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Interview: Frank D'Rone (Part 1)

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Back in the late 1970s, I was hunting for a Stan Kenton LP and wound up at Dayton's, a rare jazz LP store on Broadway in New York's Greenwich Village. As I made my way over to the Kenton bin, a record by a male singer was playing over the store's speakers. The song was Why Can't This Night Go On Forever, featuring a rip-roaring big band arrangement. Nearby, a guy in a newsboy cap and dark glasses was leaning on a bin, chewing gum and nodding his head to the music. “Who's the singer?" I asked. “This guy?" the aging hipster asked abruptly, as though awakened. “Man, that's Frank D'Rone." I forgot about Kenton and bought the LP, After the Ball, and took Frank D'Rone Sings, too. Both were recorded for Mercury, and for years I treasured the two albums. No one who heard them on my stereo was able to guess who was singing.

Fast forward. About three weeks ago, I was e-chatting with JazzWax reader Peter Sokolowski, who mentioned the very same albums. “I thought I was the only one who knew them," I said. Peter wrote back: “Frank's still around." Indeed he is. A few days later, when Frank and I spoke by phone, the singer laughed when I told him the rare-record story. Turns out Frank has had some career, rubbing shoulders with Nat Cole, Benny Carter, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli, Billy May, Bud Shank, Jimmy Rowles and many others. And he's still singing and playing guitar in Chicago clubs.

In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Frank, 77, the singer talks about performing on stage at age 5, his first playing and singing job at a New York hotel, touring for seven years in the 1950s with different small groups, and landing a steady gig in 1957 with pianist Dick Marx and bassist Johnny Frigo in Chicago:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Frank D'Rone: In Providence, R.I. I was born in Brockton, Mass., but my parents moved to the Italian section of Providence when I was a kid. My mom kept house and my dad worked for the railroad loading and unloading freight cars. He wasn't a big guy, maybe 5' 10" and 150 pounds. But he was a bull. I was an only child, so I had all I needed. I had lots of friends, played stickball and did all the street stuff you see in the movies. I had fun.

JW: When did you start playing the guitar?
FD'R: When I was 3 years old, my parents told me, I saw a ukulele in Providence and wanted it. My dad bought it for me, and I started playing right away and wouldn't let it go. A year later my parents bought me a guitar. My uncle knew four or five chords, so I started by copying him. At age 5, I was on stage singing and playing guitar [pictured]. I was always comfortable in front of an audience. This was in the late 1930s. Back then, in my neighborhood in Providence, they staged these Italian melodramas. I was hired to play guitar and sing in Italian during the 15-minute intermissions. They paid me $2, and audiences fell apart.

JW: And in school?
FD'R: In junior high school, I had my own band, and we played weddings. In high school I was in the band and the choir, and I was the soloist in the glee club.

JW: Did you have formal training?
FD'R: At age 10 I started classical guitar studies for about six years. But I wasn't happy with the music. So I taught myself the standards. Everything I know on the guitar I taught myself.

JW: What about after high school?
FD'R: Instead of college, I wanted to work in music right away. New York was the place to be. In 1950 my mom, dad and I took the train down to the city from Providence. My dad had free passes for the family because he worked for the railroad. We stayed at the St. James Hotel and paid $18 a week. The plan was to get me started. My dad would come down on weekends.

JW: Did you find work?
FD'R: I saw an ad in one of the papers placed by the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel on Central Park South. The lounge was looking for someone to play and sing. So I went in and auditioned and got the job. The manager said, “See you on Monday." I came in that Monday and worked. The tips were incredible--$3, $5, $10. That was on top of my $40 salary. But when I went back the next night, the manager asked what I was doing there.

JW: Why?
FD'R: I had misunderstood. He said, “No, no, I just hired you for Mondays." I said, “I'll work the whole week, five nights, for $40." I knew I'd make money with tips. He took me up on my offer. I earned $150 a week in just tips, which paid for the hotel and food. After that gig ran its course, I went out on the road with a jazz quartet--vibes, bass, drums and guitar and singing. The group was the Jerry Carleton Trio, even though there were four of us [laughs]. We were together for two years.

JW: A lot of traveling?
FD'R: Incredible. We had 1,000-mile hops in a 1938 Ford with a hole in the floor and a door that didn't close all the way [laughs]. We tied it shut with a rope. Touring was a great experience for me. I learned how to be a gentleman. The other guys were in their 30s and 40s. I was just 19. They taught me which fork to use and how to be polite. I joined the group in the latter part of 1950 and left in 1952.

JW: Why did you leave?
FD'R: I decided to go with Mike Kalli, a piano player. I'd also get to play guitar and sing as a solo. A duo meant greater visibility. We were together for two years. Back then there were jazz groups of every size all over the country touring. There were so many clubs in so many cities. There was plenty of work if you traveled. You have to understand that before email and TV and things like that, people went out to socialize, especially in smaller towns. Going out almost always included hearing live music. Stuff wasn't expensive then. Soon, the Mutual Entertainment Agency began to represent us. The agency added drummer Barrett Deems [pictured], making us a trio.

JW: How long were you together?
FD'R: We lasted until 1954. The trio broke up because I got an offer from bandleader and clarinetist Herbie Fields [pictured]. He needed a guitar player and singer, and the pay was good--$135 a week. Barrett went with Louis Armstrong and Mike went back home to Waterloo, Iowa, and played singles.

JW: How long were you with Fields?
FD'R: A little over a year, until 1956. By then I wanted to go out on my own. Mike Kalli and I got back together for a short time. We were booked into a shot and beer joint in Rock Island, IL. On opening night we played jazz and pop. But every 20 minutes a train would roar by and the place would shake. The people in there weren't really interested in what we were doing. After we finished, I went up to the owner and said, “I don't think we fit this place at all." He looked at me and looked around and said, “You're right." He just paid us for the night and we left.

JW: What happened?
FD'R: I knew the piano player Dick Marx and called him on the phone. I told him about the gig and how bad it was. He said, “Come to Chicago." So I told Mike. He understood. I was 24 years old.

JW: What happened in Chicago?
FD'R: I got an apartment and joined Dick at Mister Kelly's. Dick was working with Johnny Frigo, who was playing bass then. We worked the jazz nights--Sundays and Mondays. Other acts played the club other nights of the week. I was getting $40 a night, which was pretty good. Soon other gigs started to come in.

JW: Where else in town did you play?
FD'R: My agent put me into Chicago's Dante's Inferno in mid-1957. But there wasn't much business there because the club was on the border of skid row. The club was beautiful. It had mosaic tables, lounge chairs and so on. But the owner didn't advertise. He wanted the place to be special and catch on by word of mouth. [Chicago in 1957 by Francis Miller for Life]

Tomorrow, Frank talks about the matchbook-sized magazine ad that changed his career, the night Nat King Cole came into the Chicago club where he was singing, being signed to Mercury Records, why Bill Russo's arrangements for Frank D'Rone Sings needed West Coast revisions, and the song that George Shearing always wanted Frank to sing when they performed together in San Francisco.

JazzWax tracks: After the Ball, the early 1960s Frank D'Rone album that cost me a king's ransom in the 1970s, is available remastered as a download at iTunes or here.

JazzWax note: Frank D'Rone is still going strong. He will be appearing at the Green Mill in Chicago on April 23d and 24th. For more about Frank, visit his site here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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