In Frank's case, the times changed a little bit too quickly in the mid-1960s. His enormous talent as a swinging jazz singer and guitarist were being overtaken by pop groups and teen idols. As the decade wore on, fewer and fewer record labels had room on their rosters for optimistic vocalists, especially as the American Songbook gave way to transistor radios and angry rebellion. Yet though sheer passion, determination and an adoring Chicago audience, Frank managed to survive and today is one of the last pure club singers of his generation still standing. He also happens to be a very sweet, kind guy. [Pictured: Frank D'Rone, June Christy and Ray Charles]In Part 3 of my interview with Frank, the vocalist talks about the climate of the 1960s, working in Las Vegas, befriending Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, singing with Buddy Rich, and spending quality time with Nat King Cole at the entertainer's home:
JazzWax: Did the jazz-pop business grow tougher in the 1960s?
Frank D'Rone: Yes, it was harder to be a pop singer in the 1950s tradition. Everything had changed. Radio stations still played my singles, like Joey, Joey, Joey. But there was much more competition from younger artists. We’d go to a radio station to promote my records but now we’d have to wait in line to see if the DJ would play it.
JW: Did the times wear you down?
FD’R: I kind of was frustrated. But I said to myself, "What am I going to do?” You can’t bug the record company guys. If you do, it can backfire on you. Plus, the music really started changing. I had to rationalize the changes or I would have gone nuts. I still played clubs and headlined. I did the Copacabana in New York and The Living Room. But you sensed the climate was working against you as an artist and that things were never going back to the way they were. That was scary for jazz singers.
JW: You knew Frank Sinatra, didn’t you?
FD’R: I met Frank in 1966. I was working the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas. Frank was at The Sands. His opening act was comedian Pat Henry, who was a friend of mine. One day Pat told me he was bringing Sinatra over to hear me.
JW: Did he come through?
FD’R: Yes. Frank came in and brought about 40 people with him. As an entertainer, I can’t even describe what it’s like to see Frank come in to see you with that many people. You can't believe it. After the show, I went over to thank Frank for coming and spoke to him for a while. Frank said he enjoyed my singing. He said, “Next year you’ll be up at The Sands in the lounge.”
JW: Were you?
FD’R: Yes, he kept his word. He was hanging out with the Rat Pack then and would bring them all down after their shows to see me in the lounge. It was fun hanging out with them. I was the only one not in the Rat Pack allowed in their dressing room.
JW: What went on in there?
FD’R: Just entertainers relaxing. You’d have a drink and make small talk to unwind. Back there, I’d look around and say to myself, “This is fantastic. I’m talking with Dean Martin and Joey Bishop.” It was incredible stuff. Very friendly, lots of jokes. Dean was especially kind to me. But I always remembered that I was a guest.
JW: Did you ever get a shot in front of a big band in Las Vegas?
FD’R: One day, The Sands pulled Frank's tab at the casino. Frank got bugged and quit. He walked outside and drove over to Caesars and performed there. I had to sub for him in the main room at The Sands for two nights until they could get a headliner in.
JW: Which band was behind you?
FD’R: Buddy Rich. He played my book of songs. Buddy and I got to be friendly in a minute. As soon as he heard me sing, he said, “I don’t let too many singers sing with my band. Just you, Mel [Torme] and Frank.” It was a ball singing with Buddy. If we were performing in the same town, he’d always come to see me.
JW: What did Frank think of you subbing for him?
FD’R: He loved it. He also started to hire me for Caesars in the lounge. He’d love to come hear me after his shows. He liked when I came backstage to hang out with him before he went on. It would be just the two of us having a drink.
JW: Ever ask for advice?
FD’R: One time I said to him, “Do you have any suggestions to pass along?”
JW: What did he say?
FD’R: He said, “Yeah, just turn the piano around” [laughs]. That was his way of telling me there was nothing wrong with what I was doing.
JW: Did you turn the piano around?
FD’R: We did, and Frank got a kick out of that [laughs].
JW: Did you and Nat Cole remain friends?
FD’R: Yes. When my mother was ill in Providence in 1962 and Nat was working near by, he came over to her house and spent an hour with her talking. She was a big fan of his. I never forgot that. Another time when I was singing in L.A., he invited me over to his house. Just as I arrived his wife Maria was taking the kids out. So it was just Nat and me that afternoon. [Photo of Nat Cole by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
JW: What did you two do?
FD’R: We went out to his guesthouse in the back. He had all this stuff in it—a great stereo, all these albums, his gold records framed and a huge Steinway. He made us vodka martinis, which he loved, and we just sat and talked. Suddenly, he got up and went over the piano and started singing and playing, telling me the backgrounds to the songs he recorded. [Pictured: Nat Cole's house in Los Angeles]
JW: For example?
FD'R: He said the demo of Mona Lisa that he had been given originally was done uptempo and bouncy. He played the piano and sang the way the demo sounded. Then he slowed it way down to show me how he had made it a love song. As he's telling me this, I’m saying to myself, “No one’s ever going to believe me.” Nat was the sweetest guy. He loved my guitar playing.
JW: Did you appear on TV?
FD’R: Quite a bit. I did The Dean Martin Show in the late 1960s. After the show, I went up to Dean to thank him. He just looked at me and said, “Hey my man, if you didn’t deserve it, you wouldn’t be here. You deserve every bit of it.” Then he took me into the office with his producer at the time, Greg Garrison, and we had a toast together. He was so charismatic in person. It was electrifying. I also did The Tonight Show quite a few times.
JW: You sang on TV with Sarah Vaughan, yes?
FD’R: Yes. Woody Herman’s band was behind her. It was a local TV show in Chicago. We sang Lady Be Good together. We scatted and looked at each other lovingly. I love Sarah's voice. She’s my favorite singer, male or female. [Pictured: Frank D'Rone with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show]
JW: You also toured with Liza.
FD’R: Yes, in 1982. She was great. She was so considerate. Backstage before shows, whenever her voice wasn’t just right, she’d call me from down the hall and we'd work through some things to place her voice. We have enormous respect for each other.
JW: Ever have any regrets about not being a bigger name?
FD’R: Not really. Sometimes I wonder “what if.” But I always wind up realizing that I’m actually happy I didn’t become a big star. I did it the way I wanted. I never got into drugs. I never got into booze. I’ve had a happy, wonderful life. [Pause] I didn’t become a big star or anything, but I’ve had a star’s career.
JazzWax tracks: Frank's last album for Mercury was In Person, recorded live at San Francisco's Hungry I club in 1962. In 1968 he recorded Brand New Morning for Cadet with big band arrangements by Johnny Pate. The album has a wonderful, fresh late-'60s pop feel. Many of the tracks, like Up, Up and Away, Mandy Is Two and Bluesette are spot on. I wish he had had the opportunity to record a dozen of albums like this one.
In the decades that followed, Frank has continued to issue CDs of his live appearances in Atlantic City and Chicago. In 2007, he released Falling in Love With Love: Live in Chicago. The CD includes a note from Tony Bennett: "When you listen to D'Rone, you are listening to the real thing."
You can buy all of Frank's CDs at his site here (enter the site and click on the "store" tab). Many of the rare Mercury LPs have been doubled up on one CD. And if you're in Chicago, Frank will be appearing at the Green Mill on April 23d and 24th.