Don of the Dead

Ol' Blue Eyes is history, but Ol' Brown Eyes -- a.k.a. The Don -- is with us still. You'll find him every weekend in the Marriott Camelback Inn's supper club, sounding an awful lot like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and especially Dean Martin. The former B-movie actor and part-time Realtor impersonates dead Rat Packers and a host of other saloon singers, some of whom sound suspiciously like Frank and Tony and Dean, even when they're not.

New Times: Do you have a real name?

The Don: Yes.

NT: Okay.

TD: I'm Don Walsh. Half Irish, and half Italian. I'm the Don. Get it? Like in The Godfather. The Don?

NT: So, if I need you to bust somebody's knees for me, that's a service you provide?

TD: Well, we could talk about it. It's kind of a cheap job nowadays, though. You could get just about any high school kid to do it for free. Shit.

NT: How'd you get started impersonating the big guys?

TD: I'm actually an actor. I did local theater and a couple of movies. Word spread that I impersonate these guys, even though my real singing voice is closer to Dean Martin's.

NT: What movies were you in?

TD: Oh, gosh. Little movies. Not very good, nothing you would have heard of. I did one in Utah with Tony Danza, what the hell's the name of that? Sex and the Single Girl. I was in SLC Punk; I played the father of one of the punks. That's about as good as it gets.

NT: And now you're doing this. How does one become a Frank-Tony-Dean impersonator?

TD: The talent agents in Chicago knew me, and knew what I did, and I'd get a call from an agent who'd say, "Can you do a Sinatra thing?" I got a call from these guys at the Marriott, and I auditioned, and they loved me. The guy had an orgasm when he heard me: "Oh, God, this is great!" Because I, you know, walk around while I'm singing, I talk to people. It's called patter. They decided to keep me here until something bigger comes along.

NT: Like they're holding out for Tony Bennett himself. Did you grow up dreaming of impersonating other singers?

TD: No. Nobody does that. But I knew I had the talent for it. I used to do Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jr., but after a while those guys start to hurt your throat. Raspy stuff. Now I stay with the big guys. I do a mean Elvis, but I also do Perry Como, Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine. I guess those names don't mean anything to you.

NT: Come on. I know who those guys are. How come you don't do Jack Jones?

TD: Jack Jones. I like his songs, but I do them more like Dean or Frank might do them. He's like Vic Damone, a beautiful voice but no real style of his own, you know?

NT: What about Jerry Vale? No one sounds like Jerry Vale.

TD: I do Dean doing Jerry Vale songs. I do Doris Day that way, too -- Doris Day as Dean Martin would do her. It's beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. People love it.

NT: I bet. Your new CD is called Simply the Best. Is that a comment on your talent or the guys you're impersonating?

TD: It means I'm just simply the best impersonator in show business. I do a lot of different people, and there's not that many people doing impersonations anymore. Not like me, anyway.

NT: Your tag line is "The most versatile impersonator in the business." Does that mean you can do Dave Matthews? Liza Minnelli? Devo?

TD: No. But people will ask for, say, an Eminem song, and I'll do a Dean Martin song and say, "What? That's not an Eminem song?" It's kind of a little trick I play on them, see?

NT: Oh, hee hee! Say, are you just hiding behind other famous personalities because you don't have one of your own?

TD: I don't think of it as impersonating; I sing it the way I feel it, but it comes out sounding like the recording by the guy who did it first.

NT: Why not just sing as yourself?

TD: I don't know what myself is. So it's easier for me to do Gene Kelly or Johnnie Ray -- you know who Johnnie Ray is?

NT: Yeah. "The Little White Cloud That Cried." You were saying?

TD: I don't have a sound of my own. What happens to you is that you get so used to doing other guys that you start to sound like them. So I don't really have my own voice. I guess my own voice would be closer to Dean Martin's.

NT: Your Dean Martin is letter-perfect.

TD: You're right. The enunciation, the pauses, everything. People say, "Goddamn, it's like hearing Dean himself!" It's just that I have a feel for his sound.

NT: In fact, you sound like Dean a lot of the time, even when you're doing Nat "King" Cole or Bobby Darin. Did any of these guys you impersonate ever hear you?

TD: What? Most of them are dead!

NT: Tony Bennett is still living. Your Tony is pretty darn good.

TD: On most nights I can do him really well. But I prefer to do Frank, particularly his asshole music, the stuff he sang when he was going through the breakup with Ava Gardner. But the people here just won't buy that asshole stuff. They want to hear "Fly Me to the Moon" or "New York, New York." Every night. Believe me.

NT: Then why do you do this?

TD: It's better than sitting around doing nothing. If I didn't do this, I'd be at the track every day, betting. I say to old people, "If you're not going to do something, why don't you just die, then? If you're gonna sit there and watch goddamn television, watch the war on TV, who needs you?"

NT: You go! And what about playing Vegas?

TD: I don't have that bug, that need to go play a bigger room somewhere else. It's like I tell the audience here, "I don't need this shit. I'm on social security. I get a goddamn check every month." I'll stop right in the middle of a song because someone in the audience will have a request. I'll say, "Let's do it now, nobody's listening to me, anyway."

NT: You're performing while people are eating. That must be a bitch.

TD: No. It's great. It's a bitch if you're thin-skinned. But I don't have an ego type of a situation. If I were dining here, I'd be talking and having fun, too, and probably ignoring the singer. That's just the room. I'll sing right to someone while they're eating, just to see if they stop eating. Then I say, "Eat! Hey, what's the matter? You don't like the food? Eat!" It's funny.

NT: It sure is! Which Frank do you do? Bobby-soxer Frank or post-peak Frank?

TD: I tend to do him when he got his voice back. I do his young voice, when he sang from up here. I do it pretty well; it sounds just like you're there. Like I've got Nelson Riddle and all the goddamn brass behind me; all that (snaps fingers) and badump-bump. Tina Sinatra's doing a Frank thing at Radio City Music Hall and I'm going to try to get an audition. You just never know.

NT: Does impersonating Frank Sinatra get you laid a lot?

TD: No. I like to romance the girls while I'm singing, but it's a funny thing -- I get along with the guys just as well. There's something about doing Dean and Frank that the guys like. But the ladies? Well, there've been a few where I think, "Jeez, I wish I was out of town." I was just at Disneyland, singing to 500 nurses. But I don't play around.

NT: Your Johnny Mathis sucks.

TD: Well, some nights I do him better than others. I put Mathis on the CD and in the nightclub act because people want to hear him. But Mathis sings a couple octaves higher than I do, comfortably. He has a really high range, and I bring it down.

NT: What do these guys have in common?

TD: The arrangers and composers they cover. The war. The Mafia. I'm singing all those things, those feelings these guys had. And I sing better now than I ever have.

NT: The last song on your CD is "My Way." But you don't really do it your way; you do it their way.

TD: I do it Frank's way. It was a conscious choice to close the album with that. But who's to say what my way really is? I don't even know what my way is, to tell you the truth.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela