Backstage: Middle-of-the-Road Encounters

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: A sullen Sammy and a beaming Bennett.

While most people tend to associate rock 'n' rollers with wackiness and eccentricity, I've found in my experiences that even older performers tend to have certain quirks that set them apart. I didn't meet a lot of stars associated with my parents' generation, but a few do come to mind when it comes to tales that are worth retelling.

I should start by saying that when I was growing up, my parents were part of the pre-rock 'n' roll generation. Nowadays, most people say that they inherited their love of the Beatles, the Stones, and others of that ilk from their folks and that that's what gave them their first impressions of modern music. However, I was part of an earlier generation whose parents were weaned on big bands, Sinatra, and what's commonly referred to as MOR, or "Middle of the Road." They were traditional artists who crooned the standards, many of which dated back before the Second World War. When I was growing up in Texas, the music I most remember hearing around our house were show tunes like the The Sound of Music and Porgy and Bess -- not to mention that off-color comedy album my dad would pull out every once and while, a faux play-by-play describing a farting contest. 

Although I ventured into rock 'n' roll at a fairly young age, I remember it was my parents who encouraged me to watch TV to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event I was oblivious to at the time. The occasional Elvis and Buddy Holly song circled my brain as a child, but my impression of them was limited. Elvis was a greaser and therefore undesirable. I misinterpreted Buddy Holly's hit "Peggy Sue" as "Debby Sue," referencing one of the neighbor's kids by that name instead. 

My first concert was either Peter, Paul, and Mary back home in Dallas or the Italian crooner Julius LaRosa, whom my parents proudly took me to see during one of our frequent trips to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. Other than an off-handed encounter with a local Dallas group called the Five Americans ("Western Union," "Sound of Love") at the opening of a car dealership, my early musical encounters were decidedly uncool. Still, I do remember that meeting the Five Americans in person provided me with my first up-close look at guys that actually had long hair. In conservative Dallas, that was a big deal indeed. 

Still, I never had occasion to personally meet a performer belonging to that older MOR generation until I attended college. During my freshman year at Southern Methodist University, Bob Hope paid the school a visit, not surprisingly, since he was a frequent contributor. Those were tumultuous times, however, and Bob being the loyal Republican that he was -- one of the few staunch conservatives in Hollywood -- he looked terrified when greeted by a crowd of long-haired admirers. 

The situation was quite the opposite when, a few years later, I was attending the University of Miami and none other than the late Sammy Davis Jr. made an appearance on campus in support of some grievances being voiced by the black student association. Davis made a brief speech on the student union patio, and afterward, as he was making his way toward an appointment with the black students involved, I went up to him and gave him the famous "soul brother" handshake. Davis, looking very much the "hip cat" contingent of the Brat Pack, was dressed in a fringe jacket and boots and sporting an Afro and yet was unresponsive to my enthusiastic greeting, other than simply nodding and saying "Right on, man!" His appearance later caused some controversy when it was reported that his meeting with the aggrieved students was closed to students who were non-African-American. 

A few years later, when I worked for ABC Records, I chanced to have a phone conversation with Bobby Vinton, a popular MOR singer whose last major hit had been a '50s chart topper called "Blue Velvet." Vinton had a new offering, and the label decided it had hit potential, so I gave him a call and proceeded to suggest some strategies to get him back on the radio. Vinton gave me the third degree in no uncertain terms, conveying the impression that he was desperate to regain some relevance. It was somewhat awkward for me, because in all honesty, I didn't think that any song by Bobby Vinton had much of a chance to return him to pop prominence. Still, I tried to be helpful and listen intently to his suggestions. Nowadays, I don't even remember the name of the song, and needless to say, the record went nowhere. 

My most pleasant encounter with an MOR crooner occurred when I worked with the great Tony Bennett while I was employed at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Bennett flew into town to perform at a fundraiser for the playhouse, and I was assigned to take a limo and meet him at the airport. Bennett was agreeable and gracious from the get-go, and when bystanders recognized him, he returned their greetings with a hearty hello. He had a smile for everyone. On the way to Coconut Grove, we sat together in the back of the limo, and he happily answered all my show-biz questions, including those that pertained to his friendship with Johnny Carson, one of my longtime idols. The fact is, the guy couldn't have been nicer. 

A quick footnote: Bennett makes what he does seem so easy, but at his performance, he was inclined to intone a lot of "doo be doo be doos" in place of the song lyrics. "Hmmm," I said to one of my coworkers sitting next to me watching the show. "For the money he makes, shouldn't he know the words?" Maybe, but I guess when you've earned that level of admiration and adoration, it doesn't seem to matter.

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