These are my original English language liner notes that have been translated into Japanese for the new SSJ Records release "Among the Stars," by singer-pianist Renée Raff
“I came to London in my late teens to study at the Royal College of Music,” Raff begins. “I got my degree and then I started working in clubs. I played solo at various places, including Ronnie Scott‘s, Grosvenor House, Les Amabassadeurs,“ she continues in a phone call from her home in New York City.
Clearly, her early professional career was a far cry from from a few years earlier in her native South Africa.
“When I was eleven years old in Cape Town, I was listening to stuff like Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Frim Fram Sauce.‘ But nobody was into that kind of music at all. That’s what I listened to on my little gramophone, and stuff like Annie Get Your Gun. And it was Nat ’King’ Cole who was my main musical influence. I was playing by ear when I was six. Whatever I heard, I could play. Nobody knew anything about jazz. There was no place to perform music like that in South Africa. No one was singing “Makin’ Whoopee” at age ten but me.”
One of the other London spots she played was Hutch’s Casanova. Could that locale have been owned, I wondered, by the legendary British entertainer, commonly known far-and wide as simply Hutch? In 1924 the 24-year-old Grenada born singer-pianist had left for Europe, where he became a “pet” of the international set and various members of the Royal Family. Now long-forgotten, he became, the highest paid performer in Britain and one of the biggest stars during the twenties and thirties in the UK (he died in 1969).
“By any chance,” I ask Ms. Raff, “was the Casanova operated by---I can only call him--- the legendary Leslie Hutchinson”?
“Yes, in fact it was.”
“He was something of an historic figure!,” I offer.
“A monument,” she says.
“A great artist,” I add.
“Absolutely!,” Raff emphatically agrees.
During this period in the early 1957, she informs, “I met someone in Paris and came to the U.S. to get married to him. I then quickly started looking around trying to get work. I began at the lowest common denominator, The New Yorker Room at the old Commodore Hotel. Then I got a good agent at MCA [talent agency]. I worked at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf for a whole summer. At a place called The Apartment. Eventually, also, at Jilly’s.“ The latter was a long-running saloon, located on West 52d Street in Manhattan and a favorite gathering spot of celebrities in the 1960's, especially Frank Sinatra whenever he was in New York . But the latter locale was much later.
Shortly after her arrival in the U.S., Raff also began “tramping the streets of New York with some tapes that I’d done. Going from record company to record company; in the end, one record company, Audio Fidelity, liked it. That was 1964. The a & r guy [listed on the eventual album as “producer”] was Barry Oslander. Between the two of us, we dug up the original material I performed on the album. It was well-recorded at Don Elliott’s studio, and [the arranger] Billy Byers mixed it himself. I think Billy brought a lot of humor to the arrangements. What he did with [Gerry Mulligan‘s] “Butterfly With Hiccups” I thought was very funny. I remember a lot of the musicians on the date. Don Elliot, J.J. Johnson, Jerome Richardson, Osie Johnson, Milt Hinton, Hank Jones. On the four tracks where I played piano, I had Ernie Furtado on bass and Barry Galbriath on guitar. Don Elliot was the person who suggested that I study with John Mehegan at Julliard. Don also suggested that I study with Phil Moore [musical mentor of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne et al]. Phil taught me how to get things going with an audience: ‘Baby,’ he said, ‘if you don’t get their feet moving. . ..’”
“At what point did you work at Jilly’s,” I ask and learn that she was originally hired to work there in 1969 for two weeks, but Frank Sinatra walked in one night, heard her, and proclaimed for all to hear, “The chick sings okay.” That’s all it took; her booking was extended to nearly a year. “That was an incredible time during which things really happened for me. There was a brilliant piano player-writer-singer by the name of Bobby Cole. . ..”
Chiming in, I tell her that the long-deceased musician, not well-known in the U.S, happens to be “a 'name' to many Japanese music lovers even today." I went on to explain that the vast majority of web pages devoted to Cole on the internet originate in Japan. “I had no idea,“ she says, happy to learn that her friend’s artistry had not been forgotten after all.
“Bobby and I were very close. He was my mentor, my idol. I was his protégé. That’s where I wanted to end up, working opposite him. And I finally did! Every night there were two separate trios on the same bill [at Jilly‘s]. It took me a long time to get there. Bobby was the main act. He would do twenty minutes, and then I would do my thing. We worked very hard, he from ten to four a.m., me from nine to three. But I was at his feet. I was listening all the time. I learned a great deal from Bobby. I just thought he was the best that I had ever seen. And for some odd reason, he liked me, liked my work. We had every celebrity in the book seated around the piano bar. I’m sitting there playing, and Ethel Merman is looking at me, and Norman Mailer, and Jack Jones is sitting there. And one night I look over and somebody says, “You got a nice feel, babe.“ It was Erroll Garner! I didn’t even know he was there. It was dark in the room. I nearly passed out.”
I mention that legend has it that Sinatra could sometimes be a bit disruptive in this public saloon that he, nevertheless, considered his almost very own private playroom.
“That’s putting it mildly. I mean. . .I saw it all. You just kept on moving. You learned to play “Fly Me to the Moon” when dishes were flying. It was a way of life. Sinatra came in all the time. We’d get a phone call: ‘He’s coming in, he’s coming in!’ He’d come in with his entourage. They’d have their special table. I was very careful when I sang in front of Sinatra. If he didn’t like you, you were out. But he was very nice to me. I thought the Kitty Kelly Sinatra book was very bitchy. The truth was he was a very nice man. True, he could be bad on occasion. He would get drunk and throw firecrackers. Jilly had an apartment above the club and he and Sinatra would toss pies down on people. They thought that was very funny. They’d throw firecrackers when Bobby [Cole] was playing, but nothing could stop Bobby. You learned to be tough there. [Laughs] There was only one thing I held against Sinatra which was his color choice. Orange! The whole of Jilly’s was orange, He loved orange. The bar stools were orange, the banquettes were orange. Orange! Orange! Orange,” she laughs.
In 1970 Bobby Cole put together a show called “The World of Jilly Rizzo” and he took it to Las Vegas.
“There were five of us brought from back east, and we went into the lounge at Caesar’s Palace. It ran for about three weeks. Bobby sang, played. I sang, played. We had a violinist, John Blair, who was at that time unique. He played an amplified violin. And a drummer and a bass player. That was the group. It was a continuous thing of songs. It just went on and on and on for about 45 minutes, all original material. Sinatra came in, and I saw him sitting there about five rows from the front, his piercing blue eyes looking at me. I’d never actually been on a stage singing to him, always in a club where he was sitting somewhere else.” From the tone of Raff’s voice, it was clear that the experience was, at least, momentarily unnerving.
“When we were in Vegas we used to hang out with Sinatra after the show. He loved the group, he loved ‘The World of Jilly Rizzo.’ ”Nancy Sinatra liked one of the songs in the production, “Flowers,” which I sang in the show, and she recorded it.”
Cole had less success, however, in interesting Nancy’s dad in his songs:
“Bobby tried to sell some of the songs he’d written to Sinatra, but usually they were very theatrical, quite a lot about aging and dying. They weren’t exactly cheerful songs. Sinatra wasn’t into that. Bobby had a very European sensibility as a songwriter. His material, I would say, was almost in the vein of Brecht-Weill.” (Perhaps Cole would have had better luck with the somewhat later, more reflective Sinatra.)
Raff rounds out her recollections of Bobby Cole:
“He had a heart attack [he died in 1996 at age 64] outside a place where he had worked earlier that night. He just dropped dead. He had a heart condition. A giant talent. After Bobby died, I phoned one of his friends. ‘Do you think Bobby was as good as we thought he was?,’ he asked me. ‘Better than that,’ I said. I could tell you stories one day about Bobby Cole that you wouldn’t believe. Funny, funny things.”
Not long after her run in Vegas, Raff began to phase out her professional activities.
“I stopped worked seriously when I met my second husband. I just started having fun. Both my sons are lawyers, one is also a pilot,” she digresses, then continues:
“When I came in, little clubs were already on their way out. I should have been around in the 1940s. I would have loved to have worked the Carlyle on a regular basis, but I only played there one night when I subbed for Bobby Short.“ (At least she subbed for the best.)
“The desire to perform is still there,” she then tells me.“ I sit and play the piano and sing at home all the time. It’s very hard to find real listening rooms today. I still do the occasional odd gig here and there. Parties, that sort of thing. People call me up. . .. But steady club gigs, I don’t do anymore.” She pauses a beat, then adds, “I’d love to, though.” --- Bill Reed