Jonathan Winters/Frank Sinatra/That Old Black Magic
I posted Jonathan Winters' portrayal of a man who was Frank Sinatra’s bus driver earlier today on Facebook and in no time heard from a few jazz-astute friends. Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal drama critic and author of the hit play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” hailed Winters as “a kind of genius.” Peter Keepnews, a New York Times editor and Thelonious Monk expert, wrote, “I love Jonathan Winters so much that I forgive him for giving the world Robin Williams.” Boston radio veteran Jeff Turton recalled, “A friend of the family worked with him at WBNS in Columbus in the early 50's. I always remember him talking about how difficult it was to get work done because everyone was laughing so hard. Back then he was Johnny Winters.”
Several readers on my e-mail list remarked on his improvisational skills. As I understand it, Winters writes his own material, but who’s to say how much is conceived on the spot? I’ve always loved his genius for conveying the most subtle elements of character, which here begins with a quick, bashful turn towards the house as he’s introduced and includes such knowing touches as a crowd exclaiming "Why? Why?" about the band with 37 members playing without instruments; the “Mister D” and “Mister D” forms of address to both Dorsey brothers; and the revealing distinction between his and Sinatra’s preference in alcoholic beverage. All of this is topped off by a hilarious tale (not for the canine feint of heart) of his and Frank’s adventures on the bus, and a brilliant parody of Sinatra’s finger-snapping cool to the tune of “That Old Black Magic.”
To spin "That Old Black Magic's" weave a little further, today is its lyricist Johnny Mercer’s 103rd birthday anniversary. He and composer Harold Arlen published the tune in 1942, and it was showcased in the Paramount movie, "Star Spangled Rhythm," the following year. Sinatra recorded it twice, first as a ballad for Columbia in 1946, then Billy May's swinging arrangement for the 1961 Capitol LP, Come Swing With Me. Earlier that year Sinatra sang it as "That Old Jack Magic" at the JFK Inaugural Gala, which he famously produced; Louis Prima and Keely Smith sang it on that occasion too.
Thanks to Winters, I eventually discovered this wonderfully insouciant version of "That Old Black Magic" that Sinatra offered the listeners of his NBC radio show, "To Be Perfectly Frank," in 1954. Here he's accompanied by the Sinatra Symphonette, a small combo that included pianist Bill Miller and guitarists Al Viola and Tony Mottola. I dare you to resist snapping your "two" fingers.