SHEILA E. made her Playboy Jazz Festival debut in 2012 and electrified the crowd with a performance that won her a standing ovation. Sheila debuted as the leader of her own band, and tore it up with an galvanizing performance that featured many of her hits along with a retinue of sequined bikini-clad Brazilian dancers that strutted on to the stage in vibrantly colored full-feathered headdresses. Her fiery performance stopped the show and brought the crowd to its feet for one of the longest standing ovations ever seen at the Festival, leaving no doubt Sheila E. is a star in her own right. It’s still “A Glamorous Life”.
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.”
In 1969, Roslyn was booked for an engagement at the Plaza Hotel’s legendary Persian Room—an accomplishment on any level but especially for an unknown eighteen year old. “I celebrated my nineteenth birthday during my Persian Room run,” Roslyn told me. The critics wrote that ‘she brought a youthful essence that was never known to that room.’ “I did songs like ‘Promises, Promises’ and ‘Hair’ because I was young and wasn’t going to do older songs. I was a little out of whack, with a whole different energy than they were used to. I was determined not to do stuff someone else was known for.
“There was a huge amount of pressure on me at the Persian Room because it was not only my New York debut, but also my first major introduction to both the public and the critics. The plan was for me to go out and make a big splash on my own, without the mention of Barbra Streisand—my mega- superstar sister. I needed time to develop as a performer without that attachment and comparison. Then I did The Ed Sullivan Show, and someone from my record company leaked it to the media. So then I had to evolve in full sight of everybody. On top of that, the Persian Room wasn’t like the little clubs—the ones in the village where you started without the rigamorole. This was major press and major people wanting to come and see and gasp. I had to live up to a lot of things I wasn’t ready to live up to.”
Ros told me about what it was like, working out of town to prepare her show for the big New York Show. “One night, while I was working at a club called the CopaHavan in Oklahoma City,” she began, “a big fight broke out. These drunken guys had stayed for both shows, and when they heard the same songs in my second show they got very pissed. We told them we were trying to break in a show for New York, and we had to do this material as much as possible. They were just not having it, and a big Western-style brawl broke out. I swear, people were flying over the banisters and over the bar, and my musical director signaled me to leave the stage by a different route. These guys were so rude and out of control the police had to be called in.
“Afterward, I saw my manager. He had been hit in the nose and his glasses were broken. He told me not to tell his wife. I had to laugh and replied, ‘You won’t have to say a word. She’s going to look at your nose and face, and she’ll know!’ That was my experience, in some of the towns in Oklahoma and Texas on the road leading up to the Persian Room. Thank God in New York you had maitre d’s to keep the weirdo’s at a distance.”
Roslyn went on to sing at other major settings around the world, seasoned by her early experiences—both on the road and at the Persian Room. “Someone once asked me,” she said, “‘What’s the difference between working a small room and a major venue?’ I said the trick is to make the humongous room feel like a small, intimate room. That’s my job. That’s why I’m here.”
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:
LHR used it as the leadoff track on:
1.26  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)
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)