Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Singer and Pianist Buddy Greco (1926-2017)

This new year of 2017 has begun on several sour notes, with the departures of Nat Hentoff and Buddy Bregman a few days ago, to which we must add now that of vocalist and pianist Buddy Greco, one of the last of the vanishing breed of saloon singers. He passed away on January 10 at 90 years old. Unfortunately, whenever Greco is cited these days, it's mostly because of his rocky personal life: his many failed marriages, his eccentricities, his dealings with the Rat Pack, and his quick temper. But if we concentrate on his musical career, we find that Greco was a solid jazz pianist and a sophisticated singer who has left behind a very valuable body of work. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Greco was extremely precocious, and his interest in music was encouraged by his father, who owned a record store. In the early 1940s Greco spent four years singing, playing piano, and writing arrangements for Benny Goodman. He left the orchestra and struck out on his own in 1946, around the time when solo singers had started eclipsing the big bands, and he was quite successful at it, even scoring a few hits, one of the most memorable of which was his fun uptempo version of "The Lady Is a Tramp." The success of his very entertaining live concerts and classy recordings quickly led to television and film appearances, as well as to opportunities to sing and pal around with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in Las Vegas. However, he never attained the heights of popularity of his more famous confreres.

Despite the many ups and downs he went through in his career, Greco always concentrated on doing what he did best: singing and playing piano. In an interview with the New York Times in the 1960s, he explained: "I'd always wanted to be a jazz pianist. But it's easier to make a living as a singer. . . . By singing I can appeal to the masses." And so he did, almost right up until his very last days, appearing all over the world as a featured attraction and also as part of tribute shows to Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. His recorded oeuvre is prodigiously vast, rich, and varied, ranging stylistically from jazz to pop to country, even to Italian songs, and his discography is full of excellent albums such as Live at Mr. Kelly's, My Buddy, and On Stage. But, in my opinion, his best project is arguably Songs for Swinging Losers, a 1960 concept album modeled on Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers that captures Greco at his peak as a saloon singer. The arrangements by Chuck Sagle are always tasteful, and Greco indulges his penchant for drama, more restrained than usual on this occasion, performing a repertoire of classic tunes that includes "Something I Dreamed Last Night," "I'm Lost," "These Foolish Things," "That Old Feeling," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," as well as an opener written specifically for the album by Sagle and entitled "A Swinging Loser." This recording is quintessential Greco, and the perfect introduction to the sound of a singer like no other whose work is well worth delving into. R.I.P. Buddy Greco.

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