Grammy-winning guitar legend and Festival favorite Buddy Guy returned to the Playboy Stage in 2011, for yet another rousing performance. A member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame known for his raucous Chicago style blues, Guy rocked the house with his electrifying guitar prowess, solidifying his status as a legend in his own time. But the highlight of the set came when Guy introduced his protégé, 12 year-old guitar phenomenon, Quinn Sullivan. Trading licks with Guy, young Sullivan wowed the crowd with his astounding playing winning a standing ovation.
In his debut performance at the 1996 Playboy Jazz Festival, internationally acclaimed singing legend Tony Bennett proved he has not only bridged the generation gap, but as the New York Times put it, “He has demolished it.” Bennett’s vocal counterpoint—in a surprise duet with world-renowned jazz singer Joe Williams—clearly demonstrated why Bennett is a legendary star with multi-generational appeal.
Julie Wilson at the Copa Part 2:
Julie & Frank
Julie continued to work at the Copa for roughly two years. It was during that time that she made connections with several show business icons who would become longtime friends and supporters, including both Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers. The big song that Julie was doing, as part of the ensemble, in the Spring and Summer of 1946, was a South American-styled novelty titled “The Coffee Song.”
“And there was a boy singer, with me too,. We introduced ‘They’ve Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil.’ That was our big song. And Sinatra came in and he loved that song, and he recorded it and made a million.” (Sinatra famously recorded it twice, in 1946 as a 78 RPM single for Columbia Records, and again in 1961 for his album Ring-a-Ding-Ding.)
“The Coffee Song” would be the most famous number to emerge from Julie’s tenure at the Copa, but the single most memorable incident is, in fact, one of the most famous nights in the history of American nightclubs. In September, 1946, the big opening of the Fall was set to be the team of Phil Silvers and “Rags” Ragland (real name: John Lee Morgan Beauregard Ragland). As is well known, Silvers, who went on to a long career on Broadway and television, was a fast talking, highly-verbal comic; Ragland’s style was contrastingly slower and more physical. They fell into the familiar vaudeville pattern of a sharpie and a stooge.
A lot was riding on the team’s September 1946 opening at the Copa, but to everyone’s horror, Ragland died unexpectedly of uremia only about two weeks prior. Silvers had decided to go on as a solo act, but was nervous and frightened without his partner. He asked his longtime friend Frank Sinatra to help, but Sinatra was contractually obligated to stay in Hollywood, where he was filming his latest MGM movie, titled It Happened in Brooklyn (despite the title, it was actually being shot in Culver City, California). At the last minute, Sinatra, who was already perpetually in trouble with MGM for acting like he had a mind of his ow—in those days, the movie studios essentially owned all the actors they had under contract, who never questioned the orders they were given— decided to play hooky from Hollywood. He unexpectedly hopped a plane to New York, and presented himself to Phil Silvers the afternoon of the opening as the funnyman’s new stooge.
MGM was horrified at first, but Sinatra’s surprise pitching in to help two pals, one living and one departed, was a bonanza of positive publicity – the whole country was buzzing about Silvers and Sinatra at the Copa. Most of these details are recounted in several biographies of Sinatra, including James Kaplan’s wonderful The Voice. But, surprisingly, all the written works that we’ve consulted somehow neglected to mention that Julie Wilson was right in the middle of the entire incident.
She remembers it well: “And then, it came the opening night for Phil Silvers, and Rags Ragland died, and Sinatra flew in and didn’t tell anybody–showed up to be his sidekick. Isn’t that nice? I was there. And Frank said, “C’mon Julie, we’re going to do a song together, the three of us.” So there we were –Phil Silvers, Frank and me as the girl singer. I still remember the song,…” At this point in our interview, Julie started singing to us: “‘I’ve flown around the world…I can’t get started, with you.’ I was so thrilled I could hardly talk.”
This was hardly the end of Julie’s association with either Silvers or Sinatra: in 1958, she had a highly memorable guest appearance on the Phil Silvers Show, aka You’ll Never Get Rich, aka Sergeant Bilko. (This will be the subject of a subsequent blog, yes.) Her other, most memorable encounter with Sinatra happened around 1950. “It was in London I had been in a little eating place, and they had a kid who played piano and wrote songs, Carroll Coates.” That’s where she heard the songwriter doing what would be his most famous number, “London By Night,” and she started singing it at her own shows. “I was working in a fancy saloon and Sinatra brought Ava Gardner in to see my show, and they were very nice, and he said, ‘I’d like to get a copy of “London By Night.'” Of course, Carroll was glad to give it to him! Sinatra wound up recording that song on three different occasions in 1950, 1957, and 1962 – one of the few songs to earn that honor, and to this day it’s Carroll’s best-known work.
Julie stresses that the whole Copa incident was typical of Sinatra. “He was kind. Sinatra was a very kind guy. You know, he’d show up when people were in need. He was a very nice guy. So I felt very lucky—yeah, I got to do that one song with him.”
There were supper clubs and there were supper clubs. And they don’t exist anymore. What they call a club today has almost no connection with the legendary supper clubs of the great years. There were the big, fancy rooms for high rollers, like the Copacabana and the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel just across the street, and the jazz clubs like Birdland, Basin Street East, and the Village Vanguard (although originally it also had folk singers and comedians in addition to jazz), and the more intimate nights spent at small cabaret rooms, like Upstairs at the Downstairs, where the audience was poorer but somehow more exclusive – that was where you went if you wanted to impress your date with your taste rather than your money. But all of these venues were more akin to a Broadway revue than anything you’ll find in Supper clubs today; today you just get one singer or specific show for 70-80 minutes; from the 1940s to the 1960s, you got a whole show, multiple singers, comics, dancers, and a star headliner. (Even the jazz clubs offered multiple acts in a single show.) Like the old Cotton Club in the pre-war days, the Copa particularly aimed to give customers a show to compete with what you could see on Broadway, and not only that, the top-flight supper clubs offered the four D’s as well: dinner, drinks, dancing, and dress-up.
Two clubs that emerged around the early war years were the Copacabana on 60th Street, right off Fifth Avenue, and the Latin Quarter, which opened in the site that had been the Times Square Cotton Club in 1942. Our great friend Julie Wilson was a part of both of those establishments, which was around the time she first arrived in town from her native Nebraska – years away from being the legend that she is today. Around 1945, Julie got a job at the Latin Quarter, singing in the chorus. Normally when you think of a chorus in a nightclub, you think of a line of dancing girls; but this was a singing chorus. It seems like a distant memory that some nightclubs were so well-appointed that they actually could hire a mixed choir to sing behind the star vocalist. And that was Julie’s first major job, not long after she landed in New York, New York.
After working for a few months, she was hired away from the Latin Quarter, to do essentially the same job at a higher salary by the Copacabana. “Well, who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you? I mean, for fifty dollars more? She told us, “You worked seven days a week. You did two shows a night. It kept you off the streets. Ha!”
Julie’s first memory of The Copa is the way that the shows were directed and choreographed by Doug Coudy: “The guy that was our leader and our coach. He’d say, ‘Alright. Put your shoulders back and down. And keep your posture. I’ll never forget.” She later added, “The chorus girls had a little routine. They were real good dancers. Doug was very nice to us. But he was a nut about posture—the correct movements and all that. He’d say ‘shoulders back and down!’ So we all developed good posture. I passed that on to so many girls. They’d say, ‘How did you get that good posture?’ I said, ‘Somebody told me what to do! Take a deep breath. Put your shoulders back and down.’ That’s it. For life.”
The southern comedian, Lonnie Shorr—whose delivery has often been compared in the tradition of Will Rodgers—worked the Playboy circuit for two straight years. He told us, “I’m glad I did! It was a great learning experience and an opportunity to perfect your act —although you never really reach perfection.
“I found my niche working for Playboy because you did so many shows for them. It was a ‘floating‘ schedule because usually you did two shows a night. But if the last show had an attendance of fifteen percent of the room capacity, you had to do another show! In other words, if the room sat a hundred people and you had fifteen people in the audience—you did another show. So theoretically, you could be doing a lot of shows!
“One thing about Playboy that was different from the way things are today is that you couldn’t use four letter words. Nobody did that. If you did, you had an unfavorable report written about you. This report was sent to the company headquarters in Chicago, and if you received too many bad write-ups you were dropped from the circuit, and no one wanted that. There were guys that were a little suggestive, but no cursing.
“The Playboy Clubs were one of the few places we worked that had standards, very high standards for everyone—the staff, the Bunnies, and the entertainers. The other day, I had a guy from one of our local newspapers ask me about the entertainment scene today, and I told him I thought that the Playboy principle of entertainment was what they needed today in some of these other clubs.
The Playboy Clubs always had two acts—once in awhile they’d have three acts in the bigger clubs. It was a place where you could go and see a show and, at that time the prices were really nominal –then you could go downstairs and listen to some music while actually talking to the person you were with. That’s the kind of place we could use nowadays.”
Duke began his career as a Sinatra tribute artist at the Le Bistro in Atlantic City. He told me that when he sang there, the club would put a sign outside saying “If you like Sinatra, you’ll love Duke.” Sinatra also played in Atlantic City, but when he did, it was next door at the 500 Club and he’d often quip to his audiences, “If you like Duke, you’ll go cuckoo over me.” Duke continued, “Frank, on occasions when we’d meet was always nice to me and would kid me by saying, ‘Just remember, I’m still the Chairman of the Board—but you can be the Vice-Chairman.’”
Dukes voice wasn’t the only similarity to the famous Rat-packer; he was also synonymous in appearance. And he was so convincing and his performance such pure fun that he was invited as a guest on the most popular variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show and Jack Parr Show. He was also induced to take part in an entertaining subterfuge. As Duke tells it: “I was working at a club in Chicago and Hef [Hugh Hefner] would come to see me because he was a Sinatra fan. Well, this one night he told me that he had been looking forward to having Sinatra perform at his upcoming Jazz Festival, but Frank’s plan changed and he couldn’t make it. However, he had an alternative that he needed help with. He wanted me to appear and do a few of the songs I usually did in my show. I told him I’d be overjoyed to do it just because it sounded like so much fun!
“The night came—August, 1959. The search lights were crossing in the sky as I walked down the aisle with a brigade of twelve police officers escorting me to the stage. I had a trench coat flung over my shoulder and a straw hat with a white band cocked on my head. As soon as I hit the stage, Count Basie’s Band started up and I swung into “Come Fly With Me”—and the crowd went wild, just wild! I received a standinDuke Hazlett
g ovation and Mort Sahl—the MC—introduced me afterwards by my real name, saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Duke Hazlett.’ But people hear what they want, and the next day one of the Chicago newspapers reported that Frank Sinatra had appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival and did a fantastic job! I’ve appeared since at many prestigious clubs and engagements and been on some wonderful shows, but that’s the one time I relive over and over.”
After waiting this famous clip from the Steve Allen Show let me know if you would have been fooled into thinking you just saw Frank Sinatra at the first Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959.