Buddy Greco (1926-2017)

Buddy Greco, a solid swinging jazz pianist, a supper-club pop vocalist and probably the last surviving member of Benny Goodman’s “Undercurrent Blues” bebop band of 1948-49, died January 10. He was 90.

Born in Philadelphia, Greco had his work cut out for him from the start. His father was one of the country’s leading opera critics and his mother was an accomplished accordionist. Greco made his professional debut at 5 on Philadelphia’s WPEN, where he spent the next 10 years as an actor, singer and pianist. Following two years with Benny Goodman starting in 1948, he was hired in 1950 by NBC-TV as the male vocalist on Broadway Open House. The show lasted a year but launched the careers of many famous pop singers through their exposure in household living rooms.

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Able to sing from the piano effortlessly, Greco formed a trio and began working popular lounges throughout the country. The difference between Greco and most of his cocktail-hour peers such as Matt Dennis, Bobby Troup and Page Cavanaugh is that he was younger looking, urban and more comfortable in front of a TV camera.

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Greco’s piano playing was especially confident and right on time. He was only in his early 20s when he played with Goodman, which says a great deal about his talent and self-assuredness. Of course, Goodman did wind up with two talents for the price of one, since Greco played piano and sang with the orchestra.

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In the LP era, Greco had a smooth, middle-of-the road voice that could include annoying hipster shtick that was endearing to Las Vegas and Palm Springs lounge audiences. Greco tended to junk up swinging numbers by neurotically adding an “ah” to the end of virtually every lyric line. For example, words like “Malibu” became “Malibu-ah” and “drinking wine” became “drinking wine-ah.” For sophisticated listeners, the ring-a-ding-ding thing grew tiresome fast.

Depending on the song, his baritone voice seemed to bear traces of Jackie Paris, Sammy Davis Jr., Matt Dennis and Nat King Cole (Greco liked to drop down to a note instead of up). Eventually, his finger-snapping swinger approach was leveraged more effectively by Bobby Darin.

But what Greco lacked in honest emotion on peppy material he made up for with a warm, silky delivery on ballads. On slow numbers such as The More I See You or Blame It on My Youth, he ditched the scotch-and-soda affectations and focused solely on delivery and phrasing. It was on torch songs that Greco became a singer worth listening to.

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As for his mighty piano, it’s important to note that in 1966, Greco was at the keyboards in Buddy Rich’s powerhouse band. The pair also starred together in a 1967 summer replacement TV series called Away We Go along with comedian George Carlin. In Las Vegas, Greco was beloved by audiences and entertainers. The rest of the country knew little about him after the 1960s as Greco made fewer and fewer appearances outside of the Nevada and California deserts.

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JazzWax tracks:
Among Buddy Greco’s rock solid vocal albums are My Buddy (1960), Big Band and Ballads (1966) and, my favorite, Songs for Swinging Losers (1961), arranged by Chuck Sagle in the style of Nelson Riddle. I have other faves, but these should get you started.

JazzWax clips: Here’s Buddy Greco in 1963 on the Ed Sullivan Show playing Fly Me to the Moon. A superb pianist…

Here’s Buddy Greco on the Rosemary Clooney Show singing Ain’t She Pretty...

Here’s Buddy Greco on the Rosemary Clooney Show singing The Blue Room

Here’s Billy Taylor and Buddy Greco…

Here’s Buddy Greco singing The More I See You

Here’s Buddy Greco singing Blame It on My Youth from Songs for Swinging Losers

And here’s Buddy Greco at the piano in 1966 with the Buddy Rich band playing The Rotten Kid