“So,” I asked with wide-eyed anticipation, “what was Frank Sinatra really like to work with?”“Fucking difficult.”
So began my first conversation with the late David Jacobs. He charmed everyone he met and though it didn't happen often, I loved it when he swore.
I'd known David for almost 20 years but known of him all my life. Like the Royal Family or Brillo Pads he was always reliably and reassuringly there. A constant part of British culture, his voice – avuncular, never condescending – was part of our soundscape. A true national treasure.
We met on the BBC's 'Pebble Mill at One' paying tribute to Vic Damone, the singer David liked to call “our Vic.” I sang a song and joined the other guests on the sofa. It was my first TV appearance and David could not have been more supportive. Soon after we were touring the country together and David became my mentor.
Half way through our tour we were playing the large and prestigious Symphony Hall in Birmingham. I was intimidated by the place and felt we should cut some of our shtick from the show (we had a routine where David catches me impersonating him and sends me off stage before calling me back to sing a duet together). I've never forgotten the advice he gave me that day: “People are the same wherever you go. Regardless of income or background people like to have a good time. Don't let the venue throw you. Have confidence that what we're doing works.” He was right. We kept the routine in and the audience loved it.
Performers have big egos. If we didn't think we were wonderful we'd never have the confidence to do what's expected of us. The trick is not letting our egos get the better of us. Theatrical tradition dictates that dressing room number one is reserved for the star, the top of the bill. It's usually the largest room and can, if you're very lucky, have such luxuries as a sink and two wire coat hangers. Number two usually lacks such frills and is reserved for an artiste lower down the theatrical ladder of significance. Any egalitarian pretence that might develop during cast rehearsals can come crashing down by the hierarchical divisions dictated by dressing room allocation. David was, of course, the star of our show. He was the name people were coming to see. I was the singer they happened to get. For our first string of tour dates the Company Manager, quite rightly, gave David dressing room number one and me number two. After a few days David told me he was uncomfortable with the arrangement. “You,” he said, “are the star of this production and it is you who should have the number one dressing room.” He dismissed my protests and insisted on demoting himself to my room. Only a man of enormous kindness and self-confidence could act so generously.
Don't get me wrong, David wasn't short on self confidence. He told me as much while we schlepped between one nighters in Dunfermline and Canterbury (oh, the joys of touring). “I can't pass a mirror without admiring myself,” he said. “I look at myself and say, 'Hello David. You're looking awfully good today.'” Coming from anyone else such narcissism would have been painful to hear, but with David it was nothing but endearing. Why? Charm. He was a glamorous man whose old-school manners, sense of humour and natural ease seduced everyone he met. And he met everyone from the Beatles (“George Harrison used to call me Dave”) and Judy Garland (his “most exciting professional moment”).
David Jacobs was a great role model for me. Effortlessly cool, always with a twinkle in his eye and generous to everyone in his orbit. Most importantly he was a good, kindhearted human being. So, thank you Mr. Jacobs, I feel blessed to have known you.