Friday, November 23, 2012
An Interview with Kenny Colman
Kenny Colman: I really got to know Redd Foxx in 1974 at the Princess Hotel in Acapulco. I was singing there for about a year. I was doing my jazz oriented stuff. I was standing in the lobby and I heard, "Don't you know me!? I'm Redd Foxx!" He was having problems getting a room. "I'm Redd Foxx! I've got a TV show!" He was rattling on.
I had been there quite often and I had spent much of my career in Mexico. I went to the front desk and I said, "This is a gentleman who is very well known in America. Can we find him a good room?" We got him a nice suite not too far from where I was appearing in the lounge with a sextet. From that point on Redd and I became friends.
He was in Mexico because they wouldn't put a window in his NBC office like he wanted. He was doing Sanford and Son. He was pissed off. They wouldn't give him the window so he just took off and nobody knew where he went. He told me, "Kenny, I'll come in every night and we'll load the place." Of course, my shows were busy anyway, but the fact that Redd had the kindness to acknowledge that Kenny Colman was there and he'd be right there with him - it was a nice boost for me.
It made for a nice five or six days of sitting by the pool. He was very, very nice to me and it continued in Los Angeles. I was singing in Los Angeles and he took me on The Merv Griffin Show with him. I had been on Merv Griffin many times before that, but he brought me on again in 1976. He said, "Kenny Colman is preparing to take Frank Sinatra's position in show business. He knows what the lyrics are all about. He is the heir to Frank Sinatra in show business."
Merv would say, "Yes, I know Kenny very well." I used to work with Merv in New York City. Redd was very, very good to me and often came to see me sing in Los Angeles. They did a five-part documentary on Kenny Colman in Los Angeles on KABC in 1979. Regis Philbin followed me around with a camera to all of the jazz clubs where I was performing. He interviewed people like Redd Foxx, Carmen McRae and Al Schmitt, who won twenty-two Grammys. Redd wanted to help me.
Frank Sinatra liked me. The ad you have says, "Frank Sinatra and Redd Foxx," but there's another ad they had in the paper that said, "Redd Foxx and Frank Sinatra invite you to watch Kenny Colman..." And he was so pissed off because he did not want to have top billing over Frank. He was very concerned about that. Redd was very kind.
There are a lot of other comics - who I won't name - that were in a position where they could have helped, but they didn't. Not only myself, but others. On The Mike Douglas Show we went to Redd's home and I sang a song with Joe Parnello who was Sinatra and Vic Damone's conductor for a long time. They did the show from Redd's house.
I did the Midnight Special with Steve Martin. He was on the show and the hosts were Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber. I did a Lou Rawls special, The Steve Allen Show, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. I sang with a talking dog on the Johnny Carson show in 1964. But the dog didn't talk, he barked. They gave him cookies all day long. He was supposed to say, "I love you." They had been feeding him all day long.
They introduced me, "Here's Kenny Colman from Canada and he's going to talk to this dog." This was when my first record was on Epic. I signed with Epic in 1963. Anyway, I went on the show and the dog was on a stool. I offered him a cookie and he just looked at me. It barked and ran off the stage. Skitch Henderson kicked in the orchestra and I sang a song. Peter O'Toole was getting loaded in the green room, sitting in there with Dick Cavett. So he couldn't come out and do the show. He was there to promote Lawrence of Arabia. So, they said, "Put Kenny Colman back out there." So I sang God Bless the Child and I did very well.
Before that I had worked for Goodson - Todman. They did game shows and a show called Play Your Hunch. I was working on Play Your Hunch and Merv was host. That was 1960. My first gig in show business was at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas with Lionel Hampton for the first three weeks and Harry James the next three weeks. Two of the great big bands.
The main room was Joe E. Lewis and Vic Damone. Here I was twenty-seven years old and I was in awe. It was a very memorable time. I met Jack Carter in 1961 at the Flamingo. He was on the bill with Vic Damone, following in Joe E. Lewis. Joe E. was kind of a legend with Frank. After the show we would all head over to the Sahara to be put down by Don Rickles. When he knew I was in the lounge he would do shtick on me.
That was 1961. The days of the Rat Pack. I got this gig with Sarah Vaughan. Her husband CB Atkins heard me in a club and got me, booked me, put together an act with a bunch of tunes and that's how I really started singing. I was in radio and television prior to that. I was a disc jockey in Bermuda in 1957. I met Bill Todman's mother-in-law at a party in Bermuda. At the party I sang Come Rain or Come Shine. I went to New York and stayed with this wealthy woman at her Park Avenue apartment. I met her son-in-law, who was Bill Todman.
I went to see him and I got a job in casting and as an idea man for Play Your Hunch. So I was in show business. I worked with Lenny Bruce at Le Bistro in Atlantic City in 1963. I opened the show and then Gloria Lynne, the great jazz singer, was on after me. And Herkie Styles... you ever hear of him?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, drummer turned comic.
Kenny Colman: Oh, you know? Well, Herkie was there every night - never got on. He was only there in case Lenny didn't show up. I was in the dressing room and there was drug paraphernalia and everything, but I was pretty naive. To me marijuana was a drug. I didn't know the difference between heavy shit. Lenny was delightful and we were both Jewish so we conveyed to each other through shtick.
Lenny's mother was Sally Marr. When I went to Los Angeles I was playing the Playboy Club and the jazz clubs, I got to know Sally quite well. Jackie Gayle was in their family. Jackie was a good friend of mine and I worked with him in the Playboy Clubs. I worked them with Jerry Van Dyke, Dave Madden, George Carlin, Don Adams and Jackie Gayle many times. They worked all the Playboy Clubs.
Alan King saw me in Acapulco and asked me to do Johnny Carson with him. I was singing When Joanna Loved Me, one of the dominant songs in my career. I was booked on the show with [guest host] Alan King. They gave me two or three days off from the St. Geronimo Hotel where I was headlining. I was booked on the show and two days before I got a call that I was canceled because Alan King was ill and Woody Allen wanted to bring his own people on.
So, I never had my second appearance on The Tonight Show - which would have been a tremendous opportunity for me. Didn't do it, but Alan was very kind to have done that for me. Ed Sullivan finally discovered me when I was in Acapulco - but his show was already off the air. So, you've got to have a little luck to go with your career.
Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Joe E. Lewis...
Kenny Colman: He was always playing gin rummy by the pool. I have a picture somewhere in my reservoir of stuff of Joe E, Vic Damone, Jack Carter and myself. They used to play gin rummy with Joe E. Lewis. He was very well respected by the stars. Joe E. was a legend. My career has taken me to a lot of places all over the world. In 1967 I was singing at the Hungry I in San Francisco. I think I followed Jack Burns and George Carlin in. My opening act was Reiner and Bishop. Rob Reiner, as a matter of fact, still owes me eighty dollars.
Larry Bishop was Joey Bishop's son. I came on next. Kenny Colman. Then Carmen McRae was on. She was there for three weeks and then the guy from the Kingston Trio. In the lounge, off the main show room, was a place called the Living Room. Mort Sahl played there and the Professor Irwin Corey. So I was with these guys. I got friendly with Jack Burns - and John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt. They all came to see me sing. When rock and roll prevailed and there were no more singers, I had to find work.
My mom and dad were in Palm Springs, so I went. I got up and sang at a place called the Metropole. I did very well and I got another job at the Country Club Hotel in Palm Springs. Jilly's reopened with Frank and his boys. Jilly came in with Jimmy the Hook while I was building a name for myself. People were coming to see Kenny Colman. Jilly Rizzo and I knew each other from New York because I used to hang out at Jilly's. I was learning my craft by sitting in all the jazz clubs and piano bars. That's where I learned to do my thing.
I worked the Bon Soir just after Barbra Streisand. Anyway, after I opened at Jilly's - Jilly grabbed me and took me over to meet Frank. This was the first time I met Frank. He was sitting with Lucille Ball. Frank sat up. He gave me a little hug. "Kenny, looking forward to hearing you." From that point on he would wink at me, shake my hand, "You're singing good." I knew from the fact that he was there... I wouldn't be there a second if Frank didn't dig me. It would be impossible. Jilly would only do it to please Frank. He invited me to Vegas. I was a guest. Just a guest. Jilly got me a room and everything.
Nine years pass. All those years I was singing all over from Aruba to Bermuda to Cancun to Australia. Jerry Van Dyke and I had a condo in Australia. 1976 I was getting a divorce and looking for work in Palm Springs. Bobby Milano knew I was in town. He was sick and he couldn't work at Dominic's, a restaurant in Palm Springs. He asked me to fill in. I didn't even rehearse. It was just a piano player with a synthesizer. I hate that. I don't work with less than a trio. But I did it because I needed a gig and I needed to get exposure again. Is this boring? Everything I tell you is no bullshit. This is it.
I walked in. I see Jilly, I see Frank, I see Barbara, Jimmy Van Heusen, Laraine Day, Leo Durocher, Pat Henry. I walked up to Dominic and I said, "I haven't rehearsed. Why don't we wait [for another day]. There's only eighteen people here." He said, "He came to hear you! He called to find out who was working." I was fucking nervous, you know. I sang all the beautiful songs that I knew Frank liked to hear. So, while I was singing he was asking me questions. "Who wrote that?"
He was starting to converse with me and I would answer back. During my time on stage I was in pretty good shape and looking pretty good. He called me to the table, but I didn't go. I went to the corner of the bar. Barbara came and got me and brought me back. When Frank was watching me... he turns his back to you... not to be rude, but because he doesn't want to intimidate you. He's very sensitive to artists. He's deeply concerned about people. I could go on and on about Frank. Anyway, Frank turned the chair around and I sat right next to Blue Eyes - and he's beautiful when he talks to you. There's no question. He looks you right in the eye.
He said, "Kenny, how are you doing?" I said, "Frank, with rock and roll and Top 40 music - it's tough to get a gig. Nobody wants to hear When I Fall in Love." He said, "Does Jilly have your phone number?" I said, "Yeah, I think so." He said, "I'm going to Germany. I'll be back in two weeks. Jilly will call you and we'll talk then." Two weeks to the day I get a phone call and they flew me to Las Vegas. I had a suite at Caesar's Palace. Two bodyguards took me to see Frank. He was onstage at the time and I was backstage with Liberace.
Liberace was telling me how he and Frank had to prove to their mothers that they were millionaires. They each brought a million dollars to their mothers and showed them, "Look. A million dollars." That's what he told me. When Frank came off stage after the first show he came right up to me and rubbed my hair. He says, "You got some great hair, Kenny!"
We all got into limousines and in between shows went to the Moby Dick Room at the Stardust and had seafood. I was sitting across from Frank and couldn't believe I was there. Tongue tied. When he came back we talked about fighters. He loved fighters. I loved boxing also. I was ringside with Barbara watching Frank. From that point on I was in his corner. Maybe it's not important to other people, but Frank did many things for me.
I reopened at Jilly's. Jilly's closed down for many years and reopened in 1979-1980. Frank Sinatra was doing Second Deadly Sin. Of course, Jilly was there and a couple of wiseguys operated it. After I came offstage he called me over and he said, "You know Kenny, you, me, Tony Bennett - we're like the last of a fraternity. We're the last of the saloon singers." I thought to myself, "Yeah, I'm making a thousand dollars and he's making a hundred million a week."
As I was leaving he said, "Kenny, if you ever need anything - holler." Well, during the five-part documentary on me - it was quite a coup. The camera followed me around opening night. Frank told the producer that he would come in on his way to Palm Springs and catch a few songs from Kenny. Word got out. The place was jammed. Of course, it was pretty packed anyways. I knew he knew how good I could be and I knew how could he is. Nobody is better than he is and nobody ever will be better than he is.
He's one of a kind. That night Frank did not come. But Regis was there with his wife Joy and Jilly was there with Dorothy. I sang my ass off. Regis interviewed Jilly. Jilly talks like a wiseguy. He says, "Frank called me one day and he said, 'That Kenny Colman can sing. He's a great singer. Take care of him." When Frank says that - he never deviated til the day he died. I sang in Chicago and Frank came in with Milton Berle and Irv Kupcinet.
It continued. Frank, his final show, November 8, 1994. I was on my way to do a show at Tavern on the Green. I stopped off in Chicago to do some interviews. That night he was in Chicago and I joined him afterward with Don Rickles and Elliot Wiseman. I was with Tony O. We were standing in the wings with Nancy Sinatra. I watched him and I was crying inside. He couldn't read the lyrics. It was very sad. It was like watching an aging fighter unable to lift his hands up to defend himself.
Then, later, I came back to Chicago from New York and he was absolutely un-fucking-believalble. Great. The last round. It was like Rocky. I said to Tony, "What the hell happened?" He was unbelievable. Tony said, "We took him off the medication." It was too much medication. He was magnificent. That was his last time ever singing except for one last gig in Japan. I saw his last performance and he was wonderful.
He arranged for me to sing... at Bally's Hotel in Atlantic City in 1989. Frank took me to Reno on his fiftieth anniversary in show business. I went to Atlantic City with him and he came in almost every night. He was doing his July 4th concert outside for ten thousand people. He was coming out of his trailer and I was headed to go watch him from the sides, but he grabbed me and he lead me with him to the stage, to the curtain. He said, "Just stand right here, Kenny." And he did the whole show looking at me, winking at me, and he made sure to mention, "There's a great singer in the lounge." And he came in that night. Just great. He was wonderful to me.
But the coup de grace was in 1985. April Fool's I was diagnosed with inoperable adenocarcinoma and given six months to live. So I gave away my music and everything. It was a terrible situation. I gave my clothes and everything away. I was booked to open a show on a ship with Alan King on April 10th. I went on the ship, sang and didn't talk too much to Alan. I returned to Canada, it was a mistaken diagnosis, I did have a tumor, it was benign, it was operated on.
Three doctors misdiagnosed me. All three of those doctors are now dead. Seriously. Now, I'm alive. Word got out to Frank. I get a call from Robert Tisch who owns Loew's and the New York Giants. Frank had called him. Bottom line, Bob Houseman called and asked me, "Do you want to go to Monte Carlo to sing at the Loew's Hotel?" Who wouldn't want to go to Monte Carlo?
Kliph Nesteroff: Kenny, I saw you open for Don Rickles a few years ago. When did you first get to know Rickles? Was it through Frank Sinatra?
Kenny Colman: When I did The Merv Griffin Show with Redd Foxx, the next night Don patched up the situation with Johnny Carson and he. You know they had a beef, right? Johnny Carson was a... I knew Johnny when I was working for Merv Griffin in 1960. I was also the singer at the Living Room when Johnny was doing Who Do You Trust and he was a bad drunk. Quite a bad drunk.
Apparently, at Jilly's, Johnny was drunk and he grabbed the ass of this girl, an obscene gesture. It was not in good taste and it could have been a dangerous situation because they were going to beat the shit out of Johnny. Jilly got Johnny out of the club and because of that Jilly and Frank didn't talk to Johnny for years.
For years. Maybe you've heard about this. So, Don was [going to be on] Johnny the next night after I was on The Merv Griffin Show. Jilly asked me to come down to say hello to Frank. So I went down to NBC and went backstage and there was Barbara and Don. Barbara said to me, "Saw you last night on The Merv Griffin Show and you were terrific. Just terrific." Don said, "Terrific!" They knew of me. I had been in the peripheral all my life, but when it came to singing - I was up there. My ambiance, my style, I phrased differently and I never tried to be Frank like Tony did.
Even Michael Buble does, although he's terrific and I wish him even more success. Anyway, Jilly grabs me and I'm walking with Frank behind the curtain on Johnny's show. When you saw me open for Rickles - I think Tony O. told him, "Frank loved Kenny. Let's use Kenny." He raved about me. I was booked with him after that at the Golden Nugget in Vegas.
I tried to be friendly with comics so I could get work. I worked with Pete Barbutti, Ralph Young, Sandy Baron. I knew Sandy very well. He used to come see me in New York, but he was in bad shape. He was on drugs and frustrated.
Kliph Nesteroff: There's a 45 I found and I'm assuming it must be you because it's the same spelling. A Heart Divided by Kenny Colman and the Lanas.
Kenny Colman: Yes! That's my first (laughs). You know what happened? When I first started working for Goodson - Todman I met these guys that were like song writers and they cut this record. I don't even have a copy of it. I also did a soundtrack for Malamondo. Look up Ennio Morricone and Ken Colman.
Can I tell you about George Burns? I met George Burns at The Cave Supper Club. I worked there with Julliet Prowse and of course I headlined there many times. A friend and I, we drove George Burns around Vancouver to show him the city. I had a series called Showcase, the Ken Colman show on CBC. Anyway, George Burns came to the CBC and watched my show. He said, "When you come to Los Angeles look me up and we'll see what we can do for you."
Inevitably I end up back in Los Angeles and I make an appointment to see George. He says, "Come to the Hollywood Palace. I'm hosting, come see me." This was around 1964. He handed me a cigar, "How's your sister? How's your mom?" Most gracious guy. I watched the show and then he said, "Thanks for coming to the show and when you're in town please look me up." I said, "George. I'm in town. I am looking you up!" He said, "Uh, uh, oh, uh, well, what do you want?" I said, "I want to be on the Johnny Carson show again." It never happened.
He wasn't in the position at the time and you've got to grab the moment, y'know. When I was in Acapulco this guy heard me and he said, "You know, I'm a good friend of Jack Benny's." So he arranged for me to meet Jack Benny so he could hear me sing. This was 1974. I schlepped to his office in Beverly Hills with my tape recorder and Irving Fein was his go between.
I see this little guy shriveled up in the chair and he was very gracious. I gave him a tape of the album I did. He listened to it and he listens to almost the whole thing. I says to Irv, "Gee, Irv, I think he's heard enough. Maybe we should stop it." He said, "No, no, he likes it!" I look over - and he's fucking sound asleep. He'd been asleep the whole time!
A few years later I met Muhammad Ali. Sarah Vaughn's husband became right hand man for Muhammad Ali. CB found out I was singing in a club and he came. He came by himself in Beverly Hills and I said, "I'd love for you to meet Muhammad Ali." He arranged for me to go to his home. He did thirty minutes of close magic for me! I have all kinds of pictures of it. He asked me, "Are you as good as Tony Bennett?" I told him, "I'm the greatest." He fucking loved it.
He came to hear me sing. Muhammad came on a Wednesday night. It was empty. There were maybe six people in the room. He comes in, here's Muhammad Ali with CB and another guy to hear Kenny Colman swing! I'm singing and wailing away - singing my guts out to Muhammad Ali and I looked down at him... sound asleep!