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Remembering Frank D'Rone, classy Chicago jazz hero

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I last spoke with Frank D’Rone – the supremely musical singer and guitarist, who died last Thursday (October 3) at the age of 81 – about three weeks ago. I’d just learned that he had been moved from a hospital bed to hospice care, at his home in Wheaton, to await his death – and along with it, an end to the painful stomach cancer, and the chemotherapy-induced exhaustion, that had increasingly come to define his life over the last two years.

He knew why I’d called; he was returning my message from earlier in the day. He had no illusions about his future.

“How are you?” I asked awkwardly. “Oh, not so good, my friend,” he understated, in his silky baritone, less weary than I’d expected. I commiserated, and we spoke briefly about his career and, without using the word, his legacy. I touched on the extraordinary memories he had to look back on (gathered over nearly six decades of performing, seamlessly, for audiences that ranged from cliques in smoky basements to his 80th birthday celebration at the Chicago Jazz Festival). I spoke of his family and his many friends and his admirers, who numbered many more; he agreed, in not so many words, that it had been a helluva ride. I hoped I might get to speak with him again, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t.

That conversation capsulizes what should be remembered about D’Rone. He understood he was dying, and said as much: he knew the score. But without forgetting that fact, he chose to take note of his wonderful life, and even to couch his imminent death in the least maudlin way. To the very end, he remained a sterling example of a truly rare breed: the pragmatic romantic.

His music reflected that outlook as well. Throughout his career, Frank combined the nuts and bolts of a musician’s craft with something greater than the sum of its parts. He was a realist who could nonetheless soar above the clouds: a musical idealist who kept his feet on the ground. Like the contemporaneous vocalists who sang his praises – Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra – he evoked sentiment without ever letting you forget that he was a 20th-century American male, with an appropriate blend of artistic swagger and aesthetic humility.

And although he grew up out east – a child prodigy hosting his own musical-variety radio show in Rhode Island at the age of 11 – he became a quintessentially Chicago musician. He arrived in the 50s, after accepting an offer for a short engagement at a near-north club called Dante’s Inferno; the clubowner, realizing what he had, quickly extended the gig from its original few weeks to 14 months. And once here, like a host of monumentally talented native Chicagoans – among them Johnny Frigo, Von Freeman, Jodie Christian, Fred Anderson – Frank chose to stay here, even though it probably cost him a fair amount of national attention in the long run.

But on a short-term basis, Chicago wasn’t a bad place to garner accolades in the 50s and 60s. The city remained a rail-and-highways transit hub into those years, and a steady stream of national artists dropped into Dante’s when their tours brought them through town: the singers mentioned above, as well as Ella Fitzgerald, pianist Oscar Peterson, and others who spread the word. Before long, D’Rone was opening for comedy headliners of the day – Mort Sahl, the Smothers Brothers – and appearing regularly on the Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson, which let the national TV audience in on his act as well.

But even after Chicago faded from the national spotlight, he kept busy enough, recording the occasional album, playing in various clubs and restaurants. He made the Chambers Restaurant in Niles a semi-regular haunt, the shows almost always sellouts. He also performed at the Jazz Vespers held alternate Sundays at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Niles. (That’s his family’s preference for donations in Frank’s name, by the way. The Church helps support programs for profoundly disabled children and young adults in institutional housing, a cause that was close to Frank’s heart.)

Even when he wasn’t on stage, his remained a hallowed name in Chicago – especially among other singers – as well as fans around the country who heard him once and followed him after that. I’ve yet to meet a Chicago vocalist who didn’t have something good to say about Frank. They speak not just about his singing – which so many of them found influential for its sophisticated swing and pretenseless passion – or his resolutely hip guitar solos, but also about the inspiration he provided them through his encouragement of their own work.

And when he did “reappear,” by recording and releasing a terrific new album in 2012 (his first since 2007), the reviews reflected both the excellence of the music and the delight at finding him still in fine voice in his 80th year. (I highly recommend that album, Double Exposure, along with some of the earlier ones, including a couple available only on vinyl.)

Frank’s final public appearance came on August 24, when he took part in a somewhat ill-conceived “cabaret concert” at the Auditorium Theater. He and pianist-vocalist Judy Roberts (one of his greatest admirers) split the first half of the concert, laying a carpet of jazz for the evening’s closer, the hammy cabaret singer Denise Tomasello, whose loyal fans had purchased most of the house.

Despite the second-tier billing, Frank gave what might have been his greatest performance. Not on technical terms: although he sang with quiet gusto and seasoned verve, and played guitar with his customary cool precision, he of course sounded less hale and hearty than on even his later records. But as we later learned, he had defied the odds by showing up at all, let alone singing well.

It turned out that he had spent most of the preceding week in the hospital. On Saturday, the day of the performance, he felt awful, his appetite sapped by pain; he stayed in bed till 3:30 in the afternoon. He debated going back to the hospital. But then he rallied, made it to the Auditorium, and – on no more sustenance for the day than two cups of espresso (a true Italian-American to the end) – he presented an excellent show from any 81-year-old man, let alone someone on his last legs. It lacked only a little in vocal technique, and it more than compensated for that in unabashed will power – what, in some circles, you’d call “heart.”

Two days later he returned to the hospital; after a couple weeks, he came home. A couple more weeks after that, he was gone. As public exits go, his couldn’t have been better – classy, professional, and in retrospect deeply moving. Which makes for a pretty good description of the man himself.

A memorial service for Frank D’Rone is scheduled for this coming Sunday, October 13, from 4 till 9 PM at Rago Brothers Funeral Home, 7751 W. Irving Park Road (773-276-7800). I imagine the only musicians who won’t be in attendance will be those with gigs, and that Frank would fully understand.

NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect factual errors on the part of the author. Denise Tomasello was not the evening's "headliner," as I had originally written; all three artists received equal billing. And Ms. Tomasello's husband had not in fact "bought out most of the house"; he had purchased only a handful of tickets. As Ms. Tomasello has since pointed out to me, the 300 seats were full thanks to the dedicated fan base she has built during her 40-year career. The error was entirely mine, and I sincerely regret the implications of the original commentary.

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