We certainly had a great time visiting with Johnny Holiday and talking about his past, present, and future. Here is what Johnny shared with us.
From everything that I have heard, you have certainly had a very successful career. How did it all begin?
I have been fortunate in many ways, I think. I have worked in music, politics, and then in the private sector. One career seemed to flow nicely into the next and because I started in music before I was 10. I always have felt I was at the right place at the right time, and then when times changed, I changed with the times to some degree as well. Looking back, I know that my years working as a vocalist made it easy for me to communicate with people, to reach out and connect with folks from a wide variety of backgrounds. To me, the world has always been sort of like a racetrack. I’ve known the jockey’s, the trainers and the people that owned the horses, which covers the gamut of most of society and the various factions with our society. As a youngster, I seemed to gravitate towards music, and while to this day, I have trouble reading music, I managed to sing and sing reasonably well.
About 1968 or so, I caught a break by singing on a local radio broadcast from a hotel down in the Carmel Highlands, and as I recall, the piano player’s name was Ted Rowe. Ted played all the old songs and my grandparents knew Ted and asked if I could sing a song or two. I did so, and the response was positive. Hence, a member of our family, with some significant connections in the music industry, decided that I should be introduced to some people who might give me a shot at doing some work. I was booked on the Art Linkletter Show and some other programs where I would sing one or two songs, I was very young, and the songs I sang were viewed then as novelty numbers and mostly songs made famous by Al Jolson. He was perhaps the most significant influence on me as a youngster. I used to have this little kid’s phonograph and would listen to all of those Decca records that Jolson made in the mid to late 1940s, and there was just something about the songs he sang that made me want to sing them. And since no one sang some of those tunes anymore, except maybe Eddie Fisher or Dean Martin, I tried to sing them. I managed to audition for Lawrence Welk, who was reasonably impressed and invited me to appear on one of his shows, and as I recall, I was brought out and placed on the piano, and I sang an old tune called “Mighty Like A Rose.”
Now back in those days the Welk show was huge and had been on the air since the early 1950’s so this break helped get the ball rolling for me. I managed to be invited to return to do some bits for Mr. Welk, and later, not many years later, I was introduced to Ernie Heckscher, who had a great orchestra that played at The Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. This opened up a whole new chapter for me, and I guess you could say because The Venetian Room was indeed the last great supper club on the west coast, and he had been playing there for many years starting in the early 1950s up until around 1979 or 1980 as I recall. Mr. Heckscher invited my Grandparents to come up and hear his orchestra and later asked me to sing some songs along with my accompanist Buddy Lane. The Venetian Room had headliners such as Johnnie Ray, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Gordon Macrae, Billy Eckstein, Mel Torme, Earrha Kitt, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Martin, Don Cherry, John Gary, and so many others. It was such a thrill to meet these people and sometimes have the opportunity to perform with them. In those years, people would dress well, come for dinner and then watch the show and dance to the great songs of Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so many other composers from the golden age of music. I would usually sing during the band breaks with a trio or sing a chorus or two during the dance medleys, but because I was young and I couldn’t sing any of the songs they would play. After all, who can visualize a 14-year-old singing “Why Was I Born” or “She’s Funny That Way.”
As things progressed, I managed to get work in New York, Miami, Palm Beach, and other major cities throughout the midwest and down south in New Orleans and Dallas. Those were marvelous times, but it was also pretty much the end of what we used to call “cabaret society.” The music was changing, our audiences were getting older and thus smaller, and the big hotels and clubs were trying to overcome the balance-sheet realities of what would draw in the crowds. When I think back to some of the bandleaders I knew or worked with, such as Mr. Heckscher, Mr. Welk, Ronnie Kemper, Dick Jurgens, Alan King, or some of the performers who would include me in a show such as Liberace. I know I was a fortunate boy to have been in the company of people who grew up in the music and made music, in some cases, for 30 or more years. Some had great commercial success, and others worked simply because they enjoyed performing and not because of any great financial opportunity.
Looking back, I know very few men or women of that era that retired with great wealth in terms of money, but they were richer with memories of those many nights on and stands where they created memories or brought back memories for the audiences and dancers. It was the end of an era, and I managed to snag a minor slice of that moment in time. For me singing professionally ended when I was just a bit over 22 because being “Johnny Holiday,” my stage name, for so many years, was great fun, but I had to move on with my life and try to define my next steps. I recall doing some shows in Miami at the Deauville, Fountainbleau, or Eden Roc hotels, and Jackie Gleason came to see me and told me that I needed to stick to music because he said I could be the next Wayne Newton. At that time, I was very young and didn’t know who Wayne was, but it was people like Mr. Gleason and several others that gave me the prod to always do my best and please the people because that is what a singer’s job is. I always knew that the songs we did were essential to the people who liked our music, and our job was to make them reflect, remember, and feel good.
You have worked with some of the finest musicians in the world. Who have you worked with, and what roles did you play?
In terms of music, there have been many memorable performers that I had the opportunity to work with and who helped me in many ways. I suppose that the advice of Mel Torme on how to deliver a melody was helpful to me. Mel would talk to me about different singers that I should listen to like Al Bowlly, Buddy Clark, Jerry Vale, Tony Martin, and of course, Frank and Bing. Still, I remember talking to Fred Astaire once many years ago and how he talked about “knowing the lyrics” and respecting the message that the composer wanted to convey. To me, Mr. Astaire was a brilliant singer, much better than many think because when you think of him, you think of dancing. But he was an accomplished singer and musician, played good piano and drums, and had a great sense of rhythm like Crosby, although I still think Bing had the best sense of the rhythm of any singer of any time. I worked with some beautiful sidemen in my younger years; some were studio musicians while others were featured performers like Charlie Parlato, Bob Thomason, Alan King, Bob Havens, and in recent years when I make a guest appearance John Reynolds, who to me is one of the finest guitarists I have ever worked with or Dean Mora who has a beautiful band in Los Angeles and arranges music which he and his band perform at various venues including Maxwell DeMille’s Cicada Club which is the only true supper club in Los Angeles and which attracts 250 to 300 dancers when Dean’s band performs. Another influence to this day is my friend and accompanist George Ferrick, who plays at The Polo Lounge and who knows every song ever written before 1960. A lot of people may not remember Carmen Cavallero, but to me, he was one of the greatest pianists that ever lived, and I had the rare opportunity to meet with him and sing for him before he passed away. Mr. Cavallero had his bands throughout most of the great years, but his solo work was simply outstanding. He accompanied Bing on several good songs, including “I Can’t Begin To Tell You” and “How Soon,” so when I met him, it was a thrill to sing a couple of songs and speak to him about his long career. Carmen could play to where you thought it was Eddy Duchin at the piano, which is why he was selected to play the music for the popular Tyrone Power and Kim Novak film, “The Eddy Duchin Story.” Mr. Heckscher had some remarkable men in his orchestra at the Fairmont as did Mr. King, who was then semi-retired and a former vocalist with Anson Weeks and bass player for Russ Morgan. Alan and his wife Dorothy were so great to me, and we had some wonderful nights playing great music for our audiences.
At what point did you realize that music was something that you had to pursue, and what triggered that realization?
I simply loved to sing as far back as I can recall, and given the fact I had no other talents or gifts to speak of, it only made sense to do something with my voice. I was blessed with a pretty solid sound in those days. I had some pretty powerful lungs and could hit some big notes in my young years, and I have to confess I loved being out there in front of a band and feeling the drive of the beat and treating each song as if it were an MGM production number. I think I have always known that music was a language that has no barriers and is a wonderful way of expressing one’s feelings about another person or situation. So it just came naturally to me to pursue it. I also know that I was a reasonably high strung kid with a lot of energy, and singing to audiences was never work. It was fun. It was a great way to meet people, see new places, and experience life in a way that many youngsters might never know. I always knew I was a bit different. I mean, my first album as a child was a Wayne King album, which is how I learned his theme song, “The Waltz You Saved For Me,” which was a tune my Grandmother loved and the song she would play to teach me how to waltz. I learned the lyrics, but the waltz is still something I have yet to master.
What was the most memorable experience that you have had in the industry?
My mind is a bit like a CD player in shuffle mode. I can press the remote, and memory of singing alongside Johnnie Ray might come to mind. Then I might press the button again, and I can think of dancing with Ann Miller for a case of champagne at a benefit where both of us sang a song. Maybe it might be my first appearance on national television, which I suppose is a big deal, but I was so young I don’t think I realized at that time how lucky I was. There is a memory of being accompanied by Liberace on a couple of songs and what a delightful man he was or visiting with Bob Hope while we were watching Lionel Hampton perform. Candidly it’s a tough call as to what was most memorable because I saw things and met people the likes we shall never see again. Sometimes it’s those conversations that you have with a significant star off stage that might be more memorable than what takes place on stage like having dinner with Dean Martin or playing chess with John Wayne. I suspect those are the memories I might treasure the most. Singing at benefits was and remained the most rewarding experience since those audiences require that extra effort since it’s always for a good cause. A lot of memories rolled up into 11 or so years, I guess, but all very special to me.
What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment? How did you achieve it?
I am not sure if I have accomplished anything worthy of note. I am very much a supporter of several good causes, such as the USO and any organization that supports our troops serving overseas. I am active with The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonel’s Good Works Program, and other charitable organizations that help people who can’t always help themselves. During my years working for elected officials, I certainly would like to believe that we advanced some good laws and in the private sector. I would hope that the services and products our companies create to enhance the careers of the professionals we work within the education and mental health fields. But as to anyone’s accomplishment, I really can’t name anything that I think would be of interest to your readers. I am a fairly ordinary man who just seeks to do his best by being respectful of others and always applying courtesy in my interactions with others.
Tell me some of your musical influences?
Well, this is easy. I have always enjoyed Buddy Clark’s voice. To me, he had remarkable vocal control, and unfortunately, he died too young, but his voice was amazing. Eddie Fisher, during the 1950s, had a gigantic voice. I worked with him a few times and confessed that while his voice was not the same as it was during his heyday, it was a thrill for me to work with him and know him. Perhaps Frank Sinatra, more than most singers, had a marvelous way of delivering a lyric. I met Mr. Sinatra several times, and he was always gracious and kind to me. To this day, his “No One Care’s” album released by Capital is by far my favorite of all of his many concept albums. Another singer that I like because of his intimate way of singing is the late great Al Bowler who was killed during the Blitz but whose recordings with Ray Noble, Roy Fox, and others are simply perfect. He was one singer that the world needs to remember. Jolson was a significant influence on me as a kid, and I would give anything to have lived when he was the great musical comedy star on Broadway. Jolson, even on records, generates a jolt of electricity, and his low notes, much like Bing’s, are simply perfect. And speaking of Bing, well, he was the great singer this nation ever produced. It’s been said that if it were not for Bing Crosby, so many others would have had to wait a lot longer to find the path to stardom. Mr. Sinatra told me that at a party once sponsored by Rolling Stone Magazine and Dick Haymes, a great singer said the same thing to me years ago.
What is in your CD player or I Pod right now?
Right now, I am listening to Ray Anthony’s album “Dream Dancing,” Eddie Fisher’s Great Hits, Bing Crosby’s “El Senor Bing” with Billy May’s Orchestra, and a CD by Dean Mora’s Orchestra. Dean has a great band here in Los Angeles which I’ve had the pleasure of singing with at the famous Cicada Club where people still dress for dinner and dance the foxtrot, Lindy Hop, and believe it or not, The Charleston. It’s one of my favorite spots for dancing to good music and the only place left in this great city for a good meal, a floor show, and dancing.
If you could work with five musicians or acts, past or present, who would they be and what current artists do you enjoy?
If I could go back into a recording studio today, I have always said I would have liked to have recorded a couple of songs with Gordon Jenkins. He, to me, was one of the greatest composers, arrangers, and conductors of the second half of the 20th century. Gordon’s string sections had so much warmth and feeling, and yet his efforts were never obtrusive when it came to working with a vocalist, whether it was Nat Cole, Judy Garland, or Frank Sinatra. Another musician I have long admired is Ray Anthony. Ray remains one of the most gifted trumpet players I have ever heard, and his numerous albums are all in my collection, and I think working with him back when I was in my prime would have been a real treat. He was picked by Glenn Miller to be sitting in the first trumpet chair by Miller when Ray was only 17 years old, and he still plays his horn to this day. I would have to offer that if I could have recorded with Mr. Cavallero, that would have been exciting. His way of playing the piano was simply fantastic, and his style was always lush to the point that you didn’t need an orchestra, just piano, drum, guitar, and bass. As to the music of today, well, I confess that I think the pickings are slim, and I am not well versed in most of today’s music.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now, I am in talks with some people to do a show in January, which will be a sort of Music Hall with various guest performers with my serving as host and perhaps doing a few tunes as well. For the most part, my time is consumed with managing my companies and supporting those charities that need our help during these slim times when many nonprofits have sustained some serious declines in gifts from the public to support their efforts. It’s a shame to see libraries reducing hours, museums closing, and so many of the cultural aspects of our communities cutting back on some of their offerings. These sorts of things, in my small way, are what I am focusing on outside of my work.
What do you feel about the state of the music industry?
Well, it’s a shame that so many excellent musicians are not able to find work. The big hotels, resorts, and restaurants seem to prefer a computer playing piano in the lobby than hiring a talented musician, and this has always bothered me. I am so glad for some of the musicians I know who can find work, but it is a small number of them that can make a living at it, and this was long before the recent recession. Cutting costs to save a little money is sometimes short-sighted because live performers, even if it’s just a piano player, adds so much value to any venue. Most venues fail to Understand that hiring a pianist is a small price to pay for adding to the ambiance of the property, and good music keeps people in the lounge, so they keep ordering drinks which more than offsets the cost of the talent of a pianist. Too many piano’s have become simply a piece of furniture, and that, to me, is tragic. And frankly, at the prices you pay for an excellent single malt scotch, given the markup, I think hiring a live musician can be done.
Bach or Vivaldi?
Vivaldi helped keep me focused in college for midterms and finals, so this one is easy.
Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin?
I am divided. I knew them both, and yet Dean, mainly his early work is so similar to Bing’s sound. But Frank was more of the technician when it came to delivering a lyric and did things that were more varied with his voice. It is a toss-up, and frankly, I’d rather not offend either one of them as I might meet them at some time in the future when time is up, so I’ll say, Jerry Vale!
Jazz or Rock?
Jazz, of course.
John Williams or Danny Elfman?
Franz Waxman wrote great scores that will hold up forever.
Rolling Stones or Beatles?
The early Beatles harmonies were exceptional. “Michelle” is one of my favorites.
Who swings harder, Duke Ellington or Count Basie?
Basie swings harder in my book, and he had the benefit of some great singers such as Joe Williams, who I opened for once. Basie was pure gold. On the other hand, Ellington was so sophisticated in how his music was arranged with specific sidemen in mind for some of his great songs. He also had an incredible sax section while I think Basie had a great rhythm section and a drive that would not quit.