Once in a while, my parents’ life became glamorous. They would leave the Bronx and go into Manhattan for what people used to call a night on the town. The names of their destinations were exotic – the Blue Angel, Basin Street East, Upstairs at the Downstairs, the Copacabana – and they conjured up Kennedy-era elegance and cool, whisky sours and Marlboros, sharkskin and chiffon, men in sharp suits, women who spent the afternoon at the beauty parlor and could, for an evening, put on gloves with buttoned cuffs, spray some Arpege, and leave the kids with grandma and grandpa, venture into the heart of the city. Before they had me and my sister, in their dating days, mom and dad were, if their stories were to be believed, quite the nightclubbers, and when I became interested in the popular music of their era, I would ask them if they’d ever seen Nat “King” Cole, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Louis Prima and Keely Smith. A Prima and Smith show, it seemed to me from their albums, was the most fun you could conceivably have, a rowdy, unpredictable private party: let’s shut the doors, ignore last call, forget the baby sitter waiting back home: this is a night for the grown-ups. It was, as the covers of those LPs promised, the wildest.
Keely Smith, who was born the same year as both of my parents, 1928, died in mid-December of 2017. Less than two months later, Vic Damone, also born in ’28, passed away. This wasn’t shocking news; each was on the brink of turning 90. But with that generation slipping into history, we are getting increasingly far away from those small touches of sophistication that were in reach even to a working class married couple who lived on the Grand Concourse, and far away from the whole idea that the social life of young adults could be special and aspirational. When you went to the Copa or the Blue Angel, you made a little effort, shined your shoes and put on a tie, picked out a dress that maybe, in the mood lighting of the club, could pass for something Audrey Hepburn might have worn in Sabrina.
At least that’s how I picture it: Damone, in a tuxedo, gliding on to the stage of the Basin Street East (as on his 1963 LP The Liveliest) and opening with Dietz & Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music,” It sets the tone: here we all are. It’s date night, and Vic is there to provide the romantic scenery. It was ’63, rock and roll was approaching its second decade – and the Beatles were just around the corner – but Damone knows what his job is, to do the standards the way they were written. “At Long Last Love,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” He doesn’t transform them, the way Sinatra did, doesn’t make them crisp and vibrant the way Darin did, doesn’t swing them the way Greco did. The expression I always heard, when my mom was listening to WNEW (AM) on the kitchen radio, was that Damone had “the best pipes.” He never completely won me over, but he made a few fine albums at Capitol, and when he went to Reprise and the label set him up with producer Jimmy Bowen to try and replicate the countrypolitan formula that was working so well with Dean Martin, he didn’t embarrass himself terribly (it was, perhaps, inadvisable for him to do “It’s Not Unusual”).
Keely followed a parallel path as a solo artist, and her Capitol albums were even better, Swingin’ Pretty and I Wish You Love with Nelson Riddle, Politely! with Billy May (who also arranged a couple of snappy, slangy Frank Sinatra-Keely Smith duet sides penned by Cahn & Van Heusen). Later on, she joined the Reprise roster, where she recorded one of the first adult-pop albums devoted to the songs of Lennon & McCartney, and made the best albums of her career, The Intimate Keely Smith (produced by Bowen, whom she married in ’65) and Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New, which reunited her with Riddle. None of those LPs charted, and neither did her singles from ’63 through ’66 that cast her in a more contemporary light, tracks like “Going Through the Motions,” co-written by Al Kooper and arranged by Don Costa, “No One Ever Tells You,” a Spector-Goffin-King song arranged by Jack Nitzsche, and “Sunday Mornin’,” arranged by Neil Hefti. (She also had an early crack at Bacharach & David’s “One Less Bell to Answer” on Atlantic, but that song had to wait a few years for the Fifth Dimension version to hit the charts.)
A song that Vic and Keely had in common was “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” from Bye Bye Birdie. That was the first Broadway show I ever saw, when I was around 10 years old. The Adams & Strouse song was everywhere: what pop singer who needed an uptempo number for a nightclub act could resist it? Not many, apparently: Jack Jones, Nancy Wilson, Steve & Eydie, Sammy Davis Jr., Chris Connor, Shirley Bassey, Annie Ross all did it; so did teen idols James Darren and Bobby Rydell (it kicks off his live at the Copa album); so did jazz artists like Lee Morgan, Louis Armstrong (he even sang it on Shindig!), Bill Henderson (with Oscar Peterson) and Count Basie. It’s on Damone’s Basin Street East album, and on the buoyant Little Girl New side of the Keely-Riddle album. It’s a song with a feeling of anticipation and impatience, pent up energy: look out, world.
I picture my parents in some downtown (everything south of the Bronx was downtown) nightclub, having cocktails, free of us back home. Maybe Steve & Eydie sang “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” when my mom and dad saw them at the Copa: the timeline works, since it’s on S&E’s ’63 LP Two on the Aisle. I think about how I felt when I saw Bye Bye Birdie. “Life’s a ball, if only you know it, and it’s all just waiting for you.” Girls ripe for kissin’, steaks, wine and Cadillacs. I couldn’t wait. Around the same time, I was already immersed in teen pop, going to rock shows in Brooklyn, buying records. But there was, I knew, another world. “Music to play, places to go, people to see.” All a few years and a few subway stops away.