Sonny/Jimmy duo lives
in their songs

Nov 4, 2003 5:59 AM

"YOU’VE GOTTA START OFF EACH DAY WITH A SONG!" For years, that was one of Jimmy Durante’s signature songs. In his rough and gravelly voice I can still hear him: "Even when things go wrong . . ."

So many of the sweet times came to the front last week when I heard the Schnozz’s sidekick, Sonny King, is still belting them out along with Blackie Hunt out at the Bootlegger.

At 75, Sonny’s voice is still as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar. He can still sing. And, it says here, he luvs it.

King aged with the masters. His longest run was the 28 years he spent alongside Durante. But the Las Vegas showman played with a number of masters ”” Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis, to name a couple. At 17, King worked the famous Chez Paree. He was the youngest to ever play the great showroom. He needed a guardian to do so.

Durante and King made music and laughter together everywhere, Âí­especially Las Vegas.

"Jimmy took three months a year off," Sonny says. "I had to keep working. That’s how I started playing lounges in Las Vegas. I played the Desert Inn for 2½ years and an even longer stint (3½ years) at the Stardust."

Sonny was an entertainer’s entertainer. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louie Prima and others often caught his act whenever he played a Las Vegas lounge.

"They were the fun days of Las Vegas," King recalled. "Everyone came here to enjoy life. Frank was very good to me. He helped me out plenty. I used to live with Dean. We lived at the Bryant Hotel on 58th Street in Manhattan."

Cheech loved to hear Sonny sing. He had two favorites ”” "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "It Had To Be You."

He’s probably singing those songs at the Bootlegger.

Durante’s words ”” even when things go wrong ”” never faded for King. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native who played vaudeville at age 12 had his share of bumps along the way. Cancer wasn’t his toughest villain. Spanning the generation gap, the new sounds and changing times were the dragons.

"There were so many days when I wanted to rip up the tickets, but the love of my family and friends kept me strong.

"Regrets? None! I’d do it all over again and love every minute of it. The memories are priceless. So were the friends."

Many of those friends frequently catch him at the Bootlegger: Steve Lawrence, Buddy Greco, Bob Anderson, Nelson Sardelli, Freddie Bell and others.

Looking back, Sonny Âí­reminded me how much Jimmy Durante meant to him.

"I have plenty of Durante stories, but the one I love most was the time he unveiled a dark secret. He told me about ”˜Mrs. Calabash.’"

"In his later years, Durante would sign off his TV shows by saying ”˜Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!’

"Nearly everyone wondered who ”˜Mrs. Calabash’ was. I knew. Jimmy told me about his wife. She was quite ill toward the end. Every Sunday, Jimmy would drive to the rest home at a tiny town near Calabasas, Calif. He always asked if there was anything she wanted. Nearly every time she wanted a drive to ”˜Calabash.’ Neither she nor Jimmy knew how to pronounce the name of the town. Calabash, she said . . . Calabash, she got.

"After she died, her memory lingered. At the end of a show, Jimmy’s closing was always the same:

"Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."