March 28, 2017

Mick Archer’s Piano Bar column featuring Elizabeth Doyle in Chicago Jazz Magazine

Mick Archer has written a lovely article about my encounter with late and great jazz pianist, Marian McPartland and included some of my recollections about playing in piano bars.

Elton John show in Las Vegas

There are any number of great shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but Elton John: The Million Dollar Piano is my vote for “not-to-be-missed” musical extravaganza. You have to like rock and roll, but familiarity with John’s song catalogue is not a prerequisite for enjoying this spectacle. He has a kick-ass back-up band with two of the members having played with him starting in 1969. There is definitely some age on this stage, but you wouldn’t know it from their energy and cool-factor demeanor.

Elton wows the audience with his brilliant playing and his powerful vocals (albeit amplified with lots of reverb), but he also talks with the audience about his friendship with John Lennon and his love of performing. When he speaks, you forget you are in a Colosseum with 4,297 other listeners.

A word about the stupendous electric grand piano Elton plays throughout the show, specially made by Yamaha, the instrument features over 68 LED video screens. The 120-foot-wide and 40-foot tall LED screen across the back of the stage adds to the visuals. Videos include shifting design images, a collage of Elton wearing unique clothing throughout his career and a touching white gardenia film tribute to John Lennon.

The audience is singing along during the show, jumping to their feet after numbers, and clapping along with the three percussionists in John’s band. A select few in the front rows are invited to the stage towards the end of the show for the opportunity of shaking the star’s hand.

If my ears did not deceive me, I believe Elton John said his two children, Zachary (age 6) and Elijah (age 3) were seeing their father perform in Million Dollar Piano for the first time that evening in Las Vegas. I bet they were mightily impressed. I certainly was!

Harold Prince: Superlative Director/Producer

Producer/Director Harold Prince turns 89 this week. His remarkable career spans from being assistant stage manager on Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam in 1950 to directing a revue of songs from his hit shows in 2015.

A partial list of his Broadway endeavors looks like a history of musical theater: The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Showboat plus countless others.
I have a tiny little connection to him. Harold Prince was being publicly interviewed in Chicago by theater writer Jonathan Abarbanel. My musical Fat Tuesday was then showing at the old Theater Building Chicago. Our stage set was where the conversation took place in front of a rapt audience.
I had the opportunity to give Mr. Prince a hand-written invitation to attend the Pump Room that evening where I was currently performing.
He sent me a lovely letter back expressing his regrets at not being able to attend the Pump Room since he was flying out later that day. He was most gracious in thanking me for the invitation and expressed fond memories of other visits to this famous supper club. As busy as he was, his courtesy and attention to detail was demonstrated in this kind reply to my note.
Happy Birthday Harold. You are indeed a Prince!

Frank Sinatra Jr., some undersung praise

One of the personalities whom I encountered at the Pump Room was Frank Sinatra Jr. who like his father enjoyed the atmosphere and food at this famous supper club.

One night when Frank Jr. was dining at the Pump Room, he introduced himself and gave me advice on how to improve the stage lighting. I found him to be friendly, gracious and helpful.

Another time, he and his big band had been rained out of a Grant Park outdoor concert so he took the whole crew for dinner at the Ambassador East eatery. A few of my musical colleagues played for him and said working with him was a good gig. He used great arrangements and knew what he wanted, having been his father’s music director and conductor starting in 1988.

Frank Jr. had a lovely voice that was similar to his father’s, but comparisons always pointed out that he did not have his dad’s magic.

He had enough of the entertainment gene however to keep singing, acting, songwriting and conducting from 1963 until his death on March 2016. Look up his bio on wikipedia to see how involved he stayed with music and tv projects until his death.

His list of performing venues was impressive too, up until the end, including the Royal Albert Hall in London and Town Hall in New York City.

I’m thinking kind thoughts about this man who sometimes found it challenging to live in the shadow of his famous father on this his birthday week.

Leonard Cohen at Chicago Theater: May 2009

<img class="aligncenter size-medium wp-image-4400" src="http://www.elizabethdoylemusic viagra×168.jpg” alt=”leonard-cohen-e1474508147892″ width=”300″ height=”168″ srcset=”×168.jpg 300w,×431.jpg 768w,×83.jpg 148w,×17.jpg 31w,×21.jpg 38w,×215.jpg 383w, 873w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />In 2009, Leonard Cohen was touring with singer/co-songwriter Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters with a kick-ass multi-cultural band consisting of bass, Hammond B3 Accordion, 12-string, electric, pedal and steel guitars, bandurria, laud, percussion, sax, dobro, clarinet and keyboards. The band was tight and on fire.

At the Chicago Theater, I sat with fellow Cohen devotee, Dan Stetzel and we marveled at the arrangements, the musicians and back-up vocals, but most notably the electric performance from the then septuagenarian Leonard Cohen.

The concert was over 3 hours with Cohen’s energy never showing any signs of flagging. In fact, he seemed to be physically possessed by his material as he danced and gesticulated with wild abandon.

From the song Dance Me To the End of Love as the opener, through his numerous compositions, to Whither Thou Goest as the closer, this was one of the most thrilling concerts I have ever experienced. And this from a man with a voice characterized by sandpaper, whiskey and bad Tuvan throat-singing. His lyrics were at times dark, but the spirit he exuded was transcendantly positive and warmly inclusive. The prolonged ovation at the end of the show was an outpouring of love between performer and audience.

Cohen and Bob Dylan have been our poet-troubadours throughout the turbulent 60’s to the present day. Both have continued writing and touring as they climbed the decades.

Besides his large catalogue of songs, Cohen published books of poetry and two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. We are indeed a little poorer today without the prospect of more wise and wonderful words from Canadian Leonard Cohen.

An interesting web site with much Cohen info:

Cleo Laine: This Week’s Birthday Honoree

Dame Cleo Laine turned 88 this week. Born to a black Jamaican father and a white English farm girl, Laine went on to make inroads into jazz, musical theater and classical music. Milestones include her recording of Porgy and Bess with Ray Charles, her concerts with Frank Sinatra at Royal Albert Hall in London, her classical recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and her star turn in the Broadway musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Let me say that I have been a big fan for a long time. I snuck into one of her rehearsals at the famed Venetian Room in the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel. I had to leave that afternoon before her opening night, so I was trying to catch some of her act before heading for the airport. She was absolutely phenomenal.

A few years later, I was singing at the Pump Room when who should come in for dinner but Dame Cleo Laine and her very talented husband, bandleader/instrumentalist, Sir John Dankworth. After their meal, they actually hung out with our combo around the piano. They gave my band leader and me contact information for them in England and said they would love to have us perform at their home should we be in England. Little did we know that they had a very professional venue called The Stables on their residential grounds. Alas, I never made it to Great Britain and Sir John died in 2010.

While summoning up this cherished memory, I wish you a very happy birthday, Dame Cleo Laine. You are one of the classiest ladies in the music business.

Prince memories

Please indulge me while I add two more Prince memories at the passing of the multi-talented entertainer from Minnesota. Prince’s recording studio, Paisley Park is listed as opening in 1984, but I dimly recall doing a session at an earlier and more humble version of the recording studio in the 1970’s. At the time, I was a native of South Dakota and Minneapolis was the nearest metropolis for shopping and entertainment. A local singer with a beautiful voice, Mary Ellen Armbruster, hired me to play the piano for her demo in the Twin Cities.

To the best of my recollection, the Minnesota recording studio we drove to was affiliated with this young, up-and-coming singer named Prince. When we did the session, Prince was nowhere to be seen, but this was the most impressive professional setting I had experienced up to this point in my career.

Years later, I was playing New Year’s Eve in a downtown Chicago hotel as 1999 turned into 2000. Many of the party attendees were members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who were camped out waiting for their January 2, 2000 game with the Chicago Bears. Thank heavens, I had learned Prince’s song 1999 because my bass player, drummer and I had to play the tune multiple times as football players and other hotel guests continued to request it. Oh, and the Bears lost to the Buccaneers 20 to 6 two days later.

One final note on Prince, Minnesota was proud that their musical native son kept the state as his base of operations. Hundreds of artists used his recording studios and benefited from his support and encouragement. May his music and influence live on. I’m going to go play his song, Little Red Corvette now.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

My father was a trial attorney and book-lover. He and I enjoyed chatting about John Grisham books so I read several to keep pace with him. My dad’s death coincided with me deciding that Grisham’s books were starting to seem formulaic to me. I moved on to other popular fiction writers.

Imagine my delight when I ran across a library audio book version of Grisham’s 2014 novel, Gray Mountain and found it well-plotted and not predictable. Set right after the financial meltdown of 2008, the main character, Samantha Kofer, is a third year associate at a large New York law firm who is suddenly furloughed. She is encouraged to spend a year as an intern at a legal clinic in Virginia coal mining country.

We meet a cast of characters including her disbarred trial attorney father, her politically-connected mother, two Virginia brothers who are fighting the coal companies, her colleagues at the free legal clinic and her clients who sorely need legal representation. The reader is effortlessly immersed in the mining and cultural world of Appalachia.

Let me digress a moment with me seeing John Grisham enter the Pump Room in the mid 90’s, amid men in dark suits. He, in contrast, was in light-colored attire that made him literally glow amid these less glamorous dinner companions. Grisham has this energy emanating from him whether it is celebrity or perhaps personal wattage. He may not be writing literature for the ages, but he brings that remarkable energy to bear in having written a novel a year since 1988, many of them bestsellers.

Back to the book review, Gray Mountain would make an entertaining read on an airplane ride or on one’s daily commute. After all, one cannot live by Tolstoy and Faulkner alone.

Happy Birthday, Hal Prince!

Can you think of any theatrical producer/director that has had a wider array of hits and prestige productions on Broadway than Hal Prince? A partial list would include: Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, She Loves Me, Fiddler On the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention being Stephen Sondheim’s go-to-guy for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and  Sweeney Todd. Whew! Whether directing or producing, or doing both, this guy must have been working night and day since the 1950s.

Back in the 90s, Mr. Prince had agreed to be interviewed in front of an audience in Chicago. My musical Fat Tuesday was running at the Theater Building on Belmont. Our stage set happened to be the venue for the Prince program. I gave him a hand-written note inviting him to the Pump Room where I was performing.

He wrote me back saying that he was leaving Chicago after this event, but had warm memories of his previous visits to the Pump Room. He wished me well. I was dazed with hero worship!

He turns 87 this week. Happy Birthday, Mr. Prince!

Birthday Tribute to June Christy

June Christy would have been 90 this week. As a birthday tribute, I will be performing selected songs from her repertoire this Friday at Barba Yianni.
Born in Springfield, IL, Christy was most famous for being the talented blonde chick singer with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s. She recorded many beloved jazz songs including It Could Happen To You and I Remember You.

I had the honor of being on the same entertainment roster with her during Deco Days here in Chicago. I was in a jazz vocal group called Champagne Edition which opened for the still-lovely Miss Christy. When she took to the stage, it became apparent that alcohol had eroded her health and performing abilities. She died at age 64 from kidney failure. It was a big thrill, nonetheless, to cross paths with such a jazz vocal icon.