Sunday, December 17, 2017

With Love, Remembering Keely Smith

I have never created the popular to-do list before I die, better known as a bucket list. However, two weeks ago, members of a team I belong to were asked what was on our bucket list. At the time, I said, “Nothing. If it all ended tomorrow, I’m good.”

And I felt confident about that profound conclusion…until this morning, when I’d learned that America had lost one of its most priceless treasures, jazz vocalist Keely Smith. She died in Palm Springs yesterday at the age of 89. She’s not a trending topic on Facebook at all today, but in my heart she’s one of the best singers I’ve ever enjoyed in my lifetime.

Learning of her passing reminded me that, apparently, I did have a bucket list, and it had one thing on it: to see Keely live in concert if ever she did one again. A few years ago, she managed to do one concert a year, in Palm Springs, California, but time and circumstances had never jived together for me to be there when she was.

I’d even set a Songkick alert for her, an Internet gem that would conduct a daily scan of concert tours by favorite artists. Alongside all the contemporary searches I had set for artists closer to my generation, Keely was right in there, and I was delighted. Reminder notices every now and then would tell me that the alert was still active but, so far, no concerts were slated.

My first introduction to this amazing song stylist began as a bonus from a holiday party my parents had hosted for family. Adult beverages were limited to eggnog, but there were two bowls, one with and without a kick. The kick of course came from Bacardi rum, and apparently when you bought the bottle of Bacardi, they gave away a free music album. I got the “without” eggnog and custody of the 33 and 1/3 album (score!). Taking my harmless brew back to my room, I put the album on the turntable and found jazz. I found adult contemporary, big band, jazz guitar instrumentalists, and four-part harmony, all on one album.

The first artist featured on the liner notes is my favorite of the group assembled, and yes, mark age four as the time I’d begun reading the liner notes on my albums. (Okay, so maybe I looked at the pictures and stared at the names, but soon, I’d be reading those things.) Keely Smith’s smiling face showed a young woman with short black hair and bangs, wearing a crisp white shirt. When I heard her sing “Fools Rush In,” crisp would be an appropriate way to describe the level of perfection she had when she sang. Her fluid vocals literally lilted their way to the surface and there was strong power within her expert phrasing.

Other artists on the list included Harry James (“Cherry”), Laurindo Almeida (“Fly me to the Moon,” yes please!), Jack Jones (“This Could Be The Start of Something Big,” which it was before he was to become most famous for singing the theme song to TV’s “The Love Boat” a “few” years later. Jonah Jones did “On The Street Where You Live,” and Al Martino crooned the “Painted, Tainted Rose.”

The first ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’s I heard did not belong to the Beach Boys, thank you very much. They came from The Four Freshmen on "The Girl from Ipanema." Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball” became an “I can name that song in five notes” piece for me, and I recognized it when Gene, Gene, The Dancin' Machine, came out dancing when Chuck Barris needed a time stretch on "The Gong Show." The album also included Stan Kenton’s “End of a Love Affair”; the great Ray Anthony did “Charade,” and George Shearing offered “September Song.”

There was also a helpful little paragraph about what a Bacardi Party was, but I could have cared less as I was happily ensconced in my ultra hi-fidelity album played through the little child’s record player that was advanced enough to deliver the sound.

But back to Keely. Most of the television shows she would have made selected appearances on, at the time, were past my bedtime, so it would be a few years before I ever got to see her, although many of her songs would play on our adult contemporary stations, alongside Elvis, Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, et al. The Beatles were still busy in their cave, or cavern, as it were.

In 1970, I read in my vast collection of TV guides that it was former CBS Programming executive Fred Silverman who’d (re-)discovered Sonny & Cher, having seen their live stage act in Las Vegas, and he knew it would be perfect for television. Fred, to our mutual joy, was right and hundreds of hours of happy programming later, we have The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, now on DVD.

But, their Vegas act was actually inspired, and to a large extent borrowed, precisely from the style between Keely and her husband, dynamic bandleader Louis Prima. If you watch this one video of “Up a Lazy River,” focus on Keely, her standing in the background while Louis yucks it up and has a blast.

Now, fast forward to 1974, and watch the looks Cher gives Sonny and Sonny’s happy-go-lucky mannerisms and fun while singing. So, the success of their TV show, which began in Las Vegas, owes much of its style and thanks to Keely and Louis, and they said so often in interviews.

All the usual publications will fill you in on the specific Keely Smith details such as being born Dorothy Jacqueline Keely, and she started singing professionally at age 15. Not only did she collaborate with Louis Prima on some of her most famous duets, she sang with Frank Sinatra and released albums with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and Billy May & His Orchestra.

She won a Grammy award (together with Louis for “That Old Black Magic,” for best pop vocal performance by a duo or group), and she’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame. A 2001 album, “Keely Sings Sinatra,” was also Grammy nominated.

But let’s talk about how this amazing woman had such a crisp, clear, clean voice that made it seem effortless for her to take lyrics and make them come alive. Her beautiful voice took a standard song we knew well, and she made it her own each time.

She had such talent and yet as time and life would come her way, she appeared to remain absolutely the same person, one that fame left untouched. She and Louis had two children together and she seemed to enjoy her life out of the spotlight, but not out of the hearts and minds of those who got to hear her.

In 2008, Keely showed she still had ever that same vocal power, when they paired her with Kid Rock at the Grammy Awards, and he was clearly outclassed vocally, and botched the lyrics and phrasing beyond repair, but as a pro, she stayed right with him. Of course, you’ll notice saxophonist Dave Koz taking Sam Butera’s part for the song.

Reflecting on the life and talent of this wonderful singer, I’ll just share this and leave it right here, as the kids say today. Keely Smith, singing one arrangement of “I Wish You Love,” with Nelson Riddle & his orchestra. Thanks for your sharing your gifts and talent with all of us, Keely. We wish you love, too.

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