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Blame it on Eydie and Chicago

The beloved singer had a hand in Chicago Theatre's resurgence

Chris Jones

8:49 AM CDT, August 16, 2013

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In 1955, a 27-year-old singer appeared at the Chicago Theatre. Although she was becoming known for her singing on a TV show from New York, known informally as "Tonight," the pretty vocalist was by no means top of this Loop variety bill. She came in below Art Mooney and his orchestra, a group then known as the "Honey Babe" orchestra, after one of its recording hits. And she came after Somethin' Smith and The Redheads, a pop trio known, briefly, for the hit song, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie."

Eydie Gorme, who died last weekend just shy of her 85th birthday, already had a complicated relationship with Chicago. A couple of years earlier, she'd borrowed $500 and shown up to audition for The Breakfast Club, the morning radio (and short-lived TV) variety show hosted by Don McNeill and broadcast nationally from Chicago. Gorme had been given a tryout slot at eight in the morning. "I was awful," Gorme told the Tribune in 1957. "I just couldn't sing ... nothing came out right. I was turned down flat."

Yet McNeill's rejection had meant Gorme was very much available when, shortly afterward, Steve Allen came by looking for singers. That meant Gorme had met Steve Lawrence, who eventually would become her personal and professional partner. That meant she had become one half of Steve & Eydie. So maybe that rejection had been a blessing. By 1959, she was part of a celebrity delegation at O'Hare airport, inaugurating the jet age in Chicago by boarding a Boeing 707, American Airlines Flight 49, headed for San Francisco.

The 1955 appearance by Gorme probably explained another night at the Chicago Theatre, 30 years later, when Gorme was seen in the entourage of a Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, and, later, in the company of Frank Sinatra. This was on perhaps one of the most important nights ever for live entertainment in Chicago: the grand re-opening of an almost-lost crown jewel, and the beginnings of a great renaissance in the Loop's entertainment district. In their 1986 story, the Tribune's Eric Zorn and Margaret Carroll began with the feelings of an ordinary Chicagoan from the South Side. "This is the world's greatest opening for the greatest theater in the world," said the man on the street. "It's royal."

Gorme was the evening's queen. By then the former Edith Gormezano was personally and professionally inseparable from her husband, Lawrence. She had long ago become a big star. Both Gorme and Lawrence had fought to save the Chicago Theatre. In fact, they'd both been a part of an enterprise called Loop Alive, an attempt by then-mayor Jane Byrne to revitalize a State Street area that had hit on hard times. In 1983, as part of Byrne's much-maligned project (which also included a footrace and ice-skating), Gorme and Lawrence headlined at a Chicago Theatre where the paint was peeling off the walls. Gorme had been playing the old joint for 30 years; no wonder she became invested in its salvation. By the time of the Chicago Theatre's reopening, Washington had defeated Byrne. But Gorme was still around.

Why? Well, she had proved adaptable and unchangeable. Her solo recording of the gently exotic (in the way that a trip to Tijuana might be said to be exotic) "Blame It on the Bossa Nova" had made it to No. 7 on the Billboard chart in 1963. Not unlike Chita Rivera, Gorme initially sold a kind of accessible Latina eroticism to mainstream America. Actually, her parents were immigrants who hailed from Italy and Turkey but, being Sephardic Jews, they often spoke a Romance language called Ladino (sometimes called Judeo-Spanish) at home, which gave Gorme something different to use in her work.

You only have to look at a lyric to her biggest hit to understand how deftly the image of a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx was fused with an understanding of the erotic needs of the middle America of the early 1960s — an era in which sexual desire, let alone sexual consummation, always needed an excuse.

Gorme came prepared with one on her lips: "Blame it on the bossa nova, with its magic spell," she sang through countless hi-fi sets, offering context for innumerable attempted seductions. "Blame it on the bossa nova that he did so well."

"Lucky guy," a good portion of her listeners undoubtedly thought while making mental plans for a course at the newly franchised Arthur Murray dance studios.

Once Eydie became inextricably linked to Steve, of course, that whiff of sexual danger was replaced by the seemingly spontaneous banter of long-married couples, practiced between their unchanging renditions of the American songbook. Steve & Eydie constantly returned to Chicago with that routine — for decades, often at the old Mill Run Playhouse venue in Niles. They always had their detractors. In 1977, Larry Kart wrote in the Tribune that they were "a bit too middle-of-the-road to be anywhere," dubbing them "neat, professional and bland." That was a common critique.

But Steve & Eydie declined to change, becoming more treasured as their peers (Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Goulet, Liberace) dropped away, and as a generation of entertainers behind them forgot such rules as: Always put on a great show, wherever you are and whatever you are feeling. Critics started to marvel at how they had sounded exactly the same, doing pretty much the same repertoire, for a quarter of a century. Bland became classic. Middle-of-the-road became retro. Professional became a rarity.

The obituaries in the last few days have referenced Gorme's longevity, musical prowess, determination and her beloved status in Spanish-speaking countries. There was never another Steve & Eydie night in Chicago quite as big as the re-opening of the Chicago Theatre, although in 1997 the pair appeared at the restored Paramount Theatre in Aurora, another historic venue the duo had played for decades and had supported to renewed glory.

Young Gorme laid out her secrets for the Tribune in 1957.

Pay attention to your image: "I want people to leave the theater saying, 'Isn't she nice?'"

Don't cheapen your brand: "The wrong exposure is worse than none."

Be both complex and accessible: "Human emotions are never at one keel, and lyrics should express those different levels. An entertainer should be able to make people, at the extreme, laugh and cry."

Gorme, who never had any particular training as a singer, never had to change. Broken-down old theaters lost a good friend last weekend. Audiences lost a class act.

Cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonestrib