Saturday, September 25, 2010

R.I.P.: Eddie Fisher

Eddie Fisher Dies at 82; Crooner Was Known for His High-Profile Marriages
by Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2010

As Eddie Fisher once put it, by the time he was 33, "I had been married to America's sweetheart and America's femme fatale, and both marriages had ended in scandal.

"I'd been one of the most popular singers in America and had given up my career for love. I had fathered two children and adopted two children and rarely saw any of them. I was addicted to methamphetamines and I couldn't sleep at night without a huge dose of Librium."

And looking back over a tumultuous life that included his years with Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, he wrote in his 1999 memoir, "Been There, Done That," that he had learned one important lesson: "There were no rules for me. I could get away with anything so long as that sound came out of my throat."

Fisher, who died Wednesday at 82 at his home in Berkeley from complications of hip surgery, traveled one of the rockier roads in show business, one marked by well-documented personal and professional peaks and valleys.

But there was no denying the impact of "that sound" that came out of the darkly handsome young Philadelphia native's throat during his 1950s heyday.

"He had the biggest voice I ever heard," singer Andy Williams told The Times on Friday. "I used to do numbers with him and Bobby Darin on my show. He used to blast the hell out of us. His voice was so big, round and full."

Beginning with his first hit, "Thinking of You," in 1950, Fisher became one of America's most popular recording artists, a singer whose looks and voice made bobby-soxers swoon and spurred the creation of fan club chapters around the world.

During much of the '50s, Fisher had a long string of Top 10 -- and No. 1 -- hits, including "Any Time," "Tell Me Why," "I'm Walking Behind You," "I Need You Now" and "Oh! My Pa-Pa."

He also headlined nightclubs, made TV guest appearances and starred in his own popular 15-minute TV music show, "Coke Time With Eddie Fisher," from 1953 to '57. That was followed by "The Eddie Fisher Show," an hour-long music-variety program that aired from 1957 to '59.

But in the end, Fisher told the Miami Herald in 1999, "it isn't the music that people remember most about me. It's the women."

His 1955 marriage to Reynolds, Hollywood's girl next door, was greeted with headlines such as "America's Sweethearts Tie Knot." The marriage produced two children, Carrie and Todd.

But Fisher outraged fans when he left Reynolds for Taylor after Taylor's husband and Fisher's best friend, film producer Michael Todd, was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Fisher and Taylor were married the next year.

But then Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming of "Cleopatra," which generated another round of international headlines and caused Fisher to check into a New York City hospital with a reported nervous breakdown in 1962 after returning from Rome, where his wife was making the movie. The Fisher-Taylor divorce became final in 1964.

"This was an era when the movie magazines were going full force, and the coverage" of Fisher's romantic entanglements "saturated popular culture to the max, for years on end," recalled film reviewer Kevin Thomas, a former Times staff writer.

Fisher, Thomas said, "was the real loser in all of this. He got heaps of scorn for deserting Debbie. In the magazines, she was the sweet girl next door who had been cast aside for the legendary temptress."

Fisher's 1967 marriage to actress and singer Connie Stevens, with whom he had two daughters, Joely and Trisha Leigh, ended in divorce in 1969. He was married to Terry Richard, a former beauty queen, from 1975 to '76.

Fisher's fifth wife, Betty Lin, a Chinese-born businesswoman whom he married in 1993, died in 2001.

Although Fisher co-starred with Reynolds in the 1956 comedy "Bundle of Joy" and co-starred with Taylor in "BUtterfield 8," the 1960 drama for which Taylor won an Oscar, he never developed his own film career.

With the impact of rock 'n' roll, Fisher's record sales began to decline in the late '50s.

"It is very hard to overestimate his popularity in the 1950s," Thomas said. "He was on TV all the time. He really was big, and then the whole rock 'n' roll revolution came along. His music was going out of style, and he would have had a tough time anyway, and then there was all this coverage of his personal business."

Fisher was "underestimated for his natural talent and beautiful voice," said Michael Feinstein, a singer known for interpreting American standards.

"He was saddled with substandard material that he was forced to record by his record company," Feinstein told The Times. "Had he been given the opportunity to sing more enduring music, to record more enduring standards, as did Frank Sinatra, perhaps he would be better acknowledged today."

"He was blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful, rich and resonant tenor voice that was quite thrilling," Feinstein said. "He also had a fundamental problem with rhythm, and that sometimes got in the way of his ability to interpret a song."

In a 1991 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Fisher said of rock 'n' roll: "I did not think that would have any effect on me. I thought I was above and beyond all that. I thought I had created this niche and nothing could take it away."

The son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants and one of seven children, Fisher was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 10, 1928.

Encouraged by his grandmother to sing Jewish folk songs when he was 2 or 3, Fisher was singing duets in Hebrew with the cantor at their synagogue by the time he was 7 or 8.

By the time he was 15, he was a local radio star singing six days a week on three different shows. His picture appeared in advertisements on the fronts of trolley cars and, he later wrote, "the newspapers reported that by the time the trolley reached the end of the line, my picture was covered with lipstick."

Fisher, who dropped out of high school in his senior year, sang with the bands of Buddy Morrow and Charlie Ventura when he was 18. He began achieving national recognition on entertainer Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1949.

Fisher's burgeoning career was interrupted by Army service from 1951 to '53 while he was assigned to the Army Band entertaining troops in Asia and Europe. Even then, he was deluged with fan mail.

Fisher attempted numerous comebacks over the years.

Catching up with the singer during his engagement at the Westside Room in 1972, Times writer Mary Murphy noted that Fisher offered a running biographical commentary between singing his old hits:

"It went something like this, to the sound of snickering: 'Bad luck is better than no luck at all.' 'I work alone -- finally.'... 'I don't sing professionally anymore. It's a sideline. I'm really a marriage counselor.'"

Everybody, Murphy wrote, "was in on the put-down. They all knew Eddie's secrets and elbowed each other to prove it."

Fisher expanded on his "secrets" in "Been Here, Done That" and his 1981 book "Eddie: My Life, My Loves," in which he claimed to have stopped abusing drugs. He later recanted.

"I wrote that book under the influence," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "Cocaine. That's what happens with drugs. You lie. You lie a lot."

He credited future wife Lin with persuading him to seek help, which he received at the Betty Ford Clinic. At the time of the interview, he had been clean for 18 months.

"That's the longest I've been sober since I got out of the Army in 1953," he said. "Really, I'm lucky to be alive and lucky to have a fresh outlook on life."

In a statement from the Fisher family announcing his death, the family said that "the world lost a true American icon.

"He was loved and will be missed by his four children: Carrie, Todd, Joely and Tricia Leigh as well as his six grandchildren. He was an extraordinary talent and a true mensch."

Times staff writers Valerie J. Nelson and Elaine Woo contributed to this report.
A Star Eclipsed by His Personal Life
by Dan DeLuca and Michael D. Schaffer
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2010

Before Fabian, Bobby Rydell, and Frankie Avalon -- and "American Bandstand" -- turned this city into the teen-idol capital of the world, another bushy-haired, baby-faced singer from Philadelphia made 1950s teenyboppers swoon: Eddie Fisher.

Fisher, 82, who died in Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday of complications from surgery after breaking a hip this month, was a South Philly grocer's son whose voice carried him to a stardom that his tumultuous personal life would eclipse.

More than his musical triumphs, Fisher these days is better known for his string of movie-star marriages -- to Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, and Connie Stevens -- and for being the father of the actress and writer Carrie Fisher.

But in the pre-rock early 1950s, Fisher was a constant hitmaker.

Fisher, known as "Sonny" to his family, began his musical career as a child, singing on WFIL-AM and skipping school to practice his music. He attended Simon Gratz and South Philadelphia High Schools, but did not graduate. After comedian Eddie Cantor discovered him at the Grossinger's resort in the Catskills and legendary Philadelphia record executive Manie Sacks took him to RCA Victor, Fisher racked up a string of successes.

A crooner with a sweet, soaring tenor, he scored 17 Top 10 hits between 1950 and 1956, including "Tell Me Why," "Any Time," and "Oh! My Pa-Pa."

By the time he was 24, RCA had sold more than seven million Fisher records and Fisher had become an international star.

"He was a real ballad singer, in the same genre as Vic Damone and Tony Bennett," recalled Ed Hurst, who along with his partner, Joe Grady, hosted the top-rated "The 950 Club" on WPEN-AM from 1949 to 1956. Fisher was a frequent guest.

"Occasionally, the critics would say he would sing off-key," said Hurst, 84, who still hosts the twice-weekly "Steel Pier Radio Show" on WIBG-AM (1020) in Atlantic City, but there was no denying Fisher's enormous popularity. He had two network TV shows of his own: "Coke Time with Eddie Fisher," on NBC from 1953 to 1957, and
"The Eddie Fisher Show," also on NBC, from 1957 to 1959.

"He had just as much fame as Fabian, Bobby Rydell, all those guys, but he came before them. He had a pretty voice, and he made some nice records," Hurst said Friday. "The teenagers, the bobby-soxers loved him. He was their cup of tea. Everybody wanted to mother him. He always had that boyish grin, and the hair. He was cute."

Cute enough to win the hearts -- for a time, anyway -- of glamorous women. Fisher was wed five times.

"He married all those lovely ladies," Hurst said. "Liz Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens. I thought it was pretty good for a South Philly boy."

Fisher married his first wife, Reynolds, in 1955, and they had two children, one of them Carrie. But he fell in love with Taylor, the wife of his friend Mike Todd, the movie producer, after Todd died in a 1958 plane crash. The following year, he divorced Reynolds and married Taylor, who would dump him five years later in favor of Richard Burton.

After that, he married Stevens, with whom he had two daughters. Fisher later married beauty queen Terry Richard, followed by businesswoman Betty Lin.

Fame came "extraordinarily fast" to Fisher, recalled Peggy King, a singer who was Reynolds' best friend when both were MGM contract singers in the early 1950s. "Pretty Perky Peggy King" sang on George Gobel's show, which was filmed across the hall from Fisher's show.

"I don't think that Eddie ever accepted what happened to him," said King, who moved to Philadelphia in 1962 after stepping aside from show business to raise a family. "He wanted to be in the business, but didn't want it to take up too much of his time."

Fisher was complicated. He was "easy to get along with," she said Friday, but "I was wildly annoyed with his behavior toward Debbie."

"I believe Eddie wanted to be loved, which explains the [five] wives," said King. "I got lucky" in her own marriage.

Fisher did little to make anyone love him with his two memoirs, "Eddie: My Life, My Loves" (1983) and "Been There, Done That" (1999). He proved to be a memoirist with no gallantry who blamed his problems on others.

"By the time I was thirty-three years old, I'd been married to America's sweetheart and America's femme fatale and both marriages had ended in scandal," he wrote in "Been There." "...I was addicted to methamphetamines and I couldn't sleep at night without a huge dose of Librium. And from all this I had learned one very important lesson: There were no rules for me. I could get away with anything so long as that sound came out of my throat."

What came out of that throat was no real help to him when he tried to turn himself into a movie star.

His musical talent did not translate well to the screen. He appeared with his wife du jour in two films and they overshadowed him both times -- Reynolds in "Bundle of Joy" (1956) and Taylor in "Butterfield 8" (1960).

For all his history of domestic discord, others remembered him fondly.

Atlantic City radio host and writer Seymore "Pinky" Kravitz, 83, recalled Fisher, who appeared at the Steel Pier and in local nightspots, as "very friendly, with a smile on his face that people loved. It didn't change over the years, although he became bigger.... He was a very likable person. He never had a sneer."

To Paula Kartman, 80, Fisher was a teenage pal back in South Philly when she was Paula Fromowitz. "He was great," she recalled. "He had a beautiful smile."

Kartman met Fisher through his sister, Janet.

She, Janet, Eddie, and Joey Forman, the late South Philly comedian, spent a lot of time together. Later, Kartman would have a few dates with Fisher. "He was a skinny kid, a good-looking kid," she recalled, but there was nothing romantic, just friends going out.

Fisher already had a singing career under way. He sang on the radio and, Kartman remembered, at an assembly at Thomas Junior High School.

"He was just a nice Jewish boy with a great voice," she said.

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