Boy, could he sing.
As a young man, my grandfather found his way into the entertainment business. There are yellowed newspaper clippings -- little bits in the music columns about the new and charismatic singer, Paul Barry (born Jacob Buchner). He was introduced to the music world by his lifelong close friend , Oscar winning composer, conductor and arranger Lennie Hayton, who at the time was the musical director of WEAF radio. Passing on a soccer scholarship to Dartmouth, my grandfather spent a year touring with Mae West as one of the male dancers in her show.
That's my grandfather in the lower left corner
When we asked him about Mae West, he would say "Nothing ever happened, and it will never happen again."
With the Lennie Hayton Orchestra, my grandfather sang on the radio on "Your Hit Parade," alongside greats like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Eventually, my grandfather became a singer with the Tommy Dorsey Band, where he preceded a then unknown skinny kid from New Jersey named Frank Sinatra. They too became friends.
Tommy Dorsey and my grandfather in a promotional still, circa 1938.
When I was growing up, I thought he was the most glamorous man in the world. Having left behind the grind of performing and traveling when my mother was born, my grandfather had a lifelong career as a music publisher, working with many of the most famous and successful musicians of his era. He was responsible for the launch of the career of Laura Nyro, and worked with many other singers of the '50s, '60s and early '70s, including Ricky Nelson and the 5th Dimension. He had an office at the iconic Brill Building in New York City, the hub of the music business in the '50s and '60s. He worked for 20th Century Fox until he retired in 1972.
There were some interesting people who spent time at my grandparent's home, entertainment industry folks including Louis Prima, Songwriter Hall of Fame Member Carl Sigman ("Where Do I Begin" from Love Story) Lena Horne (who was Lennie Hayton's wife), Jonny Desmond (on whom I had a major little girl crush) and more. They sang and drank and smoked and laughed. For a child who loved music, this was mesmerizing -- how they could sit down at the piano and suddenly a party would start. And always, my grandfather Paul was the most handsome man in the room -- with deep blue eyes and dark, wavy hair -- his skin tanned from hours lying in the sun in his backyard, listening to his beloved Yankee games on a transistor radio, beer in hand.
Through YouTube, I connected with a wonderful guy named Big Lou who had posted some of my grandfather's recordings. He later added some pictures of my grandparents to the videos:
Through Ebay I've been able to find every one of the recordings he made with the Lennie Hayton Orchestra -- 78 RPM records that have no place left to be played. My grandmother's copies of his records were destroyed in a flood at her storage unit, so finding the records has been a thrill. I've collected multiple copies of each of his records so everyone in my family can have a few.
He was an aficionado of vocals and lyrics, plucking especially wonderful lines out of songs to share with me, including this phrase that he told me was one of his favorites, from the Song "My Darling, My Darling" from Where's Charley:
"My darling, my darling, I fluttered and fled like a starling..."
From him I learned to hear music, not just listen to it - and I also grew to be physically unnerved by songs sung out of tune, flat, sharp, or just plain badly, as he was. He had no tolerance for bad music. I never played the piano around him.
Watching American Idol, I imagine him saying:
"What the hell is this noise?"
Despite the glamour and excitement of his career, ultimately my grandfather loved spending time with his family best of all. He was devoted to his siblings and welcoming of my grandmother's extended family for countless Sunday gatherings and holiday celebrations. My grandparent's home was, in many ways, my home too -- there was nowhere I liked to be more than with them, nothing more fun than a day at their house surrounded by family -- many of whom sang instead of talking, using song lyrics instead of words in conversation.
Paul was just the kind of grandfather a little girl wants. The goofy jokes, the songs sung to me, the big, strong paw of a hand gentle on my arm. When he and my grandmother retired to Florida, we would spend every vacation with them, and he would sit on the terrace for hours after dinner with a glass (or two, or more) of wine, looking out at the ocean. What was he looking for, we always wondered. He never told. He was a man typical of his generation -- strong and silent about his interior life.
Twenty-seven years after he died, I can still hear my grandfather singing to me - always in tune. Every time he sang, I loved it.
My grandfather and I, 1964