Matt Dennis, a singer, pianist and composer who wrote “Angel Eyes” and a handful of other standards recorded by artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Willie Nelson, died of natural causes June 21 in a Riverside hospital. He was 89.
The Seattle-born Dennis, who joined the Horace Heidt Orchestra in San Francisco in 1933 and sang with singer Alice King, later formed his own band with Dick Haymes as vocalist, and served as an arranger and accompanist for Martha Tilton, Margaret Whiting and the Stafford Sisters.
Dennis scored some of his biggest hits as a songwriter in the early 1940s while he was a staff arranger and composer with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In collaboration with lyricist Tom Adair, he wrote “Everything Happens to Me,” “Violets for Your Furs,” and “Free for All,” all of which were recorded by Frank Sinatra, then a vocalist for Dorsey.
Dennis and Adair also wrote “Will You Be Mine?” sung by Connie Haines; and “Let’s Get Away From It All,” sung by Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Haines and the Pied Pipers. Stafford and the Dorsey band also performed Dennis’ “Little Man with a Candy Cigar” (with lyrics by Frank Kilduff).
In discussing his frequent collaboration with Adair, Dennis told The Times in 1986 that Adair worked for the water company in Los Angeles, handling complaints, so they worked a lot over the phone. “We wrote ‘Let’s Get Away From It All’ over the phone in about an hour, back and forth,” he said.
The idea for “Violets For Your Furs” came just as fast, while Dennis and Adair were listening to Billie Holiday at Mr. Kelley’s in Chicago.
“It was winter and the snow was really coming down,” Dennis recalled. “Tom had a date and he bought violets, and Billie was wearing furs, and we were thinking about what she might sing. Tom came up with the title, and we scribbled it out, words and music, on the tablecloth. Sinatra recorded it right away.”
Another of Dennis’ big hits, “Angel Eyes,” took longer to get off the ground.
“I wrote it in 1947 and had ... a time getting it going, even with monumental starts,” he recalled. “First, Herb Jeffries did it, but the [record] company folded. Then Nat Cole did it, and I was in seventh heaven, but it got lost because it was on the flip side of a hit called ‘Return to Paradise.’ Finally, Ella [Fitzgerald] recorded it for [producer] Norman Granz. She’s done it four times since. I’m thrilled because she’s always included it in her shows.”
In the late ‘40s, Dennis was signed by Capitol Records to record several singles backed by the Paul Weston Orchestra.
A popular singer and jazz pianist in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s in Los Angeles area clubs and restaurants such as the Encore, the Tally-Ho and the Lighthouse, Dennis had his own local TV shows on KTTV and KHJ in the early 1950s, and in 1955 was a summer replacement for Eddie Fisher on NBC-TV with “The Matt Dennis Show.”
During World War II, Dennis served as a singer-vocalist and arranger for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Radio Production Unit and played with the Glenn Miller Air Force Band after it returned from Europe.
He is survived by his wife, former big band singer Ginny Maxey Dennis; three children, David of New Orleans, Julie of Riverside and Matthew of Eureka; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in about month.