They Called Me Frank

The life and good times of balladeer Larry Ching

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 Idolfame, 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.

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