Larry Bene: Harlem stories

January 3, 2008

Larry Bene started his half-century in show business singing on vaudeville amateur night in Harlem, New York, when he was 10.

Now 75, he’s still entertaining and spinning stories about such legends as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin.

Bene grew up in Harlem and knew Darin there before Darin’s family moved to the Bronx. The two later became reacquainted and often met at Hanson’s drugstore on Broadway.

“All the aspiring artists use to hang there,” Bene recalled.

His group, The Bellhops, was called in to substitute for Darin one night at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub.

During those times, Bene had the potentially career-boosting opportunity to appear on TV’s “American Bandstand.” But he would have had to pay to be on the program.

The “payola” scandal of the 1950s and early ’60s killed the career of pioneering disk jockey Alan Freed, who admitted to congressional investigators that the practice was rampant in the record business and that he had engaged in it.

“Bandstand” host Dick Clark, meanwhile, flourished after denying any involvement with payola “despite taking many, many gifts from record companies – including enough valuable song copyrights to stock a significant music publishing company,” according to a New York Times online review of a book on the making of his rock ‘n’ roll empire.

As for Bene, he chose to tour with singer, trumpeter and big band leader Vaughn Monroe and Dagmar, a busty blonde who became the first major female TV star, because it offered a steady paycheck.

“In those days, to get paid for two months was something,” Bene said.

He met his idol, Frank Sinatra, while singing in the piano bar at Jilly’s in New York. The “chairman of the board” and actress Jill St. John spent that entire evening there.

“I admired this man,” Bene said. “I admired his phrasing, his breath control.”

And Sinatra’s response to Bene’s performance? “Good job, kid.”

The encounter that chokes him up the most happened at a Boston TV studio where he was appearing on a variety show with a legendary jazz singer. She extended her hand and said, “My name is Ella Fitzgerald.”

“It made me feel so humble,” Bene said. “I had the experience to be with all those stars, and they always treated me royal.”

Bene has lived in New Port Richey since 1999 and performs locally for civic associations, small groups and other audiences.

“I sing. I dance. I become a person 40 years younger,” he said.

Bene also appeared with the Richey Community Orchestra in a tribute to Sinatra.

“He’s got charisma,” said Denise Isaacson, the orchestra’s executive director. “He’s very authentic to Frank Sinatra’s style.”


Larry Bene will perform from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday for the Buena Vista Men’s Club at its Holiday clubhouse, 4212 Buena Vista Lane. Admission is $4. Call (727) 938-0897 for details.

He is also appearing from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Cinema Grill @ Embassy 6, 9510 U.S. 19, Port Richey. Reservations are required; call (727) 846-8052. Admission is $10.

For promotional information on Bene, call (727) 842-3158.

By CHERYL BENTLEY for The Suncoast News

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