Singer Kenny Colman has been praised by everyone from Leonard Feather to David Foster, Johnny Mandel and Frank Sinatra. His recordings include the critically acclaimed Dreamscape featuring Toots Thielmans, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the compositions and arrangements of Johnny Mandel. Raised in Winnipeg, Kenny segued from a career as professional athlete to radio DJ to jazz singer. He eventually became a regular fixture on the international club circuit with notable engagements in Monte Carlo, Las Vegas and New York. Television appearances include The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Kenny has persevered through the small and the big, from sub-par lighting to shifts in the public's taste in music, to devastating health scares. With a singing career spanning the better part of the last fifty years, Kenny is still singing and lives in Vancouver with his wife Lily.
Melody Diachun is a Montreal-born jazz vocalist, based in Vancouver since 2000.
Melody Diachun: Thank you Kenny, for agreeing to do this interview. Let's get right into it! I'd like to know, how did you get into music and singing in the first place?
Kenny Colman: I grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by my peers who were into sports, girls and music. We all grew up with the big bands (Miller, Dorsey, Shaw, Basie, on and on) and jazz (Dave Brubeck, Miles' Birth of the Cool, Duke, Sinatra, Tormé, Billie, Sarah, Lena, Ella, Billy Daniels, Nat Cole). Such was our taste. It was never rock & roll and Elvis or Bill Haley. It was always eclectic, and music with taste and creativity. Yes, I loved Wynonie Harris and some blues a la Earl Bostick, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, my pal Johnny Hartman, Arthur Prysock, Carmen McRae, OC Smith.
My life preteens and after teens was jazz and swing and sports and girls.
When I was playing hockey in Prince George in 1954 I was interviewed by CKPG Radio and they said, "What are you going to do now that the hockey season is over?" I said, "I would like a gig at your radio station." I spent a year there learning my radio craft and was surrounded by music. And then on to CHUB in Nanaimo where I played hockey for the Nanaimo Clippers in '56. And then on to the big city, Vancouver, at CFUN. I was the all-night DJ and refused to play Elvis and such, while across the way was Red Robinson, 19, playing that rock & roll stuff which I detested.
I should have known then what the future would hold and what an uphill battle I was going to have later in my quest for the holy Grammy!
Then on to Toronto to CKFH where I sold radio air time. And then to Hamilton where I sold TV Time at CHCH.
And then I saw an ad in a paper: "Wanted: young man to represent insurance company in Bermuda". (Bermuda. Where is Bermuda?) Well, I applied and got the gig and in 1957 I had my own office in Bermuda. I lasted five weeks. I hated selling life insurance and quit. I got a job as morning DJ at ZBM Bermuda and when the new TV station ZBM-TV started in '58 I was the first live singing guest. During that time I was hanging out digging the jazz at the Leopard Club in Bermuda which had a mostly black clientele.
When I first went to Bermuda I met this gal on the beach and she was beautiful, 19, and as it turned out, RICH, and doors opened for me. Her dad, Duncan McMartin, owned the Hollinger gold mines in Timmins, Ontario. Through her I met many high-end folks a la Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. At one of those parties I met the mother-in-law of Bill Todman who produced the TV shows What's My Line and To Tell the Truth in NYC. She said, "If you come to NYC I will introduce you to my daughter and son-in-law". And later when I was going to leave Bermuda I called her and she did indeed do just that. I got a gig with the NBC show Play Your Hunch. Merv Griffin was the host. I cast people and arranged some segments on the show. Man oh man, I was in NEW YORK CITY!!! It was late '58, and I had the rich gal, her mom's Fifth Avenue apartment, and all that jazz every night hangin' and learning my craft.
It was there that I started getting into my singing, hanging at "The Dom" with Bill Evans and Tony Scott, Art Farmer, Horace Parlan, Roy Haynes, Hod O' Brian, Don Friedman, and so on. Tony became a good pal of mine and was very encouraging. And my gal threw parties at her mom's glorious Fifth Avenue home and we had dinners with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and I was HOOKED on jazz and the scene . . . and that is when it all began.
I guess I should write a book, eh?
Then one night I was sitting in at a joint called "The Page 3", a lesbian joint, where Tiny Tim was singing with his banjo in the front of the room and in the back it was jazz with the Ray Starling Trio and I got up and sat in and sang a few. I was asked to join this couple in the audience. It was Sarah Vaughan and her husband CB Atkins. It was from there in 1960 that they managed me and got me prepared for a gig in Vegas in 1961, my FIRST GIG ever. It was in the Flamingo Hotel Lounge on a bill with Harry James for three weeks and then Lionel Hampton for another three weeks. The Rat Pack with Sinatra was going back and forth every evening to frolic with Joe E. Lewis and Vic Damone. I was HOOKED. It was May 1961. I loved it ! And the show girls too. Ha ! Hey, I was in my 20's.
I did have a warm-up weekend gig in Spring Valley, NY, prior to Vegas, arranged by Johnny Hartman. A classy guy. He was also managed by CB & Sarah. He said it was a black/white jazz club. Yes it was all black except for the kid from Canada! They couldn't wait for the juke box to play.
Wow! You were rubbing shoulders with the legends! It seems to me I heard somewhere that you used to play drums too. Where did the drums fit in?
The closest I ever got to playing drums was under the name "Ludwig" (as in Ludwig Drums), my legal name being Colman Ludwig. I grew up as Kenny Ludwig till 1960 when I decided on my current name. At the time the short names were in; names like Bobby Darin, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Buddy Greco.
About rubbing shoulders with legends, yes, I was fortunate to be singing in resort spots like Palm Springs, Acapulco, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, West Palm Beach, Miami Beach, Australia, and in the south of France at Loews Monte Carlo. And because of Sinatra's juice he arranged a great gig for me in there. Sinatra created a lot of gigs for me in Chicago, Vegas, Reno, Tahoe, NYC, Palm Springs, and so many more. He really was the best agent I ever had, he and his goomba buddy Jilly Rizzo. I sang at Jilly's Club in NYC in '79 and '80 to the likes of Sinatra and Joe Pesci and John Gotti; In 1977 I danced on a cruise ship with the great anthropologist Margaret Mead, where she gave a lecture going through the Panama Canal; Hangin' with Prince Albert of Monaco, Princess Stephanie, and Grace Jones at Jimmy Z's in Monte Carlo after they all came to see me sing. Whadda life. I was held over 13 months in Monte Carlo. Thanks Mr. S.
Redd Foxx was my manager for a while. I introduced Dee Daniels to Redd Foxx in '74-75 and she got a year's work from him. And why not? She can sing . . . and entertain.
It's really impressive to hear about all these big league people. What impresses me even more, though, is your singing, and I'd like to focus on your music for a bit. When I hear you sing on those medium swing tunes that chug along I hear you go to the blues quite often. I also hear you straightening out the melody and getting to its core notes. And on ballads you're not afraid to allow your vulnerability to come through, despite your, uh, intrepid reputation. Can you tell me what influences helped form these elements of the "KC sound"?
My rep? What do "they" say or think? Most people really do not know KC. I am basically a loner, and shy, really. Ask Lily, my wife. I know you don't believe that. I am, though.
I guess I am mostly "alive" when all the ingredients are right for me, like great players, great sound and lights, and my rent paid. Ha! And then I can execute. When one pays dues the song becomes a part of all you have lived: all the hurts, the rejections, the bad pianos, the bad club owners, the not getting paid for a gig . . . So many things to pull from. When I sing a ballad that I love — and I do have to love a song before I perform it — I approach it with a gentle feel. I think of the pains of my past that I endured, and at this age of my life in still believing that what I bring to a song will give me the respect and security that I have fought so hard for, and for so many years, and still continue to do.
And I realize all that I wanted was given to Bublé. Now the bar is too high for me to reach. I have resigned myself to the fact that I did not "make it". By that I mean I had the opportunities but by doing it alone . . . It was the wrong way. Anyway I am getting off track.
I listened to great singers like Billie, Sarah, Carmen, Peggy Lee, Lena, OC Smith, Arthur Prysock, and Gloria Lynne singing I'm Glad There Is You (listen to Gloria sing that song), and Sweet Pumpkin. All singers should hear her sing those songs with the Herman Foster Trio. Google her up. We worked together in Atlantic City. We opened for Lenny Bruce and I sang with the Mike Longo Trio.
That was how I liked to sing: I like to sing taking it slow and building to an emotional high. And when I look at recent film on me I see this gray-haired guy swingin' up there on stage, still doing his thing, saying what happened? The singer who does not hit the notes the way he once did, but pretty damn close.
It all relates to stress, as that is a killer, stress. This show biz is a hard life, always fighting to pay the bills. It is never a constant thing. One needs luck, like Bublé meeting the Wizard of Oz David Foster who said "Shazzam!" and poof! a star was born and marketed. I just wish that I could have hit the home run. I hit a lot of singles and doubles and a few triples, but you need to hit that home run.
Sometimes I have read a review on me on me where they said that I just make that raspy, croaking voice as a sort of tool. That is not true! It is exactly how I sang and felt that day in the studio. Referring to I Wish I'd Met You, a beautiful song I recorded by Johnny Mandel, Where Do You Start, I Won't Believe My Eyes, Joanna, Laura and So Many Stars, just play those songs next to the current crop of crooners and you will hear the "Real Thing". People have said this to me and I appreciate those words. I understand.
Sinatra knew. Just as we all know how great he was and still is and will be forever. At least I had his respect and endorsement. He knew. And I guess a few others. I just needed a million more to know, to relax a bit at this time. Anywho, "singing is a love, a feeling that stirs in your being," and when you nail it, it is beautiful, eh?
I sit in the odd Thursday at The Fairview with the John Nolan Trio — I need to sit in to keep the chops up — and it is always exciting when the sound is right. The players are always great! I wail and sing my guts out, with style and gusto and swinging away, Come Swing With Me, and the musicians do for sure!!!
I just reread your comments on my style. "Blues", how do you mean and what song? Yes, I don't sing material like the blues but I feel I could. And what does "intrepid rep" mean? Ha!
What do you mean straightening out the notes and getting to the core?
Leonard Feather reviewed me many times — all great reviews and a full page in the LA Times Calendar section, too. He said once, "While Kenny Colman is of the Sinatra/Bennett genre, he is more jazz oriented than they are, as KC takes more chances with the melody and still has the Sinatra phrasing. He is in an elite class like Sarah, and Carmen..." Don Heckman said KC swings hard and takes on the role as the lead horn: "Musicians rise to his energy. He can still swing with the best of them." Something like that.
When I wrote that you "go to the blues" on those medium swing tunes what I mean is this: Even if you're not singing a twelve-bar blues song, I hear that when you take liberties with the melody you like to colour it with bluesy notes. (Don't most jazz musicians do this?) And when I hear you live it seems you tend to do this more and more on the head out, especially when the band is really swinging with you.
It's interesting that you listed Billie first in your list of great singers: She did this too! She wasn't a blues singer per se but she added those notes to a melody as well. There are varying degrees of it, of course (I'm thinking Ella versus Dinah Washington). And when it comes to "straightening out the melody and getting to the core notes" I mean giving it the minimalist treatment, and Billie did THAT too! She seemed to stick to the most important notes of the song and edit out the ones that were nonessential.
I suppose "intrepid" is a vague word. What I should have said is that you allow your vulnerability to show through on a ballad despite your reputation for being bold . . .
WAIT a second! Aren't I interviewing you?
You and I have spoken about your reputation and you've told me, "Incompetent people hate me". Here's what I know: You have a reputation for swinging your ass off, singing ballads beautifully, being very particular about sound and lights (!), and not diggin' it too much when people sub out. True or false?
I am enjoying all this Melody. You are right on target: you should do this as an aside to your quest. REALLY . . . you are so on target.
About my singing, I don't think of style or blues; I just let it come from inside and just keep on swinging. The harder driving and swinging the guys play, the better I drive . . . I always need a very tight, strong bass player and drummer, and a pianist who can comp and leave some space for me to get IN the groove.
Yes, I hate when they sub, especially when they don't tell me. I am heavy baggage, I guess. I am always always on TIME; I never take more than a 20-minute break, except when we go over an hour; I work the room; I just know and feel when it is right to go on. Musicians know what I am about and I ain't easy I guess, but I can tell you and you can speak with my wife — she knows — that I put the musicians first . . . and I hope they know and remember that about KC.
Lemme tell you a quick story. We owned the Casbah Jazzbah, fifty percent, in 1998 and we gave all the players $100 plus. I used four players the likes of Olly Gannon, Miles Black, all the best . . . Chuck Israels, who may have played with Bill Evans, but he don't play hard enough for me. He was too light and sophisticated. I wanna hear the bass rumble like Leroy Vineger. Anyway, we were building that room from where it started bringing in maybe $400 a night in the beginning, to $5000 a night in less than 3 months. I also hired gal singers like Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Sybil Thrasher, Bev Stanton, Lovie Elie and Olly's wife, Patty Hervey. The room was swinging. One Saturday night we discovered our kitchen was flooded and we just could not open. We had over 100 reservations and had to cancel. I called all the musicians, and we just sucked air. One of the musicians shows up and he said he never got my message. I said, "I am sorry but as I just told you, we have a flood and we lost $5K". He turned around not saying a word, in a huff and gave me a look. Amazing eh? But I understand.
I also gave every musician drinks and food for them and their spouses or gal friends. I never once in one year took a dime for myself, as I took the door at a $5 cover and that money went right back to the club to keep operating. I don't know where I am now. Oh yeah. Bublé came often with his then manager Beverly Delich, and I always brought him up. (I always have shared my stage with pros and amateurs, too.
I know I have a temperamental attitude but I know who I am and what I feel for this biz. I have sung with the best players in the world, and I just want it right and I fight for it always.
I have always given my all for the musicians and all I ask is for them to not make faces when I say "Let's go". There are a few players who are very good but are always looking at their watch and I pass on them. You know who they are. Miles (Black) was great. He was always ready and just the best. I took him to NYC to play for me at Tavern on the Green. When he saw NYC for the first time he was like LI'l Abner gazing at the CITY! And Tony (Foster) was great too, and still is. Tony swings hard like a Bud Powell. And Ron Johnston, Chris Sigerson, and Tilden Webb and so many that I have enjoyed. Vancouver has wonderful players. And Joe Parnello, who was Vic Damone's and Sinatra's conductor and pianist. My dear departed friend Joe Parnello. Google him.
God, I must use this all for therapy. I have too much time to myself. When is the next gig?
I was sorry to hear that Merv Griffin passed away a little while ago, on August 12. He was hosting "Play Your Hunch" when the you worked on the show in '58. What was your impression of him?
Merv Griffin in my early days in NYC was always pushing me to sing as I was always hangin' in all the jazz joints. When he got the afternoon 2 pm slot with NBC replacing Jack Paar I was a guest on his show. The other guests were Joey Bishop and opera singer Robert Merrill. I sang my ass off on Come Rain or Come Shine with a chart Merv arranged to have done for me. And so it continued. I did the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and many for Merv on his syndicated show for Westinghouse.
Also in 1960 I was picked up by Merv to go to his farm in New Jersey. It was Thanksgiving. I had just broken up with my Bermuda flame and the fire was over and I was down and waiting for my FIRST gig. Anyway, I saw Merv and his wife Julanne and their new two-month-old son Tony. Tony is now 47.
The last time I spoke with Merv was one week prior to 9/11. He invited me to sing for the whole season at his hotel in Palm Springs, The Givenchy, with Bill Marx, Harpo's son, and his trio. Following the 9/11 horror he called me to say that there had been too many cancellations and that he would try to get me a gig at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nothing developed.
I always thought Merv would be my "ACE" but he never came through. Well I did 6 shows with him, one where Redd Foxx brought me on the show. Redd was a good cat.
In one of your responses you said, "I realize all that I wanted was given to Bublé and now the bar is too high for me to reach. I have resigned myself to the fact that I did not 'make it'. I had the opportunities but by doing it alone . . . It was the wrong way." I wondered what you meant by "doing it alone"? And what would have been the right way?
I meant that by not having anyone represent me like an agent or a manager I went at it alone in show biz.
I should have had a manager to negotiate my deal with Freddy Heineken who produced my world-class album Dreamscape with Toots Theilmans, The London Philharmonic and Johnny Mandel. I had accolades from Sinatra, Johnny Mandel, David Foster, Sweets Edison, Cy Coleman, Vic Damone, Leonard Feather, Don Heckman, the Bergmans, and so many more, but I had no marketing.
I should have had a team to not just make a CD but include all that it takes to market such a product. Bublé had and still has a team around him handling everything the way it is supposed to be handled, and he is being marketed like a POP artist. Diana Krall was with my current jazz label Justin Time and sold very little until a US label with Tommy La Puma and Al Schmitt took her on and produced her with Warner Brothers and Verve. And she made it. Marketing! Marketing!
Well of course the demographics have changed. Now the jazz crooner is "in" while I, and many of my peers, had to fight the Rock & Roll and the Beatles and the Animals, and all that stuff. If I had it to do over again I would have had a manager and an agent when I did the TV shows with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Steve Allen, and Lou Rawls' show "Midnite Special" on NBC. Nobody was with me in the "green room" or backstage. Even with Sinatra — who helped me a lot and who really was the best agent I ever had — I should have had someone sit and talk to him about how best to market my talent and have it structured the way it should be done. Like Michael Bublé, and he is delivering! A good kid.
And that's the way it is.
I don't mean that I begrudge Michael Bublé's great success. He was always respectful and warm to me and he sings great, and will be even better later when he lives longer to experience life a little more. When you look at his itinerary this past three years and into '08 it is unbelievable! You have to be young and strong to go through airports, etc. and be healthy and swift like he is. It is a hard gig too when one is successful. I could not do it at this time. But hey, gimme a call. Have voice, will travel.
About my "not making it": Well, I became the singer I knew I could be; I became as great as I could be. I achieved that. I think my prime was in the 70's and 90's when my voice was strong. But it became better later with the dues I paid filling my soul, and being able to express myself as an artist and understand the words. I was ready when I recorded Dreamscape for sure. And if you check out my website and listen to I Couldn't Live Without You For a Day and the Mandel songs, that was KC at his best with the James Last Symphony around 1993 in Holland.
Yes, I made it in terms of respect of my peers and the wonderful reviews I have received worldwide: full page articles by the legendary Leonard Feather in the LA Times, and a full page article with Mike Zwerin of the International Herald Tribune. All that was great. But at the end of the journey I have no security to show for it, no money, just a life of doing what I loved with passion and commitment, with respect for the audience, and with the integrity of always trying to make it the best it could be, in singing with great players, sound, and lights, and creating the right ambiance to show my talent and make the audience remember that KC gave it all.
All the time!!!! And that's it! Now back to the Coda...
"MUSIC! WHAT A SPLENDID ART. WHAT A WRETCHED PROFESSION!"
Be well and keep on singing. Always have a backup plan, an A and B, just to be safe. I did not and I am paying the price because of this. Keep singing! It's fun to sing. It's like breathing, eh? Thanks Melody.
What about the wife and the family who endure the ups and downs of this passion and driven ways the Artist lives and breathes, every day, every second, every thought ..to sing to write to paint that engulfs their existence?
They are the un-sung heroes . . . I mean most of the Musicians and singers know my wife, Lily . . . as she holds the fort, the home, the the truth of the dues and the reality of takin' care of biz..
I just would like to salute Lily my wife for 9 years and we have been side by side for 17 years total, and for her support and her dedication to helping me get through the rough spots, and there were and are many . . .
When one has a quest . . . he cannot do it alone, he takes with him on that journey families, friends . . . people who love the "artist". I just wanted to thank Lily for her Love and continuous support. Being married to an artist is a tough road and being married to KC is even tougher as with every breath I take it is filled with "show biz and no biz".
So I salute my wife and my step-son, Jeremy and my son, Chase, who have been with me through it all and are still with me to the end . . . and all the wives and husbands who have stood strong by their side . . . huge Kudos to them all!
Vintage clip of KC in performance in the early sixties.
Kenny Colman web site
Melody Diachun web site
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