Buddy Greco – Win When You're Swinging
Sinatra said "Buddy can make anything swing – nobody comes close in that department." Sammy Davis Jr. added "Buddy Greco’s world is a very swinging world." Indeed it is, even if the jazz legend now lives in swingin' Southend, Essex! Buddy tells The American about being in his ninth decade of great music and great friends
"Oh my God, you had to say that, huh? I'm lucky I lasted this long," he chuckles.
Buddy was born Armando Greco on August 14, 1926. When was the last time anyone called him Armando? "1926!" he laughs. The Buddy nickname came about when the young musician was at the Musician's Union, having just joined the organization.
"Someone was looking for a piano player, and a Union official said, 'there's a really good little piano player right there'. The guy looked at me and said, 'Hey Buddy, would you like a job?' The name stuck. Armando wasn't really conducive to the kind of show business that I'm in. It's more classical ...and I'm a jazz pianist."
Having said that, classical was where it all began. Buddy grew up during the Depression, in a cultured but not well off family. The family ran a record store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his father was an opera critic and his mother a talented musician. They were tough years; tough, but happy times for the music-mad youngster. It was a music-mad neighborhood too. From within three blocks of his home came Al Martino, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few. That's a history of American popular music, right there.
"The family went back a long way in music, classically. From the moment I was born I heard Caruso and other opera records," says Buddy, "And I wanted to be a classical piano player... until I heard Louis Armstrong. Then I realized I wanted to be a jazz pianist. It was instant. Louis made me feel good. He made me laugh inside. I was about 12.
"I started playing piano when I was four. But we were very poor, and didn't have a piano in the house. Lucky for me, I found early on that I had perfect pitch. That means that anything that's musical, or has a musical sound, I can tell you what notes they are. It's something you're born with, you don't acquire it. So I would take my piano lessons from my teacher who lived close by, run home and practise on a cut-out of a piano keyboard that my father found on the cover of a magazine. He pasted it on the table and I would play on this 'keyboard' and actually hear the notes in my head. It's very weird! I was creating music from the beginning too, as soon as I heard jazz."
And he still is, 72 albums, over 100 singles including his biggest hit 'The Lady is a Tramp,' and countless gigs later. It's interesting that Buddy refers to himself as a piano player, when he is equally well known as a singer. He also, continually through our chat, repeats how lucky he has been. Well, luck plus talent, plus hard work, maybe.
On March 21 Buddy is performing at the Hippodrome Casino in central London. He played there many times when it was a top London nightclub in the 1960s and '70s. The venue was originally a Victorian variety theater named the Hippodrome (after the animals who performed there) and its first show featured a young Charlie Chaplin. Later, as the Talk of the Town, the stage was graced by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and Ethel Merman in her only UK appearance, among a galaxy of stars.
Buddy is at the Hippodrome with Lezlie Anders, his fifth wife with whom he works and tours.
Lezlie will also be appearing at the Hippodrome and elsewhere with a new show they are working on, American Songbird, celebrating great American female singers like Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and they also do a great show called Fever! A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee, with Lezlie singing and Buddy playing and conducting.
Although Buddy and Lezlie both became friends of Peggy Lee, the original connection between Buddy and Peggy was Benny Goodman – Miss Lee sang with him, and one of Buddy's first professional engagements was playing with Goodman's band.
"I joined Benny when I was about 18," says Buddy. "I really didn't want to work with bands, I wanted to be my own boss I guess, but he offered me a job. I was taken aback, because he was such a genius. My father said, go with him and learn your craft. It's the best thing I ever did. I just constantly learned. If you're going to work with someone, you might as well work with the best."
Surely there was a line round the block of people wanting to play with Goodman? "Oh sure. My then manager, Elliot Wexler, also managed Benny Goodman. They were putting a new band together. Elliot took Benny to a little place called Club 13 in Philadelphia to hear me sing and play, and he offered me the job."
I had to ask: Buddy spends all day with his wife, working and playing together. How does that work out? "How good can it be? It's a thrill. You're working with the woman you love, who happens to be a great singer. I love playing piano and conducting for her. She's absolutely divine."
Buddy was on the road with jazz bands and playing solo in clubs while still a teenager. He must have grown up quickly? "Are you kidding? What an experience. I was in absolute heaven. And when you're on the road you grow up very quickly."
The Goodman years led to a great solo career in which Buddy played and sang with greats from different musical genres as varied as Dizzy Gillespie, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield and Marilyn Monroe. The smoky jazz clubs he started out in led to theaters, the world's top nightclubs, symphony halls and, of course, the Las Vegas showrooms with which Buddy became synonymous. He enjoys all of them. "They all have a different meaning to me. To get more experience, I always took every job I could get, and it paid off – I'm still doing it! I'm 86 and I'm still making records and performing. It's been a great ride".
In Las Vegas Buddy became associated with the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra's infamous group of friends who included Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. "Between you and I, they were my dear friends and although I can't really say I was a member of the Rat Pack, if people say so I'm honored. If Frank, Dean or Sammy ever wanted me to play with them, I was there. It was a joy and a thrill to be with them."
What comes across from looking at recordings of that group of hyper-talented friends, apart from the skill they had, was the fun they seemed to have performing with each other. "You just said the famous word, FUN" Buddy agrees. "Every time we got on stage, we didn't know what we were going to do or how it would turn out, but the audience went crazy every night. Everybody loved it, and everybody wanted to be part of it." Buddy occasionally performs with a group of young singers in a Rat Pack tribute. It brings back memories of being with the real Rat Pack, the group who were, pre-rock and roll, at the peak of pop culture.
For four years Buddy and Lezlie owned their own night club in Cathedral City, California, which closed in August 2009 with the economic crash. He still has a house in California, but now this quintessential American performer calls Southend home. That's Southend, Essex, to the east of London, England.
"We came here four years ago, not knowing we were going to stay. But an awful lot of people wanted me to work here. I would say this is my home now. I love it here. And the English people have been so good to me for so many years."
The question remains, why Southend? It's not the traditional haunt of American stars, more usually found in Mayfair or Surrey. "We lived in London, right across from the Royal Albert Hall, but a friend said he had found the perfect out of town place that was right by the water, and the travel time was quick, and we fell in love with Southend. Every time we go back to the States, I get calls wanting me to come back to England and Europe because there's a lot of work here for me. Once in a while I miss home, but how could I not miss beautiful Southend!"
Young British pianists are benefiting from Buddy's talent and experience. After his own hard upbringing, he is putting back into the business, holding free masterclasses for talented youngsters and fundraising to pay for more classes.
Something a lot of people will want Buddy to talk about in his book is his trip to the Cal Neva Lodge where Marilyn Monroe visited Frank Sinatra and his friends the weekend before she died in still-mysterious circumstances. Buddy was one of the last people to see Marilyn alive. He is happy to talk about it, but keeps some cards close to his chest.
"I was there. I have the last few pictures taken of her, giving me a hug by the pool. A lot happened that weekend. I have my own ideas of what went on. I know she was there, I was there, and Frank, and Peter Lawford. We had a wonderful time. She was a great lady, very talented, and very smart – a lot of people forget that. People ask me what happened when she died. I have an idea, but it belongs to me." Perhaps Buddy's book will elaborate.
In the meantime, check out Buddy's website for more details about his fabulous career, his book and forthcoming concerts: www.buddygreco.co.uk