On the day of the last concert of his life, Chicago singer-guitarist Frank D'Rone didn't know whether he should go to the emergency room or the concert hall.
A long and difficult battle with cancer had taken its toll, yet D'Rone fervently wanted to make the Aug. 24 performance at the Auditorium Theatre.
"I was sick all day," D'Rone told me in his dressing room, immediately after he finished his set.
"At about 3:30 (p.m.), I decided I had enough strength to do the concert," which he shaped into a tour de force of subtle jazz singing and exceptionally sensitive guitar playing.
Two days later, D'Rone headed to the ER, spent the next few weeks in and out of the hospital and finally returned to the Wheaton home he shared with his wife, Joan D'Rone, where he was in hospice.
D'Rone died at home on Thursday at age 81.
Despite D'Rone's illness, when that final show at the Auditorium started, "He bounded up the stairs like an athlete," said singer-pianist Judy Roberts, who shared the stage with D'Rone and saxophonist Greg Fishman, her husband.
"He was so glorious and poised and charming and funny," added Roberts. "And I could see his skin was white. … He was completely pale. But that didn't stop him. He put on the show of his life."
That was true to form for a greatly accomplished Chicago jazz musician who long ago had earned the admiration of artists far more widely known than he.
"Frank D'Rone is a singer with an individual sound that invites no comparison," Nat "King" Cole wrote in the liner notes to D'Rone's first album. "A singer who understands a lyric and tells the story when he sings it and doesn't just mouth words. A singer who can seemingly sustain a note forever."
Tony Bennett echoed the sentiment in the notes for D'Rone's 2008 release, "Falling in Love with Love." "Frank D'Rone and I have been brothers in music for many years," wrote Bennett. "In this album, Frank proves to be one of the masters of the art of intimate singing."
And when Frank Sinatra first heard D'Rone, Ol' Blue Eyes began lobbying for the young singer on the rise.
"Sinatra told me, 'Here's a guy who phrases better than me. Go see him and hire him,'" San Francisco impresario and hungry i clubowner Enrico Banducci told the Tribune in 1998.
What did the greatest vocalists in the business hear in D'Rone's art? For starters, he approached songs in unapologetically idiosyncratic terms, often taking unusual tempos and building phrases in unexpected ways. Even when singing a melody line straight, D'Rone couldn't resist inserting alternate pitches. And when he produced the fast-flying, instrumental-like vocals that jazz musicians call scat singing, he showed a suppleness of tone and flexibility of line one rarely encounters in male singers, recalling the work of another great Chicago vocalist, Mel Torme.
These skills were hard-won, D'Rone spending years on the road honing his craft, though he came by it prodigiously. Born in Brockton, Mass., and reared in Providence, R.I., he began singing publicly at age 5 and was working lounges in Manhattan by 18.
"Of course, being so young and so green behind the ears, I didn't' realize most of the clientele was hookers and their customers," D'Rone told the Tribune in 1991. "But they all seemed to be in a pretty good mood, and they'd give me fat tips."
By the early 1950s, the singer was touring the country but realized his surname, Caldarone wouldn't work.
"In those days – 1951 – I was 18, 19 years old, and the boards where they put your name up were very small," D'Rone reminisced a few weeks ago, on the phone. "'Frank Caldarone' took up a lot of space. They wanted me to shorten my name, and my uncle said: 'Why don't you shorten it to D'Rone.'
"Now today, it's the complete opposite. The more your name is screwed up, the better."
Those early years of relentless days and nights on the road, covering hundreds of miles at a stretch, weren't easy, "But what did I care?" D'Rone said in a 1991 Tribune interview. "I was making some money, I was in show business, and the older guys were showing me the ropes.