Updated: Jun 23, 2020
I was in my early thirties when I was selected to be the musical director of the world famous Venetian Room at the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel. This old fashioned supper club debuted in 1947 with Lena Horne being the first artist to grace the stage, and closed with Tony Bennett performing the last show New Year's Eve 1989.
The gig was leading a ten-piece big band six nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year. We would play a little New York, New York and Satin Doll while guests dined on overpriced lobster served by union waiters with slightly stained red coats. Following dinner, the headliner would appear backed by a combination of their musicians plus mine, varying from show to show.
Before I arrived the bulk of the artists were older famous acts. Some were legends, some were not.
Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Lou Rawls, James Brown, B.B. King, Joel Grey would sell out every show. Keely Smith, Kenny Rankin, The Fifth Dimension would not.
When I took over the job, there had been only one bandleader before me, and he was old school. His point of view was these show biz legends were lucky he let them share the stage with his band. So it was easy to get along with all these artists as I was truly in awe of them and truly humbled to meet them. I was a breath of fresh air to the regulars who played 45 shows a year in the room. Remember, we all spent a lot of time together, so it was important to have a good personal relationship with these stars.
I had done maybe 3 or 4 big band gigs my entire career, playing in rock and top 40 bands.... so why did I get the job? Apparently my boss wanted to bring in a younger crowd with younger acts. He liked my style (and hopefully some of my musical skills as well). When I say younger, I mean the Mamas and the Papas, John Sebastian, the Roches, The Association, etc, mixing them in with the older legends.
In my upcoming posts I want to share with you the many amazing stories and anecdotes about these American musical and cultural treasures I had the great honor to work with. The key is that the hotel was built in 1906, and there was no dressing room for the stars. They would take the service elevator from their suite to the Venetian Room kitchen, and hang out with the band and waiters before and between shows. We got to know each other as people, not just co-workers. It was an an incredible time in my life...many stories to come.
DICK WITH GEORGE SHEARING AND MEL TORME
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