Back the 1950s, jazz duos, trios and quartets toured all over the country. There was plenty of work to go around. Thousands of small clubs and bars favored live jazz and pop, which attracted patrons, kept them there longer buying drinks. The goal for an artist was to land an extended stay at a club in a major city and wind up discovered by critics and radio and TV personalities. Ultimately, you were angling for a record deal, which could lead to national recognition. Frank D'Rone was one of those touring singer-guitarists in search of the magic club and opportunity. [Photo: Tony Bennett and Frank D'Rone in the early 1960s]
For the first seven years of Frank's career, he played and sang in a quartet, trio and duo throughout the Midwest. But eventually, the tedium and strain of the road, and his own ambition, motivated Frank to call Dick Marx, a well-known pianist on the Chicago scene, to ask for a break. Marx understood immediately and invited Frank to join him and bassist Johnny Frigo [pictured] in Chicago at Mister Kelly's. Then Frank was booked as a single act into Dante's Inferno. That was Frank's shot.
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Frank, the singer-guitarist talks about going solo, the subtle magazine ad that raised his visibility, Nat King Cole's visit to the club, a record contract with Mercury, recording two albums for the label with leading jazz stars, and George Shearing's favorite song:
JazzWax: Did you start to gain recognition after going into Dante's Inferno in Chicago in the late 1950s?
Frank D'Rone: Little by little. I was doing a single there, singing and playing guitar. One night a guy came in named Marty Faye [pictured], who had a local TV talk show. He was the brother of singer Frances Faye. He liked me and asked me to come on his show to play and sing two or three tunes every Tuesday and Thursday. He said he couldn’t pay me but he’d plug me.
JW: Did you take the job?
FD’R: A plug was as good as cash as far as I was concerned [laughs]. Within my first few appearances on Marty Faye's TV show, Dante’s Inferno went from no business to you couldn’t get into the place. The line snaked around the block. We were packed every night, and I began to get good reviews. The club started to be “the” place. All of sudden people all over the country were stopping in.
JW: Did the owner ever advertise?
FD’R: He did. And he did something interesting. He simply placed an ad in Playboy magazine the size of a matchbook. It said something like “Frank D’Rone Is at Dante's.” Playboy was based in Chicago, and soon Hugh Hefner started coming in with an entourage. Then Ella Fitzgerald came to see me. Tony Bennett, too.
JW: Big stars.
FD’R: Huge. Then one night, the door opened and in walked Nat King Cole with Dick LaPalm, who at the time was promoting his records. We had a little spinet piano off to the side that was out of tune because no one played it. I was on a stool playing and singing. Nat was working at the Chez Paris in Chicago.
JW: Did you dig Cole?
FD’R: I was always a Nat Cole fanatic. Well, after a few numbers, Nat got up and sat right next to me at the piano. I was wigging. I couldn’t believe it. I was singing and Nat Cole was playing. I kept going straight ahead. I just took off the guitar and I sang while Nat played. After the set, we sat and talked. I was at Dante's for 14 months.
JW: How did Mercury discover you?
FD’R: Art Talmadge, Mercury’s pop A&R guy, put me with producer Jack Tracy at the label. My first album was Frank D’Rone Sings in 1957. Nat Cole wrote the liner notes.
JW: Who was on that album? Discographies draw a blank.
FD’R: I came up with all of the song choices. The label turned to Bill Russo for the charts. But when we recorded Bill’s arrangements in Chicago, the Mercury executives felt the charts were too hip and out there.
JW: What was the issue?
FD’R: There was too much of the Kenton sound behind me for Mercury’s taste and vision.
JW: What did Mercury do?
FD’R: They had many of the tracks re-arranged by Dick Marx, and Jack Tracy re-recorded them in Chicago with studio musicians such as Johnny Frigo and saxophonist Kenny Soderbloom.
JW: Who handled the West Coast A&R?
FD’R: Pete Rugolo. He brought together a group that included Bud Shank [pictured], Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne. The results were breezier, small-group arrangements that were less busy behind me. But Mercury kept a number of Russo’s tracks on there as well. I like them both.
JW: What came next?
FD’R: I recorded a pop instrumental band record on guitar behind trumpeter and arranger Carl Stevens. The album was called Skin and Bones for Mercury.
JW: Word started to pick up on you?
FD’R: Yes. I returned to Dante’s in Chicago and word got out all over the country. One night, Enrico Banducci, owner of San Francisco’s Hungry I, flew in to see me and caught two sets. He hired me on the spot. There was no contract. He told me how much and that it would be for four weeks. Dante's let me go. So I flew out to the West Coast, and for the next month I was the opening act for everyone—Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mort Sahl and others. Four weeks turned into six months [laughs].
JW: What next?
FD’R: I became so popular at the Hungry I that record promoter Dick LaPalm came up with a brilliant idea to have Mercury record me with Billy May [pictured, left] writing the arrangements. The concept behind After the Ball was a guy going to a ball. All the songs would be tied into that idea. Dick came up with all the tunes, and I recorded in Los Angeles, around 1961. There was no rehearsing. We went into a studio on Sunset Boulevard owned by Bill Putnam and did the album in three days. It was a full orchestra with strings—35 musicians. The ink was still wet on the charts when they arrived [laughs]. [Pictured: Nat King Cole with engineer Bill Putnam]
JW: Do you remember who was in the orchestra?
FD’R: Jimmy Rowles [pictured], Phil Woods, Bud Shank, Irv Cottler, Conrad Gozzo, Herbie Mann and others. The beautiful part was I was placed right in the middle of the band. They just put a baffle around me to avoid sound leakage. We did two or three takes per tune. After the first song, the whole orchestra applauded just to let me know that I was spot on. It felt great.
JW: Was Billy May there conducting?
JW: Who was leading?
FD’R: Benny Carter. He was so nice. After each day's work, he told me how much he enjoyed working with me on the album. He was such a gentleman. [Photo of Benny Carter by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Yet the record wasn’t well marketed by Mercury, was it?
FD’R: I don’t think so. They dropped the ball. Teen pop was coming in. I never complained. I figured they were doing it right. Obviously they weren’t.
JW: You recorded Try a Little Tenderness for Mercury next, with a band, strings and choir.
FD’R: Yes. That album was arranged by Belford Hendricks, who had arranged Dinah Washington's hit in 1959, What a Difference a Day Makes.
JW: Did you perform with jazz guys during this period?
FD’R: Yes. I first sang with Oscar Peterson and George Shearing when they were in Chicago for the first Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959. Whenever George was in town, he’d ask me to sing with him. When I was in San Francisco at the Hungry I, George was playing at Fack's II. After my gig, I’d go listen to him and join him on the last set. He loved the way I sang Sophisticated Lady. I could sing anything I wanted during the set but I had to sing Sophisticated Lady first.
JW: Did you have fun with it?
FD’R: The song's original key was in A-flat. One time we were in Vegas. I was at the Sands and George was at the Tropicana. I went to catch his late show, and we were about to do Sophisticated Lady when he asked me, “What key?” Well I knew he was up to something because we always did it in A-flat. Kidding around, I said G-flat, one of the toughest keys. Plus the song is tough enough to begin with. Well, George played it in G-flat as easily as if he were at home in bed playing it [laughs]. What a musician.
Tomorrow, Frank talks about subbing for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas, hanging out backstage with the Rat Pack, what Buddy Rich told him about his singing, spending an afternoon at Nat King Cole's house listening to records, and Dean Martin's supportive comment.
JazzWax tracks: Frank D'Rone Sings and Try a Little Tenderness (Mercury) are both out of print. But you can buy them at Frank's site here (enter the site and click on the "store" tab). In addition, there are tremendous flute and alto solos by Bud Shank on Frank D'Rone Sings. If you dig After the Ball, these two CDs are musts. Frank will be appearing at the Green Mill in Chicago on April 23d and 24th.
JazzWax discography: If you own Frank D'Rone Sings, you know that nothing is known about who is playing on the session and who arranged it. According to Frank, three hands were involved:
In Chicago Bill Russo wrote charts for a large orchestra. Dick Marx wrote for a sextet that included Johnny Frigo (bass), Kenny Soderbloom (saxes) and Paul Severson (trombone).
But some of the Russo charts were overwhelming. So a Los Angeles group was used to re-do the Russo tracks with a fresher, linear sound using head arrangements (no written music). The West Coast date featured Bud Shank (saxes, flute), Barney Kessel (guitar), Jimmy Rowles (piano), Red Mitchell (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums):
Here are the tracks, who arranged them and where they were recorded:
- Love and the Weather—Dick Marx (Chicago)
- Yesterdays—Bill Russo (Chicago)
- I Could Write a Book—Dick Marx (Chicago)
- Everything Happens to Me—head chart (Los Angeles)
- My Foolish Heart—Bill Russo (Chicago)
- Fascinating Rhythm—Dick Marx (Chicago)
- The Moon Is Blue—head chart (Los Angeles)
- Sophisticated Lady—Bill Russo (Los Angeles)
- Joey, Joey, Joey—Dick Marx (Chicago)
- Spring Is Here—head chart (Los Angeles)
- The Way You Look Tonight—head chart (Los Angeles)