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Publicist wrote biographies of three big-band legends

PETER J. LEVINSON, 1934 - 2008

October 23, 2008|Jon Thurber | Thurber is a Times staff writer.

Peter J. Levinson, a veteran music industry publicist who worked with some of the leading names of the big-band era and later wrote biographies of three of them, has died. He was 74.

Levinson died Tuesday at his Malibu home of injuries suffered in a fall, said publicist Dale Olson.

Levinson was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) nearly two years ago and the progression of the ailment also known as Lou Gehrig's disease had left him unable to speak. The aid of a computer, however, made it possible for him to work, which he did until the day he died.

After nearly half a century in the music business with a client list that included Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Jack Lemmon and Mel Torme, Levinson turned his hand to biography, producing "Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James" (1999). Levinson had worked with the trumpeter from the 1930s and '40s and produced what the New York Times called a "relentlessly candid" recitation of James' life, his marriage to World War II-era film star and pin-up queen Betty Grable, and his bouts with alcoholism, gambling and adultery.

Critic Nat Hentoff wrote that "Trumpet Blues" "is one of the very few biographies of a musician I have read that not only told me much more than I thought I knew but compelled me to listen right away to the music again."

Levinson next turned his attention to Nelson Riddle with "September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle" (2001), profiling the brilliant arranger who was best known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Lee.

Levinson's book followed Riddle's career as a film scorer, his longtime romance with Clooney and his death from cirrhosis in the mid-1980s.

Reviews were mixed, with some critics finding the large helping of biographical detail frustrating while others found it fascinating reading.

In 2005, he published "Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way," which a Los Angeles Times reviewer called "an absolute treat for big-band and Sinatra fans, [which] easily stands on its own as a fascinating portrait of a show business character of mythic proportions."

According to Olson, Levinson had just completed a book on the life and work of dancer Fred Astaire. Entitled "Puttin' on the Ritz," it is scheduled to be released by St. Martin's Press next March.

Levinson was born July 1, 1934, in Atlantic City, N.J., and earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia. He started writing about jazz artists for the university's newspaper and contributed feature pieces to the university's humor magazine.

He served in the U.S. Army in Korea and, after his discharge, moved to New York and started free-lance writing about jazz.

He began his career at Columbia Records in the late 1950s and started doing publicity work for singer Jack Jones in 1962.

He would eventually start his own New York-based firm, Peter Levinson Communications, and it became bicoastal when he moved to Southern California in the late 1980s.

Over the years, he worked on publicity campaigns for a wide array of projects, including the television show "Dallas" and the films "Z," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Kramer vs. Kramer," as well as the unveiling of a postage stamp for Duke Ellington in 1986 and the 60th anniversary of Decca Records.

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Grace Diekhaus; and a brother, Dr. John Levinson of Wilmington, Del.

Funeral services will be private.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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