August 14th is Buddy Greco's birthday, and that's as good a reason as any to pay tribute to the man's greatness. What's not to love? Over his 60-plus year career, he's watched countless fly-by-nights come and go (you listening, Michael Buble?), and he's still swingin'. He's been counted out more times than a punch-drunk boxer, and he bounces back every time. And even in 2008, he's still one of the best jazz pianists around, and a hell of a singer, too.
Buddy Greco has been around since the early '40s, when he started out playing dives in his native Philadelphia in a band with a young Stan Getz. He scored his first hit single with 1947's "Ooh Look-A-There, Ain't She Pretty," which sold a million copies and earned Buddy a cool $33 in royalties. He then joined Benny Goodman's orchestra as a pianist, where he first displayed his ivory-tickling chops. He struck out on his own again in the early '50s as a singer and sometime piano player, and hasn't looked back since.
If you haven't heard Buddy's classic '50s and '60s albums, you're in for a treat. He may do standards, but he does them with an almost punk-rock edge. He doesn't just sing songs, he attacks them, jacking up the tempos and working himself and his band into a controlled frenzy. His phrasing is pure attitude -- "Around-ah, ah-the world-ah, ah-I searched for yoooou." He messes with lyrics, inserting lines like "I crave affection, baby, but not when I drive" into "The Lady Is A Tramp." In short, once a song has been Buddy-ized, you'll never hear it the same way again.
In Las Vegas' swingin' heyday, Buddy Greco's pizzazz got him recording deals, regular radio and TV appearances, and gigs everywhere from the Sands Hotel to the London Palladium, where he was on the bill with an up-and-coming act called the Beatles. His records never sold in Sinatra-type numbers, but the best of them hold up today -- I Like It Swinging and Let's Love, his two LPs from 1961, are among the finest pop vocal albums ever waxed, and are still criminally unavailable on CD.
When the British Invasion spoiled the tux-clad crooners' party, Buddy rolled with the punches, covering Lennon-McCartney and Herman's Hermits along with Ellington and Cy Coleman. He even did a jazzy, oddly appealing album of Hank Williams covers. Frank Sinatra, a longtime friend and admirer, got Buddy a deal with Reprise Records, where he cut a few Dean Martin-esque pop albums.
Like most of his peers, Buddy lost his way in the '70s and '80s, growing his hair long and recording misguided covers of Elton John and Marvin Gaye songs (he said of the era, "I think it was a case of mass insanity"). But as the millennium neared its end, he found his way back to jazz and standards, and he hadn't lost a beat.
I first saw Buddy in person with his trio ten years ago at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, and was blown away by both his piano playing, which had gotten even better over the decades, and his voice, which has held up surprisingly well. Since then I've seen him countless times both in New York and Las Vegas, and now, as they say in showbiz circles, he's a close, personal friend of mine.
It's sad, tragic even, that many of the people who know Buddy Greco's name think of him as some sort of smarmy lounge lizard who should be lumped in with Charo or Siegfried & Roy. Yes, Buddy can be a finger-snapping, tux-wearing hipster (and what's wrong with that, I ask you?), but he's also an incredibly talented musician, not to mention a performer who can still knock your socks off at... well, I won't say how old he is, but you get my drift.
Abandoned by Vegas -- which is no longer hospitable to anyone born after about 1960, let alone people who were performing on the Strip back then -- Buddy's found a new home in Palm Springs, CA, where he achieved one of his long-time desires and opened his own nightclub. Not only does he run the place, but he performs there several nights a week with his wife, Lezlie Anders, who looks and sounds a hell of a lot like Peggy Lee.
And that's not all. His latest album, Back To Basics, is the most cookin' thing he's done in 40 years. All this at an age when he's supposed to be sitting back in the Old Crooners Home and reminiscing about hanging out with the Rat Pack.
Happy birthday, Buddy. Cent'anni, my friend. Give me a call.
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