Sunday 17 December 2017

Obituary: Buddy Greco

Singer and pianist who recorded 'The Lady is a Tramp' and partied with the Rat Pack

RAT PACK PAL: Buddy Greco on The Dean Martin Show in 1967. Photo: Getty Images
RAT PACK PAL: Buddy Greco on The Dean Martin Show in 1967. Photo: Getty Images newsdesk

Buddy Greco , who died on Tuesday aged 90, began his career as a pianist, vocalist and arranger for Benny Goodman at a time when the 'King of Swing' was looking to modernise by getting into bebop; but he became more closely identified with Frank Sinatra, playing at the star's Las Vegas casino, the Sands, in the 1960s, and hanging out with the 'Rat Pack'.

Greco also had a long association with England and, perhaps rather incongruously, with Essex, where he started playing in a few clubs in the 1950s. "I came to England in 1949 and fell in love with the place," he recalled. "London was certainly one of the most vibrant and architecturally stunning cities I'd ever seen, but the place that really grabbed my heart was Essex."

He was born Armando Greco on August 14, 1926, in a Philadelphia neighbourhood that also produced Mario Lanza, Eddie Fisher and Frankie Avalon. It was his father, Papa Joe, an opera critic from southern Italy, who encouraged the four-year-old Armando to sing and learn the piano. "Everyone in our neighbourhood was poor but my parents made big sacrifices so I could have piano lessons," he recalled.

He began his career on local radio and scored his first hit, Ooh Look A-There, Ain't She Pretty, in 1946. It sold more than a million copies and young Armando thought he would buy his parents a house with the royalty cheque - "but when it arrived it was only $33. The company president had taken the money and run."

Discovered by Goodman in 1948 at Philadelphia's Club 13, over the next three years Greco toured internationally with the Goodman Band, recording some 150 tunes, with Greco heading the band on several occasions.

After leaving Goodman, Greco returned to nightclubs and in 1955, while performing in the lounge of the Sands Hotel, he met Sinatra, who had come to see Nat King Cole. "I went into the main room after I was through, and I'm standing in back, and Frank turns around and says, 'Hey … come sit down with me.' And we became instant friends."

Greco's big break came in 1961 with his finger-snapping rendition of The Lady is a Tramp, which sold more than a million copies. Over the next decade he went on to have a series of minor hits with songs such as Around the World, Mr Lonely and I Ran All the Way Home. Sinatra rated him highly, saying: "Buddy can make anything swing, nobody comes close in that department."

In 1962, he made his debut at the Copacabana Club in New York, and in 1963 appeared on the same bill as the Beatles at a Royal Command Performance in London. He had his own network television show with George Carlin and in 1967 recorded the album Buddy Greco Live at the Sands.

As photographs from the era attest, Greco became an integral part of Sinatra's 'Rat Pack', partying hard with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin. "We were like gods. There wasn't enough that people could do for us and together we were bad boys," he recalled. "We drank, mainly Jack Daniel's. That was Sinatra's choice and if he drank it, so did you. We shared women. Boy, we were bad. There were mornings I woke up and couldn't understand why I wasn't in jail."

Greco remained a popular performer on the Las Vegas Strip into old age, headlining in 1992 at the Flamingo Showroom and at the Desert Inn's Starlight Room, where he met his fifth wife, Lezlie Anders, a singer also working at the hotel.

In 1998, after their marriage, they bought and remodelled a large Spanish-style hacienda in south-eastern Las Vegas, where they kept geese, a pig and a turkey. They lived there until 2006, when they moved to Palm Springs, California, to open Buddy Greco's Dinner Club, where Greco headlined until the nightspot closed in 2009.

He was a regular at Essex's Talk of the Town nightclub in the 1970s and in 2010 he and Lezlie moved into a flat in the Southend suburb of Westcliff-on-Sea. "That view across the Thames estuary blew my mind," he explained in an interview in 2013. "It's my favourite view in the whole world - just watching the ships sail across that mighty old river. I have homes in the two most beautiful places in the world - Palm Springs and Southend. We call it the English sun belt."

After moving to England (which he had visited some 60 times over the years), Greco toured extensively solo and with the Swinging Las Vegas Legends Show. He produced the London stage show Fever! The Music of Miss Peggy Lee with his wife, who had been a friend of the singer's.

He released some 70 albums, including From The Wrists Down (1965), which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 2014, as Buddy's health declined, the couple announced they were returning to live in the US. Before they left, the concert promoter David Alacey organised a celebration for Buddy at an Essex restaurant, attended by stars such as Kenny Lynch, Michelle Collins and Paul Young.

He is survived by his wife and seven children from his previous marriages.

© Telegraph

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