"You're Kenny Colman? But I thought you were dead!"
That reaction has been a common one wherever Colman has appeared during the last year. It's hardly surprising. In April, 1985, he was told he had six months to live. He had to tell his son and his aging father that he was dying. A benefit was staged to ease his final financial burden.
But Kenny Colman is neither dead nor moribund. He has bookings clear through next October. What happened to this confident Sinatra/Bennett-style classic-pop singer may well be without parallel in the annals of show business.
The crisis erupted after a 24-year career that had seen its share of ups and downs. Raised in Vancouver, B.C., Colman left Canada as a teen-ager. "I was a hockey player then--that was my whole life. Then I became a disc jockey. I worked for a TV and radio station in Bermuda. Later, I worked in New York at the Goodson-Todman office, creating ideas for game shows. Merv Griffin, who was the host of 'Play Your Hunch,' heard me sing and was very encouraging."
After sitting in at jazz clubs in Greenwich Village and Harlem, Colman became a full-time professional in 1961. For a while the prospect seemed rosy. "I was with Columbia Records in the mid-'60s; I became sort of their Jack Jones.
"I got to No. 99 on the chart with a song called 'A Great Big Hunk of Summer.' Back in Vancouver, I had my own TV series for CBC. I did the Johnny Carson show, Griffin, several times, and worked everywhere from the Vegas strip to Australia. But by then the Beatles and rock had taken over, and I could only go just so far."
There were plenty of steady jobs, some of them prestigious, but none of the fame he expected to ensue. The hit record was always just out of reach.
"Herb Jeffries produced a record for me a few years ago for some company, but I guess you can't get it now. I recorded some songs for United Artists that were never released."
Currently, he has no recording deal. The market for high-caliber saloon singers seems to be limited.
Frank Sinatra has been a consistent supporter, Colman said. "He's been so gracious. Over the years he arranged for me to headline at the Dunes in Vegas, to sing at the Four Torches in Chicago while he was appearing there, and to reopen Jilly's in New York in 1980."
Despite consistently good reviews and the help of Sinatra, Redd Foxx and others who had enabled him to get jobs, by 1985 Colman's career was floundering and his income was at a standstill. He was getting by on local jazz jobs, and staying with a cousin. "Then one evening, when I was working at Monforte's in the Valley, Joe Parnello, who was then Sinatra's conductor, noticed this little bump on my left temple. He called over a doctor friend, who advised me to have it X-rayed.
"I did and was told there might be a problem. I checked into a local hospital. My sister had flown in from Canada; cousins from all over were waiting around the hospital.
"The oncologist said it was adenocarcinoma; I had at best six months to live and had better start chemotherapy immediately.
"I had a commitment for a cruise ship and insisted on honoring it. The doctor yelled at me. "You can't go anywhere. You are a sick man." But I took my son, who was then 13, out of school, and we boarded the ship. When we got to Acapulco I booked a gig to start in December, even though I was supposed to die by October."
Next came the anguishing task of telling his son that he was terminally ill. "I told him, 'Look, Chase, your Daddy's tough, a street guy. Sinatra always said that Kenny Colman is a warrior, and I am. I'll lick this; I won't let it beat me!"
The initial financial problems were assuaged by help from the widow of Bill Todman. But soon it became clear that he would have to take advantage of his Canadian citizenship and Canada's socialized medicine. He went home to Vancouver, but also, during one run back to Los Angeles, gave away most of his clothes, and his library of arrangements. In a car packed with the rest of his memorabilia, he returned to Vancouver and was fitted with a mold for the headgear required in radiation therapy.
"I had undergone more CAT scans and other tests in Vancouver, so I kept putting off the therapy waiting for the final results. In mid-June, I went to the neurosurgeon. He told me that in the considered opinion of his colleagues, I did not have a carcinoma. I had a much less worrisome thing called a meningioma--no cancer.
"No cancer! I screamed with joy. It was a glorious sunny Friday afternoon."
The good news, however, was severly qualified. Surgery would be needed to remove the tumor in Colman's left temple; perhaps part of his skull would have to be removed, his left eye might droop and his speech could be impaired.
"I decided to forget it," Colman says. "I didn't want to look like the Elephant Man and sing like Buddy Hackett. So I would take my chances, and leave things as they were."