If you lived in New York during the 1950s through the 1990s and liked jazz, you knew about Bobby Cole. He played piano, sang, composed, arranged and, in 1967, released an album of original compositions titled "A Point of View" (Concentric Records). He had fans but avoided becoming mainstream. He stayed contemporary without becoming current. Jazz, folk, rock, modern dance scores…he wrote and performed them all. He smoked too much, drugged too much, drank too much. He was also cerebral, curious, a prodigious reader of poetry, philosophy, theology, and an uncommonly intelligent and literate lyricist.
On a December night in 1996, he had a heart attack while walking to work. An ambulance brought him to New York Hospital where, a few hours later, he died. Bobby Cole performed throughout Manhattan for forty years, but he spent most of the 1960s headlining at Jilly's, the midtown bistro owned by Frank Sinatra and his friend Jilly Rizzo. Sinatra called Bobby "my favorite saloon singer."
Bobby Cole caught the attention of Judy Garland, who visited Jilly's one night in 1964. She was hosting a weekly television show, and in the midst of a feud with her special materials arranger, Mel Torme. Three weeks later, Mel was out, and Bobby was in. He performed on Judy's show with his Trio. Bobby was scarcely 30 years old and it was his first time on television, but he was unruffled, sophisticated, and so damn cool. After Judy's show ended, Bobby occasionally arranged and conducted for her until she died.
Today, Jilly's is called the Russian Samovar and the piano is in the same spot. My husband and I ate there a few years ago. As we enjoyed our meal, I talked about Jilly's in the Sinatra era. Jilly had an apartment on the upper floor. I pointed up to the apartment and the balcony, where Jilly and Frank would sometimes drop water-balloons on unsuspecting pedestrians below. Another story described Jilly's as "tough, and you had to be tough to work there. Bobby Cole was tough. Frank and Jilly used to throw firecrackers at him to see if they could rattle him, but nothing rattled Bobby Cole. He ignored them and kept on playing." In the 1980s, Bobby headlined at a club called the Café Versailles. His daughter sometimes visited with her friends. She recalled that when she and her father would exit the club after work, a panhandler would be waiting for him. Bobby, who fought his own losing battle with the bottle, would slip the guy twenty dollars and wryly admonish him, "Be sure not to spend it on food." The night my husband and I visited the Russian Samovar there was a guy playing piano there, very young, and trying hard. I talked to him a little bit between his numbers about Bobby and the history of Jilly's and he was sweet, but I could tell he didn't care. I felt like one of those old people who bore young people to death with stories about things that happened before they were born – which, let's face it, is what I was. Nonetheless, when we were ready to leave, I put twenty dollars in his tip jar and said, "This is with compliments from Bobby Cole." After we left my husband said I should have added, "Be sure not to spend it on food."