Jerry Vale, A Singer's Life by Richard Grudens
Jerry Vale is one of those guilty pleasures in life. Not known for being cool, hip or cutting-edge, Jerry's simply a darn good singer. He sings songs you know, in a style where you can actually hear the lyric. And these are songs with lyrics you want to hear. Classics and sentimental favorites.
Jerry Vale, born Genaro Louis Vitaliano in 1932 in the Bronx, is one of the last saloon singers. In this excerpt from the recently published Jerry Vale, A Singer's Life by Richard Grudens (published by Celebrity Profiles Publishing and available in bookstores and on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com) he talks about his encounters with two other famous crooners.
A lesson learned on The Dean Martin Show
"I had always admired Dean Martin, but he's one of the most unusual performers I've ever known. I did his television show once. The experience almost destroyed me emotionally. I had contracted to do the Ed Sullivan Show just before the Dean Martin Show offer. It's no secret they were rival programs competing for the appearance of popular artists on their shows. If you did Sullivan, you had to have twenty-one days before you could appear on the Dean Martin or any other competing show. As it turned out, I only had twenty days. The Martin show producer, Greg Garrison, would not grant me an O.K. because I was one day shy. I was informed of this just as I finished the dress rehearsal for the Sullivan show. Ed came over to me and told me that I was off the show because Greg Garrison would not okay it. Ed kindly assured me that I would, indeed, appear on future shows. I was getting $4,000 for Ed's show with no traveling expenses because I lived in the New York area. The Martin show was paying only $3,500, but he cost of traveling to California and paying hotel fees materially reduced my earnings.
"When I arrived at the studio in Hollywood, Greg Garrison told me about a problem he had with (singer) Robert Goulet. It seemed as though Goulet was supposed to do two songs on the previous show and Greg had cut it down to one song. When he received a letter (and actually displayed it to me) from Goulet's agent objecting to the change, he said, "F*** him and his agent, he's through!" and proceeded to tear up the letter and toss it in the trash can, I knew I might be headed for trouble with this man. It was clear that his power had poisoned his brain."
Jerry rehearsed his song and also learned both parts of the song he was supposed to perform with Dean. He had learned both parts because the producer and musical director, Lee Hale, were not sure which one Dean would wind up performing. Dean never had to show up in the theater until the day of the show, a valid, but peculiar element in his contract with NBC, and sometimes a problem for participating artists who had to work without him until the last day. Stand-ins were substitutes for Dean for an entire week before the show, Lee Hale having to find a way to use Dean more and keep the unusual one-day-a-week schedule.
"As it turned out, I was to do the harmony. We did the dress rehearsal. It went very smoothly. Kate Smith of "God Bless America" fame and singer Shirley Bassey were also on the show. Each was to perform three numbers. After the rehearsal, Garrison came over to me saying, 'Sorry, Jerry, we're four minutes over, so I'm taking you off the show.'
"Stunned, I said, 'Wait a minute, Greg. I gave up the Sullivan show and traveled clear across the country at my own expense just to do this. Why can't you cut someone else's performance a bit and keep me on with my one song?' 'We do it my way or no way at all!' he answered curtly and briskly, walking away cold and uncaring.
"I was crushed. I rushed to Dean's dressing room and told him what had happened, hoping he could be an influence in the matter. After all, I had told the whole world I was going to be on the show and had given up Ed Sullivan's show and spent what to me was a fortune to go to L.A. Dean looked askance at me and said equally coldly, 'We do that all the time, Pally, that's show business.' 'You'll never do it to me again,' I said and walked out very angry.
"To this day it still disturbs me when I think about how inconsiderate and callous they were to me and probably others, like my friend Bob Goulet. That's the side of show business you don't hear about very much, but nevertheless, it's unfortunately a common part of that life. In fairness to Dean, I don't think he actually knew anything about the Sullivan show dilemma. The real culprit was Greg Garrison, who didn't care."
Some weeks later, Garrison contacted Jerry and said that he had reviewed the tape of his performance with Dean Martin and liked it very much, offering him to return to L.A. to film a closing for a future show that would include his taped performance with Martin.
"I told them I would do it, but I wanted ten thousand dollars, an unheard of sum for such an appearance in those days. They refused, so I told them to destroy the tape because I would not do it for a penny less. You have to respond positively about these things to preserve your own self-respect, especially in this business where they sometimes walk all over you, but only if you allow them to."
Working Las Vegas
The first time Jerry worked Las Vegas was at the famous Sands Hotel. Only hired for a two-week gig, until owner Jack Entratter personally heard him, Jerry's engagement was favorably extended. It seems that Entratter turned to the fellow in charge of lounge bookings and declared, "Tell Jerry Vale he can stay here as long as he likes. I like him!" That extended engagement lasted a satisfying twenty-two weeks.
Meeting Frank Sinatra
"While performing at the Sands, I befriended a number of fellow entertainers. There was Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole and, of course, I worked alongside one of my early idols, Frank Sinatra, whose generous recommendation landed me the job in the first place. I was especially thrilled to work beside Frank. He and Perry Como had been my longtime musical mentors. A few years ago I had heard so many negative stories about Frank that I was somewhat apprehensive to approach him. To my absolute surprise, he would up being quite amiable and the most caring individual that I have ever known."
Jerry met Sinatra for the first time at Lindy's Restaurant in New York City in the early Fifties. Lindy's was one of the great show-business restaurants whose walls were covered with caricatures of the great and near great entertainers of our time.
"He was sitting at a table with friends, and when we were introduced, he stood up, which was an unusual custom for big stars. When he arose, he tried to ease the table away to make room for himself. I'll never forget what he said, 'I'm trying to push this table back, but the damn thing is pushing me instead."
As the calendar pages turned, Jerry would encounter Sinatra at various show business events and affairs.
"He was a gentleman and always made it a point to ask me if I needed anything, something he always earnestly inquired of his friends, either when seeing them face to face or frequently by telephone. One night he asked me when I was coming to do my singing act in Vegas. I responded, 'When somebody asks me.'"
Sinatra was then a partner in the Las Vegas Sands Hotel and Casino. He immediately shot back without any hesitation whatever: "Come to Vegas next Friday and you'll start in the lounge," for what a surprised Jerry thought would be perhaps for a few days or a week's engagement at best. Jerry kept his date with Sinatra and enjoyed an unprecedented, extended 22-week engagement at the Sands Hotel, which was the dawn of a new life in an entirely different venue for the young, emerging singing star. To this day, Jerry still performs in Las Vegas.
"And, it's all due to Frank's generosity and caring about people he likes. He didn't have to do that for me. He also cared about many others. When Buddy Hackett and I worked together in Florida, Frank was staying at his usual suite in the Eden Rock Hotel. He would call down to us and invite us up for pizza and sandwiches. Some nights we would not get back to our own place until five or even six the next morning.
"It was great fun during those wonderful days. I don't think I could do that today. Frank was an amazing guy. He would stay up all night and sleep the next day, then do out the following evening and still was able to perform a great show."
Over the years Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Jerry and Rita Vale had become kindred spirits, especially after Jerry and Rita migrated to California and Las Vegas. They would spend considerable time now and then at Frank and Barbara's sprawling Rancho Mirage home.
In 1996, Jerry performed at the annual Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament. He had been participating in the tournament for seven years prior, playing golf, his favorite sport. This time Barbara Sinatra invited him to perform in this, a special tribute to her husband.
"I was honored. The show featured a powerhouse of great vocalists: Vic Damone, Andy Williams, Jack Jones and Buddy Greco. I was delighted to perform in their company. We all belted out tunes that Frank had originally introduced as he sat in the audience watching from his traditional stage-right front-row table."
When it was Jerry's turn to perform, he simply announced: "Frank, I'm going to sing some songs that are associated with you. I only hope to do them justice, as God knows you already have." A smile and a wave from Sinatra.
Jerry performed seven songs. There were 1,500 Sinatra friends and associates in the audience. Almost every major Hollywood star filled the seats.
Through the years Jerry and Frank shared appearances on a number of shows together, especially those for the Italian American Organization. Frank was consistently involved in supporting such projects through personal appearances. Jerry and Frank performed together for a particular gathering at Madison Square Garden in New York, but unfortunately never recorded it.
"There were great times with Frank and his friends, like our many four o'clock Sunday afternoon card games with Frank's regular visitors Angie Dickinson, Jack Lemmon and his wife Felicia, Gregory Peck, and M*A*S*H comedy writer Larry Gelbart, among others, where we would really have a lot of fun telling jokes and recounting stories about the old days – good and bad – when we were all young and coming up, so to speak. Later, when we would play cards and Frank was preoccupied with his illness, he would say, 'Hey, you guys, finish the game, I'm going to bed – I'm tired.' I objected, saying, 'C'mon Frank, stay up with us. You're bringing me luck. Stay a while. Don't you remember singing "Luck Be a Lady?" Then don't go to sleep, they'll be plenty of time for that all week. Hey, Frank, do you remember the time you showed me your Convair (airplane)?"
"Yeah! They were crazy days at the Sands," Frank recalled fondly. "I wanted you to see it so I waited like a kid for you to finish your show – then we went to the airport. Great plane, huh?"
"It was amazing, just amazing."
Jerry and others were surprised that Frank would wait for him to finish his show because he never waited for anyone. They would say, "Jerry, what have you got on this guy that he waits a couple of hours for you?"
Frank was proud of the airplane, taking time to show Jerry all the unusual amenities, talking about them like a kid on Christmas morning enjoys his trains. Frank liked Jerry a lot because he was not pretentious or egotistical, or looking for anything.
Jerry was trying to keep Frank "in the game," he wanted Frank to stay with them, to stay up, not to give in.
"We would have dinner about eight and he would come sit with us at the table." They talked about the people they knew and the "laughs" they enjoyed. Jerry tried to keep Frank's spirits high. He even told some topical jokes to keep him laughing.
Months later, when Frank reached his eighties and subsequently became too ill for those Sunday get-togethers, Jerry visited his home anyway as he had done a hundred times before. Barbara received him warmly. She excused herself to bring her husband out to greet him. While waiting in the familiar kitchen seat he usually filled during those weekly card games of a few seasons ago, Jerry heard a familiar voice over his shoulder.
Jerry turned to see Frank standing there. Jerry could not avoid the feeling of emotional attachment.
"I was very upset seeing my teacher, my friend, Frank Sinatra, in that condition, his health deteriorated. It hurt, but wear and tear, illness and age had taken its toll. I guess it happens to everyone sooner or later."
The world lost the distinguished voice of Frank Sinatra in 1998.