Again, I remember a friend on a sad anniversary. It might be more fitting to celebrate Bobby Cole (September 8, 1932 – December 19, 1996) on his birthday, but, like John Lennon, the date of his death in December is much harder to forget. It happened so close to Christmas, after all. It was a very sad Christmas TWENTY YEARS AGO, when that small circle of friends learned that he had passed on.
At this point, some key figures in Bobby’s life are gone as well. That includes various musicians, most of his famous fans (Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra among them) and the eccentric woman who shared Bobby’s apartment (but not his bed). Karen Leslie Lyttle (known to her friends as Inga!) dabbled in an acting career. Her most notable film role (there were only two others) was as Fraulein, a stereotypical German nut, in the Richard Pryor film “The Toy.” She never gave up trying. One miserable summer, she went off to Hollywood to try and get auditions and drum up work, leaving Bobby to binge (and deliberately not take his Trazodone).
Over the past 20 years, there used to be phone calls at all hours, and some quiet get-togethers in restaurants, as I and some of Bobby's pals (mostly his lady friends, actually) talked about old times, and shared collected photos and tapes. Time heals some wounds, and wounds some heels, and gradually there wasn't quite the need to get together to talk about Bobby as there once was. An irony is that a family member who didn't even want to talk to Bobby in his later years (for understandable reasons) has now posted tributes on Facebook and YouTube.
Yes, it’s been a long, long time. Which is what had me pick out “Rocket Man” for the download. Bobby was a member of the obscure "Church of the Healing Christ," and was an avid student of poetry and philosophy. So he may have thought he was going to somewhere in the beyond. Is it possible his soul took off into the great beyond, and he's now on some new planet or cloud? I mean, aside from his music being hosted on a cloud?
While Bobby was certainly “old school,” and was more prone to get his older audience smiling through an Errol Garner-styled instrumental on “Take the A-Train,” or sing “After You’ve Gone,” his repertoire both solo and with the trio included modern material. He sang covers of songs by Leonard Cohen (he loved “Closing Time”), Procol Harum (yeah, “Whiter Shade”), The Beatles (“A Day in the Life”) and Elton John.
Unfortunately, Bobby was not a tape recorder junkie. He lived with his music via the live performances, and didn’t seem to have a need for recording anything for posterity. That rather spartan two-room apartment he shared with Karen didn't even include copies of his own records (the solo studio album and the earlier "Bobby Cole Trio" debut on Columbia). He had some cassettes of songs he was working on, but that was it. As he once explained to me, he knew who had the stuff, and could get it if he wanted it. He was so used to bouncing from place to place over the later years, he didn't need the burden of owning a lot of things. Some memorabilia was "stored" at the apartments of friends. Only a few items (some photos, clippings and a souvenir booklet from when he was the conductor/arranger for Judy Garland) were in his piano bench.
The dozen or so live shows that exist on him tend to be amateur ambient cassette recordings. Sometimes he allowed an admiring girlfriend to actually put the recorder on the piano, but other times, the recorder sat on a table a distance away, which means some distracting chatter. An annoying problem with nightclub and restaurant audiences is that they come for the drinking and eating and scoring as much as hearing the music. Not many of the live recordings survive without an undercurrent of mumble-rumble babble.
Older fans told me about the legendary dates at places such as Ali Baba’s, where Sinatra would turn up, and Art Carney would be granted a chance to spell Bobby and play a set at the piano. I saw him at places that ranged from elegant old school (Savoy Grill) to shitty (Judy’s) to his last regular location, Campagnola. It was his nature/affliction to sometimes take more than a night or two off at Campagnola. He played weekends, and sometimes didn't show up. Thus it was, TWENTY YEARS AGO in December, I noticed a prolonged period of darkness at the Campagnola window. The place was set up with him and his piano up front, the bar across from him, and the restaurant further down. Anyone passing by would instantly be drawn to the sight of a real live piano player and singer in that window.
But that December, he wasn't around. In fact, management was so certain that this was more prolonged than usual, they had a back-up guy showing up. This guy didn't sing, but he did play well, and even if he wasn't a name that drew the regulars, it was still a novel sight for passersby. Bobby's absence turned out to involve health problems related to all those years of drinking and smoking. 20 years ago, he was out for an evening walk, and passed by the bar-restaurant he was now avoiding. On the next block, he leaned against a lamp post to steady himself, but sank down to the pavement. An ambulance arrived but he was already gone.
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…”
There are still a lot of people who remember seeing Bobby perform. There are new fans, too, who have discovered him via YouTube posts and blogs. His cover of “Mr. Bojangles” is still the best version of that song, period. I have not met anyone who hasn’t been moved by hearing the last track on his solo album, his own “Growing Old.” There's more. I just wish that some of the “more” was in better condition. “Rocket Man” is in rough mono. The pretty arrangement he created for himself and the trio would’ve sounded great in stereo, professionally recorded for a “Bobby Cole Trio Live” album.
We’re used to good quality bootlegs these days, thanks to powerful and tiny digital recorders, but this show was recorded nearly 30 years ago, back in March of 1988.
Bobby used to say, with a wry irony, “I’m in the people-pleasing business.” A lot of people would’ve been pleased to have more of him on vinyl. He sadly fulfilled one of the basic axioms of show biz: “Leave ‘em wanting more.”