Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 66 - Tony Bennett's Cleveland Connections
In 1946, Cleveland guitarist Fred Sharp was playing with the Adrian Rollini Trio in New York. Sharp and his wife Iris were living in Astoria, Long Island. They took the BMT train from Manhattan to Queens Plaza and walked to their home. One night, they stopped in at a local bar called the Shangri-La at Queens Plaza to hear the band.
The band was led by trombonist Tyree Glenn who, earlier in his career had played with Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Cab Calloway. There was a young, ambitious singer there almost every night. On this night, when Clevelanders Fred and Iris Sharp stopped in, Glenn invited the young vocalist to sit in and sing with his band.
Sharp told me the young singer was "just great" and said, "After his set, we invited him to our table for a drink." He told Sharp his name was Joe Bari and said he had written a song called "Satin Wears a Satin Gown" and was hoping someone would perform it. "We told him," said Sharp, "that we were friends with Frankie Laine," who, a few years earlier, had been singing with Sharp in Cleveland. At the time, Laine was appearing at the Paramount Theatre in New York City. Sharp suggested that Joe Bari take his tune to Laine and "tell him that Freddie and Iris Sharp had sent him."
At the Paramount, Laine was on the bill with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and his singer, June Christy. Going backstage, singer Joe Bari told Laine that Clevelander Fred Sharp had sent him and he sang his song for Laine. Laine, in his autobiography That Lucky Old Son, recalled he listened to Bari sing the song and asked, "What do you need me for? You sing great!"
Laine eventually recorded the song and Fred Sharp and his wife became good friends of Joe Bari. "He came over for dinner a few times and we played and sang together," remembered Sharp.
At about the same time, singer Joe Bari began opening other career doors. He appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts program and got a job singing with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village. In 1949, he made his first records for a small label called Leslie Records.
Joe Bari's first records went absolutely nowhere. But, his manager had another idea. He persuaded comedian Bob Hope (who had also grown up in Cleveland) to catch Bari's performance in Greenwich Village. Hope liked what he heard and said, "Come on, kid, you're going to come to the Paramount and sing with me." But, Hope didn't like the young singer's stage name, Joe Bari, and asked him what his real name was. The singer told him, "My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto." "That's too long for the marquee," said Hope. He thought for a moment and then said, "We'll call you Tony Bennett."
After the gig at the Paramount Theatre, Hope took Tony Bennett, along with the Les Brown Orchestra, Jane Russell and a tap dancer on a six-city tour. When Bennett got back to New York, he signed a contract with Columbia Records and began appearing on television programs in New York.
In 1951, his recording of "Because of You" became a big hit. It became the country's number one record for ten weeks and sold over a million copies. This led to his own booking at New York's Paramount Theatre and gigs to Miami, Chicago, Buffalo and Cleveland.
In July of 1951, Bennett was singing at Moe's Main Street, a nightclub at East 79th and Euclid that booked many upcoming artists in the early 1950s. By this time, Fred Sharp had left Red Norvo and was back in Cleveland. He was not aware of Bennett's new hit records and noticed an ad in The Plain Dealer with a photo of the singer appearing at Moe's Main Street. His wife said, "That's Joe Bari, the singer we knew in Astoria. He changed his name to Tony Bennett."
While he was singing at Moe's Main Street in Cleveland, spotted a beautiful young woman in the audience. After the show, her date asked him to join them at their table. He learned her name was Patricia Beech, had just moved to Cleveland from Mansfield to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art, and was a big jazz fan. Less than a year later, Tony Bennett married the girl from Cleveland. They had two sons. But, as Tony Bennett's career zoomed, he was paying less and less attention to his wife and sons. He recorded a series of hit pop records.
In 1962, he recorded a song called "I Wanna Be Around." The song was originally conceived by a lady in Youngstown named Sadie Vimmerstedt. She was not a professional songwriter. According to Bennett, in his autobiography The Good Life, Sadie came up with two lines: "I wanna be around to pick up the pieces / When somebody breaks your heart." The Youngstown resident sent the lines to songwriter Johnny Mercer and said she thought the lines would make a good song. She had no idea exactly where Mercer lived, so she addressed the envelope simply to: "Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, Los Angeles, California." Somehow her letter got to him and he liked her lines. He wrote the rest of the lyrics and the music and Tony Bennett had another hit.
While Bennett was making a series of hit pop records, he did not neglect his old first love - jazz. He frequently performed with jazz artists and recorded with both Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In 1958, Bennett recorded "Firefly" with his longtime friend Bill Basie and his band.
But, Bennett's marriage to Clevelander Patricia Beech had disintegrated. After he recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," they were divorced. Patricia stayed in New York. Tony married Sandra Grant, a young woman he had met while making a film in Hollywood. They had two daughters.
In the 1970s, after he had left Columbia Records, Bennett's life, by his own admission, was getting out of control. But, with the help of his son Danny, Bennet managed to revive his career and in 1995, his album Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged was awarded a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Transcending generational lines, Tony Bennett, who was first encouraged by Cleveland jazz guitarist Fred Sharp, given his stage name by Clevelander Bob Hope, and who married a Cleveland girl, was still winning new fans and was finally being recognized as a jazz singer.
Copyright 2001 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).