Charles DeForest

Charles DeForest was A quintessential New York saloon performer, Mr. DeForest was widely praised for a performing style that was at once urbane and quietly intimate. Evoking his music, the New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson described “a soft intimate voice that manages to brush gently over the words in a manner that is clear and precise without being exaggerated.” Mr. Wilson added, “The songs he writes are blithe, witty, Porter-like lyrics riding on a catchy rhythmic pulse.”

A prolific songwriter whose work was recorded by George Shearing, Blossom Dearie, Chris Connor and Sylvia Syms, among many others, Mr. DeForest found his most important champion in Tony Bennett, who included three of his songs on his 1990 album, “Astoria: Portrait of the Artist” (Columbia). One of those, “When Do the Bells Ring for Me?” became Mr. DeForest’s signature tune.

Mr. DeForest, who was born in Genoa, N.Y., moved to New York City in the early 1950’s to pursue a career as a composer but quickly became a popular performer in Manhattan nightclubs and piano bars, where he worked steadily for 44 years. Among the clubs that featured him were the Blue Angel, Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Edwardian Room at the Plaza. In later years, he appeared at Ted Hook’s Backstage, One Fifth Avenue and the Supper Club. He spent three years, up to a few weeks before his death, as the resident singing pianist at Danny’s Grand Sea Palace.

I met Charles in 1982 while I was performing at Ted Hook’s Backstage. He was playing and singing at a cabaret club on West 46th street, called, “Mildred Pierce” or “Mildred’s” as those of us living in the neighborhood called it. Charles had a style and sense of humor that was unlike any other person I had ever known. His music was sophisticated and reminiscent of another time when cabarets and standards ruled the day. He could be “campy” or serious and he poured his heart into every tune. Once, I went to lunch with Charles and  Murray Grand, (the guy who wrote, “Guess Who I Saw Today My Dear”). Charles brought along his little tea-cup poodle (he never went anywhere without his little it). After lunch we stopped by a local news paper stand and the guy behind the counter reached out and said, “Oh, what a lovely little creature!” As we walked away, I said to Charlie, “I think he liked your dog.” Charles replied with a cry in voice, “He was talking about me!” Every time I think of that it still cracks me up!. After I moved to the West Coast, I received a Christmas card from Charles every year. He never forgot to send me one even when I did. Shortly before he died, he wrote to tell me that he was terribly depressed because his partner and friend, “Raffi” had finally succumbed to AIDS. He also told me that his own health was failing. I visited New York in May of 1996 and stopped off to see him at Danny’s. As always, he was so gracious. He asked me to play and sing a few songs. I could tell he was not doing well. I felt sad leaving him at the end of the night. I learned of his death from Chita Rivera’s sister, Lola, who use to manage the club where Charles was performing. I miss Charles. Certain people in life are able to move the bar a little higher, forcing you to either climb up or to drop off. Charles helped me to climb up a little higher.

Mr. DeForest recorded three albums for small labels and composed the music and lyrics to “City by Dawn,” a short feature film in which he also starred. “Prizes,” a musical for which he wrote the score, was presented by AMAS Repertory Theater in 1989.

He received awards from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets in 1994 and ’95 and the Mabel Mercer Foundation in 1992.

Charles DeForest, died in Penn Yan, N.Y., at the home of his nephew. He was 72. The cause of death was cancer.

Source:  By STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times. My own personal relationship with him.

Here’s Tony Bennett singing Charles DeForest song, “When Do The Bells Ring For Me” at the 1991 Grammy Awards


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