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They Called Me Frank 

The life and good times of balladeer Larry Ching

Wednesday, Jul 16 2003
On a late June evening at the Chinese Historical Society of America, 82-year-old crooner Larry Ching's velvet voice resonates with the songs off his debut CD, Till the End of Time; a lively crowd sways in time. Journalists and local news personalities are here, and piano man George Yamasaki reads a proclamation signed by Mayor Willie Brown declaring June 28, 2003, "Larry Ching Day" in San Francisco. Till the End of Time's producer, local music journalist Ben Fong-Torres, quips that the only way Ching could be more popular is if he changed his last name to Potter.

No one at the event believes Ching could become the next Justin Guarini of American Idol fame, but Guarini's current hit single, the old standard "Unchained Melody," is just the kind of song Ching had championed since he first set foot onstage more than 50 years ago. And though Ching's once jet-black hair is white and he forgets his lyrics occasionally, here he still makes the guys jealous and the gals swoon.

The secret is street cred: Larry Ching was there, back in the day. In 1938, he began his career at the Forbidden City nightclub, one of the most famous cabarets in San Francisco at the time, then spent two decades as one of Chinatown's most popular attractions. When business declined and his energies waned, Ching bowed out of the nightclub scene to raise a family, drive a delivery truck, and more or less forget about music. For many years, it seemed that his legacy had been forgotten.

But recently, forces aligned to preserve Ching's voice for generations. On Till the End of Time he recorded the songs that once made the whole world sing -- and, surprisingly, still do. Just ask Justin. Ching's audience may not be screaming prepubescent girls (it's more likely to be made up of their moms and grandmas), but if his CD release party and increasing sales are any indication, somebody's listening.

Larry Ching died July 5, suddenly, of a brain aneurysm. At what turned out to be his final interview last month, the still handsome Ching spoke comfortably, if not effusively, about his past, including his reputation as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.

"I always hated that handle," Ching admitted, seated next to his wife Jane, whom he married in 1991. "I liked 'Bing Crosby' much better. But I really wished I could just be 'Larry Ching.'"

Born in Kauai, Hawaii, to an absentee Chinese father and a teenage Hawaiian mother, Ching was raised by his grandparents. He didn't have much to say about his childhood: He was a man of few words, except when he opened his mouth to sing.

Ching discovered his musical alter ego after joining the merchant marines in 1937, when he was 17. "I would listen to records on the ship and learn all the popular songs. I couldn't read music; I just listened to them over and over till I learned them," he explained.

One night while on leave, he and a group of his Marine buddies went into a bar in S.F.'s Chinatown called Chinese Village. Ching's chums egged the painfully shy teen on, urging him to ask the piano player if he could sing a song. It was the Hoagy Carmichael tune "Stardust." Thoroughly impressed, one of the owners offered him a job as a singing bartender, a first for both the bar and the boy. "They gave me a microphone behind the bar," Ching said. "I'd sing requests while I made the drinks."

In 1938, a man named Charlie Low opened the groundbreaking Forbidden City, the first restaurant/nightclub to feature all Asian performers. Located on the outskirts of Chinatown, the club became a wildly popular haunt for locals and visiting celebrities alike. Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Bob Hope, and John Wayne were but a few of the familiar faces that could be seen on any given night checking out the Asian versions of themselves -- names like Toy and Wing, the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When Low discovered Ching at Chinese Village, he offered him a chance to join the lineup, christening his new recruit the Chinese Frank Sinatra.

At first, Ching's lingering shyness had him closing his eyes each time he took the stage. His timidity even kept him from accepting a personal invitation from Hoagy Carmichael to join his weekly radio show. But as soon as he was old enough to drink, Ching learned an important trick: "Three drinks and open your eyes!"

Libations weren't the only thing the singer discovered around that time.

"Larry dated a lot of haole [Caucasian] girls," says Frances Chun Kan, a singer at Forbidden City until 1947. "Oh, the flirting and the drinking!"

"I'd be talking to a pretty girl and then Larry would start to sing, and it was all over for me," relates Stanley Toy, a former Forbidden City dancer. "If she wanted to dance, Larry would step out with her, but if it was an old, fat, ugly one, he'd lead her over to me and say, 'Stanley, you're the dancer!'"

Ching became a favorite with the cast, the locals, and the famous clientele. He claimed that his hero Bing Crosby was a fan, as was Duke Ellington, who once invited him to sit at his table and told him he had a beautiful voice.

"He was surprised a Chinese boy could sing so well," Ching related.

Throughout the '40s and into the '50s, the city's show-biz boom was at its peak, but in Chinatown it still had its difficulties, especially during World War II. Some of the performers were of Japanese descent, and the threat of internment camps was ever present. Ching himself wasn't immune to the sting of racial tension.

"Every now and then a drunk would yell out 'slant-eye,' 'yellow-belly,' or 'that Chink,'" said Ching. "And I actually hit some of 'em."

By 1960, three other nightclubs had sprung up, all within a two-block radius. Now that wartime was over, people had begun starting families, and TV was keeping everyone at home. Then a number of topless bars opened in the area, further slowing business at Forbidden City.

In addition, Ching was just plain tired. He had been doing three shows a night, performing from 7 p.m. till 2 a.m. six nights a week, for 20 years. When a friend offered him a job driving a newspaper delivery truck, he jumped the Forbidden City ship; a year later, the nightclub closed.

"I completely forgot about singing," Ching said. "I enjoyed my new job. I had a normal life." Copies of a recording he had made in the '40s became Frisbees for his kids.

Twenty years later, his nearly forgotten musical career bubbled back up. In the mid-'80s, San Francisco documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong met Jadin Wong, a New York talent agent who used to be a Forbidden City dancer. Dong made a documentary about the club, Forbidden City USA, which featured Ching prominently. At the movie's 1989 world premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts, Ching took the stage and sang a few of the old songs for the first time in 30 years. He caught the ear of the evening's host, Ben Fong-Torres, former senior editor of Rolling Stone.

"He took the crowd right back to the '40s," Fong-Torres says. "I fell instantly in love with his sweet tenor voice."

Fong-Torres first approached Ching about making a record in 1993. "I wanted to preserve that voice of his, and have his music available to whoever wanted it," he says. "But '"one day' became 'another day,' for years."

It wasn't until last November, at an S.F. State fund-raiser and celebration for the DVD release of Forbidden City USA, that the idea finally blossomed. Fong-Torres had reconnected with fellow S.F. State alumnus Dr. John Barsotti, professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts. Barsotti's expertise and access to free studio time were the pieces of the puzzle that had been missing. But the real challenge came in getting an 82-year-old whose only recording experience happened 60 years ago to make up for lost time in a single session.

"We wedged ourselves in on a Sunday afternoon, from 3:30 to 8:30," Fong-Torres explains. "We started recording at about 5, and even with a dinner break we nailed 12 tracks. That would have taken a rock band a month -- if they were working fast."

Till the End of Time's strength lies in three things: timeless songs; Ching's smooth, authentic voice; and an accomplished backup trio -- longtime Ching partner George Yamasaki on piano, Dean Reilly on bass, and Jim Zimmerman on drums. Though hard-boiled cynics may associate songs like "It Had to Be You" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" with karaoke bars and Wayne Newton, the tunes come alive when paired with the reverent, magical quality in Ching's voice. When he sings "Just one look at you, my heart grew tipsy in me/ You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me" from "Embraceable You," one can't help but get swept away.

On every song (in addition to 13 standards, the CD includes three Hawaiian tunes), Ching's intonation is spot on. While his sober delivery, quick vibrato, and slight accent can feel a bit one-dimensional at times, it's a consistently pleasant dimension to visit. And in those rare moments when the band really lets loose -- as on "All of Me," when bandleader Yamasaki kicks out his piano bench for a tasty solo -- it's fun to remember that there's one old guy swingin' away in the eye of the storm.

The CD saves the best for last: The final four chill-inducing tracks are original recordings from the '40s that Barsotti remastered for the album. Ching's voice, fuller and richer here, truly does justice to the standout "How High the Moon," recorded with a full orchestra, as well as the closing tune, "Till the End of Time." Its lyrical promise -- "Let me give you everything/ Every moment I'm alive" -- was one Ching pursued every time he took the stage.

Two weeks before his death, Ching spoke enthusiastically about what was turning out to be a respectable comeback. With his CD selling and performances scheduled, he faced the future wearing an optimistic grin and his signature Hawaiian shirt.

"Maybe I'll do another CD when I'm 92," he speculated with a twinkle in his eye, as he leaned back against his couch alongside his wife. "It's never too late. Just do it. That's it."

About The Author

Kimberlye Gold


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