Tuesday, December 19, 2017

BOBBY COLE - "So Sleeps the Pride" - "Vincent"

    “…after twenty years, he still grieves.” 

    There are grown people who are walking around…voting, marrying, polluting the planet…who weren’t even BORN when my friend Bobby Cole died. Yeah, life goes on. What, half the planet wasn’t around when Bobby and Judy were an item.

    Bobby died on December 19th, 1996. One of the recordings below, "Vincent," dates from maybe 6 weeks earlier. He allowed a cassette recorder to be placed on his piano at Campagnola, which was (and still is) a kind of foreboding Italian restaurant full of wealthy drunks at the bar in the front (opposite the piano). Towards the back of this narrow joint, are tables for diners. No doubt the more dangerous ones eat their pasta at the tables way in the back, insisting on sitting with their backs to the wall, so they can keep an eye on whoever comes in.

    At one time, Bobby played one of the finest "joints" in the city, and Frank Sinatra would show up, and when Bobby took a break, you might see an eager Art Carney live out his fantasy of being a saloon pianist.

    Ali Babi is long gone. Campagnola remains, and props to them for hiring a guy as erratic as Bobby. Nobody could take his place. There's no longer a sign in the window with a photo of the star attraction. If somebody's at the piano now, it's just somebody at the piano now. At the piano, Friday-Sun nights, Bobby was fun-loving, personable, had charisma, and knew just about every song anybody wanted to hear, by heart. He was, to use his phrase, “in the people pleasing business.”

    The recording of “Vincent” will give you an idea of the scene at Campagnola. Although he was the “star” attraction, with his photo in the window, and people DID come to see him, including some famous faces, it was a bar-restaurant and there was always a lot of chatter going on while he played. As you’ll hear at the beginning, some comments were cheerfully aimed at Bobby, maybe with a request for a song. Here, Bobby acknowledges he hadn’t played “Starry Night” in a while, but would take a crack at it. He appreciated the suggestion, and was glad it wasn't "Summer Wind."

    Typical of this very classically trained musician, who was deeply into jazz, and who had a lot of books on theory, he doesn’t do a “straight” version of the Don McLean song. He explores some unusual sharps and flats to accent a line or two. It almost seems like he’s hitting wrong notes, but no, no matter how much he drank, that never happened. And that unique, husky, raw voice also was on key. His cover versions, from Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" to "The Big Hurt" (he favored Miss Toni, I favored Del Shannon), always became, to use one of his favorite words, unique when he played them.

    I remember one night, late, when the place was pretty empty. I had asked Bobby about original tunes, and if he was working on anything. He admitted he had additions to what was on the “A Point of View” album, but that he didn’t play his own stuff very often. The customers wanted to hear familiar things. But now, just about closing time, he said, “Here’s one of my newer songs.” I couldn’t believe it. My lady and I were going to hear a NEW Bobby Cole song?? He had that wry look on his face. “It’s called 'So Sleeps the Pride,'' he said. With an ironic smile he added some sarcasm: "How’s that for a commercial title?”

     Yes, Bobby could be a little too intellectual for the room. This is a guy who quoted William Henry Davies on the back cover of his solo album, and followed up his Top 40 cover of "Mr. Bojangles" with a bizarre parable called "The Omen" (which you can search for on this blog). Yeah, the average denizen of jazz clubs, several martinis into the night, might just blink over what "So Sleeps the Pride" might mean, and just groove on the melody.

    It opens with a unique set of notes, like leaves falling from an autumn tree. It moves into a confessional that hints at a star's former fame  (in his case playing Vegas, being a pal of Sinatra and having a song covered by Frank's daughter Nancy,  conducting the orchestra for Judy Garland's shows, etc). And yes, at this point, the “pride” he once had, he's sleeping off.

    “So Sleeps the Pride” was one of several demo recordings he'd made. He planned a new album called "The Hole in the Corner Man," the title an allusion to very bad luck. He kept putting off finishing the album. I'd offered him my 4-track to inspire him. He seemed impressed by my interest, but didn't say he had new songs he wanted to record. I said, "the offer is always open," and left it at that. 

        And that was it; just before Christmas in 1996, he died. He'd been away from Campagnola for a few weeks, but that wasn't unusual. He had moved in with a girlfriend he'd known for quite some time. She had to deal with the usual lapses when he would drink too much...but things seemed pretty good.

        On November 19th he went for a walk, and apparently began to feel ill. A stroke or a heart attack...whatever it was, he stopped and steadied himself at a lamppost. This was about a block up from Campagnola, by coincidence. A bartender was looking at the window and noticed something was wrong. When the man at the lamppost slowly sank to the sidewalk, he called 911. An ambulance came, but he was DOA at Roosevelt Hospital.

       What fool made the assumption he slipped and fell on a slippery sidewalk, I have no idea, but it ironically gained traction. If you knew Bobby, you knew that he was a fire plug, and it would be damn hard to knock him off his feet. He was sure-footed even when he was loaded. There was no snow or ice on the ground (there rarely is a "white" Christmas in New York City). He had simply weakened suddenly, and all those years of smoking and boozing had caught up with him.

     Bobby's solo album appeared on CD-R thanks to jazz fan Ron Meyers, who knew Jack Lonshein, the guy who produced it on Concentric all those years ago. The CD-R sold mail order at Ron's “jazzman” website, included bonus tracks; the handful of demos Bobby had made, including "So Sleeps the Pride." The package had a "legitimate" release in Japan, on a real CD. Unfortunately nobody seemed to be around to supervise the booklet. The printed lyrics include some odd mis-heard words, and Ron's liner notes unfortunately repeat the nonsense about Bobby hitting his head on the sidewalk.

      Japanese sellers do their best to explain who Bobby was and why the album is worth buying at import prices:

       When I first heard "Mr. Bojangles," I not only bought a copy, I bought two, to make sure that I'd have a back-up in case I wore out my copy or it got a scratch. I'd never done that before or since. I didn't hear another Bobby Cole song on the radio, and looked for anything by him in record stores. I eventually found the Columbia album by The Bobby Cole Trio, which was nothing like "Mr. Bojangles," with its "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" calliope and world-weary vocals. Then I found the obscure solo album he made, filled with amazing originals. But where was he now?? There was no Internet. There was just scanning the newspapers and hoping that maybe his name would turn up in an ad for a club date. For years, I wondered if I'd ever see this mysterious "Bobby Cole" perform, much less get a chance to talk to him. Finally, there was a listing: The Bobby Cole Trio playing at the Savoy Grill. Lady and I went there, dressed appropriately for a club that harkened back to the suave days of late night sophistication, dinner and dancing.

        Between sets, Bobby went around to the tables, making sure everyone was having a good time. It was part of the job in a place like that. He was playing the kind of standards you'd expect at the Savoy Grill, so I half-jokingly said, "I don't suppose you're going to play "Bus 22 to Bethlehem?" This was the folkie B-side to "Mr. Bojangles," a Cole original loaded with heavy lyrics. In fact the lyrics are even heavier these days ("the Christians and the Muslims exchanged frozen looks.") He gave me a comic frown and said, "You stick around, I wanna talk to you later!"

       Some of us are still talking about you, Bobby. We miss you. We value all the memories, and all the music you left behind.

"Vincent" recorded at Campagnola in November 1996
"So Sleeps the Pride" Demo - Listen on Line or Download - No Passwords, Pop-Ups or Malware


Timmy said...

OK, I want to say that I listened to the 8 minutes plus "Vincent" & almost came to tears. I always detested Don McLean, but yet, loved his song "Vincent", as well. It seems unjust that the cash register is banging away with oblivious chatting Cathys & non-courteous Curts in the background.

Marie said...

I bow to you, sir. Your essay is breathtaking. I only know Bobby Cole through recordings and stories. Thank you for your willingness to share the Bobby you knew and his music. May I upload "Vincent" to the Bobby Cole Facebook page? With your permission only and acknowledgment of your generosity, of course. Be well.

Ill Folks said...

Hi Marie, yes, feel free to let the Facebook folks know.

And thanks, Timmy. Yes, the "ambient noise" on tapes of Bobby's live shows is intensely frustrating. If you were seated near him, or standing around the piano, it wasn't quite so distracting, but the microphone picked it all up. Don's done some kitsch (songs about babies, and the somewhat condescending one mentioning a dreidel) and you might even question his attitude on "American Pie," in how he chose some put-down nicknames for the superstars he referenced. But when Don's "on," he's very good. "Prime Time" was worthy of Phil Ochs and "The Legend of Andrew McCrew" is a good folk story with some kind of lesson about life and death. "Vincent" manages not to get maudlin in reminding people that sensitive artists are often victims because of that very sensitivity that leads them to see what others either don't or can't express. A lot of Bobby Cole's friends could understand that the same guy who could turn "Mr. Bojangles" into a moving ballad, and write "Growing Old," would have some problems that were hard to deal with.