What a voice he had. A deep and rumbling baritone – a New York accent tempered by elegance – and boy, could he could sing.
As a young man, my grandfather found his way into the entertainment business. There are yellowed newspaper clippings – little bits in the music columns about the new and fantastic singer, Paul Barry, who was introduced to the world by his life-long friend Lennie Hayton, who at the time was the musical director of WEAF radio.
My grandfather also spent a year touring with Mae West as one of the male dancers in her show.
With the Lennie Hayton orchestra, my grandfather sang on the radio on “Your Hit Parade,” alongside greats like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Eventually, my grandfather became a singer with the Tommy Dorsey band, where he preceded a then unknown skinny kid from New Jersey named Frank Sinatra. They too became friends.
When I was growing up, I thought he was the most glamorous man in the world. Having left behind the grind of performing and traveling when my mother was born, my grandfather had a life-long career as a music publisher, working with many of the most famous and successful musicians of his era. He had an office at the iconic Brill Building in New York City, the hub of the music business in the 50′s and 60′s. There was often music in my grandparent’s house – after dinner my grandmother would sit down to play the piano, and many of our family’s conversations were punctuated by song lyrics, like some domestic musical comedy.
There were some interesting people around my grandparent’s home, music industry folks who liked to sing and drink and smoke and have a lot of fun. For a little girl, this was mesmerizing – how they could sit down at the piano and suddenly a party would start. And always, my grandfather Paul was the most handsome man in the room – with deep blue eyes and dark, wavy hair – his skin deeply tanned from hours lying in the sun in his backyard, listening to his beloved Yankee games on a transistor radio, beer in hand.
Through Youtube, I connected with a wonderful guy named Big Lou who had posted some of my grandfather’s recordings. He later added some pictures of my grandparents to the videos:
Through Ebay I’ve been able to find every one of the recordings he made with the Lennie Hayton orchestra – including two none of us had ever heard. My grandmother’s copies of his records had been destroyed in a flood at her storage unit, so finding the records has been a thrill. I’ve collected multiple copies of each of his records so everyone in my family can have a few to keep.
He loved the theme song to “Cheers,” and I think of him every time I hear it. He also was the publisher of the theme to “M.A.S.H,” and I remember him each time I hear that, too.
I was lucky to have Paul for my grandfather. I got the best of him – the goofy jokes, the songs sung to me, the big, strong paw of a hand gentle on my arm. When he and my grandmother retired to Florida, we would spend every vacation with them, and he would sit on the terrace for hours after dinner with a glass (or two) of wine, looking out at the ocean. What was he looking for, we always wondered. He never told. He was a man typical of his generation – strong and silent about his interior life.
He was an aficianado of vocals and lyrics, plucking especially wonderful lines out of songs to share with me, including this phrase that he told me was one of his favorites:
My darling, my darling, I fluttered and fled like a starling…
I wish I knew what song those lyrics are from.
From him I learned to hear music, not just listen to it – and I also learned to be physically unnerved by songs sung out of tune, flat, sharp, or just plain badly.
Watching American Idol, I imagine him saying “What the hell is this noise?”
Twenty-five years after he died, I can still hear my grandfather Paul singing to me – always in tune. Every time he sang, I loved it.