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Island profile: Dick Behrke, a muscian who’s seen it all

PETER BOODY PHOTO |  Dick Behrke and trumpet at home on Little Ram by the upright Steinway at which he’s done most of his composing and arranging.
Dick Behrke and trumpet at home on Little Ram by the upright Steinway at which he’s done most of his composing and arranging.

Dick Behrke started learning the piano back in 1945 at age nine, but  kids think the trumpet is a cooler instrument, so he picked it up at age 12. A few years later, he formed a dance band at Bronx Science High School and had his talented buddy and classmate Bobby Cossoto play drums.
Since then he has composed, arranged, conducted or played for stars from Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra to Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Petula Clark, Mel Torme and Gregory Hines. He’s also written jingles you’d know “for every product imaginable,” he said, winning seven Cleos in the process, two for his Pan Am compositions.

Bobby left Hunter to pursue a musical career, trading in the name Cossoto for Darin. Dick left school — Brooklyn College and the Manhattan School of Music — to pursue a career, too. Bobby hit it big with a rock novelty number called “Splish Splash” and then went even bigger with his swing version of “Mack the Knife.”

You can see the young Dick Behrke the very same year their careers merged again. A YouTube video of the “This Is Your Life” TV show features Bobby Darin in 1959, the same year that Bobby asked Dick to become his conductor and pianist.

A young, beardless and politely reserved Dick Behrke is the first lifetime friend that host Ralph Edwards brings onto the set for the still befuddled Darin, who thought he was there to tape a performance of “Mack.”

“My son always ribs me about it,” Dick said this week. “He says I come across as kind of pompous and proper on the show.” His son Jay is a newspaper writer and editor in New Paltz.

Another YouTube video opens a window on Dick’s later career. It features a 1972 promotional record for General Motors called “Building a Better Way to See the USA,” uplifting stuff that includes some pretty cool horn riffs.

“Neither one of them had a musical bone in their body,” Dick said of his parents, but his father bought his mother a Baldwin baby grand on the occasion of Dick’s birth in 1936. His mother, “a political activist from the 1930s, and that’s all I’m going to say about that,” didn’t play. His father was a film buyer for the theatre division of 20th Century Fox. They were divorced when Dick was two and his older sister six. His stepfather, Manny Blank, “did the same thing my mother did,” crusading for progressive causes.

The baby grand would follow Dick “back and forth across the country and 17 different apartments” on his many gigs and jobs. The trumpet was part of the mix only early in his career, when he worked clubs with trios and quintets in places like the Hotel Sunnyland in Ellenville, New York.  During and after his affiliation with Bobby, he played the piano.

“I’m now trying to figure out what to do with it,” he said of the Baldwin, which is in his brownstone walkup on 84th and York.

He has used the apartment less and less in recent years because his wife Mickey, who died in November, “couldn’t make the stairs.”

“My whole musical life is here now. Then it was all in the city,” he said. Today it’s playing with John Ludlow on alto sax at Sweet Tomato’s on Fridays, an open jam at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor on Thursdays, and he plays at the Ram’s Head (where he’ll be featured over the Presidents’ Day weekend) and the Dunton Inn in Patchogue.

He met fashion model Mickey Blair, the 1957 Miss Illinois in the Miss Universe pageant, on the road in 1960 in St. Louis, where he was working with Bobby and his orchestra at the Chase Hotel. She came down to St. Louis from Chicago with a girlfriend of Bobby’s who had told Mickey that “there’s a piano player who’s very cute,” she later told Dick.

The chemistry was immediate. “The strange thing is I don’t even remember proposing. It was just assumed, I think. I wish she were here to ask,” Dick said.

They were married at New York’s City Hall the day after Bobby opened at the Copa for the second time. Friends gave them the use of an apartment at 74th and Lex for a short honeymoon and Bobby gave them a “beautiful English Ford that looked like a 1950 American Ford.”

They drove it to Las Vegas, where Bobby opened for the second time at the Sands. After that, it was on to LA “to the end of 1963, which were Bobby’s really big years,” Dick said. He did two hit records with Bobby, “Artificial Flowers” and “Up a Lazy River.”

On his own, he arranged five albums under the mid-60s name “King Richard’s Fluegel Knights.” They were easy-listening jazz arrangements that featured two fluegel horns and scored high on Billboard’s air play charts but didn’t do well on the sales side. “But I was so thrilled to have a little musical presence for myself,” Dick said.

In 1969, a guitar player in the group who did commercial work introduced Dick to his producer. That connection led to his career writing for commercials and corporate productions.

Living in New York, Mickey and Dick’s weekend retreat was a 34-foot trawler they kept in Norwalk. In 1976, he and Mickey were in London, where Dick was working with Petula Clark doing a promotional series for Monsanto. There they met Suzanne Brock, an advertising executive working on the project. She had a house on the Island and told them they ought to check it out.

They stopped here on the way back from Block Island later that year. Entering Coecles Harbor, “I said it was the prettiest harbor I’d ever seen,” Dick remembered. The next day they went to see a newly listed cottage on Little Ram Island Drive and, after gazing at its view of the harbor, bought it without even going inside.

Over the years, Dick stretched his weekends here to three, four and five days, working at a massive 1890 Steinway upright and heading into the city only for meetings and recording sessions.

The business changed. “You had to write three tunes for every job because they wanted variety,” Dick said. “So either three guys were doing one jingle each or it was me doing three all the time. It got to be obscene. As soon as I was able to retire, I really did.”

It was 1997 and “that’s when I picked up the trumpet again.”

“All writers when they retire usually form a rehearsal jazz band … there are hundreds of them,” Dick said. “The world did not need another rehearsal band. I wanted to play. I wanted some sort of visceral connection with an instrument. I had missed that.”

So he took lessons with a friend, got together with groups in the city and went to the New School and the 92nd Street Y for classes. After 40 years conducting and playing the piano, he played the trumpet in front of an audience for the first time in 2009, at the weekly jam session at Bay Burger, organized by drummer Claes Brondal.

“Without music, since my wife died, I really don’t know what condition I’d be in,” Dick said. “All the players have become like a family. All my friends of course have remained friends. But the music is seriously necessary for me. I could not envision my life without it.”