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Hipper Than Hip: Singer-Pianist Buddy Greco 1926-2017

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 06:28 AM Written by 


buddy greco on stage

In the first major musical death of 2017, Buddy Greco, the famed singer-pianist, a member of the Rat Pack and friend of Marilyn Monroe, died yesterday at 90 in Las Vegas, ending a career that began in his native Philly, and continued well into the 21st century.  Greco, while long associated with Vegas, actually has roots a lot closer to here.

Armando Greco was born in Philadelphia in 1926, the son of a record store owner and local opera critic. He was singing Italian songs on local radio at age four and playing piano at six, receiving extensive classical training. Moving into pop music, he played and sang around Philly in the 1940's and after being discovered by a local agent who facilitated his first recording. At the time the Nat King Cole Trio was a huge influence on Greco.  Despite what wire reports say, he didn't begin singing with Benny Goodman at 16, but led a trio called the Three Shades of Rhythm in Philly.

1947: "Ooh, Look-a There Ain't She Pretty." Greco at 21, still in Philly, singing a jazz tune going back to the 1930's. The record did well enough to get him noticed. It was a Top 20 hit that year.

A year later, 22 year old Greco and these musicians (bassist Clyde Lombardi, drummer Sonny Igoe and future Bill Haley guitarist Frank Beecher) joined clarinetist Benny Goodman as the "King of Swing" organized a band to play bebop, the new, cutting edge jazz style of the moment, a band gone by 1949 as Goodman, who decided he didn't like bebop after all, reverted to swing. Greco moved on and initially fronted his own trio with Beecher on guitar.

Greco began working clubs around the country and cultivated a hip, finger-snapping in-your-face edge on stage and records, one reason jazz critic and historian Will Friedwald, in his book Jazz Singing, once referred to him as "the Don Rickles of song." Beneath the attitude was a first-rate jazz singer and pianist able to hold his own even with a piano great like Dr. Billy Taylor.

This is a sampler of him over the past 70+ years

1955: "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." Recorded for the Kapp label.

1956: "The Blue Room" from The Rosemary Clooney Show.

1959: "Like Young" from his peak years with Epic Records.

Greco only had one charted single for Epic in later years: the original 1962 single version of "Mr. Lonely," which only made it into the 60's.  Two years later, Canonsburg's Bobby Vinton recorded his # 1 version of the song for Epic, singing on top the same backing track as Greco's earliier recording.

August 12, 1963: "Fly Me To The Moon"  in full Erroll Garner instrumental mode.

That year Greco appeared at the Royal Variety Show in London on the same bill as the Beatles. He would incorporate their music and other 60's rock and pop acts into his repertoire, his way. His repertoire was fluid, encompassing Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. I blogged about that last year.

1965: "The Lady Is A Tramp" (a Greco specialty) with Sammy Davis, Jr. from Something Special which starred Greco.

November 28, 2009: Discussing his early days with Florence Henderson at his Las Vegas supper club. He doesn't quite get the Goodman chronology right but it's an entertaining inteview nonetheless.

After closing the club, Greco and fifth wife, singer Lezlie Anders (they married in 1995) and relocated to England where he continued performing. This clip sums it up as well as anything

2013: "One For My Baby" with UK Sinatra tribute singer David Alacey, with a film clip retrospective of Greco in his prime years. Greco considered this his 80th year in music. The voice had aged. But the spirit and youthful swagger never left.  A shot of Greco with Marilyn Monroe and Sinatra can be seen at 1:33.

He retired soon afterward, returning to Vegas.  He made one of his last public appearances for his November, 2015 induction into the Las Vegas Entertainment Hall of Fame.   Accepting the award, the Las Vegas Desert Sun reported, Greco added one bit of advice: "Never quit."

There was one Sinatra, one Dean, one Sammy, one Darin and one (thankfully still going strong) Tony Bennett—and one Buddy Greco.


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