Hearing It From Him Made All The Difference
If you grew up in So Cal, anytime from the 60s to the 90s, Jerry Dunphy was probably a household word. He was the pre-eminent local newscaster, LA’s own Walter Cronkite, if you will, and was every bit as polished and professional. A familiar nightly fixture on our TVs, starting back before cable or internet, not only with the memorable phrase that would open his newscast, but also the way he told the news to us all. He was truly gifted, allowing the role of news anchorman to take on a whole new level of art, skill and flair. He had infinite credibility, pouring forth in every syllable and inflection. Little did I know, as a wee kid playing with bikes and model planes, that one day I would see an entirely different facet of the giant Jerry. We bonded at the Beverly Wilshire, and he left me with a lesson I will never forget.
“From the desert, to the sea, to all of Southern California”... The man who coined that phrase was simply there in front of me, leaning on the piano, digging the tunes, and sharing some pleasantries and great chat. I don’t even how it started, but the regular nightly visits just sprung up one year, and the bar became graced with his etiquette and enthusiastic zest for life. He loved live music, had been enjoying it during his half-century in the town, and I was far from being the only piano player who had interaction with him. Jerry Dunphy, you see, was not only the newsman, but also an avid song lyricist, passionately writing his ideas and words down, constantly searching for the perfect word. A true kindred spirit!
One night, after we’d long been friends, having shared many a break and a story, he offered a most astounding revelation, at least astounding to me. “Tony! I know what intrigues me most about your songs that you make up for people!”, he burst out. “What??”, I begged. He answered, “I can tell that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say until right before you say it! And you live for that!” I had to think for a second. He was absolutely a hundred percent correct! I did live for that “great unknown” pushing-the-envelope aspect. I craved it! I felt I had been read right for one of the few times in all my memory. How perceptive of him, I had never ever been told this by anyone before. I laughed in amazement and told him he was all-seeing, all-knowing. He gave me a folder with copies of his own copious lyrics, which I still have in my collection, and asked me to look them over, saying that if I felt any music come to mind, why he’d be glad to share anything that came of it. Later, looking through the vast amount of sheets and notes, I noticed he had enlisted a few notable real composers to set some of his words to music. I was flushed with honor. These lyrics were his children.
He would sometimes come in to the bar and his personal conversing would have a noticeably different pitch, an occasionally quieter, poignant tone. I came to know that it was because of one of either two things. Either the lyrics were dogging him, keeping him stuck on a particular phrase or pattern, racking his brain to get it right, muting him for long stretches of time. Or, the world scene, usually some bad news, was weighing on him. In the latter case, he revealed how sometimes it hurt him to report news that was not pleasant. How, he hated to have to go on set to tell reports of violence, or deaths, or confrontations. You would never know by the calm, dignified, charismatic approach he used every single night on TV. Here was a man who had become an expert at not giving away his underlying concerns or angst. That was the first part of his life lesson to me: the importance of maintaining your best outlook, and controlling whatever fire burned within. I so deeply appreciated having him consult with me, I guess that having a good friend with you in your bar of choice is the person to share stuff with. That was the second part of the life lesson: real friendship is a call to higher, unequivocal support. He talked a little bit of divorce and relationship hassles, but never to a point near despair, there was no room for that in his morale. I had to tell him how gamely and bravely he faced life, living it to the fullest, and how positively it affected me and others around him. It wasn’t just a compliment, boy was I ever right about this when it came to Jerry.
I met the first of his young dance partners soon after, and my impression of him just soared. Turns out, he absolutely loved to dance, in the traditional and ballroom styles, and had spent years in the now-fading dance halls and clubs in town, with a few different happy young dance maidens who all revealed to me the same truth: that they could not keep up with him for an entire evening! He would often have to take them either to rest or home to recover. Such was the energy of Jerry Dunphy. One night I asked him, after meeting one of his beautiful dance dates, “Do you think of lyrics while you dance?” I waited for some well-pondered clever reply, yet instantly I got “Oh, you bet!” I believed him.
I loved looking out for his cream-colored late model Bentley convertible to pull up to the valet outside the window next to the piano— an indication that my buddy Jerry was in for some R and R. All of my colleagues who’d interacted with him loved him too. One night, without warning he came up with a shot glass of whiskey for me, placing it down ever so considerately and ceremoniously. “I want to apologize for all the drunks in here tonight!”, he exclaimed, with a glint in his eye, looking around the room. What a true benevolent knight. A dancing poet and modern soothsayer.
It was a very sad day in LA when he passed away, we had lost a true Southland gentleman. There were billboards put up all over town with his picture, and words of thanks and commemoration. He hasn’t been equaled since. But when I think of Jerry Dunphy, I’ll always go to a particular memory from happier times, one that happened on a December evening when I looked up in mid-song to see him scurrying over to me excitedly, wanting to tell me something. “Tony!”, he called out gleefully, as I saw his trademark notepad and pen in hand, “I finally found something to rhyme with ‘orange!” I scanned my brain but could not produce anything among the files of human data. “What is it??”, I asked. He leaned back, smiled broadly, and with the tone of a wise sage, triumphantly proclaimed, “door hinge”!!