After 60 years, the show must go on for enduring entertainer Burt Holiday of Carson
May 13, 2012
Death didn’t take Burt Holiday.
And make no mistake, he’s still very happy about that at 85.
In fact, an original tune titled “Are You Happy With Your Life?” is No. 1 on the singer-songwriter’s recording bucket list.
So, Death, be not proud, because despite your recent acquisition of yet another Burt Holiday friend and contemporary, Dick Clark, this musical man of faith is still busy with the Life gig in Carson City.
And when you’ve been a gold record entertainer in Burt Holiday’s supernova circle of influence – and you’ve lived this long to tell about it (like that night in Vegas when Sinatra had his caps punched out) – the Blood, Sweat & Tears insouciance is just another residual:
As the song says: “If it’s peace you find in dyin’, well then let the time be near.”
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“It’s hard (when friends, family die),” Burt shrugs. “But, of course, I’m religious and I believe there’s a hereafter, so that part of it is OK.”
But, Burt, “Are You Lonesome Tonight”?
And on that score, the song remains universally the same – especially when one still loves to play golf.
“There’s nobody as old as I am,” he laments. “I can still play racquetball. I’m playing golf … I can do all that.”
But then the mortality acceptance quickly slices into the woods, revealing every aging duffer’s deepest, darkest obsessive fear:
“Of course, I don’t hit the ball as far as I used to,” he says confessionally.
The singer also notes, however, that the links and larynx do not necessarily follow similar physical curves as we get older.
“I thank the Lord I’m still able to do what I can do,” he says. “Guys my age can’t even drive anymore. You know what? I’m singing better now than I did.”
And that’s from Burt’s lips to Duke Ellington’s ears because, as Burt recalls (at least twice, with feeling), his 1950s breakthrough band, The Gaylords, received their first working gig with that iconic band leader, who dubbed them “The Purveyors of Tonal Zest.”
But as Burt now plays life’s back nine, he finds that keeping existential honors also means losing your golf partners via cosmic attrition to God’s 19th hole. And since he believes that only one person in history has ever received a post-mortem Mulligan, he knows he must be thankful for the memories.
However, unlike other retirees still taking their shots while shooting the breeze on Carson-area courses, Burt Holiday, whose first recording, a B-side in 1953 called “Tell Me You’re Mine,” shot to No. 2, has always had playing partners more suited for “Billboard” than the leader board. (*Can you name the tune that kept “Tell Me You’re Mine” out of the No. 1 spot?)
Here are a few names you might recognize on the life-career scorecard of a seen-it-all entertainer who can lay claim to Detroit’s first gold record:
The Righteous Brothers
Rowan and Martin
Dick Clark …
‘America’s Oldest Teenager’
With a jukebox for a mind, the longtime Vegas performer settled into a booth and a bowl of French onion soup at the Casino Fandango’s Palm Court Cafe, wanting – perhaps, needing – to talk about the death of Clark, “America’s Oldest Teenager,” on April 18.
“He was a very nice guy,” Burt says. “He was genuinely a nice guy. There was nothing phony about him. What you see is what you got. That’s the way he was all the time.
“A guy like Sammy Davis or Sinatra could never be a talk show host…”
But does he think that Clark should have continued to work after a stroke so clearly limited him on the air?
Burt says he doesn’t understand, but then on the subject of keeping active and working, he says:
“That’s what I try to do. I don’t want to give up working. But it’s really hard to do anything.”
In 1956, and already quite the lucky young man, Burt Holiday once again found fortune when life turned on a dime.
Burt and The Gaylords weren’t too far removed from teen years themselves when they were booked to appear on the original “Bandstand,” hosted by Bob Horn in Philadelphia. On the day of the show, however, Horn was fired for drunken driving. Burt says that the acts that day were privy to another reason.
“They found out that he was having these affairs with these teenage girls, so they canned him right away,” Burt reveals. “Dick Clark had this radio show (at the same station, WFIL) for a half-hour, or whatever it was, and they got him to do the show.”
“The thing happened right away. It’s the first time he did it.”
When it’s noted that everything for Burt in those days seemed to happen right away, in a good way, he laughs heartily and points the finger of fantastic fate:
“… for Dick, too. Everything happened for him, too!”
Horn, indeed, had also been charged with statutory rape, but was acquitted.
“Bandstand” was picked up by the ABC television network, renamed “American Bandstand,” and debuted nationally on Aug. 5, 1957, with a Clark interview of another “purveyor of tonal zest,” Elvis Presley.
In 1990, Rolling Stone magazine reported that “over two-thirds of the people who’ve been initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had their television debuts on American Bandstand.”
Yesterday and Today:
With the Fandango music choices changing like Burt’s personal jukebox selections, every sentence is musically rock-solid (or ballad or blues or country or crooner). As pure as the gold in Nevada and in three of his recordings: “Tell Me You’re Mine,” “From the Vine Comes the Grape,” and “Little Shoemaker.”
After saying no to dessert, Burt says yes to sharing a truly golden nugget from the Nevada desert – or more specifically, the Sands in Vegas.
“We were there the night Carl Cohen knocked Sinatra’s caps out,” says Burt, suddenly animated and clearly back from any possible post-soup somnolence.
Burt Holiday narrates this entertainment industry epic tale with the verve and vibe of an ancient oral poet auditioning for his first paying gig. This awesome story must easily be his most requested interviewing number, his Q&A “Stairway to Heaven.” But Burt Holiday’s laughter is infectious and genuine, and so is lingering shock and awe 45 years later. Think about it, though. Frank (Can we call him Frank now?) was the “Chairman of the Board,” and everybody else on the Strip punched a clock, so to speak, in comparison.
Except for Carl Cohen, the Sands’ owner, who punched “Old Blue Eyes” and cleaned his clock.
“It was 3 o’clock in the morning,” Burt says. “We were across the street at Caesar’s when he was at the Sands. Frank rides into the lobby on a golf cart…”
Evidently, Sinatra was upset over a $400,000 betting limit. Genius or not, when he tried to do things his way, it was Cohen who had the right hook. So Sinatra went on his way across the street, where The Gaylords were winding down the house with a few dedicated stragglers.
“So some guy asks our pianist if he knows ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,’ Burt guffaws. “Frank gets up there and sings, but it comes out ‘You’re nobody till thumbody lovths youthsths’ … I mean, this was our idol!”
Burt doesn’t linger; he actually looks a bit Catholic guilty.
And perhaps instinctively over his shoulder.
An hour-plus interview with Burt Holiday – Everyman Entertainer, Golfer, Retiree – flies by as quickly as the reels of the Fandago Storm Slots. He’s a bit like you and me – still working it, trying to stay busy.
But then again, who are we kidding?
He’s not only been to the show, but still brings the show, and the Carson-area hills are very alive with the tales of music.
To prove it, check out the No. 2 spot on his still-to-record bucket list: “Don’t Say Goodbye, Say I’ll See You Tomorrow.”
* According to Burt, the No. 1 song that thwarted “Tell Me You’re Mine” in 1953 was Patti Page with “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”