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!'”