Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Steve Lawrence, Who Sang His Listeners Down Memory Lane, Dies at 88

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Steve Lawrence, the mellow baritone nightclub, television and recording star who with his wife and partner, the soprano Eydie Gorme, kept pop standards in vogue long past their prime and took America on musical walks down memory lane for a half-century, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said Susan DuBow, a spokeswoman for the family. He had been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s in 2019.

Billed as “Steve and Eydie” at Carnegie Hall concerts, on television and at glitzy hotels in Las Vegas, the remarkably durable couple remained steadfast to their pop style as rock ’n’ roll took America by storm in the 1950s and ’60s. Long after the millennium, they were still rendering songs like “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “Just in Time” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” for audiences that seemed to grow old with them.

Mr. Lawrence, a cantor’s son from Brooklyn, and Ms. Gorme, a Bronx-born daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, met professionally in 1953 as regular singers on “The Steve Allen Show” a late-night show on NBC’s New York station that would go national the next year as “Tonight.” Their romance might have been the plot of an MGM musical of the ’40s, with spats, breakups, reconciliations and plenty of songs.

When they finally decided to get married, Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Gorme faced a roadblock, as they recalled in a dressing-room interview with The New York Times at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in 1992.

“The major problem was his mother,” Ms. Gorme explained. “She said she’d put her head in the oven if Steve married me.”

He rolled his eyes and tried to get a word in edgewise, but she plunged on: “To the day his mother died, she said I wasn’t Jewish but Spanish.”

Later, the topic turned to the age of their audiences.

She: “Can I say something?”

He: “Could I ever stop you?”

She: “All the people out there tonight, or most of them, are our age. We’re playing to people like us. The reality is we are who we are. We can’t be anyone but Steve and Eydie.”

It was the kind of married-folks repartee that went well with ballads and show tunes, and they used it onstage and off, clearly enjoying each other’s company. She played the emotional, talkative, candid one; he was the easygoing crooner with gentle jokes about their sex life. Many of their friends were comedians, including Johnny Carson, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles and Carol Burnett.

Besides playing concerts and tours with his wife, Mr. Lawrence starred in Broadway musicals, acted on television and in the occasional movie (including “The Blues Brothers”), produced TV specials and recorded scores of albums, with and without Ms. Gorme, and more than 60 singles. His “Portrait of My Love” was a Top 10 hit in 1960. His version of “Go Away Little Girl,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, hit No. 1 on the charts in 1963 and sold more than a million copies.

Record sales put him in the top ranks of America’s pop singers in the early ’60s, and despite competition from rock groups, his club and concert dates with Ms. Gorme remained enormously popular.

In 1964, Mr. Lawrence was also a hit on Broadway in the musical “What Makes Sammy Run?,” based on the Budd Schulberg novel about a ruthless Hollywood mogul of the 1930s who succeeds by deception and betrayal, with music and lyrics by Ervin Drake. It ran for 540 performances; Mr. Lawrence won a New York Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Sammy Glick.

He and Ms. Gorme co-starred in “Golden Rainbow,” a Broadway musical that ran for nearly a year in 1968 and 1969. Its score included a reprise of Mr. Lawrence’s 1967 single “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (which was later a hit for Sammy Davis Jr.).

In the 1970s, as their recording magic faded, Steve and Eydie remained headliners at the Copacabana in New York, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, the Eden Roc in Miami Beach and the Sands and Sahara hotels in Vegas. Their 1975 television tribute to the Gershwins, “Steve and Eydie: Our Love Is Here to Stay,” was an Emmy nominee, and he won an Emmy as a producer of “Steve and Eydie Celebrate Irving Berlin” (1978).

The couple celebrated their 25th anniversary as singing partners with a Carnegie Hall concert in 1983. “Of all the pop baritones to have emerged in the shadow of Frank Sinatra, Mr. Lawrence has kept his voice in the best shape,” Stephen Holden said in a review for The Times. “His ballad performances Saturday boasted the same velvety smoothness that characterized his singing in the middle 1950s.”

They joined Sinatra on his Diamond Jubilee World Tour in 1991, traveling to Europe, Asia, Australia and across the United States. When Sinatra retired, he gave Mr. Lawrence his book of arrangements, and they were used on the 2003 album “Steve Lawrence Sings Sinatra.”

Steve Lawrence was born Sidney Liebowitz on July 8, 1935, in Brooklyn, one of three sons of Max and Anna (Gelb) Liebowitz. His father was a rabbi, a cantor and a house painter.

The Liebowitz boys were all musically gifted. By 8, Sidney was singing in a synagogue choir, and by 12 he was composing songs. He dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School before graduation to sing in bars and nightclubs.

He began calling himself Steve Lawrence, the given names of two nephews. He won “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” at 15 and sang for a week on Godfrey’s morning radio show.

In 1952, he signed with King Records and released a single, “Poinciana,” that sold 100,000 copies. (Both he and Ms. Gorme would have some of their biggest hits with Columbia.) A year later, he was chosen from 50 applicants to be a regular on Steve Allen’s New York show; he gained wider attention when the show began broadcasting nationally in 1954. He sang with the United States Army Band after being drafted in 1958.

Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Gorme were married in 1957. They had two sons, Michael and David. Michael died in 1986 of an undiagnosed heart condition. Ms. Gorme retired in 2009 and died in 2013. Mr. Lawrence is survived by his son David, a granddaughter and his brother, Bernie. He had lived in Los Angeles for many years.

In their twilight years, the couple scaled back the tours that had dominated their schedules. But they continued to appear at the Stardust in Las Vegas, the Foxwoods in Connecticut and smaller venues.

In 2004, at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, where they had played many times, they performed at a theater in the round, dressed to the nines, he in a tuxedo and she in a sequined white caftan. Family photos were projected on big screens — Eydie as a baby, Steve in his Army uniform, their wedding pictures — and the crowd oohed and aahed like proud grandparents.

“Forty years we’ve been schlepping all over the world, only to be working in a merry-go-round in Westbury,” Mr. Lawrence joked to a Times reporter that year. “If we were good, who knows? Maybe they’d let us play at Fortunoff’s.”

Then they sang the familiar old favorites, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Mam’selle” and “Where or When,” as the rapt, aging audience sang and hummed along.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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