Playboy Swings by Patty Farmer
Playboy Swings by Patty Farmer (Beaufort Books, $32)
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
Playboy magazine and popular music have gone hand-in-hand with each other, ever since the first issue hit the stands in December of 1953.
“In the early days of the magazine, Hugh Hefner controlled everything when it came to the operation of the magazine and he loved jazz music since he was a teenager. So he could have written an article about something political or do an editorial, but he decided one of the first articles to appear in that inaugural issue was about the Dorsey Brothers,” said Patty Farmer, author of the new book Playboy Swings.
The book is an anecdotal history that looks at another side of Hefner’s Playboy empire, in particular how the magazine helped to promote jazz music to a mainstream audience during the 50s and 60s. As well, it used its offshoots such as the chain of Playboy Clubs, its two TV shows “Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark”, as well as its annual Playboy Jazz Festival, to bring many of these musicians this much needed public attention, and in a way turn Hefner into an accidental trailblazer by promoting and accepting Black and female musicians and singers into that mainstream when other clubs and TV shows were rather hesitant to do so.
Another interesting aspect of Playboy’s contribution to popular music that’s written about in the book was that for a brief time in the late 50s and early 60s, Playboy had its own record label, which mainly released compilation albums of artists who were recognized by Playboy’s annual jazz reader polls, or live performances from their jazz festival.
“Hefner was very committed to music and loved it just as much as he loved beautiful women,” said Farmer. “Playboy Records had its share of recording artists release original material for the label, such as Mickey Gilley, Joe Reynolds and the King Cousins. However, as the magazine grew, Hefner had a lot on his plate. And on top of that, there was huge competition from competing labels. So basically, he dropped the ball when it came to Playboy Records; he didn’t nurture it like any of his other Playboy-related projects. Eventually, the label was taken over by Sony Music.”
Farmer also stated that Hefner, through his chain of Playboy Clubs – the first one opened in Chicago in 1960 – gave many musicians, singers and comedians (both black and white, male and female) the boost they needed in their respective careers, and many of them had steady work for many years thanks to the growing circuit of Playboy Clubs, whether they be in New York, L.A., Miami, Lake Geneva, London or Jamaica. “Comedian Jerry Van Dyke told me in my interview with him that Playboy saved his life. He noted to me that thanks to his steady work at the Playboy Clubs, he became a better comedian and his act became more noteworthy; and he got really lucky when then popular showbiz columnist Earl Wilson saw his act at one of the clubs and gave him a real good notice in his column as a result,” she said. “Also, singer Al Jarreau got his start in show business working at the Playboy Club as one half of a musical duo called Al and Julio. He was discovered during a gig at the L.A. Playboy Club, and was later invited to perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. From there, Jarreau became a legendary, Grammy Award-winning singer.”
Although Hefner took a lot of heat during the 50s, 60s and 70s because Playboy was accused of exploiting women (at a time when at its peak 40 years ago, the magazine was selling in excess of seven million copies a month), Farmer believes that because of his strong beliefs of promoting racial and gender equality through the performers he promoted on his magazine, TV shows and clubs, he was more than just a publisher … he was also an accidental catalyst for social change in the U.S.
“Hugh Hefner – in a way – was responsible for social change during a turbulent time in American history. He believed in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, and he acted on those beliefs although he didn’t publicize it a lot,” said Farmer. “He just saw injustice in the world and tried to do something about it and didn’t think much about it. Basically, he acted first and paid the price for it later.”
As well, the book gives an inside look at how large a role the chain of Playboy Clubs played in spreading the Playboy brand during its heyday of the 60s and 70s, and how the Playboy culture grew thanks to these clubs, where gentlemen could have an enjoyable evening out as an exclusive keyholder by watching some of the top musical and comedy acts, enjoy a fine dinner at reasonable prices and of course, enjoy the spectacle of the club’s trademark Bunnies (which were auditioned and selected according to the strict standards of Playboy Club founder Victor Lownes; and in turn, the Bunnies had a manual that they had to memorize and strictly adhere to its rules). But Farmer attributes the clubs’ decline in the 80s to their reliance on the millions of dollars the casino in the London club made every year to help prop up those clubs that weren’t performing well financially. However, with the recent revival of the London club, she believes it can hep spark the revival of the other Playboy Clubs to their former glory.
“The new London Playboy Club is very hip and attracts younger clientele,” she said. “However, if Playboy wants to re-establish the other clubs around the world, they will have to adopt a new business plan, because this generation of clubgoers don’t remember the way the original clubs used to be.”
Playboy Swings is a fascinating cultural history that further adds to the mystique of Playboy being a major force in contemporary pop culture in North America by building an entertainment empire that exposed its many readers to the best in popular music and comedy, as well as being a place to launch a show business career, and become an unintentional spark for social causes that would forever change modern society. Basically, it shows that there was more to Playboy than just the centrefold.
* * *
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.