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Jazzman Ron Anthony has kept beat with elite

Thursday, July 29, 1999

By Peter B. King, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He's toured Vietnam with Bob Hope, played guitar onscreen in two Blake Edwards' movies and performed at Hollywood house parties where the guests included Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck.

And, of course, he traveled the world for a decade with Frank -- yes, that Frank. Not bad for a kid who was kicked out of Westinghouse High School. This week, Ron Anthony will have a chance to show Pittsburghers the stuff that gained him an access pass to Hollywood's elite -- he's teaching through Friday at the Duquesne University Summer Guitar and Bass Workshop, and he's performing Saturday at the James Street Restaurant on the North Side and Sunday at Foster's at the Oakland Holiday Inn.

Now 65, Homewood-born and East Liberty-raised Anthony remembers how music crowded out schoolwork when he was still a teen-ager.

"I was always in trouble, because sometimes I'd be playing in bands when I was young and I'd be up real late, and I'd have trouble getting the trolley car down to school on time. I had the same teacher my father had had at Westinghouse. And he said to me, 'If you come in late once more, don't even bother coming in.'

"And somehow or another I missed a certain trolley car, and I was late the next day, and so they made me go to Peabody. That was a fairly traumatic event in those days."

Anthony never did finish at Peabody. "I had about eight months left to go to school, and we had some financial problems. So I said, 'Well look, I'll just get a job and pay for my guitar lessons, and I'll finish up later.' "

Anthony earned his GED in the Army, where he played jazz in a Special Services band in Germany. He studied music for a year at Duquesne, and he performed around Pittsburgh until he was 25, at nightspots from the Crawford Grill in the Hill District to the Midway Lounge, Downtown.

Then, like many a jazz player before and since, he moved to New York, where he got his first big break: Pianist George Shearing, of "Lullaby of Birdland" fame, took Anthony on the road for two years. Then Anthony returned to Pittsburgh for about a year before catching a ride to the coast with bassist Gene Cherico.

"At that time [the mid-'60s], a lot was going on -- sessions, studio work, TV, everything, there was just so much work it was ridiculous. I was doing OK, I was making a comfortable living. And I was having a good time, trying to get better; I did some classical studying."

Joe Pass rang Anthony up to tell him that Shearing needed a guitarist again, which led Anthony onto the road for another four years. Then it was back to Los Angeles, where Anthony free-lanced with singers, taught guitar and wrote an instruction book, "Comping: A practical method for the accompanying guitarist."

Plus, there was a gig teaching Eric Roberts to play guitar for "Star 80" and frequent appearances in the house band, Happy Kyne and the Mirthmakers, on Martin Mull's "Fernwood 2-Night."

But destiny had something bigger than even Happy Kyne in store for Anthony.

"All of a sudden I got the call from Bill Miller, who was Frank Sinatra's conductor and pianist. He said they were thinking of making a change, and would I be interested. I took Tony Mottola's place. I had done a sub one time in Palm Springs for Tony -- it was just a one-night thing, I did that with Frank and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, a charity of some kind. And he had also heard me play with George Shearing once or twice. So when Bill Miller recommended me, Frank was familiar with me."

Anthony came on board with the Chairman in 1986, and he stayed until the last gig in Palm Springs in '95. He was never sorry.

"Basically the road is the road, but it was much more first-class traveling, much, much better money, the best money I've ever made, really good treatment. I wasn't really as creatively happy in a way, because I just didn't do as much. I was mostly playing rhythm guitar, and a few introductions here and there. But Frank was always fine to work with. I enjoyed his talent so much. He was always really good to me, we never had any problems."

For much of his stint with Sinatra, the singer was in good form, if not in his prime. "He still could do a good show. He still had the enthusiasm. He still enjoyed it. And of course he had all the great arrangements behind him and the good musicians, so he could pull it off pretty good."

But toward the end, as we know, Sinatra faltered. "Little by little it got to be sometimes an embarrassment, even for him -- especially for him, because he was very tough on himself. And so he finally decided that was it. Go down a little bit gracefully."

When the 82-year-old singer died in May of last year, Anthony played for Sinatra's rosary and memorial services in Beverly Hills.

Since Sinatra's passing, Anthony has performed on a Sinatra tribute CD called "The Memory of All That," by The Chairman's Board, and he often performs at Sinatra societies, where the members crave his recollections as well as his music. Anthony also tours England for a couple of weeks a year (an English singer, Claire Martin, is the latest of a half-dozen or so to record the tune he wrote with Sammy Cahn, "It's Always Four A.M."). And he keeps an eye on his nephew, Pittsburgh-born guitarist Ron Affif, who is making a name for himself in New York. Anthony played guitar on a few tracks on Affif's "Vierd Blues."

Anthony's guitar playing also can be heard on discs from George Shearing's "Rare Form" and "As Requested" to the "Sinatra's 80th" concert compilation. But he hasn't recorded much as a leader ("Oh, Calcutta," "Quartessence" and "Same Time, Same Place" are available). Nevertheless, he has few regrets.

"It's fine, what can you say? I've traveled all over the world and gotten paid for it. I've been fairly successful at it, so how can you complain about that?"

To his credit, Anthony doesn't drop names until he's pressed. Only then does his cornucopia pour forth: Robert Altman, Liza Minnelli, David Janssen, Phyllis Diller, Merv Griffin, James Garner, Joey Heatherton, Stella Stevens.

Anthony has collected "a lot of photos. A lot of stories. I could talk for a long time. I'm sure I would bore you to tears."

Ron Anthony performs at 9 p.m. Saturday at James Street Restaurant; no cover. At 7 p.m. Sunday, he'll appear at Foster's, Holiday Inn University Center; no cover.

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