Pianist-singer-composer led an enduring Southland trio
Page Cavanaugh, a veteran pianist-singer whose trio was a popular nightclub and recording group in the late 1940s and ‘50s and who became one of Southern California’s most enduring lounge jazz artists, has died. He was 86.
Cavanaugh, who also was a composer and arranger during his more than 60-year career, died Friday morning of kidney failure at a skilled nursing facility in Granada Hills, said Phil Mallory, Cavanaugh’s bass player for 18 years.
During the early days with his trio, Cavanaugh appeared with Frank Sinatra at the Waldorf-Astoria and elsewhere, played for NBC Radio’s “The Jack Paar Show” and appeared in movies such as “A Song Is Born,” “Romance on the High Seas,” “Big City” and “Lullaby of Broadway.”
“He was always a creatively fascinating artist throughout his long career,” music critic Don Heckman told The Times. “What he did with his most famous group in the ‘40s and ‘50s was to develop a new style, in which all three members of the group would sing in unison in a whisper fashion.”
It was a time, Heckman said, “when jazz and popular music were in much closer sync than they are today, so that groups like Nat Cole and George Shearing and Page Cavanaugh could play with a distinctly jazz flavor and still reach large audiences and sell a lot of records.”
The Page Cavanaugh Trio, which placed in Top 10 polls in Down Beat and Metronome magazines from 1946 to the early ‘50s, had chart hits such as “The Three Bears” and “She Had to Go and Lose It At the Astor.”
Cavanaugh, whose trio also performed at clubs such as Ciro’s and the Trocadero in the ‘40s, had his share of long-run gigs, including regular stints at the Captain’s Table on La Cienega Boulevard in the early ‘50s and at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In the early ‘60s, he formed a seven-piece group, The Page 7, that recorded for RCA and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other TV programs.
Around the same time, he opened his own club in Studio City. But Cavanaugh, who performed solo in Las Vegas for a number of years in the ‘80s, had his share of career ups and downs. “At the end of the ‘50s, when rock ‘n’ roll came in, prices went down, and you couldn’t get arrested,” he said in a 1992 interview with The Times. “I’d end up playing in bowling alleys. It was a bad time.”
Still, he said, “a life in music was a good choice for me. It’s been a damn roller coaster, flying high one day, poor as Job’s turkey the next. But I can’t think of anything I’d trade it for.”
Walter Page Cavanaugh was born Jan. 26, 1922, in Cherokee, Kan., and grew up on his family’s farm. Both of his parents played ragtime piano, and he switched from his first instrument -- ukulele -- to piano when he was about 9.
He later won high school solo piano competitions four years in a row and earned a scholarship to Kansas State Teachers College in Pittsburg, Kan. But he stayed less than a semester and joined a Kansas-based band.
At age 20, he moved to Los Angeles and joined the Bobby Sherwood band, with whom he toured until he was drafted during World War II.
While serving in the Army Signal Corps, he joined the Three Sergeants, a trio with Al Viola on guitar and Lloyd Pratt on bass, which played for officers’ club dances and other functions.
After the war, they became known as the Page Cavanaugh Trio.
The latest edition of the Page Cavanaugh Trio -- featuring Mallory on bass and Jason Lingle on drums -- released its last CD, “Return to Elegance,” in 2006.
Cavanaugh made his final appearance with his trio in June 2007 at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, where the band had played on Thursday nights for more than a decade.
“He loved to entertain,” Mallory said.
Cavanaugh, who never married, had no immediate surviving family members.
There will be no services.