Frank D'Rone, Chicago singer-guitarist, dead at 81

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"If I picked up the wrong fork, they told me. If I was too belligerent with a crowd, they told me. I was learning about life, as well as music."

Those informal lessons must have worked, for once D'Rone decided in the late '50s to move to Chicago, where many of his musician friends lived, he became a major draw at the long-gone Dante's Inferno, on the Near North Side.

"Joe Dante, the owner, wanted a real exclusive club, so he hardly did any advertising," said D'Rone in the 1991 Tribune interview. "He just ran one line in Playboy magazine: 'Frank D'Rone is singing at Dante's Inferno, Chicago.'

"I told him, 'We're going to die here,' and for the first six to eight weeks, there was hardly anybody in the joint.

"But Joe was right, because the word-of-mouth got around, and that's' the best kind of advertising you can get."

Before long, Bennett, Cole, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson and other jazz luminaries were lining up to hear him. Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner caught the action and gave the singer precious exposure.

"I'm probably the only male who ever got a two-page spread in Playboy," D'Rone used to joke.

The buzz won D'Rone recording contracts with Mercury and Cadet, and once San Francisco clubowner Banducci traveled to Chicago on Sinatra's recommendation to hear him, D'Rone found himself opening for Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and others at the hungry i.

TV appearances followed, D'Rone appearing frequently on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and guesting with Perry Como, Merv Griffin and others in the 1960s and '70s.

All of which demands the question: Why didn't D'Rone become as big as the singers who championed him?

In essence, D'Rone's timing – though impeccable on stage – was a bit off in show business, through no fault of his own. Though Sinatra, Bennett, Cole, Torme and others had become stars before rock 'n' roll swept in, D'Rone was too late for that wave. And though he scored some national success with recordings of "Bluesette" and "Joey, Joey, Joey," neither became as universally identified with him as signature tunes that became practically the personal property of Sinatra ("The Lady is a Tramp," "My Kind of Town") and Bennett ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco").

"I was a semi-name – I never had that one big hit record that everybody remembers you by," he told the Tribune in 1991.

"To tell you the truth, in the early '70s, it all hit the fan. Even though the Beatles and Elvis were really big in the early '60s, that kind of music hadn't yet gotten to the deepest levels of the population.

"People still hadn't forgotten how to listen to music, how to hear every nuance of a lyric.

"But by the '70s, rock was everywhere."

Even in the comparatively dry years for singers like him in the 1970s and '80s, however, D'Rone consistently was invited by Sinatra and Liza Minnelli to play the lounges of the Las Vegas and Atlantic City hotels where they played the big rooms.

And during the past decade, or so, D'Rone enjoyed a resurgence of interest in him locally and nationally, the singer invited to play jazz festivals across the country and top music rooms in Chicago.

As the capper to a career spent at the highest artistic level, D'Rone in 2012 released "Double Exposure," a brilliant recording featuring him swinging in front of a big band and singing intimately, accompanied only by his guitar. D'Rone considered it the best work of his career, and he was right.

In that recording, and in every performance through his last, he proved unerring in pitch, sublime in phrase and exquisitely expressive in tone.

"Frank was rare, because he wasn't strictly what I'd call a singer – he was a musician, because he played guitar and understood harmony and was also a great improviser," said saxophonist Fishman.

Added Roberts, when asked what made him a great singer, "What doesn't make him a great singer? That sound, which is unique. He's got all the air and all the chops of a classical singer, but he never gets corny. He's so hip. … His ability to do a hard swing, a hard-driving swinger, which doesn't exist anymore. And those luscious and long beautiful notes."

Toward the end, D'Rone was thankful for the nature of his life and career.

"I've been very fortunate," he said on the phone a few weeks ago. "Hanging out with the Sinatras and the Bennetts.

"Somebody did recognize my talents."

In addition to his wife, D'Rone's survivors include his sons Christopher and David Caldarone.

Twitter @howardreich

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