|Middleweight Champion Rocky Graziano|
I went on my morning walk along the lake preoccupied with my next two Sinatra posts commemorating his very last concert that I attended precisely 20 years ago this Friday. To really do Frank justice, and it's very important to me that I do, I came to the realization I had to first introduce my late friend 'King' who died in 2004 at age 77. I'll be writing much more about him in the coming weeks.
King's actual name was Ephraim Solomon nicknamed 'Neno' as a boy but upon becoming a very promising young middleweight prizefighter in the early '50s was given the moniker 'King Solomon' and was famous throughout Chicago and the sporting world as the next great middleweight. One of my favorite pics that got mislaid was a pic of King, Rocky Graziano (above), and some other Italian street tough all in nice looking suits from about 1952. The pic was of King at the very pinnacle of his life. He had recently won all 6 of his first professional bouts by knockout and had just been featured in Ring Magazine (wearing a crown!), the Bible of Boxing, which in those days had a huge circulation and much larger readership. What struck me most was how King dominated the picture while standing next to a former middleweight champion of the world who was a household name. King was bigger, much better looking, and had an expression of fire and fury as he was glaring at the photographer and likely threatening to "split his head open like a melon" to use one of his favorite phrases. Rocky looked to be the one glad to be in a pic with King.
|Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me|
King never became that great middleweight champion and only because he let his demons win. His demons weren't drugs or alcohol but how he handled a breakup with a vivacious redhead he loved with all his heart. To spite himself and I suspect to play the martyr in her eyes he started losing fights he could easily win, refused to train, and finally his backers, managers, and trainers gave up on him just as he had given up on himself. It was a crushing blow to his Assyrian immigrant father, his brothers, and all the very close knit Assyrians in their little enclave in the Old Town neighborhood. He carried this albatross of self immolation the rest of his life
King was even more impressive out of the ring. He had a roguish charm women found very attractive and he captivated nearly everyone he came into contact with his colorful extemporaneous philosophical monologues on everything from prizefighting, women, politics, and anything that struck his fancy. Pulitzer Prize winning author, radio host, and actor Studs Terkel was a huge fan and featured King most prominently in several of his books under the clever alias 'Kid Pharaoh' Stud's interviews are archived at The Chicago History Museum and I occasionally listen to his interviews with King online. One of those interviews can be found here (scroll down to find Kid Pharaoh Parts 1 and 2). When screen legend Bette Davis was in town during the '60s and '70s she had King take her to dinner and a show....nothing sexual he insisted only that she found his company stimulating. Mob boss Sam Giancana loved having King join him for lunch. I will go into more depth during my multi- installment feature on King in the coming weeks.
|Screen Legend Bette Davis had King squire her around town during the '60s & '70s|
From about 1990 until his death in October 2004 I either talked to or was with King nearly every day. One of our favorite hangouts was the old Ranalli's Pizzeria in Lincoln Park where we'd go and every night after we settled in he'd give me the signal to play his favorites on the jukebox and each song took him on a reverie....likely an old flame. He loved (and knew) the jazz singer Dinah Washington, a Billy Joel song Just the Way You Are and I'd always close it with selections from Sinatra's Reprise album including his torch song The Summer Wind. Frank was his favorite.