of '60s and '70s songs from Memphis' Stax/Volt label in the vein of "Don't Give Up on Me." They gave him a multi-disc set of Memphis music to study.
It was a perfect match.
"I had no idea I listened to Memphis soul as a kid," says Gallagher, who as a 12-year-old loved Stax/Volt artists such as Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MG's. Redding's 1968 hit "(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay" is still one of his favorite songs.
"But no one needs to do 'Dock of the Bay' again," he says. "I just don't think you can mess with perfection. Maybe not no one, but not me."
Instead, he chose lesser known songs by the likes of Carla and Rufus and Sam and Dave, and tunes such as the horn-infused "I've Got to Love Somebody's Baby" and the emotive soul ballad "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye." He hopes the selection will attract older baby boomers and curious younger fans akin to his 20-something castmates on "The O.C."
Guests on the album include guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MG's and soul singer Betty White.
Youthfully handsome, with a thick mane of black hair, Gallagher regularly sings to his wife and two children. He's always been "a bit of a stimulation junkie," he says.
"The first time I sang in public, it was really a result of my music teacher's attempt to humiliate me in class because I was doing something wrong," Gallagher reminisces, grinning.
Sent to the back of the class for imitating a standup bass ("dum, dum, dum," he hums), his teacher demanded he sing. "I remember thinking, 'this is sink or swim.' My ears were burning, and the humiliation was rising. I thought to myself, 'I'll show YOU man.'"
Apparently he did, because Gallagher went on to star in an array of musicals, including "Hair," "Guys and Dolls" and the lead in Pete Townsend's "Psychoderelict." Over 25 years, he's appeared in more than 50 films. In 2003 Gallagher hit the jackpot with "The O.C." - one of Fox's most popular shows.
"He's always singing on set," says Efrain Cortes, an "O.C." assistant director. "He's the epitome of class, and his music reflects that. Everyone on the crew loves him."
Gallagher says singing is "like being given an unbelievably great monologue, like acting times 10." But his performance anxiety is equally multiplied.
"I was staring at the ceiling late at night a few weeks before recording in June, thinking, 'I have the greatest day job in the world.' I was terrified to march into that hallowed musical ground of Memphis and record and sing these songs," he says.
As for touring, Gallagher's busy acting schedule just won't allow it, at least not until next June. But that won't keep him from jumping up on a stage, and soon.
"I'm definitely going to perform live, even if it's at a Ramada Inn near you, and I'll be selling records in the back," he says, laughing.