Buddy Greco, the ultimate lounge singer, dies at 90

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His son Buddy Greco Jr. confirmed the death to the Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, California. No cause was disclosed.

Greco mixed talent, tenacity and a hot temper in a career that lasted more than 80 years. He was an oft-married ladies’ man and almost but not quite a member of the Rat Pack, the high-living gang of entertainers surrounding Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin that embodied the extravagance of Las Vegas in its glory days.

Greco had a few minor hits, most notably with a 1962 version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and recorded more than 70 albums, but couldn’t quite scale the highest peaks of stardom.

He evolved from being a piano player who sometimes sang into a swinging, high-energy entertainer who jumped up from the keyboard to belt out swelling choruses of songs of occasionally dubious merit, all delivered with a finger-snapping hipster patter.

“I’d always wanted to be a jazz pianist,” he told the New York Times in 1963. “But it’s easier to make a living as a singer. … I’d still be working in crummy rooms and playing to an audience of jazz buffs. By singing, I can appeal to the masses.”

Greco became a headliner in supper clubs and for years was featured at the Desert Inn’s Starlight Lounge in Las Vegas. He recorded for the Verve jazz label, with symphony orchestras and occasionally in straight-ahead jazz settings.

Throughout the 1960s, he was a familiar presence on television variety shows, where he was introduced as “Mr. Excitement of Song.” If he didn’t reach the showbiz heights of Martin, Sinatra or Tony Bennett, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“No performer works harder at pleasing his crowds,” jazz critic Will Friedwald wrote in his book “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers.”

“The most purist of jazz purists . . . could conceivably object to Greco’s highly animated offerings, but they’d be tapping their feet four beats to a bar while they did so.”

Greco never cracked the Top 40, but he kept chasing hits by changing his style from jazz to pop to country and back again, changing his wardrobe but never losing – at least in public – his 200-watt smile.

He suffered through withering reviews – “It is a strangely empty, unfocused act . . . that might suggest possibility for growth if Mr. Greco had not already been at it so long,” New York Times critic John Wilson wrote in 1977.

Ever the showman, Greco was known to sing a verse of “Satin Doll,” then sit down for some fancy flourishes at the piano, saying, “Talk to me, piano!”

The lounge-singer caricatures by Bill Murray on “Saturday Night Live” and Jerry Lewis, as “Buddy Love” in the 1963 film “The Nutty Professor,” cut a little close to the bone. A 1994 GQ magazine profile of Frank Sinatra Jr. had the insulting, if memorable headline “Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos.”

But there was more to Greco than a willingness to get on stage. There may have been lounge singers before him, but he was the perfection of the form.

He was “the epitome of a certain kind of saloon performer,” critic Larry Kart wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “Greco pretty much invented the style of performing he so totally typifies, to the point where one begins to feel that his moments of flashy excess can’t really be parodied – either because Greco is secretly sending up himself or because one feels a certain awe in the presence of this larger-than-life-size original.”

And through it all, through the lousy reviews and the endless interviews about Frank and Dean – and about that weekend in Lake Tahoe with Marilyn Monroe – Greco kept smiling. As late as age 87, he was on the road 30 weeks a year, with his tuxedo pressed, ready for the next spotlight, no matter how dim it might be.

Armando Joseph Greco was born Aug. 14, 1926, in Philadelphia. His music-loving father worked installing floors before opening a record store.

Young Buddy began singing on radio when he was 4 and taking piano lessons at 6. His family was too poor to buy a piano, he told the British newspaper the Independent in 1993, “so I would take my piano lessons from my teacher who lived close by, run home and practice on a cutout of a piano keyboard that my father found on the cover of a magazine. He pasted it on the table and I would play on this ‘keyboard’ and actually hear the notes in my head.”

He studied classical music but was soon drawn to the jazz of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Nat “King” Cole and other pianists. He started performing in his teens and had a minor hit in 1947, “Ooh, Look-a There, Ain’t She Pretty.”

In late 1948, he joined clarinetist Goodman’s band for a year, then went on his own. He said he played every nightclub “at least twice” and became a second-tier star and first-rank hothead. He once pushed a piano off a stage toward a patron who wouldn’t put out his cigar.

While on tour, he was known to stop the car on the highway to fight with his brother, who played saxophone in his band. In Las Vegas, he reportedly traded punches in a nightclub with Bobby Darin, charging that the younger singer had stolen parts of his act.

Greco was also a notorious ladies’ man and, during those heady years in Vegas, a virtual member of the Rat Pack.

“Everyone drank,” he told the Independent, “everyone had a cigarette in their mouth and a lady on their arm, or maybe two.”

In 1962, Greco was in Lake Tahoe for a weekend with Sinatra, Monroe and a few others. It was days before the actress’ mysterious death, and some of the last photographs of the actress show her hugging Greco by a swimming pool. He never publicly revealed whether they shared more than an embrace.

Greco’s first four marriages, to Sally Baionno, Dani Crayne, Margret Kinley and Jackie Sabatino, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his fifth wife, singer Lezlie Anders of Palm Desert, California; seven children from his earlier marriages; and many grandchildren.

In the 1990s, Greco returned to jazz and went on tour with a legacy version of the Goodman orchestra. He continued to record albums as recently as 2013.

He and Anders ran a posh supper club near Palm Springs for several years, then created a tribute show to singer Peggy Lee, with which they toured the world. They lived in England for several years before returning to California.

Greco never really retired and, in November, made a final public appearance when he was inducted into the Las Vegas Entertainment Hall of Fame.

“Greco has all the finger-popping shallowness we associate with lounge lizards,” jazz critic Friedwald wrote in 2010, “but at the same time there’s a sincerity and even a purity to his work that’s quite remarkable. There’s no one quite like him.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Matt Schudel

Image: MTV