‘It’s been horrible’: Gregg was on the cusp of a career high in the US when his life came crashing down

‘It’s been horrible’: Gregg was on the cusp of a career high in the US when his life came crashing down

March 10, 2023

By Anna Patty

Gregg Arthur playing at the Vibrato jazz restaurant in Los Angeles.

Taking a bow on the stage of Foundry 616 in Ultimo, Sydney’s most intimate jazz club, and bathed in the spotlight, the crooner mops his brow and grins. “If you enjoyed the show tonight, my name is Gregg Arthur. If you didn’t, my name is Michael Buble.”

The audience laughs, applauds, some even bang their tables, before Arthur gives them what they want – an encore.

Australian jazz performer Gregg Arthur who played with the biggest names on the Las Vegas strip for decades before returning to Australia .Credit:Edwina Pickles

The Buble line is a great closer for the show but, over lunch, he fesses up to adapting it from two of Australia’s greatest band leaders. “For years, Tommy Tycho would say thank you for coming. If you enjoyed the show, I’m Tommy Tycho. If you didn’t, my name is Geoff Harvey!” he says.

“I don’t ever want to take myself too seriously, and I think that people who do in any art form are boring.”

Arthur may not take himself seriously, but he is deadly serious about the art form. He is one of Australia’s greatest exponents of jazz. In the ultimate compliment, Tony Bennett has described his phrasing as “perfection”. Arthur makes sure to keep that letter in a very safe spot.

Now, as the federal government unveils a huge stimulus for the performing arts, he wants to make sure that jazz is not forgotten. Excited by the state government’s plans to reopen Sydney, he also wants to revive the city’s long-lost reputation as a nightlife capital of the world.

Tony Bennett’s note to Gregg Arthur whose phrasing he describes as “perfection”.

“I think that classical, chamber music and jazz should be supported and lifted up,” he says. “I love my sport, but they should be building an international venue in Sydney, not just another football stadium.”

We’re chatting over lunch at Il Baretto in Paddington, where the owner is one of Arthur’s regular concertgoers. He is enjoying spaghetti scoglio, reminiscent of a similar seafood pasta dish he discovered at Sinatra’s, an Italian restaurant at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. “Frank’s favourite!”

The Sydney version uses homemade pasta, hand cut on a frame called a chitarra, which is stringed like a musical instrument. Plump tiger prawns and Spring Bay mussels, cooked in a bisque and seasoned with chilli, garlic and parsley, are scattered on top like jewels. “It’s just beautiful pasta,” says Arthur.

Spaghetti allo scoglioCredit:Edwina Pickles

I’ve opted for pesce aqua pazza – white fish and small clams with a salty kick of anchovies, fresh dill and cherry tomatoes – after sharing a starter of yellowfin tuna carpaccio topped with fried capers and a plate of pan-fried calamari and small prawns.

Pesce acqua pazzaCredit:Edwina Pickles

Arthur is an exemplar of an art form that is constantly remaking itself to appeal to new audiences but he does so in a playful, tongue-in-cheek, crooner style. He honed his voice and his persona working more than 25 years on The Strip in Las Vegas and in the top jazz clubs of Los Angeles.

He loved his American audiences, but sometimes they missed the self-aware irony in his performances. “I’m delighted when people don’t get it and think that I’m a bit full of myself.”

Arthur – who has released a dozen albums and the latest one, Jazz and Cocktails, with ABC Music – has worked with the greats of jazz, swing, and show music: Bobby Darrin’s musical director, Bob Rozario; Frank Sinatra’s bandleader, Vinnie Falcone; and Tony Bennett’s pianist, Tom Ranier.

Back home, he’s been performing with trumpeter James Morrison and his brother John, a drummer.

In 2017, Arthur was preparing to enter a “new stratosphere” in his US career. “I was just about to start doing some recordings with one of the biggest conductors and orchestrators on the planet – Jorge Calandrelli. He was coming to my shows. We became friends.”

Gregg Arthur with composer, arranger and conductor, Jorge Calandrelli.

Calandrelli, an Argentinian-born composer, arranger, and conductor, worked with Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Julio Iglesias, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and singer/songwriter/pianist John Legend. He has won six Grammy Awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for his music for films The Color Purple and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

And he was very enthusiastic about Arthur.

But fate intervened and brought him home. His father and his older brother had both died from cancer. Thinking he was just run down, he started getting sick in America. It was his now-fan Dr Sam Milliken at the Kinghorn Cancer Centre at St Vincent’s Hospital, who diagnosed his leukaemia early and treated him successfully. “He saved my life,” says Arthur. “It’s been horrible, but I’m good now. I’m in remission. It’s under control.”

After his diagnosis, Arthur returned to the US to keep performing, but not even his success in the US could insulate him from the medical bills that almost bankrupted him there, forcing a more permanent return to Australia.

Gregg Arthur with his close friend Craig Scott on bass at Foundry 616 performing a Tony Bennett tribute show. Scott was the only person Arthur confided in about his illness when he was first diagnosed with leukaemia.Credit:Anna Patty

“It was extremely hard for me to leave [the US]. But no regrets. Health is important. It’s also something to be proud of to say you were even in that position for that to come about. It wasn’t through luck; it was through hard work.”

After his diagnosis, Arthur never missed a show and kept his illness a secret, confiding only in his bass player Craig Scott.

Arthur is very generous towards those he sees as trailblazers in the Australian jazz scene. He’s planning a concert at the Lane Cove Golf Club for retired Australian broadcaster, Bob Rogers. At his recent show at Foundry 616 – billed as an “homage” to Tony Bennett – he invited 90-year-old trumpeter Billy Burton to share the spotlight.

Burton had played with Bennett during several Australian tours, along with Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. The veteran has collaborated with Arthur to remake My City of Sydney, sung originally by New Jersey-born Tommy Leonetti and played each night when Channel Seven ended normal broadcasting around midnight until the early 1980s.

“I don’t think Billy knows he is 90!” says Arthur. “I don’t think anybody’s told him.”

Now 58, Arthur started singing at Hurstville Boys High School. He took lessons from the late Don Grayden, who also taught David Campbell, Tim Finn and Monica Trapaga, and coached Normie Rowe for the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Grayden taught him how to find his natural voice and unique sound. “Rather than trying to make you sound like everybody else,” Arthur says.

Australian jazz performer Gregg ArthurCredit:Edwina Pickles

“I can hold a note because of him,” Arthur says. “I can have a terrible flu and be barely able to talk and still be able to sing. That’s the training Don gave me.”

Grayden also encouraged Arthur to take acting lessons from Hayes Gordon, the American-born founder of Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, not because he planned to be an actor but because all good singers need stagecraft.

In the late 80s and early 90s, Arthur did actually appear on-screen as a police constable in Rafferty’s Rules. “I’d read charges and arrest people,” he says. After hours, the cast came to his shows to watch him sing.

Gregg Arthur’s self-portrait on an album cover.

He also trained in opera but by his early 30s was working with Tommy Tycho. “I don’t know who recommended me to Tom, but somebody told him I’ve got my own voice,” Arthur says. “There are a lot of impersonators out there, a lot of copycats, and they do tribute shows.”

Early on he vowed he’d never do a tribute show – until he saw how it could be done differently. “When I was in Las Vegas I saw that one of my heroes, Jack Jones, was on at one of the casinos. The show was ‘Jack Jones Sings Tony Bennett’. I thought why? He’s Jack Jones.

“But when I saw the show, he was doing all of Mr Bennett’s favourite tunes, but in his own way. It was a new show, like listening to a completely different angle on these classic songs.”

There’s another twist to his admiration for Bennett. They are both painters. Arthur even uses a self-portrait on the cover of his most recent Juniper Jazz album, The Ballad Collection.

Australian jazz singer Gregg Arthur’s portrait of Tony Bennett.

“I’ve always painted, and I’ve always sung. I just love the arts, I guess that side of the brain kicked in.”

A portrait he painted of Bennett, however, received a mixed response when he presented it to the man himself. While he appreciated Arthur’s technique, he didn’t like seeing himself from a particular angle. “He’s very self-conscious about his magnificent Italian profile,” Arthur says. ”I painted him on the angle I was looking at him on stage. I don’t think he liked it.“

Still, it has not dimmed his enthusiasm for the music legend. “For me, Tony represents the last person of that era. He’s it and, once he’s gone, everybody after that is really riding on the shoulders of giants. Like I am,” Arthur says.

Gregg Arthur hams up his crooner imageCredit:Edwina Pickles

For all Arthur’s love of the jazz classics, he’s adding to the genre with his own compositions, some of them tinged with sadness. One is Last Call, a phrase used in American bars to announce the last round of drinks before closing. Another is Singapore Night, about a marriage proposal over champagne at Raffles Hotel. She said no. “It was horrible,” he says, “but it was nice that song came out of it. I always write what I’ve been through.”

The Bill at Il Baretto

More playful is his album featuring a cover shot of him, hamming it up in a tuxedo, as if he were Roger Moore playing James Bond. “It’s very tongue in cheek,” says Arthur, who also made a series of ads sending himself up in a tuxedo. He even dated a woman who was disappointed to learn that he didn’t wear a tuxedo at least three times a week.

When Arthur first arrived in Vegas, its golden years – of the Rat Pack and shows at The Sands in the wee hours of the morning – were behind it. But he believes the city can revive some of its class, mainly because artists such as Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jnr and Michael Buble are coming back. ”Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack built Vegas, then it was Elvis Presley’s time. That can come back, and it does to a certain extent.”

“It can be a little tacky, but you can find places that are really fascinating.”

Sydney may not have the glitz of The Strip but in the disused showrooms and ballrooms of our leagues clubs and hotels, Arthur dreams of a new era of post-COVID nightlife. And wants a part of it.

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