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Playboy and Jazz

1959

 

Playboy and music – most frequently jazz – have been “going steady” together almost since the magazine and the company were founded in 1953.

Playboy’s involvement with music goes well beyond the famous clubs. In 1959, Hugh Hefner and his colleague Victor Lownes produced what critic Leonard Feather deemed the greatest weekend of jazz in the history of the music, the first ever Playboy Jazz Festival, a massive three-night event involved virtually every major player then involved in the music, from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck, as well as not less than the three greatest big bands of the era, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton. Twenty years later, as the clubs were entering their final phase, Hefner returned to the jazz festival idea, this time partnering with George Wein, the man who perfected the concept to begin with. Since 1979, the Playboy Jazz Festival has been an annual event at the Hollywood Bowl that never fails to pack the 18,000-seat venue to its utmost capacity, and involves every headliner of the jazz world, touching on much other music as well.

jazzfest1959

 

One of the greatest benefits that Hugh Hefner gave the world of music was his rather astonishing TV series of 1959-1961, Playboy’s Penthouse. Easily one of the most important presentations of music – any kind of music – on television, this show featured the greats of many genres, from pop stars to jazz and cabaret singers to major pianists and other instrumentalists. It presented them straightforwardly, playing as they did in clubs, in a relaxed and intimate party setting. The shows, which still survive (several have been issued commercially on DVD) feature priceless footage of such musical icons as Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Earl Hines, the young Tony Bennett, and the greatest jazz vocal group ever, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. Ironically, it was Hugh Hefner’s own forward thinking that put the kibosh on the program: he insisted on treating African-American stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr as equals, having them interact with white party guests as well as the host himself. This was more than Southern TV stations were willing to put on the air, and as a result, Playboy’s Penthouse did not get the full national support that it needed to stay on the air. The show returned under a slightly different title, Playboy After Dark, from 1968 to 1970, this time with the addition of full color as well as superstar rock & roll bands.

This is only the beginning of the story of Playboy’s involvement with jazz and other kinds of music, which goes back well before the creation of the magazine – “Hep Hef” as he called himself as a teenager, was always a rabid jazz buff. He covered jazz in Playboy magazine from the beginning, and for 16 years, Playboy ran the most high-profile jazz poll in the world. In addition, the Playboy Interview series, which began in 1962, has included no shortage of prominent musical figures over the years, starting with Miles Davis and also famously including Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, The Beatles, as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney individually.

So stay tuned…

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Still more Tony Bennett…

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Tony continued working the Playboy circuit; in 1967, he was the headliner in what the club advertised as their “Festival of Stars,” a unique event that united clubs across the country. Then, in 1968 and 1969, he made two appearances on Playboy After Dark: in the first season, he sang on a show (#4) taped on August 9, 1968, and in the second season he takes center stage on episode #5, taped November 20, 1969. It’s that 1969 episode (actually aired in 1970) that’s the most remarkable one yet: nearly the whole show is built around Tony. Where some of the After Dark shows have an unusual, almost random juxtaposition of guests (the 1968 show with Tony also co-stars author-commentator George Plimpton and the rock band Steppenwolf), the 1969 show is entirely focused on Tony.

On a vintage 1969 turntable, we hear Tony’s first hit, the “Because of You,” and Tony’s 1951 voice is soon joined by Tony’s 1969 voice as he enters, walking down the stairs with a stunningly beautiful brunette model about a foot taller than anyone else in the room. In his prime spot, he starts with an electrifying version of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which pivots around a drum solo by Tony’s old friend Louis Bellson.  (John Bunch, Tony’s accompanist for most of the late 1960s and ’70s, is on piano.) After a series of telegrams from friends (Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Don Rickles) congratulating Tony on 21 years in show business (I’m not sure why they picked 1948 as his first year).  Then Tony is joined by a guest who really is a surprise for his fans: Mitch Miller, the classical oboe virtuoso turned pop record producer who signed Tony to Columbia Records in 1950.  Together, they run through a lovely readings of Tony’s 1951 hit, “Blue Velvet” with prominent oboe obligato.

Tony then entertains questions from the party-going crowd (he cites Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee as his favorite singers), including Hefner and his girlfriend Barbi Benton, which leads to a song that he introduces as a favorite, a warming and winning rendition of Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” as the girls in the room start looking moisty-eyed at their escorts, and even more so at Tony. Tony and Hef then introduce entertainer George Kirby, who does his specialty “Walking Happy” and a set of impressions, including one of Tony, and next, Canadian saxophonist Moe Koffman plays a funky soul-jazz number on two tenor saxophones at once. For the next segment, Tony and guest Joe Williams (who, coincidentally, also appeared on the February 1960 show) sing a very loose duet on “I Gotta Be Me” (introduced by Steve Lawrence but a hit – and a mantra – for Sammy Davis, Jr.), leading into Joe singing “The Song is You” as a dedication to Tony.  They do another semi-impromptu duet, this time on “What the World Needs Now” arranged as a rather aggressive and swinging – not to mention thrilling – jazz waltz.   Then the company runs through some other Tony hits, including “Rags to Riches” (Tony), “I Won’t Cry Anymore” (Joe), “The Shadow of Your Smile” (George), ending with Tony’s own mash-up of his two all-time biggest hits, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” by Tony with Moe Koffman on flute.  The show ends as it began, with “Because of You” sung by everyone, including Mitch Miller and Hef.  Of all the episodes of the 1968-1970 series Playboy After Dark, the 1969 Tony Bennett episode, which ends with Hef toasting Tony as an artist “who leaves his heart in every song he sings,” is by far the most exciting.

There’s a happy postscript involving Tony and Ralph: in 1980, Tony was again in the market for a piano player and Ralph again was, fortunately, available: they began working together again, for a relationship that last another 20 years and encompassed Tony’s so-called “comeback” and his MTV triumph in 1994-1995. If you ask us, he’s never been away.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

More Tony Bennett…

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

In the early 1960s, Tony Bennett and Ralph Sharon enjoyed working the Playboy clubs so much that Ralph made a decision that seems rather surprising from the perspective of 50 years later. The London-born pianist was living in New York with his wife at the time, and she was tired of her husband being continually on the road; and began putting pressure on Ralph to part company with Tony.  It came to head around 1965: Tony was hired for what would be his only acting role in a major motion picture, playing the secondary lead of “Hymie Kelly” in the Hollywood behind-the-scenes drama The Oscar (released in 1966) with Stephen Boyd and Jill St. John. While filming in the daytime, Tony accepted a long-running evening gig at the Playboy in Los Angeles.

And to their mutual surprise, they made Ralph an offer as well.”The Playboy people came to me and said, ‘we’re opening a place in San Francisco and you can be the musical director. It will be four trios on different floors and you’ll be in charge of the whole thing.’ It wasn’t a great money thing but I did it and while I was there I got a local TV show that was on 5 days a week with the trio that I had so I was doing that.” Ralph became the first musical director for the San Francisco Playboy Club when it opened in November 1965. Ralph added, “Actually I really would never have left Tony if she hadn’t insisted.” If Mrs. Sharon was happy, Mr. Bennett was very disappointed. As the recordings that the singer and the pianist made around this time show, the two had built up a remarkable rapport over the seven years or so that they were together. However, Tony was always a gentleman. At one point, when singer Herb Jeffries – another friend and inspiration of Tony’s – was headlining at the Playboy Club with Ralph, Tony made a point to drop in and sing three songs. A Variety reviewer was present and he noted that Tony, “was just doing a favor for Ralph, but he’s giving it the same effort as if he were getting his usual fee.”

But unfortunately, Ralph was disappointed with the San Francisco experience: the situation was worsening with his wife and ultimately, they would divorce. And as much as he liked the Playboy organization, nothing could compare with the thrill of playing for Tony Bennett night after night.  Ralph soon realized that the headliners, like Tony and Peggy Lee, for instance, all had their own musical directors, and he was left playing for the “emerging talent.”  Said Ralph, “They were people on their way up, let us say, but after being with Tony – well, I couldn’t believe it.” He ultimately left the clubs – and Mrs. Sharon – to go back on the road, this time with superstar singer Robert Goulet.  Again, that was less of a thrill musically than playing for Tony – like a true Broadway leading man, Goulet tended to do every number the same every night, in contrast to Tony, who liked to change things up just to keep everything interesting. Ralph wanted to rejoin Tony, but it was awkward, “I couldn‘t just call Tony and say, ‘Hey, you know something, I’d like to come back to you!'”

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

LAMBERT, HENDRICKS AND ROSS

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

Formed in 1957, the vocal trio of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross brought something entirely new to jazz: a heightened hipness and swing based on taking big band instrumentals and adding words to them.  Until Ms. Ross left the ensemble, roughly five years, in 1962, they were as the title of their first Columbia album proclaimed The Hottest New Group in Jazz.

 

Dave Lambert died in 1966 at age 49 –the result of a highway accident in which he was trying to help someone—but his two partners, Jon and Annie are very much still on the scene. At 84, Annie continues to sing on Tuesday nights at the Metropolitan Room in New York and just released a new album, To Lady with Love.  The Metropolitan Room recently held a tribute to her, in which singers and musicians took to the stage to sing her praises, and her longtime friend and fan Tony Bennett was in the house. Jon continues to write songs and to sing them, often in the company of his daughter Aria—in an updated version of the original group—Jon Hendricks and Co.; he just celebrated his 93rd birthday with his debut at the Cafe Carlyle.

 

LHR, as their fans call them, were major favorites of Hugh Hefner. They appeared no less than three times on Playboy’s Penthouse:

 

October 31, 1959 – with Larry Kert and the cast of Broadway’s West Side Story.

 

February 13, 1960 – with Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, Count Basie and the Basie rhythm section, as well as comedienne Phyllis Diller.

 

April 16, 1960 – a real all-star show, which also co-starred Tony Bennett as well as The Jonah Jones Quartet,  The Four Freshmen, Bob Newhart, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, folk singer Pete Seeger, and the team of Dick Haymes and Fran Jeffries.

 

We’ve been able to find five numbers by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross on Playboy’s Penthouse, and, based on Annie’s dress, they all appear to be from the February 13, 1960 show, just a short while before the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago.

 

Here are all five (compiled from three different sources) in a YouTube playlist:

 

 

 

  1. “The Spirit Feel”—As you can see, the clip opens with a great shot of Annie, Hef, and Tony enjoying a drink before Hef introduces the trio.  This is a 1957 composition by vibes master Milt Jackson that was quickly taken up by Ray Charles—who called it “Hot Rod”— and then Count Basie.  In fact, the Genius and the Count both played it at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 and 1959 respectively. It’s one of the harder-to-find LHR items; they recorded it on a 1958 United Artists single that, as far as we know, has still never been reissued.  Although most of the LHR numbers have lyrics by Jon, this is mostly a scat number, in which Dave and Jon go at it, while Jon does one of his well-known signatures—miming a saxophone as he scats.

 

  1. “Twisted”—Annie doesn’t get much to do in the first number, but she makes up for it here, taking over with a solo number.  This is her 1952 vocalese classic “Twisted,” based on a composition and solo by tenor great Wardell Gray.  This version is unique in that it features a piano solo by the one-and-only Count Basie, and that’s no small thing.  Looking at Annie here, the men can’t help but wish that she had been in Playboy – and we do mean the magazine, as well as the TV show and the clubs.  In fact, during the recent tribute evening at the Metro, singer Marion Cowings said, “If you wanted to hit on a girl, it was a surefire move to tell her that she looked like Annie Ross.”

 

  1. “The King” –Jon takes center stage, but only to introduce everyone, including Basie’s All-American rhythm section with guitarist Freddie Greene, bassist Eddie Jones, and drummer Sonny Payne, as well as Lambert, Ross and vocalist Joe Williams.  They sing Jon’s royal homage to Basie, “The King,” which has a complicated lineage: this is Jon’s vocal version of a 1946 instrumental by Basie, which is itself a variation on an earlier, more-famous “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” LHR performed “The King” with the Basie Orchestra on their 1958 album Sing Along with Basie, while “Woodside” was on their 1957 album Sing a Song of Basie. I told you it was complicated!  The trio becomes a quartet here, with Big Joe towering over the other three, and all four singers scat their fool heads off.

 

  1. “Doodlin”—This is an LHR classic, but also something of a rarity, having come out on the flip side of “Spirit Feel.”  It’s also the first of many times that Jon wrote lyrics to a Horace Silver composition.  It’s one of his most ambitious dramatic narratives as well—working as a companion to “Twisted” in that it’s a highly humorous characterization of what is clearly a neurosis.  When Dave starts his solo – singing in the voice of a Brooklyn-ese waiter (“Do youse doodle all day?”)—he pretty much steals the show, but not for long when Annie takes her solo, she quickly steals it away from him.  Both Sarah Vaughan and Mark Murphy recorded this lyric, among others.

 

  1. “Everyday”—It was called “Everyday” on the Sing A Song of Basie album jacket, but most Basie fans would know it as “Everyday I Have the Blues.”  The song had a long pre-Basie lineage, but it was Big Joe who brought it into the band when he joined in 1955. It’s the only song that LHR sang on both of their first two albums, Sing a Song of Basie and Sing Along with Basie.  They do it here like they did on the Sing Along album, in which the trio sings not so much with Big Joe but around him – it’s especially impressive to see how Jon in particular, answers Joe with incisive commentary that was played on saxophone in the 1955 Basie record. And watch Annie rather beguilingly chirp out the “bleats” that were originally played by the whole trumpet section in the final section.  It’s a moving finale to what amounts to a fantastic 23 minute segment.

 

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

 

LHR used it as the leadoff track on:

 

1.26 [26] Playboy’s Penthouse: Air-dates:

16Apr1960 WBKB-7, Chicago, Sat. 11:30pm-12:30am (Chicago Tribune)

21May1960 WOR-9, NYC, Sat. 11:30pm-12:30am (New York Times)

 

Guests:

Clancy Hayes (guitarist)

Lenny Bruce (comedian)

The Jonah Jones Quartet (jazz musicians)

The Four Freshmen (vocal band, quartet)

Bob Newhart (comedian)

Larry Adler (harmonica virtuoso)

Ann Henry (singer-dancer)

Dick Haymes and Fran Jeffries (husband-and-wife entertainers)

Pete Seeger (folk-singer)

Tony Bennett (singer)

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (vocal jazz trio)

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman

We’re excited to obtain a copy of the DVD Shelley Berman on Location, filmed live at the Los Angeles Playboy Club in 1977.  This is from a rather unique period in cultural history: the Playboy Clubs were at their zenith, but there was a new player entering the entertainment game which would eventually be called premium cable TV.  This was so early in that particular game that Shelley doesn’t even say “HBO;” he refers to the company as “Home Box Office” and keeps talking about it as if it were a new term, something which neither he nor most of his audience has ever heard of.

The irony of HBO shooting a comedy special at the Playboy Club is overtly apparent 35 years later. During the Playboy Clubs great years, this was pretty much your only chance to could see a major comic like Shelley Berman in his full-length glory.  And that’s especially true for Shelley, even though he was all over television in the 1960s.  He was on every program, from The Hollywood Palace to The Jack Paar Show—in fact, he was a constant presence on television.  He was on so often that, by an apparent coincidence, he guest starred alongside Ethel Merman on The Perry Como Show in 1960 and then again on The Judy Garland Show four years later. One wonders if the two stars ever considered co-hosting their own program, which would have been called, of course, The Merman-Berman Hour.

But he only did brief, but hysterically funny bits on TV variety shows.  If you wanted to see him stretching out at length, and doing all of those classic bits that made him a star, you had to wait until he came to a Playboy Club near you to catch him live.  That’s why HBO made such a difference: they gave you everything you could get in a club.  In fact, it was cable TV that created a boom in comedy in the 1980s.  This became the number one factor in the downfall of nightclubs because they were no longer necessary: since the comedy clubs were merely feeding the cable TV stand-up comedy shows, people eventually realized that they didn’t have to leave their homes anymore to see the great headliners like Shelley Berman.  In a sense, when HBO filmed Shelley at the Playboy Club, it was the slow beginning of the end.

Shelley Berman on Location is a performance blissfully ignorant of that realization—classic Shelley at his peak.  You’ll note that he begins with one of his trademark “telephone” routines.  This was a long-time staple of his act.  Just like Eddie Lawrence doing countless variations on his “old philosopher” routine (“Is that what’s bothering you, Bunky?”) or Johnny Carson’s many long-running routines, all Shelley had to do to incite gales of laughter was hold his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call.  There was something contagiously funny about hearing half of a phone conversation. The timing lent itself perfectly to one-man stand-up comedy, it was almost like an verbal Abbott & Costello vaudeville routine where you only hear Abbott while the presence of Costello is suggested but never made explicit. [In fact, that’s the classic image of Shelley Berman – hand to ear.]  Shelley will be 90 in a few months, but he remains as important – and as funny – as ever.

 

Here’s a clip of Shelley doing one of the all-time funniest of his many telephone routines, this one on The Judy Garland Show in 1964:

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Movie Night

Movie Night at the Mansion

Movie Night at the Mansion

It doesn’t get too much better than hanging out with Will Friedwald and Hugh Hefner for dinner and movie night at the Playboy Mansion. This night’s choice was His Kind of Woman, a 1951 cult, black-and-white film noir starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, with wonderful supporting roles by Raymond Burr and one of my all-time favorite actors, Vincent Price.
Hef is famous for gathering interesting groups of people together for evenings like this—similar to the soirees of old. This evening’s party was no exception, with the diverse and interesting group including: the lovely Terry Moore (actress and long-time companion of Howard Hughes), blues musician Joel Berliner, film historian Ron Borst, band leader Ray Anthony, actor and former pro footballer Fred Dryer, prominent film director Elliott Silverstein –most notably the director for Cat Ballou in 1965, friend and educator Mark Cantor, and actress Colleen Miller. I know I’ve probably overlooked someone, but hopefully they’ll forgive me. And of course Hef and his charming wife Crystal were the most wonderful hosts—even sending us home with peanut butter sandwiches cut into fourths for the road.
My brother isn’t impressed that I have a book. His opinion of me has risen because I get to go the Playboy Mansion!

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Los Angeles Playboy Club Opening

Playboy Club on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood California

Playboy Club on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood California

“The United States has a new bunny – it’s the Playboy Bunny!”  After spending the last two years or so talking to as many veterans of the Playboy organization as I could, it was a delight to see what one of the most famous original Playboy Clubs – and some of the key members of the behind-the-scenes team – looked like “in the flesh.”  This is a TV news story covering the opening of the Los Angeles club, which opened on December 31, 1964, with a combination launching event and New Year’s Eve party.  This is when Los Angeles was just another stop on the circuit tour – well before Los Angeles became home base for Hefner and the Playboy Corporation.

First the celebrities: the biggest star present, by far is Milton Berle, television’s “Uncle Miltie,” getting his bow tie straighten by a very happy sandy-haired bunny.  You’ll see Hugh O’Brien, better known as television’s “Wyatt Earp,” and Julie Newmar, years before she became the Cat Woman – and yet wearing a leopard print!  There’s also Don Murray – best known for playing Marilyn Monroe’s leading man in the 1956 film of Bus Stop—now there’s a Playboy connection.  And there’s Barbara Rush, this being right around the time she did her two famous roles opposite Frank Sinatra (Come Blow Your Horn and Robin and the Seven Hoods) and Shirley Jones, looking resplendent in white ermine. We had the honor to talk with regarding her own involvement with the Playboy organization during her recent run at New York’s Cafe Carlyle.

This silent news footage is amazing, in that it caught the actual workings of a Playboy franchise just as the idea was beginning to catch fire and the clubs were starting to proliferate; it’s great to see such little nuances as an eager bar bunny bopping up and down to the music (we wonder who was actually playing – the musicians aren’t shown) in her rabbit outfit and little white heels. None other than our friend Keith Hefner takes center-stage; in a sequence filmed (obviously) before the actual opening, we see Keith putting the girls through a “rigorous course” of training; we are shown the manual, and photos of the different kind of keys.  And we get a demonstration of the famous “bunny dip,” and the lesser known method of emptying an ashtray so that only the one proper cigarette remains.  The Bunnies show us how drinks are prepared, selecting the proper glass and garnish – whatever – it was all done by numbers.

We are also shown some of the different showrooms in the Los Angeles outpost, such as the Playroom and the “very plush” Penthouse.  We are told that the hard-working bunnies have to go up and down the stairs as often as a dozen times every hour, and though it’s hard on their feet, the sight of them doing so is easy on our eyes.  We see one bunny lighting a customer’s cigar in front of a wall of Leroy Neiman drawings of his famous “femlin.” (You’ll know her, she’s the beguiling creature shown in long boots, long gloves, and that’s all.) And that’s after a brief shot of Neiman himself; he isn’t identified, but it’s hard to mistake that famous mustache for anybody else.

Near the end of this ten minute featurette –presented in two parts on YouTube—the New Year’s Festivities reach a climax. Cost of admission per couple? A whopping $65!  We are shown the hands and instruments but not the faces, alas, of the drummer and bassist, and a rather amazing shot of three bunnies dancing right on top of the bar, in front of an appreciative crowd in tuxedos, gowns, and party hats.  What most viewers may not appreciate today is the degree to which the club is integrated: the only African-Americans we see are working for the club, not patrons, but at least one member of the band is black and at least one bunny is what they referred to at the time as a “chocolate bunny.” It’s difficult to appreciate today (and thank God it is!) how widespread segregation was throughout the nation as late as 1964 and for many years to come; especially in New Orleans, the casual integration of the Los Angeles club was unimaginable.

However, we don’t need to bear that in mind as we enjoy the simple, even innocent image of three beautiful girls in bunny suits and high heels dancing on top of a bar, and, like everyone else in the room, having the time of their lives.  “Our cameras have visited countless openings and parties,” says the unidentified commentator, “but this one looks like its New Year’s Eve every night.”

 

 

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene performing at the Sands Hotel Las Vegas

Shecky Greene performing at the Sands Hotel – Las Vegas

How many comedians are in the world who can be introduced by Groucho Marx and have their routine not be anti-climactic?  Shecky Greene is one of the few.  Where some comics are measured and deliberate, Shecky belongs to the same class as the late Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams; he makes you feel like he’s completely improvising everything, making it up as he goes along, and that he’s willing to go out on any limb imaginable for the sake of entertaining us and getting a laugh. In fact, he could have been a latter day Marx Brother; Fred Sheldon Greenfield could have just as easily changed his name to “Shecko Marx.” The first time I saw him live was an unscheduled guest appearance at Keely Smith’s first opening at the old Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York: he grabbed the mic and started riffing on the singer’s Native American heritage; “I remember whenever you used to sing,” he quipped, “it would rain like a son-of-a-bitch!”

Schecky’s primary association with Playboy came in the early 1970s, when he worked the new Great Gorge resort.  He talked about that experience with me. I won’t recap the whole story, but he told me how he was one of the first headliners that was hired when the Great Gorge resort initially opened. The resorts were never as popular as the original clubs had been, and this particular enterprise was predicated on the hope that gambling would soon become legal in this part of New York State.  (You might say that the Playboy Corporation was itself gambling on that very idea.) However, that never happened, and the whole Great Gorge project was only a qualified success at best.

For most of his career, Shecky worked in Las Vegas; that was his home base.  Many performers regarded doing live shows in casinos as a stepping stone to other kinds of work, movies, TV, Broadway.  But for Shecky, Vegas was an end to itself, a destination, rather than a stop on the tour. He liked the spontaneity of working in front of live audiences in an unstructured setting. And, perhaps even more importantly, he liked to be where the action was.  Where many showbiz legends had their excesses, Shecky didn’t chase girls and he didn’t abuse his body with dangerous substances—which partially accounts for why he’s currently in such good shape at age 88. His major vice was gambling, especially horse-racing. There was even a thoroughbred later named in his honor.

Shecky liked Vegas so much that it was difficult to get him to leave and accept other kinds of work: Shecky’s most famous acting job was as a semi-regular on the hit dramatic series Combat; his character, “Private Braddock”—no first name ever seems to have been given—he was easily the most memorable on the show, but Shecky disliked the whole Hollywood scene; whenever the cameras started rolling, all he could think about was getting back to his beloved horses.

As “himself,” rather than playing a character, Shecky appeared on a wide range of variety and talk shows over a 50 year period; he was particularly effective on the two major variety shows of the 1960s, The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Sullivan’s chief rival, The Hollywood Palace on ABC.  In fact, this monolog from 1965 plays up the competition between the two shows: one of Shecky’s opening bits is a dead-on impression of Ed Sullivan, which brings out the fact that even though hosting the show was Sullivan’s only performing talent—meaning that he didn’t sing, dance, act, or do comedy—Sullivan was a famously awkward, tongue-tied emcee, who very often mispronounced the names of the guests on his own show. To be completely fair, Sullivan had other skills behind-the-scenes, of course.

Shecky uses the trick of repetition very artfully, bringing back the Sullivan gag at several points for maximum comic impact, and weaving it through a funny story about a Chinese restaurant. These days, his Chinese impression would not be considered politically correct, but he portrays his Chinese subjects as being considerably more on the ball than, say, Ed Sullivan.  He drifts his way through a routine about Frankie Laine—probably the single funniest and most on-the-money impression of Frankie Laine’s stylized belting style that’s ever been done—and a longer bit about Al Jolson that builds his eight-minute monolog to an hysterical conclusion.  You might not think it’s possible, but if there’s such a thing as a living comic who’s truly worthy of sharing the stage show with the legendary Groucho, it’s Shecky Greene.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Tony Bennett & Playboy, Part Two:

tony bennett the playboy club

Tony Bennett

On February 13 1960, Tony Bennett was a guest on the first season of Hugh Hefner’s TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse; this was almost exactly in between the inaugural of President Kennedy and the opening of the first Playboy Club, in Chicago (less than two weeks later). This particular show is a remarkable document of the singer at an early pinnacle.  When Tony Bennett played the big concert houses, such as Carnegie Hall—where he debuted in 1962 (on the heels of “San Francisco”)—he had a full orchestra with strings behind him, and that was true of the major Vegas amphitheaters as well. But when he played at the Playboy, in the best tradition of the magazine, he cut everything down to the bare necessities.  The 1960 show documents Tony working the way he would at the clubs just a short time later, with his most prolific accompanist, the brilliant Ralph Sharon, and a trio with bassist Hal Gaylor and Tony’s longtime drummer and sidekick Billy Exiner. It starts with Tony and Hef making small talk – joining them is Phyllis Diller, who has just done a comedy routine (and who’s in almost every shot of Tony’s segment and whose trademark cackle is heard throughout).

Looking immaculate in his tux, Tony and Ralph swing out with a bright, bouncy, opener “Just in Time,” a 1956 song from Bells are Ringing that Tony had already helped make into a standard with his highly-successful Columbia single. Seated next to Ralph on the piano bench, he takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one. On a more serious note, he then sings what he announces as “an old Gershwin song,” namely  “Love Walked In.” It’s serious, but never dire, Tony delivers it looking vaguely upwards, as if in prayer, with a joyful expression, even as Sharon supplies block chords reminiscent of George Shearing.

At this point, Tony briefly introduces the Ralph Sharon Trio, and lunges into “You Can’t Love ‘Em All” (a new Sammy Cahn – Jimmy Van Heusen song from the Marilyn Monroe movie Let’s Make Love). He’s especially playful here, toying with the melody and ad-libbing like crazy in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to in a more formal setting.  He runs up a staircase on the line “there are mountains that you can move,” and dances his way down, exclaiming, “I feel like Fred Astaire.” In the second chorus, he does something that he may not have ever done elsewhere on film: just out of sheer capriciousness he hits some deliberate flat notes on the key word, “You can’t love ’em all, no you can’t love ’em all!”

Everyone’s spirits are unbelievably high, as the camera pans around and we see some of the other guests, among them Count Basie, Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross. Still, somehow it’s Diller who requests the next song from Tony, asking for her favorite song from The Sound of Music, which had just opened on Broadway less than three months earlier.  It’s a musical theater hymn that he sings without an overabundance of either piety or levity, a perfect balance of both; it’s reverent but not saccharine. I don’t think there’s ever been a more appealing version of this archetypical Rodgers and Hammerstein anthem.

Holding Diller’s hand – or at least her black opera glove – Tony then swings an exciting homage to what was already one of his favorite cities, the 1922 jazz classic “Chicago.”  He’s even looser and more jubilant here, almost bouncing around the room, throwing in a reference to someone named “Eddie Hubbard” rather than “Billy Sunday” as the guy who was unable to shut down the windy city. As he heads towards a climax – literally surround with Diller to his right, Basie to his left, and Hefner in back of him – he does a few running-in-place style time steps, as if he’s got so much energy that singing isn’t enough, he’s got to be dancing at the same time.

It’s an amazing and unique moment. It’s almost as if Hugh Hefner and Tony Bennett are single-handedly christening the new decade, the new administration, and the new era of entertainment that was about to come, all in a single stroke.

We are extremely fortunate that this show exists, and that it has been issued on home video.  Here is a link to Tony’s entire 10-minute segment, with all four songs: Tony Bennett complete segment Playboy’s Penthouse (February 13, 1960)

 

To be continued.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Tony Bennett & Playboy, Part One:

tony bennett performing at the playboy club

Tony Bennett performing at Playboy’s Lake Geneva resort, Wisconsin, late 60s. Courtesy of Playboy.

I talk about the basic nuts-and-bolts day-to-day operation of the Playboy clubs. These were small-ish venues laid in a well-managed circuit across the country (and, eventually, the world), each encompassing several rooms within.  By comparison, the more traditional nightclubs, like the Persian Room, the Latin Quarter, or the Copacabana were gigantic venues with gigantic cover charges.  The Playboy rooms were more in the spirit of the Village Vanguard or the Blue Angel, and priced within the range of the average Joe.  The key word that everyone uses to describe the Playboy club – that is to say, all the rooms in all the clubs – is “intimate.”  Hugh Hefner wanted to put the Playboy lifestyle within the reach of every man, and he knew he wouldn’t achieve that goal if he priced himself out of the game.  From the beginning, the clubs were a destination for men who had more taste than they did money.

Another phrase that everyone uses in reference to the Playboy circuit is “up and coming talent”; today, the buzz word would be “emerging artists.”  The mathematics of the situation – the size of the rooms and the reasonable cover charge – dictated that Playboy couldn’t outbid the Copa for superstar headliners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, or Judy Garland.  Playboy was a place, were new talent was discovered, nurtured, and eventually sent on its way to bigger and better-paying venues. As is well known, for instance, Playboy hired both Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand before anyone had heard of them.  It wasn’t until later, when the company opened its large-scale resorts, like Lake George, that Playboy had Vegas-style showrooms and paid Vegas-level fees to the talent, that they were able to attract iconic names like Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr…

The major exception was Tony Bennett: he was probably the single biggest name ever to work the Playboy clubs, and probably the only Playboy regular who came to the club circuit at the height of a career that already included a ten year-run of hit singles.  He was already a huge headliner by 1960, when the first club opened in Chicago, and his star rose even further when, at the zenith of the Playboy era in 1962, Tony landed the single biggest hit of his life – one of the biggest-selling records of the era, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”  This turned out to be the beginning of a new lucky streak of successful singles that continued with “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Watch What Happens” and “If I Ruled the World.” More than any other Playboy artist, Tony was continually on the charts throughout the 1960s.

Tony worked at the Playboy clubs not because, unlike most of the artists around him, he needed the break: he worked there because of his friendship with and admiration for Hugh Hefner. Tony understood the Playboy ethos because he had a part of it from the very beginning: he knew that Playboy’s mission statement wasn’t just about sex, or even just about music: the operative word was “fun.” It was a kind of fun that involved attractive people, good music, informed conversation, and a healthy dose humor. Playboy was creating a sophisticated, dressed-up party scene for adults; the kids had their rock-and-roll dance parties and sock-hops, the older folks had The Lawrence Welk Show, this was something for the 20 and 30 year olds.  That party was the basic content, and the packaging or delivery system was an ever-evolving sequence of different media: first the magazine, then a music festival, then television, and then a series of clubs that blanketed the globe.

Later on, Bob Dylan famously described the composers who were based in the Brill Building as having songwriting “down to a science.” The same thing can be said for Hef: he had party-making down to a science.

Tony and Hef were both born in 1926 and both served their country during the Second World War; they met in Chicago in 1956, at a point when Tony already had landed his first hits and Hefner’s magazine was barely two years old. Tony loves to tell the story of how he first broke though in Chicago thanks to another one of that city’s favorite sons, the legendary Nat King Cole.  In the early 1950s, Tony enjoyed a hugely successful run on the charts with hit singles like “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Blue Velvet,” “Rags to Riches,” etc, led to a string of successful engagements around his native New York.  “I was very big in New York City – everybody knew me. I played Ben Maksic’s Town and Country in Brooklyn; I used to fill the place up for two-week engagements four times a year.  But nobody knew me outside of the east coast. Not in Chicago, the Midwest or Los Angeles.”

Then, through an unusual series of events, Tony recalled, he was asked at the last minute to fill in for Nat Cole at the Chez Paree in Chicago. “President Eisenhower invited Nat to come to Washington and sing for him at the White House.” This was the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 24, 1956, which interrupted Cole’s run at the Chez Paree. “So Nat said, ‘Tell them to get Tony!’  That’s how he broke me into Chicago. Because I took Nat’s place that night, I went over real big at the Chez Paree, and then they booked me regularly after that.”

Tony took to Chicago like it was his second home town; he particularly liked hanging out at the Black Orchid in the Near Northside area, which was owned and operated by Paul David “Pauly” Raffles.  “That’s where I met Hef,” Tony said.  “Those were great days, those Chicago days.  The Black Orchid had great comics, like Larry Storch and Jack E. Leonard, and Pauly invented the piano bar in the lounge. He had girls in scanty clothes, and a little showroom in the Black Orchid.  It was the hippest place to go to.  You’d see a great show with a comic and a singer, and then they’d always have a great piano player, like an Ace Harris, then we’d all go over to Pauly’s apartment at like two AM, and stay there until seven in the morning, and just have big jam sessions.

“There also was another spot we liked, the Key Club, which was in the back of the Chez Paree, where Erroll Garner would come over there and play after all the public left, it was just the chorus girls, Lenny Bruce, Hef, and all of us guys. Hugh was in the middle of all this.” As Tony puts it, “He was a very introverted, quiet guy.  His genius was that he saw all this fun that everybody was having, and he figured out a way to incorporate it. That’s how those Playboy Clubs came about—which was ingenious!  He was a bright enough businessman.  He just said, ‘Take something where everybody’s having fun and make it a product.  Make it work.’  And it worked, boy!  It worked into millions and millions of dollars.”

To be continued,

First of a series

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents