Steve Lawrence, Grammy-Winning Pop Stylist and Actor, Dies at 88

Steve Lawrence, the charismatic Grammy- and Emmy-winning crooner who delighted audiences for decades in nightclubs, on concert stages and in film and television appearances, died Thursday. He was 88.

Lawrence died in Los Angeles of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, publicist Susan DuBow announced. He partnered with the late Eydie Gormé, his wife of 55 years, in a very popular act.

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With his boyish good looks, silky voice and breezy personality, Lawrence broke into show business when he won a talent competition on Arthur Godfrey’s CBS show and signed with King Records as a teenager. The singer chose to stay old school and resist the allure of rock ‘n’ roll.

“It didn’t attract me as much,” Lawrence once said. “I grew up in a time period when music was written by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein. Those people, I related to — what they were writing — because it was much more melodic.”

Lawrence’s smooth stylings were heard on dozens of solo albums, starting in 1953 with an eponymous LP. In 1963, he topped the Billboard Hot 100 with the Gerry Goffin-Carole King pop ballad “Go Away Little Girl.” The single became the first in history to reach No. 1 by two different artists after Donny Osmond recorded his version in 1971.

Lawrence also made the top 10 with 1957’s “Party Doll” (No. 5), 1959’s “Pretty Blue Eyes” (No. 9), 1960’s “Footsteps” (No. 7) and 1961’s “Portrait of My Love” (No. 9).

On Broadway, Lawrence starred as Sammy Glick in the long-running What Makes Sammy Run?, a musical adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s novel, and received a best actor Tony nomination in 1964. A year later, he hosted a short-lived CBS variety program, and in the 1970s, he was a semi-regular on The Carol Burnett Show, appearing on more than two dozen episodes.

Many will remember Lawrence for his portrayal of manager Maury Sline in The Blues Brothers (1980). When Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) need to quickly raise money to save their childhood orphanage, they turn to Maury to book a gig. Lawrence utters one of the film’s most memorable lines when he hears how much they’re looking for. “Five thousand dollars?” he sputters. “Who do you think you are? The Beatles?”

He reprised the character in the 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000.

Lawrence also played a pal of Steve Martin’s greeting card writer in The Lonely Guy (1984); was Morty Fine, the father of Fran Drescher’s character, on CBS’ The Nanny; and guest-starred on other series including Night Gallery; Sanford and Son; Murder, She Wrote; FrasierHot in Cleveland; and Two and a Half Men.

At the height of their popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, Lawrence and Gormé were one of show business’ hottest couples. If a variety show were on TV, it was only a matter of time before Steve & Eydie would be booked for it.

They won an Emmy in 1979 for their NBC special, Steve & Eydie Celebrate Irving Berlin, and had fun on game shows, appearing on What’s My Line?I’ve Got a Secret and Password All-Stars, to name just a few.

When they weren’t shining on the small screen, they were wowing fans in concert and at top nightclubs throughout the country. They were a staple in Las Vegas, headlining Caesars Palace, the Sands, the Sahara and the Desert Inn, etc., and the Las Vegas Entertainment Awards honored them four times as Musical Variety Act of the Year.

In 1981, Lawrence realized a lifelong dream when he and his wife performed a series of sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.

“They are both confident, full-throated singers who show the kind of assured stage presence that can come from years of playing to Las Vegas audiences,” John S. Wilson wrote in his review for The New York Times. “Mr. Lawrence, like so many singers who work in that milieu, uses singing mannerisms that owe a great deal to Frank Sinatra; Miss Gormé has a smoky voice with a powerful projection that enables her to belt out torch songs with a figure that brings such legendary singers as Sophie Tucker up to date.”

Steve Lawrence was born Sidney Liebowitz in Brooklyn on July 8, 1935. The son of a cantor, he grew up singing in synagogue choirs. Music was always a part of his life, but he didn’t know what direction it would take him until the day he listened to his first Sinatra record.

“I must’ve been 15 years old when I heard him. I think I knew [then] what I wanted to do with the rest of my musical life,” he said. “His influence — not only on me, but everyone who came after him — was so indelible, so powerful.”

(Lawrence would hang around with Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Park, and later, Steve & Eydie opened for Ol’ Blue Eyes on his Diamond Jubilee World Tour. For almost a year starting in 1990, they visited 13 countries for 41 sold-out performances that culminated with a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.)

Lawrence attended Thomas Jefferson High School, but books weren’t a priority. He would skip classes to spend his days in Manhattan at the Brill Building, hustling to make connections and pick up some cash singing demos. It was at the songwriting mecca that he first met Gormé; he was entering the building as singer Bob Manning, an acquaintance, was leaving with her.

“Bob said, ‘I want you to meet Eydie Gormé,’ ” Lawrence recalled in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “She had her hair in a ponytail, and her ponytail hit me in my face.”

In 1953, they met again when they were each booked to sing on the Steve Allen-hosted Tonight!, a forerunner of The Tonight Show. They started doing duets and two years later collaborated on their first single together — “(Close Your Eyes) Take a Deep Breath”/ “Besame Mucho.”

Lawrence and Gormé were wed at the El Rancho Vegas hotel in December 1957. A few months later, they filled in for Allen with a summer replacement variety series that ran for eight weeks on NBC.

After he spent two years in the U.S. Army, they released three albums in 1960, including Steve & Eydie We Got Us, whose title track won them a Grammy.

In 1968, they headed to Broadway to star in the original musical Golden Rainbow, and that played for more than 380 performances. (Lawrence closed the first act by singing “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” later made popular by Sammy Davis Jr.)

Though they each enjoyed success as a solo act, audiences seemed to prefer Steve & Eydie together. And they did so until Gormé died of an undisclosed illness in August 2013. “Eydie has been my partner on stage and in life for more than 55 years,” Lawrence said then. “I fell in love with her the moment I saw her and even more the first time I heard her sing. While my personal loss is unimaginable, the world has lost one of the greatest pop vocalists of all time.”

A year after Gormé’s death, Lawrence released the solo album When You Come Back to Me Again. He had recorded it when she was ill and put it on hold when she died. When it came time to turn his attention back to music, Lawrence thought it only appropriate to dedicate the album to his wife and release it on Valentine’s Day.

“Eydie heard that album, and she thought it was terrific,” Lawrence said. “We were attached at the hip — Steve-and-Eydie. It was like we were one person, to be married that long.”

It was more than two years before Lawrence would return to the stage. On Valentine’s Day in 2016, he performed a selection of Sinatra tunes at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

Survivors include his son, David, a film and television composer whose credits include the High School Musical telefilms, daughter-in-law Faye, granddaughter Mabel and brother Bernie. Another son, Michael, died of heart failure in 1986 at age 23.

Donations in his memory can be made to Alzheimer’s Los Angeles here.

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