Monday, September 27, 2010

Nat - It's his birthday!

John Hammond, organist Marlowe Morris, Nat Shapiro (1962)                  

Letter from Nat to me (and David)

Nat's "Times" obit. Note the misspelling of Legrand, and the name of Nat's widow, Vera Miller (Nat woulda had a cow over such---even then---increasingly sloppy news copy editing.)


I've been thinking a lot about Nat Shapiro lately as a result of reading "The Label," Gary Marmorstein's new and evocative history of Columbia Records. Nat was at Columbia at the same time as other old school record men like Goddard Lieberson, Irving Townsend, George Avakian, Mitch Miller and John Hammond. Less impressively from my perspective, although not monetarily so, he'd been the guiding force behind Hair.

Nat and I sometimes had dawn-to dusk conversations in his Central Park West apartment overlooking the park. In the biz for a number of years, he'd been Frank Sinatra's press agent at the lowest point in the singer's career early in the 1950s. One always sensed with Nat that there were some subjects best left un-discussed; clearly his time on the cross in Sinatra's employ was one of them. Once---and I don't know what possessed me to make the remark---I slipped and said, "I think Sinatra would make a really good Norman Maine in a A Star is Born. "Yes, except at the end," Nat said, "Sinatra would have to be walking out of the ocean instead of into it." Then he abruptly changed the subject. That's the only I ever heard him utter the name of his former employer in any context.

I went with him to see Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, which starts at the conclusion and proceeds backwards to the beginning. At the end of the first act Nat stood up and announced, "Aha! The plot thins!"

Nat produced recordings for Dietrich, Brazilian grande vedette Maysa,and many others, and was deeply amused that he had produced the only album in which Count Basie's rhythm guitar player Freddie Greene's name appeared above the title. All Greene did on the date was his usual elegant 1-2-3-4 chunk-a-chunk accompaniment.

Nat often talked about what he called "singer's disease": the insecurity that arises when intuitive singers (Shirley Horn, Blossom Dearie, et al excepted) clash head-on in the studio or on the bandstand with skilled, trained musicians. As a result, singers are often forced into ridiculous, defensive diva-like positions.

I loved his stories. The first day on the job as Billy Eckstine's press agent, the singer and his wife had been busted in a pot raid with an minor teenaged girl. I wish I could remember all the great stories Nat told me: the details are hazy regarding some dicey Johnnie Ray anecdotes.

Shortly before highly acquisitive Nat died unexpectedly, he began giving away things to friends, including myself. I would tentatively pull something off the shelves, such as the rare ten-inch Billy Strayhorn lp on the Mercer label (I eventually passed it on to legendary recording engineer Al Schmitt, whose first ever studio recording this was.) "Good choice," Nat'd remark and drop it on the pile. I was shocked at this atypical generosity with things.

The last time I saw him, shortly after I moved to L.A., he even hugged me, something he never did, at least not with male friends. The gesture is one of the few things in my life that found me, after his death, pondering the unseen at the expense of the seen. I'm convinced that, unconsciously, Nat knew he was going to die, even though he was in relatively good health. I miss him still.

Nat told me that one time the door bell rang at his upper West Side apartment at two in the morning. He answered it and there stood none other than Marlene Dietrich. Nat was a night owl and a bit of an insomniac as well, Marlene had been wandering the neighborhood and spotting his lights on, thought she'd drop in to say hello. At 2 am. . .without advance word. But then, goddesses seldom phone ahead. Nat's wife Vera, awakened from a sound sleep, peeped through a crack in the door and espied their unexpected visitor. A few minutes later, according to Nat, Vera then made HER entrance into the living room, dressed to the nines, with full makeup, hair out of curlers, her best frock, the works. . .at 2 am! Years later I mentioned to Vera that Nat had told me about the occasion but that I didn't really believe that the ultra-sensible woman that she is was capable of such overweening vanity and feminine competitiveness. . .even in the face of Marlene Dietrich. In so many words, Vera told me to "Believe it, honey, believe it!"

Here's a video clip of Monsieur Legrand singing and playing at the above-noted memorial service.

No comments: