I never met Liberace, though I really wanted to.
I can’t say that I was a big fan, though I remember him as early as his black and white television program; the one whose audience seemed to consist totally of grandmothers. His repertoire consisted of florid renditions of popular — and some classical — tunes, which I enjoyed. The “showmanship” aspect didn’t fascinate me much, but the costumes and jewelry that became so identified with him developed with time.
By the ’80s, he was fully established in the persona that’s being exploited in the upcoming (as I write this) HBO movie, “Behind the Candelabra.”
A friend, who had seen him perform in Las Vegas, told me that — no matter what I thought of the quality of his music (by the ’80s, I found it pretty routine) — I should make every effort to see Liberace perform live. So when he appeared at Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre, I was there.
And indeed, the show was pretty remarkable, from the Rolls-Royce driven onstage from which he emerged as his entrance, to the bejewelled capes and numerous costume changes, it was in fact something to be seen — if only once. Elvis Presley had certainly taken note, at least of the costumes. And Liberace’s between-song chat was pleasant and amusing. All in all, a couple hours well spent. Always there, to some degree, my respect for Liberace as an entertainer was heightened; and it was obvious that he was a skilled musician.
And that aspect of Liberace, I thought, went relatively unrecognized. The press found an easy and relateable gimmick in his costumes, and indeed they were the reason to see him perform rather than just sit an home. listening to any of his many albums. “Skill” is less of pop stardom for pianists than “style”; and, frankly, there were numerous other pop pianists — Roger Williams, Ferrante & Teicher, and so on — whose records sold better, for whatever reason, than Liberace’s did. Also, if was easier to poke fun — however gentle — at his flamboyance than to discuss anything substantive.
So when Liberace was on the trail promoting something or another, I attempted to land him for the paper. As the music writer, I’d talk to him about music — everything from how he started and how much he practiced to how he selected his repertoire and what he listened to in his off-hours. Whatever came out of it, at least it wouldn’t be like any Liberace piece I’d ever seen.
The assignment went to another writer; good, but (of course) interested in the costumes.
Then, some time later, Liberace died. I never would get that interview; I would never discover whether Liberace was, secretly, a fan of Art Tatum (if he was, I wouldn’t be surprised — the jazzman was noted for his jaw-dropping technique).
Some years later, I received a phone call from the guy who was then running Collectors Choice, a reissue label that among other thing produced their own compilations of material licensed from other companies. I’d created my own little niche there, writing notes for (as I put it) “albums that other writers were too hip to deal with.” I may have fancied myself too hip to actually play some of the records I wrote the notes for; but at least I could give Billy Vaughn, Joe Harnell, George Greeley, and so on the respect they deserved. And The Chief, as I’ll call him, was always helpful — supplying original albums to help me amass credits, for instance — but pretty much left me to my own instincts.
And he never gave me input regarding how I should approach a project. One time, earlier, when I had asked him if everything was OK with something I’d turned in, he shifted into Perry White mode and grumbled, “If anything’s wrong, that’s when you’ll hear from me.”
The assignment this time: Liberace!
In the late 1960s and into the ’70s, Warner Bros. Records signed several acts and attempted to bring them in line with that they considered popular tastes: an album of Ella Ftzgerald singing (among others) Smokey Robinson; Fats Domino’s version of “Lady Madonna” — that kind of thing. And they’d signed Liberace.
The album’s producer had worked with him before; indeed, he was at that point working for Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller. But the producer, Ed Cobb, had been one of the Four Preps; had produced Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters,” and had written and produced The Standells’ “Dirty Water.” In other words, he knew from contemporary music.
Figuring that people would rather read first-hand accounts than whatever I might have to say, whenever possible I try to interview the artist, which of course was impossible in this case. I also try to interview involved with the artist or the project. Cobb would have been ideal; but, sadly, he had relatively recently passed, himself. Looking at the jacket of the original release, I spotted a familiar name: Emory Gordy Jr.
Gordy, I knew as a bass player, originally from Atlanta, who had played on records from the Classic IV’s “Spooky” to Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love.” He’d also toured with acts including Presley and Emmylou Harris. Clearly a worthy fellow, he also seemed an, er, imaginative choice to be working with Liberace, even on an album that included “MacArthur Park.”
Can’t remember how, now, but first contact was with Gordy’s “people,” in this case a nice woman who explained that Gordy generally doesn’t do interviews. For one thing, he doesn’t like to be asked about Elvis Presley. I’ve known a few former Elvis sidemen who tend to protect him; others, of course, milk their association. I can appreciate either point of view, but assured the woman that I had no interest in talking about Elvis; I wanted to talk about Liberace.
Within a day, she got back to me: Emory would love to talk about Liberace; it’s a credit significant to his career, and one he’s really proud of. Also, I suspect, one most people don’t ask him about. It turned out that Gordy’s mother had been a Liberace fan, and she considered this credit to be a significant step on her son’s road to respectability. We had a lovely talk. I got my “serious” article about Liberace, and turned in the liner notes without comment from the Chief.
The album was released, and life went on. Though I didn’t get any further assignments from The Chief, who shifted his business elsewhere — to a friend of mine, who once confessed about one middle-of-the-road project “I don’t know why I’m doing this; you’d have been much better suited.”
Eventually, I did get The Chief on the phone. This was a Big Deal, as he was pretty uncommunicative under the best of circumstances. “Why,” I asked, “aren’t you using me any more?”
“You know those Liberace notes?”
“They weren’t very funny.”
Liberace: A Brand New Me
By the time he signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1969, Liberace had long achieved world renown. He’d had his first hit single in 1952; and a long-running television series began at about the same time. He’d headlined at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the Hollywood Bowl. In 1955, he became the highest-paid performer in Las Vegas history when he opened the Riviera Hotel for $50,000 per week. He’d starred in a movie (“Sincerely Yours”), and authored volumes including a cookbook and an autobiography. He’d toured the world, performed multiple Royal Command Performances in London, and hosted his own television series in the United Kingdom.
All of this is even more remarkable in that Liberace was a pianist – not a singer – whose repertoire was largely drawn from concert classics by composers including Liszt, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, albeit often in punchy “‘Reader’s Digest’ versions.”
Liberace was dubbed “Mr. Showmanship,” and it was a title difficult to challenge. His stage costumes ranged from a comparatively sedate set of white tails (“So they could see me in the back row”); to a gold lame jacket that would inspire Elvis Presley to commission an entire suit of the same material; to dazzling outfits festooned with jewels, fathers and expensive fur. He’d make his stage entrance stepping out of a Rolls-Royce, and for a while played a legless, transparent “flying” piano, suspended by thin wires.
He was also a charming host, with a winningly self-deprecating sense of humor playing off his ostentatious dress – a combination not lost, no doubt, on young Dolly Parton as she grew up in Tennessee.
But all that aside, Liberace was a serious musician, who’d studied piano from the age of 4, appeared with the Chicago Symphony as a teenager, and attended college on a music scholarship on the recommendation of concert music superstar [Ignacy Jan] Paderewski..
Of course, he’d also accompanied silent movies in his native Wisconsin, and was playing honky-tonk piano in saloons for pay while continuing his classical studies.
* * *
Warner Bros. Records had started with a roster of easy-listening artists, but by 1969 had (with its associated Reprise label) become the home to leading-edge pop acts including Peter, Paul & Mary, Petula Clark, Mason Williams, the Association and Harpers Bizarre; and rockers including the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere in there was Tiny Tim. In that context, Liberace sounded like an interesting fit.
His manager, Seymour Heller, wanted to broaden Liberace’s appeal, without losing his core audience. The pianist had always included non-classical tunes in his act – his first hit singles included versions of the already-standard “September Song” and the venerable Dixieland number “Twelfth Street Rag” – but this was to be an album of contemporary material, though with the characteristically florid Liberace touch.
Signed as producer was Ed Cobb, a Heller associate who had risen to fame as one of the Four Preps vocal group and had gone on to produce rock acts The Standells and The Chocolate Watch Band; and was behind such more soulful, pop-oriented hits as Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters,” Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts,” and Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love.”
The band Cobb assembled for Liberace’s first Warner Bros. sessions was young, and with a background in rock and roll and Southern soul: guitarist Barry Bailey, bassist-arranger Emory Gordy Jr. , drummer Dennis St. John and percussionist Joe Correro from Atlanta; and keyboard player “Spooner” Oldham from Memphis. Also on board was guitarist Larry Collins, the Oklahoma-born, Los Angeles-raised guitar-playing half of the ‘50s teen country music act, the Collins Kids.
Gordy, who’d worked with Dennis Yost and the Classics IV and Roy Orbison’s Candymen before moving to Los Angeles, today recalls that Liberace “…was very friendly; a gentlemen. You might think that you couldn’t approach Lee or talk to him, but that wasn’t true at all.
“I think he was underrated as a pianist,” Gordy continues. “Being an entertainer covered up that he was a great musician. He had one heck of a reach on the keyboard, and could sight-read charts.”
Liberace showed up the sessions ready to work. “He came dressed. Not to the nines, but well dressed. He couldn’t make some of the sessions, because he was playing Las Vegas or something. You don’t want to do something featuring piano without a piano, because you might step all over things, so we worked up some of the arrangements with Lincoln Mayorga [whose association with Cobb dated from Hollywood High School and the Four Preps] sitting in. Lee overdubbed his part later – though all the acoustic piano on the album was played by Liberace.” The string and horn arrangements were written by Gordy and Julian Lee, and overdubbed after the original rhythm-track sessions; a new practice for Liberace, who was used to recording “live” with the orchestra.
For A Brand New Me, Cobb chose mostly hits of recent vintage. Gordy was well familiar with “Traces”, having co-written the Classics IV song. “Cherry Hill Park,” originally a hit for Billy Joe Royal, had also originated in Atlanta. (“Echo Park,” the least-remembered of the songs in the “Parks and Recreation Medley” had been a hit for singer Keith Barbour).
The original version of “Footprints on the Moon,” by English composer-arranger Johnny Harris, had recently been released on Warner Bros. “Mixed Emotions” was written by another former member of the Atlanta coterie, Harry Middlebrooks (he’d co-written the Classics IV’s “Spooky”), who’d moved to Los Angeles some years earlier and was under contract to Heller and Cobb’s company. The song, with lyrics unheard here, had been written for a film that was never released, and was originally recorded by another Cobb-produced act, Stark Naked and the Car Thieves – their name notwithstanding, more of a smooth-rock act who became fixtures for years in Las Vegas.
* * *
The Neil Diamond medley is significant in that Gordy and St. John later became members of Diamond’s recording and touring band; Gordy went on to record and tour with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris, and become a prominent studio musician and producer in Nashville. Correro joined his old Atlanta friend, Freddy Weller, in Paul Revere & the Raiders, and eventually became a respected jazz drummer. Bailey remained in Atlanta, becoming a founding member of the Atlanta Rhythm Section recording group. Collins co-wrote hit songs including “Delta Dawn” and “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” and Oldham’s writing credits include such hits as “I’m Your Puppet,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Cry Like a Baby” and “Sweet Inspiration.”.
Whatever A Brand New Me contributed to Liberace’s image, he did include songs from it in his stage act. In any event, his popularity didn’t diminish: he’s said to have averaged more than $5 million each year for a quarter century, and in April, 1985, performed a record-breaking 21 shows at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. His stand at the same venue, from October 16-November 2, 1986, constituted his final performances.
Liberace succumbed to congestive heart failure on February 4, 1987, less than four months shy of his 68th birthday. But he leaves behind him the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas – an institution that has funded millions of dollars’ worth of musical scholarship grants — as well as an enormous musical legacy, of which this album is a highlight.
1. A Brand New Me (Kenny Gamble-Thom Bell-Jerry Butler)*
2. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
3. Parks & Recreation: Cherry Hill Park (William E. Gilmore-Robert Nix)/MacArthur Park (Jimmy Webb)/Echo Park (Buzz Clifford)
4. Here There and Everywhere (John Lennon-Paul McCartney)*
5. Holly, Holy/Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond)
6. Footprints on the Moon (Johnny Harris)
7. Something (George Harrison)
8. Traces (Buddy Buie-J.R. Cobb-Emory Gordy Jr.)*
9. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Stephen Stills)
10. Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye (Gary DeCarlo-Dale Frashuer-Paul Leka)
11. Mixed Emotions (Harry Middlebrooks)*
Barry Bailey, Larry Collins: guitar; Spooner Oldham: electric piano, organ; Emory Gordy Jr.: bass, vibes; Dennis St. John: drums; Joe Correro: congas
Strings and horns arranged by Emory Gordy Jr. except (*), by Julian Lee