Volume 75, Number 25 | November 09 -15, 2005

Not Fats or Jackie, he’s always sung like a Rainbow

By Daniel Wallace

In the dim dinning room of Sam’s Restaurant on 45th St. last Monday night Mr. John Rainbow took the stage. At 80 years old, a throwback to an age when charm and style mattered, Rainbow walked stiffly under the spotlight wearing a white tuxedo jacket, checkered bowtie and cumberbund, black pants and a fedora hat cocked jauntily to one side.

The audience, eating and talking, waited patiently, unsure what to expect.

But when Rainbow took the microphone off its stand and Margery Eliot began playing a soft jazz riff on the piano, the crowd fell silent.

“If you could see me now,” Rainbow sang, in a softly controlled vibrato that immediately hypnotized the audience. “I think you’d be mine again, if you could see me now.”

One of the few remaining titans of the jazz swing era, Rainbow is an East Village resident whose soft ballads and regal voice have gently persisted amid the din of New York, a city whose streets hum continuously with the hopes of artists and performers who have come here to make a name for themselves. Occasionally these performers rise to the surface of public awareness. More often their songs sink among the clatter and disappear.

Not so for John Rainbow. A longtime friend of Ruth Ellington — Duke Ellington’s sister — and the former president of the Duke Ellington Society, Rainbow has performed with Shirley Horn — the famous Miles Davis accompanist who passed away in October — and has traveled the world with his songs, for which he’s received numerous awards.

His life is a remarkable story of success, disappointment and, ultimately, perseverance.

Rainbow first received recognition for his talent when the music director of his segregated school in Wheeling, West Virginia, praised his voice and offered to prepare him for the Major Bowes talent show.

“I was so excited,” Rainbow said. “I told her I’d ask my mom and dad. But my mom said no — because she was afraid I might win.”

Rainbow was 11 at the time. His mother’s reticence bears witness to the racial tensions that still infected America in the 1930s.

In 1944 Rainbow was drafted into the Army Transportation Corps and after sailing for 44 days in the Pacific — a “scary” experience he’ll never forget — Rainbow served for a year in Okinawa before an honorable discharge in 1946. He still wears his veteran’s pin.

Rainbow returned to America facing a bright future. When visiting his Aunt Leena and Uncle Steve in Cleveland, his older brother Jim, who is now deceased, arranged for Rainbow to perform on a local radio show. His family and friends gathered around the radio in his aunt’s kitchen and listened while Rainbow sang, “You Go to My Head.”

“When I came back that night, everyone cheered,” Rainbow recalled. “And this couple, Meme and Willy Lewis, who were friends of my aunt and uncle, were there; and they said, boy oh boy, can you sing. You got to go to New York.”

The Lewises were friends of Bill Kenny of the Inkspots and they brought Rainbow to New York to meet him. Although nothing came of the meeting, Rainbow fell in love with the city and remained. He even speaks some passable Ukrainian, which he picked up from his East Village neighbors.

His first performance in New York came in 1947 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem where he won first prize in a talent show.

“That was almost 60 years ago,” he said, smiling into the distance. “I sang the ‘September Song.’ ”

Rainbow performed sporadically over the next decade in various African-American nightclubs and then, in 1962, on the Hugh Downs NBC television quiz show, “Concentration,” he won a free, two-week trip to Europe, where he became a star.

In Copenhagen, Rainbow met Harry Arnold, a prominent European musician at the time with an 18-piece band, who invited Rainbow to sing at one of his shows.

“It was great,” Rainbow recalled. “They had me in the papers. And that was the kickoff for me in Europe.”

Rainbow saved newspaper clippings from his performances and, by tireless self-promotion, sang throughout Sweden, Denmark and France. He telegraphed NBC, which granted him permission to remain in Europe for a year, although he had to pay his own way; and in Stockholm he performed in a music festival after which his picture in the newspaper bore the caption: “Johnny Rainbow, black American, star of the show.”

Rainbow returned to New York in 1963. He believed he was on his way to the top. He performed in the Iridium Jazz Club, the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Danny’s Skylight Room and the Lenox Lounge. He acquired a manager named Tommy who brought Rainbow’s demo to different promoters.

But with the changing music scene, and the civil rights movement barely underway, Rainbow got his first taste of disappointment.

“In those days, if you were a man of color — unless you were Billy Eckstein and had your own band — you couldn’t sing ballads,” Rainbow said. “I couldn’t sing in many of the places I wanted to, and that affected me.”

After a while his manager, Tommy, came back to Rainbow — “with tears in his eyes” — handed back his demo, and said producers weren’t interested. That same year Rainbow received a Dear John from his Swedish fiancée, who was supposed to meet him in New York in ’64, saying that she’d met and married another man.

“That broke my heart,” Rainbow said. “I’m still getting over it.”

(Rainbow has been engaged four times but remains a bachelor. He and his former Swedish fiancée remain friends; she calls him twice a year — on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and on Rainbow’s birthday; and he calls her every year on her birthday to sing over the phone).

But Rainbow did not give up. And finally, out of the rubble of disappointment, an opportunity arose when, after performing at the Club Ambassador in 1963, Rainbow was invited to meet a producer at the famous Brill Building on Broadway.

“I had visions of Rolls-Royces,” Rainbow said, pronouncing the word slowly, relishing the memory.

But after the producer glanced over Rainbow’s resumé, he asked him if he could sing like Fats Domino.

“Fats Domino?” Rainbow said. “No, I sing like Johnny Rainbow.”

“Can you sing like Jackie Wilson?”

“You’ve heard me sing.”

“Can you try?” the producer asked. “Don’t you even want to try?”

Insulted, Rainbow said no. He did not come from the background of these musicians. And he had to remain true to his own background, his own voice.

“I’m sorry, Johnny,” the producer said. “But you’re not marketable.”

“And boom, that closed the book,” Rainbow said. “The Rolls-Royce dream just blew up into space.”

Rainbow, disillusioned and hurt, abandoned the music industry for nearly two decades. He joined the New York City Police Department and worked for 17 years as a phone operator. He retired in 2002.

But his cynicism did not last. Rainbow has always been a religious man and, after leading worship for the Manhattan Church of Christ, of which he’s been a member since 1957, his love of music and performance was rekindled. He started singing again in nightclubs in 1997. And he’s been at it ever since.

At Sam’s on Monday night Rainbow captivated the crowd. On his business card is printed, “see me on stage, and you’ll forget my age.” And it’s true. He looked into the eyes of a young girl in front, who smiled, looking proudly toward her friends. And while he sang his ballads some members of the audience closed their eyes.

When it was over, the room remained hushed for a moment before the clapping began.

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