The song title "Nice Work If You Can Get It" aptly describes the life and career of songwriter/singer/pianist Matt Dennis.
And while he didn't write that one (George and Ira Gershwin did), he has knocked out a few memorable others--"Violets for Your Furs," "Angel Eyes," "Let's Get Away From It All," "Will You Still Be Mine?" and "Everything Happens to Me."
"I wrote a lot of tunes, six of which became standards," the spry, spirited 72-year-old Dennis said the other day. "That's lucky, because you never know when you'll get a standard."
Most of these classics were written more than 40 years ago, but they're still performed a lot.
Dennis has lost count, but says more than 200 LPs include his tunes on them, with renditions ranging from singers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson to pianist Oscar Peterson and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.
"Fortunately, most of the songs fell into the jazz bag and that's really accounted for their longevity," Dennis said. "That's given me a royalty (income) that I can subsist on. That and Social Security," he added, tongue-in-cheek.
An occasional real estate deal (both he and his wife, singer Ginny Maxey, are brokers) also helps, as do intermittent nightclub engagements. The pair who have been married 33 years and have worked together, off and on, since 1953, appear Sunday, at the Vine St. Bar & Grill.
Dennis used to be one of the most active and popular singer/pianists in Los Angeles. He appeared almost nightly during the '50s and '60s at one club or another, plying his wares and those of writers he "dearly loves" like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and the Gershwins. But he and Maxey, who always performs with him these days, don't maintain that kind of schedule any more.
"We work less, but we like to realize as much as we can out of it," he said. "But there is a gratification there. I like to work a club with a good piano, a good P.A. (public address system) and where you like the guy you're working for."
When Dennis, who cites pianistic influences from mainstreamers Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller to modernists like Clare Fischer ("He's done a fantastic version of 'Everything Happens to Me' "), and Maxey do perform, they cater to an audience "of mostly nostalgic friends, people who have followed us or myself," the composer said. "Thank God, people still like these songs."
Dennis, who had several of his best tunes debuted by Sinatra when the singer was with Tommy Dorsey in the early '40s, often collaborated with lyricist Tom Adair. "He worked for the water company in Los Angeles, handling complaints, so we worked a lot over the phone," he said. "We wrote 'Let's Get Away From It All' over the phone in about an hour, back and forth."
It wasn't the only time the pair worked fast. The idea for "Violets for Your Furs" came while Dennis and Adair were listening to Billie Holiday at Mr. Kelly's in New York.
"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."
"Angel Eyes" didn't have such an auspicious beginning. "I wrote it in 1947 and had a helluva time getting it going, even with monumental starts," Dennis said. "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 Norman Granz. She's done it four times since. I'm thrilled because she's always included it in her shows."