Daniel Rubin: At 90, big-band singer Harry Prime gets another encore

Residents and others gather in the lobby of the Meridian condos to hear Harry Prime sing and talk about the big-band era.
Residents and others gather in the lobby of the Meridian condos to hear Harry Prime sing and talk about the big-band era.
Posted: December 17, 2010

A year ago, Harry Prime thought his singing career had come to an unhappy end with the sale of the Roasted Pepper restaurant in Chalfont, where he had performed for seven years of Thursdays.

"Like a body blow," he describes it. The former big-band singer lived over the restaurant, which made the commute to his gig possible. At 90, macular degeneration has left him unable to drive or read.

"All I can do is sing," he says, but as of last November, finding an audience had become a challenge.

One night in October, he took up the offer of his friend and fan Ron Astle and performed in the lobby of the Meridian condominiums in Warrington. Several dozen residents showed. So last Friday, Prime made a return engagement. Everyone seemed to have brought a friend.

"This is a lovely way to spend an evening," Prime said, kicking off his set with a mike in one hand and a mug of cider in the other. "Can't think of anything I'd rather do."

You might not recognize his name, unless you followed the big bands or scour liner notes. But Harry Prime, son of East Falls and St. Bridget's Parish, recorded nearly 100 songs in the '40s and '50s - including "Until," a million-seller with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

He was making $200 a week in 1945 on CBS Radio's Music That Satisfies, and five years later a Billboard poll of the nation's disc jockeys rated his band, the Ralph Flanagan Orchestra, No. 1 in the country. He was voted the 20th-best singer, ahead of Dennis Day, Eddie Fisher, and Dean Martin.

His vivid recall of those wild days and nights astonishes Astle's wife, Cyndy, a geriatric nurse.

"We all look forward to old age with dread," she said, "but he's done it marvelously."

And the old boy can sing.

His youthful tenor long ago dropped into baritone, but Prime still savors each phrase.

It happened in Monterey

A long time ago.

He was formally dressed for his condo gig - blue blazer and khakis, matching rep tie and hankie. He danced in place, tiny steps, his hips keeping the beat.

As he launched into "The Way You Look Tonight," singing to background tracks, Prime spotted a regular from the Roasted Pepper, a white-haired woman named Madeline Beine, who sat before him in a wheelchair.

He took her hand for the entire song, and she looked into his eyes as if no one else was in the room. She seemed transported.

A trolley ride to success

The year: 1944. Prime was 24, newly married, and heading for the post office in Washington, where the night shift awaited. His trolley passed the 400 Club. The marquee announced an amateur-night contest.

He wasn't a trained singer, but he'd sung all his life, first with his mother, who would chirp the old songs as she laundered the family clothes, then in church.

Prime performed so well that the club offered him a week's engagement. At the end, the owner told him if he went back to the post office, he'd be a fool. Once Prime made the change, his salary jumped from $42 to $50 a week.

The club owner knew what he had. He sent Prime to a nearby recording studio to sing with a blind accordion player. They laid down "I'll Get By" and "Long Ago and Far Away." And when the club owner heard the acetate, he called bandleader Jimmy Dorsey in New York and played him the record over the phone.

Days later Prime was headed for Florida in a borrowed suit. Dorsey hired him to travel with his musicians, learn the songbook, and wait until their male vocalist - a drug addict - hit the skids.

Prime's time came four weeks later, with two minutes' notice, at Manhattan's Hotel Pennsylvania. The show was going to be broadcast on radio. "Are you ready to sing?" Dorsey asked him.

In the crowd that night sat a big-time DJ, Martin Block, who invited Prime to stop by his office the next day. Waiting for him were several execs from the cigarette company that made Chesterfields and sponsored the show.

Prime was signed for a 13-week engagement, for four times as much as he'd ever earned. Chesterfield marketed him as something out of Horatio Alger, from rags to riches.

Classics and commentary

"When I was with the band, you'd be out all night, half drunk or real drunk," he told his audience at the over-55 condo. "The next morning it would be, 'What town is this? Topeka?' "

Prime kept the classics coming, " 'S Wonderful," "Blue Moon," "Drinkin' Again," " 'Deed I Do."

He delivered both play-by-play and color along with his repertoire, serving up dish about Ralph Flanagan - an odd guy who "didn't give a damn about vocalists." The bandleader had told Prime he'd set him up with RCA to record as a solo artist, then told him he was too valuable to let go.

By the time Prime left Flanagan's band, tastes had changed, and television was shifting the emphasis from sound to looks. Prime ultimately returned to Philadelphia to spin disks on WCAU.

After a 45-minute set Friday night, the old showman let his granddaughters, ages 9 and 16, have a turn, joining them afterward for "The Coffee Song," for which he donned a giant sombrero.

Modern music, he told his audience, leaves him cold. Where's the warmth of an accordion or the jolt of a trombone?

"Ah, the gentleness of great music. It swings and it's also so subtle."

Prime wasn't ready to call it a night. He sang an encore, "When Joanna Loved Me" and then "The Second Time Around."

Love is lovelier

The second time around.

A woman from the crowd hollered, "What about the fifth time?" That got a laugh.

Prime had one more tune to sing, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?", and the crowd swaddled him with applause.

"Was I OK?" he asked a man in the front row.

The man nodded. "You were in the pocket."


Daniel Rubin:

To see a video featuring Harry Prime singing, visit .


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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