Jimmy Durante - Biography

By J Poet

Jimmy Durante was one of the most singular talents in American comedy. His trademarks were his gigantic nose – his nickname was The Schnozzola, cheap rumpled suits, thinning hair, pug ugly face, and a cracked voice that could hardly speak, much less carry a tune. What he did do was play the piano, and while his keyboard work eventually took second place to his comedy, he was one of the first white jazz piano players in New York City. He made a series of successful movies and in the 1943 became one of the first radio superstars with his own show on the NBC network. In the 50s he moved to television and became one of the first mega TV stars. He recorded prolifically throughout his career and scored a surprise hit in his 70th year with September Song (1963 Warners) and is known to children of a certain age for narrating the animated Christmas perennial Frosty the Snowman (1969). His rendition of “As Time Goes By” open the Tom Hanks film Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and appears on the soundtrack album released by Columbia that same year. He died in 1980 after a stroke.


Durante was an original talent, an all round entertainer as the saying went, but he didn’t start out as a comic. He was born in 1883 and got into music at an early age, partly to avoid the relentless teasing he got because of his big nose (which got even bigger after it was broken by bullies and improperly reset) and his hangdog looks. His parents bought him a piano and arranged lessons, but he shunned the classical music he was being taught to learn ragtime by ear. He dropped out of high school to play piano in New York City dives and by the time he was 18 was known as “Ragtime Jimmy,” playing Scott Joplin influenced music. When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came to town in 1917, Durante invited them to play at The Alamo, the Harlem club he frequented. The band stayed on and became one of the city’s biggest attractions. Durante soon put together a band of New Orleans ex-pats and called them Durante’s Jazz and Novelty Band. They cut a few records for Okeh as the New Orleans Jazz Band and a few for Gannett as the Original New Orleans Jazz Band and Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band. He also made records as a sideman with bands including The Original Memphis Five, Ladd’s Black Aces, Bailey's Lucky Seven and Lanin’s Southern Serenaders.


Jimmy Durante’s Jazz and Novelty Band settled into the club Alamo and started to build a following. It was there that he got his nickname The Schnozzola, playing black music for white audiences. Eddie Cantor suggested telling jokes between songs and trading insults with the hecklers. He had a knack for comedy and the crowds got bigger. Tired of the club grind, he found a couple of partners and opened the Club Durant. Legend has it that the partners ran out of money and couldn’t afford to put the final “E” on the bar’s neon sign. Singing waiter Eddie Jackson and vaudeville dancer Lou Clayton convinced Durante to join them in a comedy act, and soon Clayton, Jackson, and Durante were stars in the Big Apple with their fast paced, mostly improvised comedy routines. They were stars of the Ziegfield review Show Girl in 1929. The cops raided and closed Club Durant that same rear but the trio carried on at other clubs. In 1934, he cut his signature tune “Inka Dinka Doo,” a nonsensical novelty song that was a smash hit. It’s included with other early recordings on The Great Schnozzle (1998 ASV) and Inka Dinka Doo (1986 MCA, 1995 MCA).


One of his most famous routines was in the show Jumbo (1935). He’s leading an elephant across the stage when a cop stops him. “What are you doing with that elephant?” the cop asks.  Durante’s wide-eyed reply: “Elephant? What elephant?”


Hollywood came calling in the early 1930s and Durante had featured roles in films like Hollywood Party (1934) with Laurel & Hardy, Roadhouse Nights (1930) written by Dashiell Hammett, Student Tour (1934), George White's Scandals (1934), Cuban Love Song (1931), Music for Millions (1944), It Happened In Brooklyn (1947) with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, and The Milkman (1950). At the same time he was making a name in radio starting with NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1932-33, The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935-36) and finally The Durante-Moore Show in 1943 with comedian Gary Moore whose clean cut presence contrasted nicely with Durante’s rough and tumble style. The show lasted until 1947 when Moore left, but resurfaced in a few months as The Jimmy Durante Show featuring the return of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante. He was also busy playing Vegas and touring nightclubs with his orchestra.


In 1950 he started on TV with The Jimmy Durante Show, a comedy-variety hour with ratings that made him one of early TVs most popular stars. He closed his show walking downstage and saying “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” He never told anyone who Mrs. Calabash was, but one theory is that he flirted with the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, South Carolina while on an early jazz band tour. He told the woman (Lucy Coleman) that he’d make her famous some day, and he did.


In the 60s he continued doing TV and nightclub work. Jimmy Durante at the Copacabana (1961 Roulette) captures him at his best playing hot ragtime piano, telling wacky jokes and singing some of his biggest hits.  He had a surprise hit in his 70th year with September Song (1963 Warners). The album crashed the Top 40 and the title track was a fairly big hit. He was an unconventional singer, barely able to carry a tune, but his phrasing and passion made the songs resonate. Hello Yong Lovers (1964 Warners) and Jimmy Durante’s Way of Life (1965 Warner) arranged by Gordon Jenkins, and Songs for Sunday (2008 Collector’s Choice) mined a similar vein. He made his last film It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1964, just before his health began to decline. He suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair in 1970; he died in 1980.


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