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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

At some point in January I decided to keep track of all the movies I watch in 2018. Please read that sentence carefully: “the movies I watch” is the key phrase. As a rule, I rarely “go out to see” a movie in theaters anymore because I don’t care too much about new movies. I’ll watch the occasional new release. In fact, I saw The Big Sick late last year without even realizing it was a brand new movie because I viewed it on Amazon Prime. Nevertheless, the focus on CGI and action-packed superhero fare is not really my taste. I’m am a lover of “classic films.”

Everyone has a different definition for that term “classic film.” I recently heard someone on a podcast say they considered it to be mainly the movies of the 1930s and early 1940s. That’s a little too limited for me. I think anything from the 1920s – 1980s can be a classic at this point depending on the film and your requirements. I mean Raging Bull (1980) is certainly a classic because of it’s moody cinematography, intense writing and magnificent acting while films like Airplane (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) are classics in comedic goofiness. At the same time, B movie series of the 1940s like Boston Blackie and Dr. Kildare are also classics because they were such an iconic part of the culture of their era.

I’ve been getting thousands of inquiries as to why I haven’t kept this blog up-to-date in recent months. Okay, maybe more like a half dozen inquiries. Anyway, there are two simple reasons: 1.) I’ve been preoccupied with a book I’m writing, and 2.) I am generally a disorganized and undisciplined individual. Nevertheless, I thought since I was keeping this journal anyway about the films I watch in 2018, I would occasionally share some thoughts and reactions to the various films on this blog.

The most recent film I watched was John Ford’s 1958 comedy/drama The Last Hurrah based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor. Think of an American version of The Quiet Man but shot in black and white and focused around the world of politics and ward healing instead of the courtship rituals of a small Irish village. The Quiet Man was is the more well known Ford picture I suppose because it’s tailor made for yearly viewing around the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. The Last Hurrah is a true American story about the politics of immigration and class warfare with a roguish humor to lighten the trip.

In terms of the major stars of the Golden Age of Cinema, Tracy ranks near or at the top of my Leading Man category along with Bogart, Cagney, Powell, and Grant in the same group. I’ve often said I’d be happy just to watch Tracy eat breakfast. It has long been discussed among film critics and historians that while acting ability is a component of stardom there is the more ethereal aspect of the camera’s reaction to you. Billy Wilder once commented about the magic quality of Greta Garbo saying, “That face, that face, what was it about that face? You could read into it all the secrets of a woman’s soul. You could read Eve, Cleopatra, Mata Hari. She became all women on the screen. Not on the sound stage. The miracle happened in that film emulsion. Who knows why? Marilyn Monroe had this same gift.” I believe the same to be true of Spencer Tracy. The camera loved him and in his face you read the myth and legend of America. He was a giant and this is one of the most perfectly suited roles he ever played.

For someone like myself, the greatest joy in viewing the movies made in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s is in spotting all the fabulous and unique character actors. The Last Hurrah, though made at the end of the 1950s, includes a host of some of the very best character actors of the previous decades: Basil Rathbone (the quintessential Sherlock Holmes), Donald Crisp (Oscar winner for How Green Was My Valley), James Gleason ( his last film after 40 years in front of the camera and 100+ films), John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath and patriarch of a great acting family), Basel Ruysdael (Broken Arrow), Wallace Ford (A Patch of Blue), Ricardo Cortez (star of silent pictures in his last film), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright in It’s A Wonderful Life, Hee Haw!), Ken Curtis (Festus on Gunsmoke), Frank McHugh (Three Men on a Horse), Jane Darwell (Oscar winner for The Grapes of Wrath), and one of my personal favorites, Edward Brophy (Larceny, Inc.). Even the uncredited actors are memorable faces such as Richard Deacon, James Flavin, Harry Lauter, Mae Marsh, Tom Neal, and Frank Sully.

The Last Hurrah also boasts three of the four founding members of what Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky once dubbed “The Irish Mafia” – Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Frank McHugh. The only one missing was Jimmy Cagney and he would have fit right into this film. He could have easily handled the Honorable Charles J. Hennessey role. It’s a small part but I think Cagney would have done it particularly to work with Tracy. In fact, Cagney and O’Brien made nine movies together while Cagney and McHugh shared the screen in no less than eleven features. Sadly, Cagney and Tracy never made a film together. What a combination that would have been.

When Academy Award time rolled around, this film was snubbed. Spencer Tracy and John Ford both won the awards for Best Actor and Best Director from The National Board of Review and Tracy was nominated for the BAFTA, the British version of the Oscars but the Motion Picture Academy nominated him instead for his role as The Old Man in the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a role and a movie that was decidedly inferior to The Last Hurrah.

This Saint Patrick’s Day do yourself a favor following your annual viewing of Ford’s beautiful Irish travelogue The Quiet Man, watch The Last Hurrah. It will warm the cockles of your Irish heart, whether you’re a genuine “from the sod” Irish or just Irish for the day.


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I stumbled upon this hilarious clip on YouTube today and just had to share my thoughts.

I read a lot of show biz books, biographies, and autobiographies. After many years of sifting through the sincere, the obscene, and the just plain ridiculous, you tend to get a sense for what is bullshit and what is probably closer to the truth. Most of the time, I have no problem at all with the BS so long as it’s entertaining. I mean, let’s be honest – storytelling is show biz too. If you do it right.

One of my favorite books about variety television of the 1960s/1970s is Lee Hale’s Backstage at The Dean Martin Show. Hale tells us that when Martin’s show initially went on the air, he was essentially just a Master of Ceremonies to a bunch of variety acts. Try to imagine a handsome and talented Ed Sullivan. However, by not taking  advantage of Dean’s talent the first half dozen shows hadn’t scored too well. Hale was brought in to write and stage some special musical material for the show and by the time he reached the west coast from NYC, the producer had been fired and Greg Garrison had been put in charge.  It was a fortuitous twist of fate for Garrison, Dean Martin, and Lee Hale. Together, they created some unforgettable variety and comedy material that was almost always centered around Dino.

Backstage at the Dean Martin Show is essentially Hale’s remembrances of Martin, Garrison, and especially of all the guest stars that appeared on Dino’s show. A good deal of the anecdotes praise the talent and professionalism of the many talented people who stepped in front of the camera with Dean in a very difficult set of circumstances. Some of the juicer and most entertaining episodes tell of the less professional, more temperamental stars with whom Mr. Hale dealt.

You may have heard somewhere that Dean Martin did not like to rehearse. That is absolutely true. The guests and the singers and dancers would rehearse all week but Dean was never there. He’d be sent a tape of the songs he was going to have to sing so he could listen to the music/arrangements while he drove to and from the golf course. Then he would come in on Sunday, take 20-30 minutes to run through the charts with the band and then head to his dressing room. There he would simultaneously watch the national football game telecasts and a studio monitor where Garrison and Hale would runs through the duets he would do with the guest stars. Garrison would wear a sign that said “Dean Martin” while Hale might wear a sign that said “Lena Horne” or “George Gobel.” Finally, they would tape the actual show in front of a live audience and, as you’ll no doubt remember, make a lot of mistakes – which the audience loved!!

Anyway, this was all background to lead up to the Allan Sherman story. When I saw the above clip on YouTube I immediately remembered that Hale shares a story of his experience dealing with Mr. Sherman that was less than pleasant. As a rule, Garrison didn’t want Hale to coddle the guests or go to their home. “Keep them in their place,” Garrison told him. “Never forget you’re in charge now.”

Unfortunately, Sherman was apparently friends with one of the executives on the show so Garrison told Hale they would treat him with kid gloves. Sherman wanted someone to come to his home to discuss his appearance so Garrison told him to go ahead. Once there, Hale was left to wait in Sherman’s foyer for over an hour. When Hale was told by Sherman’s kids to go upstairs and look for him, he found Sherman on his bed with a phone, a pencil and pad, and several cans of ice cold beer. He got about a 30 second conference with Sherman where he was told that the material sent over by the writers was crap and “I’ll let you know what parodies I’m doing.” He rudely dismissed him and Hale left with a new understanding of why you should never “go to the guest.”

Hale then writes, “I reported back to Greg, who wasn’t the least bit surprised and actually found the story rather funny. So did I after while, especially when I heard that Greg wasn’t even going to roll tape when Allan was on the stage.”

The above clip seems to contradict the possibility that Garrison “did not run tape” when Sherman was on stage. However, according to IMDB, Sherman made two appearances on The Dean Martin Show, both coming in the first season. The first appearance seems too early for Hale to have been there yet so we can instead assume that this story is referring to episode 16. The only problem is that neither of the IMDB listings for the two shows on which Sherman was a guest, lists Vic Damone. In fact, IMDB says that Damone appeared only one time on The Dean Martin Show and that was in the second season, not the first. So where then does this clip originate? I thought it might be the Hollywood Palace but Sherman’s IMDB listings for those appearances also don’t include Damone or Martin. Therefore, I have no idea where this clip originates. My guess would be that IMDB is missing something and that they either appeared all together on Dean’s show (with tape running) or the Hollywood Palace.

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It’s no Tinkers to Evers to Chance but here’s why these three names came upon me today.

Last night I watched a movie on TCM called Million Dollar Legs with W. C. Fields. I had never seen this particular film before but I was intrigued by the opening credits when I saw the name Susan Fleming. Since the film was made in 1932 I did what we’re often taught not to do, I “assumed” that the Susan Fleming in question was none other than the future wife of Harpo Marx. This time, my assumption was quite correct. As I am a huge Harpo Marx fan, I was curious to watch a full film performance by the future Mrs. Marx.  Her acting was nothing spectacular but in all fairness, the part she played didn’t give her a whole helluva lot with which to play. It must be noted, however, that she was in the parlance of the day, quite a looker.

The film was an odd, almost surrealist comedy. Since its production date is 1932, I’m tempted to say that it seems like a precursor to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup that premiered in theaters the next year. The film and its story, like any great Marx Brothers film, is secondary. The reason to watch the film is W.C. Fields. He was a comedian before his time. The acidic sarcasm that flows from just beneath that fabulously bulbous beak is the kind that you naturally expect from the earliest SNL troupes but not of a vaudeville comedian from the first half of the twentieth century. There are some wonderful character actors in the film like Hugh Herbert and George Barbier but Fields is the center attraction.

So how does ZaSu come into the picture? Well, I noticed from a home-grown list that today is ZaSu Pitts birthday. The distinctive character actress was born on this date in 1894. When I went to YouTube to see what they had on ZaSu this is what I found.

I must admit I’ve never seen Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch but I’ll have to take the time. Fields is almost always brilliant and the combination of two such unique talents is nearly irresistible.

By the way, if you’re anything like me, you’ve spent your entire life mispronouncing ZaSu Pitts’ name. This little clip will eventually get on your nerves but it should certainly teach you the correct way to pronounce Zay-Zoo.

The lovely Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made 17 films together. They were put together by Hal Roach as female counterparts to Laurel and Hardy.

One final treat in honor of Ms. Pitts’ birthday is this hilarious snippet from a film called Sing and Like It! Yet again, this is a film I’ve never seen but I really want to track this one down. If the rest of the movie is as funny as these nine minutes, it can’t miss!

Happy Birthday ZAY-ZOO!!

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It’s hard to imagine Dean Martin as 100. In truth, it was hard to watch Dean get old. He was the living embodiment of the old joke, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Except it’s doubtful Dean Martin would have changed anything he did. He was a true maverick in the sense that he rarely did things “the right way,” and he never seemed to have a clear plan or goal for what he wanted to achieve in show business. A great deal of his success came from luck, from charm, and from being at the right place at the right time. The rest of his success came from a talent so great that he made it look like the easiest thing in the world to do. It was not.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, critics and entertainers would make jokes about Dean Martin along the lines of, “Dean’s so relaxed, he makes Perry Como look like a world class sprinter.” In fact, the success of both Dean Martin and Perry Como on TV had a lot to do with their relaxed manner and style in front of the television cameras. Sinatra’s early forays into television were disastrous precisely because he looked so uncomfortable and unsure of himself on TV. Perry Como became a hit because he was relaxed and he had a nice guy image that people were happy to welcome into their homes every week. When Dean Martin started his variety show in 1965, critics were unsure whether America would let a swinging Vegas crooner into their homes with the same enthusiasm as they showed for Como, Pat Boone, Dinah Shore and other acts that communicated so well with “Middle America.”

In “Backstage at The Dean Martin Show,” Lee Hale, who worked on Special Material and vocal arrangements for years on The Dean Martin Show, reveals that Martin’s first couple of months with the show were not tremendously successful. Oddly enough, the reason appears to be not that audiences wouldn’t accept him as a TV entertainer but that there wasn’t enough of Dino in those early shows. According to Hale, when the program began, Martin was essentially an M.C. in the tradition of Ed Sullivan, and rarely took a turn with the guests. As Greg Garrison, the show’s director and eventual producer, seized more control, he believed the show needed more Dean Martin, not less. History tells us that he was absolutely correct.

The stories are now legendary about the unusual nature of The Dean Martin Show. Most of the myths are true. The band and the writers and the guests worked and rehearsed all week long. Dean came in one day a week, on Sunday, when the show was taped. He’d arrive around 1:00 pm, quickly go over his songs with Lee Hale, Les Brown and the band and then he’d go back to his dressing room and watch a run through of the show with the guests and Lee Hale acting as his stand in so he knew where he was supposed to move and when. None of the guests ever worked with Dean before they were actually taping the song or sketch. Most of the time, it was one take and that was it. They often kept in mistakes and bloopers which, over the years, the audience came to expect and absolutely love. It made them feel included as if they were “in on the joke.”

As the show grew more successful and more stories and interviews were printed about the show, the entire country knew that Dean showed up on the last day and held on for dear life. His guests would move him around if he got out of place in a sketch or a song. In one famous exchange with comedian George Gobel, as the two prepared to sing a song together Dean says, “Well, we might as well sing it, we rehearsed it.” Gobel looked at Martin, smiled and said,  “I did.”

As disastrous a recipe as this sounds for a weekly network variety show, it somehow worked and it worked largely because of Dean Martin. Not because he was a perfectionist who secretly worked hours a day at home but because he wasn’t a perfectionist at all. The laissez-faire attitude that Dino displayed on a weekly basis was Dean Martin. By the time he began his show on NBC in 1965, he was a major success in motion pictures, recordings, and the nightclub circuit. He wasn’t interested in pushing his limits and testing himself. Why should he have been? The people loved the laid back style of Dean Martin. He oozed charm. He could be gentle, he could be razor sharp. He’d been working in clubs in front of tough audiences for over twenty years by that time.

Historically speaking, the greatest legacy of his TV show, besides the duets with legends like Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra (to mention just a few), are the solo spots of Dean’s singing. I don’t know if Martin was insecure about his singing in clubs after his ten years of working with “the monkey” who was constantly heckling and interrupting him, but the reality is, even as a solo act, he rarely made it through an entire song with a straight interpretation. He was the Victor Borge of crooners, unable to get through a rendition of a Tin Pan Alley classic without delivering a few jokes and sarcastic asides. It may have made him a hit in Vegas nightclubs but thankfully, the powers that be at NBC and The Dean Martin Show, seemed to know that the American public who were buying lots of Dean Martin albums by 1965, would want to see and hear Dean Martin sing a song – all the way through!

The first three years of The Dean Martin Show are incredible time capsules of a bygone era in American entertainment. The Dean Martin Roasts, which I looked forward to with unbridled delight as a kid, no longer hold up very well but Dean singing with the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, or Rosemary Clooney? Pure gold.

Dean Martin’s legacy as a singer is something that fascinates me even more than his unusual experiment in television. Did Dean Martin truly not take himself seriously as a vocalist? He certainly didn’t seem to work very hard at singing any more than he did with movies or TV but he had a wonderful baritone and more control over it than people seem to remember. I think part of what undermined his musical legacy is that just a little more than halfway through his recording career, he developed an affinity for Country & Western themed songs. He loved horses, he loved westerns, and so, I think he loved the idea of “Cowboy Dean.” I always loved Dean’s C&W albums and they sold quite well but it was probably not the best way for a WWII crooner to cement a musical legacy. Sinatra also strayed from the Great American Songbook in the late 1960s but Martin nearly abandoned it completely.

Years ago at an academic conference on the legacy of Bing Crosby, I delivered a paper on Crosby as the first Italian American singer because of his influence on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. Author Will Friedwald was also at the conference and commented on the fact that Dean Martin recorded a lot of schlock and yet, no one was able to make schlock more entertaining and satisfying than Martin. It’s a left-handed compliment to be sure but as a fan, I agree totally. Dean recorded some less than stellar material and yet, just about everything he recorded was entertaining in some way. I believe he had far more talent than he gave himself credit for but he didn’t seem to have the same ambition as a Sinatra or a Tony Bennett.

In the end, I guess what says the most about the Dean Martin persona and the popularity of his style is that today, 100 years after his birth, we continue to buy his recordings, watch the DVDs, the YouTube videos, and the films. Dean Martin is amazingly popular at 100 and that makes me happy. He was an important part of my childhood. He and his friends taught me nearly everything I needed to know about great music and Friar’s Club humor. Happy Birthday Dino – we lift a glass in gratitude for all the happiness you left behind on record and on tape.

I’ll end with the song that is most closely associated with Dean Martin and yet, this original version of the song that Martin recorded for the 1964 album, Dream With Dean, is not the one that made it to the top of the charts that summer. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this may be the greatest recording Dean Martin ever made.

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Phil Silvers, comedy giant, was born on this day in 1911. He was the man who was always “glad to seeya” and we were certainly thrilled to see him. Best known as Master Sgt. Ernie Bilko, Silvers was the embodiment of the comedic con-man. He gave memorable performances in Top Banana, Sgt. Bilko, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

I’ve heard the Jack Benny / Jeanette MacDonald story told a few different times by a few different people but never better than this version from Phil.

Also born on this day, two “comic oddities of their time,” – Doodles Weaver and Foster Brooks.

Doodles Weaver was, believe it or not, the brother of former NBC head Pat Weaver who is generally given credit as the “creator” of The Today Show and The Tonight Show, two NBC franchises that continue to run more than sixty years after their inception. That also makes “Doodles” the uncle of actress Sigourney Weaver.

And if you were a regular viewer of The Dean Martin Show (and roasts) back in the ’70s, then you MUST remember the late, great, Foster Brooks!

Yes kids, we actually laughed at this. A lot!

And finally, today was also the birthday of full-blooded Englishter, Malcom Merriweather, aka Colonel Crittenden, aka Dr. Bombay, Aka Alfie Wingate. This man made Sybil seem like a loner!







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Bing Crosby was born on this date in 1903. I have hosted a radio show called “Sinatra & Company” for many years and it still amuses me how the Sinatra fans refuse to show the same love for Bing that Sinatra did. And the tired excuse of his personal life and conduct doesn’t work when you’re willing to overlook Mr. Sinatra’s vices!!

Personalities aside, Crosby’s accomplishments and talents cannot be questioned. As Artie Shaw said, “The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.”

If you’d like to learn a little about how Bing became Bing, read Gary Giddins’ excellent 2001 biography entitled, “Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Years, The Early Years, 1903-1940.” It was supposed to be the first of a two part project but we’ve never seen book two and after 14 years, I seem to doubt we ever will. It’s a shame because Giddins is a reliable and trustworthy scribe and this “Early Years” volume was just great.

Here are some of my favorite clips with Bing and friends.




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Today would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday. She was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. At least that’s would we now believe to be true. Ella Fitzgerald left much about her earliest years shrouded in mystery. She was fanatically guarded about her history and her privacy. For example, her birth date was given as 1918 for many years. At one point, her manager, mentor, some say Svengali, Norman Granz, hinted that she was actually born in 1920 or 1921. Whatever the case, historians now seemed locked in on 1917 and that’s fine with me because the sooner we can celebrate Ella, the better. In fact, I’m more than willing to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th next year as well. And 2020 and 2021 are fine with me too. As far as I’m concerned, her talent was so big, so unique, and so universal that her legacy should be in a constant state of celebration.

At the start of this month, I gave a presentation on Fitzgerald and spent a couple of weeks reading and researching the great lady. I’ve played Fitzgerald’s music on the radio for over 17 years but as I started to research her, I realized that I knew very little about her. The more I searched, the more I realized that it was, in fact, her goal to have you know little about her. Her father either deserted she and her mother when she was a toddler or he died. They moved to Yonkers to live with her aunt and at some point her mother remarried. Her stepfather may or may not have abused her. Her mother had another daughter, Frances, and Ella Fitzgerald would help take care of her half-sister for the rest of her life. She dropped out of school and ended up in either an orphanage or a home for delinquent girls or both. She danced on street corners to earn money. She entered an amateur contest at either the Harlem Opera House or the Apollo Theater with the intention of dancing. Once on stage she froze. Amid the jeers from the crowd, the MC told her “You better do something,” and she began to sing a song she remembered from her childhood. That song was either “Judy” or “The Object of My Affection.” The one fact that does remain consistent through the years is that Fitzgerald always credited Connee Boswell, or as Fitzgerald would say in interviews, “Miss Connee Boswell,” as her first important influence in terms of singing.

The story encompasses more permutations before we get to the other solid fact that Chick Webb, a prominent African American big band leader, gave her the opportunity to sing professionally as a band singer. He supposedly adopted her because she was under 18 and needed the permission of a parent or legal guardian to work. Unfortunately, Webb was a sickly young man and died at the tender age of 29. Fitzgerald took over the band for two or three years before the unit folded due to all the musicians who were being drafted into the service for WWII.

Fitzgerald sang solo for a few years trying to duplicate the success she’d attained in 1938 with her jazz novelty recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” These were the days of recordings like “My Wubba Dolly,” “Sing Song Swing,” and “Hello Ma! I Done It Again.” She did find some success with a series of recordings she did with the Ink Spots in 1944 and 1945 but the Big Band Era was winding to a close. In the late 1940s she began to find her jazz voice through her friendship and jam sessions with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, one of the pioneers of the Be Bop style of jazz. This is when Fitzgerald really begins to experiment and develop her abilities with scat singing. It may have been Gillespie who encouraged her to use her voice as a jazz instrument but it was Louis “Pops” Armstrong who had initially made scat singing a viable means of vocal interpretation back in the 1920s and 1930s. Fitzgerald would often credit Armstrong for his influence as well.

By the early 1950s there was only one piece of the puzzle still missing in Fitzgerald’s career. That final piece came along in the person of Norman Granz. A jazz fan and impresario, Granz initiated the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings. Initially reluctant to use Fitzgerald in the concerts (he felt they should be limited to instrumental jazz) he was cajoled into letting her sit in and the rest, as they say, is history. When Fitzgerald’s record contract with Decca expired, she signed with Granz’s Verve label. Granz also became her personal manager. He guided her career for the remaining 40 years of her life.

Many people questioned Granz’s control over Fitzgerald as he made access to Miss Fitzgerald extremely difficult. The more you learn about Ella Fitzgerald it’s not difficult to think that perhaps she encouraged that isolation. She was an intensely private person. The more you delve into her life, the more you realize that, quite literally, music was her life.

Pianist Jimmy Rowles, who accompanied Fitzgerald for many years, once said “When she walks down the street, she trails notes behind her . . .”

One of her greatest fans, and disciples, was Mel Torme, a tremendous jazz singer in his own right. In his 1994 book, My Singing Teachers, Torme wrote of Fitzgerald, “She has the purest tone in music. In either a ballad or an up-tune mode, her voice is crystal clear. Add to that her great sense of timing, her undisputed feeling for swing, her effervescent demeanor on the concert stage, bubbling with rhythm, and it is easy to understand why Ella, above all other lady singers, stands alone, at the head of the pack.”

Norman Granz, her alter-ego, described her talent in a 1996 interview with Jazziz magazine saying, “Ella respects melody. So that instead of showing off, which she can do harmonically, which is the third part of all music, Ella stressed the melody, so you knew what she was doing. And she swung. Well, if you have those elements, that takes in an awful lot of people. You don’t have to stretch out and show how harmonically hip you are and reinterpret a song so that, for many people, they don’t even know what you’re doing. Now that’s not to say that she’s deliberately trying to be more commercial, it’s just something that she does innately.”

That quote illuminates a crucial issue of the Fitzgerald legacy. There were some who criticized Fitzgerald’s songbook recordings that she began in the mid-1950s and carried through the 1960s saying that she had indeed sold out her jazz talents to produce more commercial recordings. Some blamed Norman Granz and I’m sure some blamed Fitzgerald. That said, I embrace Granz’s quote in Jazziz because there are and were many singers who I feel sacrifice the integrity of the song to show off their vocal talents through a variety of vocal tricks. This is a sore subject for me because many of the jazz greats abandoned melody in the course of their careers to show how “hip” they were with excursions into avant-garde flights of fancy. In many cases, these experiments in alternative modes of jazz were no doubt complex and difficult to master. The problem was they were also supremely un-musical.

If you’re sing or playing popular music, the fans quite naturally want to hear their favorite songs in every show. In the early days of jazz and swing the musicians got bored having to play the same tunes over and over again in the same way, night after night. It’s understandable. That’s why after the clubs had closed for the night, the musicians would stick around and play for themselves. “The jam session” evolved as an exercise for musicians to stretch out and experiment with whatever new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies they wanted to explore. However, my belief is that a musician is both an artist and an entertainer. In your role as an entertainer, it is your duty to entertain. There are cases where the musicians or vocalists abandoned the more simple, or commercial if you will, to go in a whole other direction and that is their right as an artist. However, do not criticize someone who enjoys what they’re doing for not expanding their horizons in other directions. The reality is that the reason I have always loved Ella Fitzgerald so much is that, as Norman Granz intimated, she ALWAYS remained true to the melody. No matter what flights of fancy she took with her singing and scatting, there was always a melodic center to her performance.

Time magazine wrote in 1964, “But play as she will with the originals, she respects their integrity, if they have any. Her imitators shred songs; she explodes and reassembles them.” Her ability to respect the melody and reassemble is what set Ella Fitzgerald apart from all other jazz singers.

She was a band singer, a ballad singer, a jazz singer, a gospel singer, even on occasion, a country western singer. Her voice was an unparalleled instrument. Her love and devotion to all music is what inspires the love and devotion of her fans. Ella Fitzgerald and the musical legacy she left behind will remain relevant and revered for many hundreds of years to come.

***Don’t forget to tune into Jazz 90.1 FM Radio in Rochester, New York, all day this coming Friday, April 28, 2017, as we celebrate the legacy of the First Lady of Song with 24 hours of music from Ella and Friends. It starts at 12:00 am Friday morning and runs throughout the day on Friday until 12:00 am Saturday. You can listen online via the station’s web stream at 




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I was planning on putting up a post today in honor of Dave’s 70th birthday and then lo and behold, I read on the internet this morning that Dave’s mom, Dorothy, has passed away at the age of 95.

My first thought after sadness for her passing and sympathy for Dave and his family is the incredible intimacy of the television medium. I have never met David Letterman in my life and I certainly never met his mom. And yet, when I read of Dorothy’s passing, it really felt as though a friend of mine’s mother had passed. A kind, soft-spoken lady that we all loved. But our “relationship” with her was purely through the TV!!

People have long complained about the vast wasteland that is “television.” However, when television is good, it’s really good and when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Letterman’s legacy on television is secure. David Letterman was, in his own way, the voice of my generation on late night television. At his best, he was wry, funny, sarcastic, anti-establishment, and goofy. At his worst, he was bored, indifferent, and cranky. I loved all of it because whether you liked him or not, Letterman was the most sincere. What you saw was what you got. He may not have always seemed happy to be there in the waning years of his late night run but he was always authentic. That’s why when tragedy struck and you needed a serious take from a treasured TV personality, Letterman was the guy to go to because he would be honest with you. He was, particularly in times of trouble, incapable or unwilling to be phony.

In the years since he left his late night perch, Dave seems to have turned into Grizzly Adams and that’s okay too. Once again, he reflects the unwillingness of my generation to maintain social mores that no longer apply to us. I shave about once a week now for exactly the same reason Dave has stated for giving it up. It’s a pain in the ass!

A friend recently sent me a link to an article about David Letterman’s unofficial archivist. I say Bravo to Mr. Giller and thanks for preserving lots of happy and funny memories. That article can be found here.

As for you Dave, we send you our sympathies about your mom’s passing and our sincere wishes that you have as grand and as long a run as she had!!

It all began for Letterman, as it did for so many comedians, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. By the way, you will hear Carson’s laugh more than once in this clip which no doubt explains the invitation to Letterman to come sit down with his host on his very first appearance! That did not happen often for young comedians making their debut with Mr. Carson.

Speaking of “my generation,” I can remember watching David Letterman’s original morning show in the summer of 1980 and then calling up a buddy of mine to review the show with him. Neither of us made a move that summer until we’d watched Dave every morning.

Needless to say, David Letterman WAS saved from extinction and showed up in the much more appropriate late night slot about 18 months later on NBC.

Here is Letterman’s first “Late Night” from February 1, 1982. Bill Murray was also Letterman’s first guest on his “Late Show” when he moved to CBS in 1993.

I remember so well watching and taping this first CBS show. The first thing that I felt bad about was Dave’s new three-piece suits. Gone were the days of a sport coat and sneakers. 11:30 was really the big-time in 1993!

And then, as if in the blink of an eye, it was over.

Love you and miss you Dave. Happy Birthday and come back anytime. 🙂









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I am part of the TV Generation, the group of kids who literally grew up on television. Radio as a narrative medium was over by the time I came around and video games were still in the future. TV was the center of our cultural universe. That said, most of my contemporaries were obsessed with Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and Saturday Night Live while I, on the other hand, made my schedule around shows like The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd CoupleBarney Miller, The Dean Martin Roasts, The Rockford Files, and The Carol Burnett Show. But the holy grail of shows for me as a kid was The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Needless to say, I was not your average child.

With that fact in mind, let me say that off the top of my head, I can’t think of any TV event that got my adrenaline flowing more than a Friday night Don Rickles’ appearance on The Tonight Show. If Mr. Warmth was going to be on with Johnny on a Friday night that meant I could stay up and watch because I didn’t have school the next day. I’m sure some young people will be stunned to hear we didn’t have DVR technology. There was no YouTube to surf the next morning to look for highlights. You had to catch everything live and, as nauseating as it sounds now, actually sit through all the commercials. However, if Rickles was going to be on The Tonight Show I did record the audio. I would take my little tape recorder and set it in front of the television set to pick up the sound. I’d hit pause during the commercials and then begin to record again when the show returned from commercials. In this way, I learned Rickles’ routines and oft-used insults and zingers pretty quick. Which means, the longer he was around, I’d heard every line and insult Rickles ever used. It didn’t matter. I always laughed.

Anyway, uhh . . .

The fact that he never seemed to fail to make me laugh is all the more interesting since, in truth, WHAT he said was rarely funny. His entire act was about attitude. It wasn’t WHAT he said but HOW he said it. Many casual observers thought Rickles had to be either courageous or nuts to insult people the way he did in his act. Insulting a 6′ 6″ African American athlete wasn’t the test of his courage. The courage of Rickles came from his lack of an act. Most of the comedians of his generation had either tried and true routines and stories  that they used interchangeably over time or else huge joke files filled with thousands and thousands of jokes and one-liners. Rickles, on the other hand, went out on stage like a tight-rope walker with no net below him. He put an awful lot of faith in his speed, timing, and ability to ad-lib. As I said earlier, there were many lines and insults he used over and over again but when something snapped in that brain like a bolt of lightning, the fireworks from a brand new ad-lib were worth all the time-worn jabs.

Second only to the excitement and anticipation of his Tonight Show appearances was his ubiquitous presence on The Dean Martin Roasts. I can remember one Friday night in the early 1970s when I was playing baseball with my friends in a lot at the end of our street. It must have been early summer because it was late in the evening and still light enough for us to see the ball. All of a sudden, I remembered there was a “roast” on TV that night. When I asked someone what time it was, I told them I had to go and bolted from the field amid their threats and howls of disbelief at my sudden departure in the middle of a game. What could I do? Dean and the gang would be on in a few minutes and I could NOT miss it.

A friend wrote to me this evening, “We will not see his likes again.” Indeed, in our age of Political Correctness Don Rickles was an anachronism. All of his humor is today considered insensitive and in bad taste. This is all the more humorous when you realize that he was one of the most beloved entertainers of his generation and was known by all who knew him as a pussycat.

For me, it’s just another piece of the puzzle that was my childhood that is now gone. He had a hell of a run and brought laughter to a lot of people. Ironically, the real Don Rickles preached brotherhood among all and, in his own small, odd way, advanced the cause of brotherhood by getting us all to laugh at ourselves. Goodbye old friend – you will be missed.


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I wrote yesterday of my first Sinatra concert in April of 1980. In truth, It was the only actual “Sinatra Concert” I ever attended although I did see him perform live one more time about four years later in the summer of 1984. Back in those days, Sammy Davis Jr. used to host a Pro-Am Golf Tournament in Hartford, Connecticut. On the Saturday night before the final Sunday round, there was a benefit concert to support whatever charity the tournament supported. I don’t remember now what it was. Anyway, that summer of 1984, Frank Sinatra opened Sammy’s benefit show with five songs. Interestingly, the only song I can remember him singing now is “This Is All I Ask” which had originally been released almost thirty years  before on one of my all-time favorite Sinatra albums, 1965’s September of My Years. Following Frank was a tremendously funny comedian and impressionist named George Kirby who I knew from an obscure little show in the 1970s entitled The Kopykats. Finally, the main attraction of the evening, Sammy Davis Jr., came out and bowled us over, as expected.

Needless to say, that night in 1984 in Connecticut I was NOT ten feet away from the stage like I had been in April of 1980 and I did not know anyone in the show. By 1984, Vinnie Falcone had moved on. He’d parted company with Sinatra in 1982 although he did come back for a spell during the 1985-1986 concert season. The most significant change was I didn’t go back stage after the concert either although, to be technical about it, I didn’t in 1980 either. Here’s what happened:

When my Uncle Bob, mom, and I exited the theater that night in 1980 I was euphoric. I was so excited I thought I was going to burst! We waited for a few moments in the lobby outside and were quickly joined by Vincent Falcone in his tux. He, too, was pumped up. According to Vince, the show we had just seen was one of the very best “The Old Man” had done in recent memory. Falcone almost always referred to Frank Sinatra as Mr. S., The Old Man, or Boss – never as “Frank.” I seem to remember that Vince actually had to sit down while he discussed the show with us. He was sweating and a little out of breath. We stood around him happy to share in his enthusiasm and wanting to thank him for the great show we had just seen. However, as wonderful as the afterglow of the concert was, the more Falcone talked to us out in back of the theater, the more I began thinking, “Oh no, is this it?”

Now, I should say that while I was thinking “Is this it” I was simultaneously chastising myself for such an ungrateful thought. However, you must remember, Vinnie Falcone wasn’t just some local musician playing with the big headliner. He was Sinatra’s Musical Director, pianist, and conductor! I had already heard more stories over the past four years of my uncle having hung out with Vinnie and the Sinatra entourage. I wasn’t really expecting to hit the crap tables with them but I was hoping to just get introduced and shake his hand!

But no, instead we just kept talking and talking for what seemed like two weeks to me. The longer this went on, the more I realized we weren’t going to meet Sinatra. And why should we? We were literally just the sister and nephew of a friend of the conductor . . . from Rochester, New York, no less! By this time, I was more or less lost in my internal labyrinth of thoughts when all of a sudden I heard, like a foghorn cutting through the fog, “Let me get changed and we’ll go downstairs and see the old man.” Wait! What? Did he just say we were going to see . . .? Vinnie got up and was gone and I’m sorry to say that I now have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of what happened in the time that we were waiting for Vinnie to get changed. We must have talked about what was going to happen but it’s just a total blank. All I remember are the butterflies that were bouncing around in my stomach.

The next thing I remember is walking down the corridors of Resorts International Casino, the gaudy, fabulous corridors. I do remember passing a high-end chocolate shop where earlier in the day we had bought some delicious dark chocolate non-pareils. Next thing I knew, we were entering one of the many lounges in the hotel. There was live music emanating from inside the room but the band stand was in the furthest back end of the room. On the right was a long bar stretching halfway down the entire length of the room. A Maitre D’ came over to us and immediately we were headed for the left side of the room directly across from the bar where there were tables and then a raised platform with more tables. The raised platform area with the tables was actually roped off with those large velvet ropes you used to see in theaters. Do they still have those? Anyway, the rope was pulled back and with Vinnie leading the way, we ascended the two steps onto the next level, literally and metaphorically. All of a sudden, before I knew what happened, there was Frank Sinatra in front of me. Vince was introducing all of us and Frank barked to someone, “Get some chairs and put them around the table.” Someone grabbed three chairs and we squeezed in to the group that was Sinatra’s audience around this low coffee table in the lounge.

Once again, it’s hard to remember the seating assignments perfectly after all these years but I know there was someone to Frank’s right at the table but I don’t remember who that was. Continuing counter-clockwise around the table was Paul “Skinny” D’Amato, best known for running The 500 Club in Atlantic City for many years. It was at The 500 Club that the team of Martin & Lewis was actually born in July of 1946. D’Amato was a long time Sinatra pal. Frank felt a special loyalty to D’Amato because, according to Sinatra, he was one of the few guys who continued to hire him during the dark days of his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s. To D’Amato’s right was Yours Truly. I know, right!?!? To my right was Uncle Bob, then my mom, then either Vinnie or the former Police Commissioner of NYC and then a young woman and Bobby Marx, Barbara Marx’s son. There may have been one or two other people on the outside fringe of the circle but I can’t remember it all clearly.

There are only a few things I took pains to remember all these years, one being the fact that I was sitting next to “Skinny” D’Amato. The other was Sinatra’s attire. He was wearing a black, faux silk warmup jacket with a colorful NBC peacock over the left breast. I think he had just finished shooting some special at NBC and that’s where he got the jacket. He regaled us with a few stories of his days with Dean and Sammy. It was thrilling to me because I was essentially in a bar at 2:00 am as part of Frank’s inner circle, if only for that one night. At the time, the stories were thrilling to me although I imagine many in his internal group had heard the stories numerous times before. The one I remember best had to do with the 1961 marriage of Sammy Davis to May Britt, a fair-haired, caucasian actress. Sinatra, as Sammy’s best man, was making various arrangements for the affair. He and Dean went looking for a gift for the happy couple. They went shopping for a sofa for the couple’s new home. They agreed on a style they liked and when the salesman asked what color or design they wanted for the actual fabric that would cover the sofa Sinatra said, “Oh, Mr. Martin can choose that.” Sinatra said on the day of the wedding, the sofa was wrapped and delivered to the Davis home where the wedding took place. It came time for the gifts to be opened and when they unwrapped the sofa, the sofa was covered in a black and white zebra stripe design. Frank said, “I turned to Drunky [Dean] and said, ‘What the hell is that?’ Dean said, ‘What? I thought they’d blend right in!'”

My next memory has to do with the Trilogy album that my Uncle Bob had purchased for me at the concert. At some point, someone asked or suggested that Mr. Sinatra sign the album for me. Sinatra said, “What should I write? Vince mentioned that the young man (me) listened only to our music – the standards, the big bands, the great composers. They were all amazed and impressed that I didn’t like any of the current rock music and that my musical interests were focused solely on Sinatra and his contemporaries. Someone found a sharpie and handed it to Sinatra who proceeded to write something on my album. Before I saw what he wrote, a few others in the entourage got a glimpse of the inscription and laughed and complimented Sinatra on his clever note. When I got the album back I read, “For Billy – “Rock Stinks” 1980 Frank Sinatra”

Trilogy, by the way, was the album that contained this song that forever after became a Sinatra staple in all of his concert performances. Here’s one just two months after we had seen Sinatra in A.C. Falcone is conducting and that’s the great Tony Mottola on guitar.

At some point, it was time to leave. I seem to think Frank had told one of his guys that he needed to go to the men’s room and with that Uncle Bob or Vince decided it was probably time for us to go as well. By this time it was past 4:00 am. We all got up to say our goodbyes and Frank got up and reached across the table to shake my hand. Then he squeezed my cheek between his thumb and index finger before giving me a little tap and telling me that I needed to get to bed.

But that wasn’t the end. No, what came next is actually the moment that lived on in memory and lore in our family for years and years and it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Remember I told you that we were seating around a low, circular coffee table? Well, I was only two people away from Frank at the table so it was easier for him to reach around one side to shake my hand and give my face the little love tap. However, in my mother’s case, she was directly across the table from Sinatra so there was the expanse of the table’s diameter which was probably 3-4 feet wide. Now you need to know that my mother always had a thing about how she carried herself. She was very much a lady. The older she got, whenever we’d drive her somewhere when it came time for her to exit the passenger seat of the vehicle she would invariably say, “How to get out of a car gracefully?” She was always very aware and concerned about being clumsy. She wasn’t really clumsy at all but for whatever reason, she was wary of it. Now Sinatra reaches out to my mother to say goodbye. He grasps her hand and leans slightly over the table and puckers up for a kiss. My mother grabs his hand and looking back at him puckers her lips and makes an air kiss. And that was it!! Essentially, Frank Sinatra had given her the go ahead to come on in for a landing to one of the most famous pair of lips in American history and my mother rebuffed him!

For years afterward, my mother would say, “I can’t believe I had the chance to kiss Frank Sinatra and I blew it!” The reason she didn’t take the smooch from Ol’ Blue Eyes was because she was afraid to lean over the table, lose her balance and cause a scene. It all worked out because it made for a wonderful story to tell. My mother – the only woman in America to refuse a kiss to the heartthrob of the bobbysoxers. By the way, my mother had actually been one of those screaming kids that saw Sinatra at the Paramount in the 1940s!

Oh and there was one more ridiculous addendum to this story. During the concert I had taken some pictures with the camera that  I had with me. However, not knowing or thinking yet about the possibility of meeting Sinatra, I burned through the roll. Remember, these were the days before digital so you only had 12, 24, or 36 pictures to a roll. Now we’re in the lounge and someone remembers to ask for the autograph but NO ONE THINKS TO ASK FOR A PHOTO!!! So 37 years later, I have the misty memories of a magical night but no photographic evidence. And we thought my mother’s blunder was our biggest goof!

Next up, my reunions with Vincent Falcone in the years following my Sinatra Summit.


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