Timing is everything, and as far as having a career as a classic pop singer, Gary LeMel's timing stunk. His first album came out on VeeJay Records in the summer of 1964, just weeks before that label had a smash hit with a new English band called the Beatles.
"Their record killed my album," says LeMel, and the new rock movement eventually took care of his chances of making it as a singer. "I was working Playboy clubs, sometimes doing five shows a night and barely making 300 bucks a week," he says.
So, in 1968, LeMel, then just 21, quit performing. He first got a job with a music publisher, then one in artists and repertoire with Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records, and ultimately began working in the music end of the film business.
Now holding down the post of president of music for Warner Bros. film division in Burbank, the 48-year-old is considered by some to be the father of the compilation soundtrack album: He suggested that a group of pop tunes heard in the 1983 film "The Big Chill" be released as an album, and the resulting collection issued by Motown Records was a major success. Since then, he's been responsible for such multimillion-selling soundtracks as 1984's "Ghostbusters" and 1992's "The Bodyguard." "I'm involved in some way in every soundtrack at the studio," says LeMel, who is working on a biographical film of singer Bobby Darin, to be directed by Barry Levinson.
Despite a great job and a wonderful wife and family, LeMel says that something was missing. "I used to wonder, 'What is this feeling?' " LeMel says. It took him a long time to identify the feeling as the need to perform. So two years ago, he booked a night at Le Cafe, where he appears again tonight and Saturday.
The performance felt incredible, says LeMel, of Brentwood. "I realized that I had dropped something that I never could drop. Music was a part of my life--I had started piano as a kid and played bass with Anita O'Day when I was 15. So I saw that I had to have this fix, once, twice a year."
Last spring, "Romancing the Screen," LeMel's debut CD for Blue Note Records was released, and he decided to kick things off with an album release party at the Cinegrill in what is now the Radisson Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. A bunch of nobodies like Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, Quincy Jones and Alan and Marilyn Bergman showed up, and LeMel was spooked.
"When I heard that Frank was there, I was so scared that I almost couldn't do it," says LeMel, though he had asked Sinatra's daughter Tina--who had collaborated with LeMel on the soundtrack of "Sinatra," the CBS-TV miniseries that aired in 1993--to invite her father. "So I introduced him after the first number and that kind of took the heat off me. Then he stayed for the whole show, and that really made me feel great."
Since that night, LeMel has sung intermittently, using his rich tenor-baritone on such vehicles as Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned" or Michel Legrand and the Bergmans' "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" "You can't find anything better than those songs," he says.
Calling himself simply "a singer," but one who's been influenced by such standard-bearers as Sinatra, Tony Bennett and O'Day, LeMel says that during a performance he tries to connect with a song. "If I can move myself, and move the audience, then there's magic that happens." Le Cafe owner Dale Jaffe says the singer always takes care of business, pleasing listeners with his well-crafted renditions. "His music really works well in the room."
Born in London, LeMel moved with his family to Tucson, Ariz., when he was 10. He studied classical piano, then took up bass. He was hired as a bassist to play with O'Day at a local jazz club. Then, with his parents' approval, he made a brief tour with O'Day that included a week at the famed Village Vanguard in New York. She was instrumental in helping him pursue singing.
"She'd be late for the job and John Poole, her drummer, sometimes asked me to sing . . . to keep the crowd from getting restless," LeMel recalls. "Anita heard me one time and told me I had a good voice. That gave me more confidence."
LeMel says not performing during those interim years hurt him emotionally. "So now I always encourage people that whatever it is that you gave up when you were younger, that you loved, do it again," he says. "You don't have to do it all the time or be a professional, but you'll feel great, and you'll save a lot of money on shrink bills."
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WHERE AND WHEN
Who: Gary LeMel.
Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 9 and 11 tonight and Saturday.
Price: $10 cover, two-drink minimum.
Call: (818) 986-2662.