Virgil tells us “amor vincit omnia,” or love conquers all. It’s no surprise then that a son of Philadelphia (City of Brotherly Love), Pennsylvania would go forth and conquer in many arenas of entertainment.
Some people just seem to approach the world with a strong sense of curiosity and many things to accomplish. Meet Bill Boggs from Philadelphia. Bill Boggs has hosted more than a dozen television shows. He’s won four Emmy awards and has interviewed countless celebrities as a reporter in the world of entertainment, music, food, travel and sports. Bill Boggs is a correspondent for the PBS television show “My Generation.” Communication is clearly his forte. Boggs has written fiction, a self-help book, and essays and he travels everywhere as a public speaker.
Bill Boggs has interviewed so many people, but when you talk with him about Frank Sinatra, his enthusiasm is not something he can hide. He saw Frank Sinatra live in concert over 120 times. Sinatra’s first television talk show appearance was with Bill Boggs and Boggs believes it was perhaps the longest interview of his career.
Introduction by Daniel Buckner & Paul Leslie
It is our pleasure to welcome 4-time Emmy award winning TV host, interviewer of legends, correspondent of “My Generation” on PBS. Our special guest, Bill Boggs is a TV personality, a public speaker, and an author. You can look at this website—it’s BillBoggs.com. Bill Boggs, thank you very much for being with us.
Paul, thanks for the invitation.
I want you to kind of take us back a bit. If we could take a listen of what was going on in your house during your childhood, what would we hear?
I had a record player in my room. I always was working jobs. First job I ever had was selling things door to door on my bicycle—well actually, when I was in junior high I was working at a corner grocery store a couple days a week. So I always had a little change in my pocket to buy records. I would be listening to rock ‘n roll, in my room, playing it too loudly, and do my homework, and go to bed. It was a peaceful, innocent time.
You just mentioned the records that you played. So, before you got into Sinatra, what were you listening to?
I’m just old enough that I was essentially was going through puberty at the birth of rock ‘n roll. You have to be born in the early ‘40s in order for that to happen. I saw Elvis when I was 14, believe it or not. My mother somehow got tickets when Elvis was going to be at the Arena in Philadelphia. So Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard—I mean the original inductees into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Everly Brothers whom I would end up working with at some point a few years later. All of the core groups of rock ‘n roll—The Platters. I love The Platters and also we had in Philadelphia Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, a huge amount of music. I’ve been listening to music for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid, I remember listening to songs on the radio and trying to write them down, make my own hit parade thing on television. So I am a hardcore rock ‘n roll person who really was really educated by the masses—and I mean the masses. I’ve seen Little Richard perform, I’ve seen Chuck Berry perform, I’ve seen Elvis perform 3 times. I’ve seen Fats Domino perform. I’ve seen The Platters perform. I’ve seen almost every act I’ve liked when I was young perform live a couple of times. So, that’s how it started for me.
Can you recall when you fell in love with the voice of Sinatra?
Well, in my household, my mother and father loved big band music, and they loved music. In fact, they always were listening to music and watching music and specials and stuff on television. If Frank was on television, I don’t mean his big specials, but some of those early shows in the ‘50s, they were always watching that… Peggy Lee, big band music, and so forth. I’ve always liked Frank Sinatra a tremendous amount. I have a very open mind for music. It wasn’t like, hey I’m 15 years old, I like rock n roll—I can’t like Frank Sinatra. Music was much less compartmentalized in my youth than it is now. In answer to your excellent question, when I first fell in love with the voice of Frank Sinatra, it was actually the total persona of Frank Sinatra whom I have seen perform about 120 times live.
In the early ‘60s, Paul, Frank Sinatra was working at the 500 Club owned by Skinny D’Amato, a guy who stood by him during the very down period in his life. And Frank was doing three shows a night with Skinny D’Amato The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the hardest reservation,” meaning ticket to get in the world. You can go online and look at the place.
There were mob scenes outside the 500 Club. So I wanted to see what this was like and I was working as a very young guy. I always have been hustling for money. When you grow up in Philadelphia in a middle class neighborhood, you learned to hustle to make a buck – in an honest way. I was working as a bell hop at a hotel, underage. I decided I would sneak into the 500 Club with my friend Dave Fixler as an accomplice dressed as busboys. So we found out from guests at the hotel where we were working in Ocean City where the bus boys wore white jackets, black pants, black bowties, and we got those ensembles from our restaurant. We walked right in the back, through the 500 Club, through the kitchen into the main room 10 minutes before the show started. The place was packed. The opening act was Buddy Lester. I had never been at a nightclub before. The first time I was ever at a concert was Elvis Presley. The first time I was ever at a nightclub was Frank Sinatra. And when Frank came out, we were probably a scant 30 feet at the most, at the most, away from the stage. We took off the bus boy things, put on a long ties to look like customers and stood by a pillar. Once he started to perform, no one is going to come over and throw you out. And there we were. We snuck into the 500 Club. And that night, I became mesmerized by Frank Sinatra, the fact that he was projecting and emoting real feelings and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. I think as a performer, as an entertainer myself, I’ve learned a lot by watching Frank over the years. It’s a long answer to your question, but I fell in love with Frank Sinatra and his total persona and his voice when I snuck in to see him as a teenager at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. There’s an essay about this that’s going to be placed on my website.
That website is BillBoggs.com. You’re so known for your interviews, so many of them—there are over 200 that are on YouTube. What is it that attracted to you to interviewing?
Why is Bill Boggs an interviewer?
I’m going to give you a quick answer. I’m one of those lucky people that made a childhood dream come true. When I was a little kid, I was watching TV. And my favorite people on TV—and these are forgotten names, Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter, these guys had like daytime shows and they were interviewing people and I wanted to be like those men when I was about 7, 8 years old. I have pretty much wanted to be in show business, I’ve wanted to be on television my entire life. I made that dream come true. It’s a childhood thing. They just seemed to be having a good time, and the only real gift that I received from on high, was the ability to be a very good public speaker. I won a public speaking contest city wide in Philadelphia when I was about 12 or 13. There were a lot of people a lot smarter than I was, but I beat them. I knew that I could perform, and that’s how I got into it.
How did you learn to be an interviewer?
Well, first I just had the confidence that I could do it. I was working on the show as a talent coordinator, one time, once a week on air person in my hometown of Philadelphia. The show was called “McLean and Company.” A wonderful host, named Bob McLean who came down to work in Philadelphia on this show. I’ve watched him and he was an extremely good listener. He wasn’t looking, okay, question number two, question number three, question number four. And I asked him about it. He just said, “keep your mind open and listen.” And so, hence, when I got my first show which was at WGHP TV at High Point, North Carolina and I had that show for three years, and we beat “The Today Show” all three years. We beat—double The Today Show’s ratings, my local show. I practiced down there. I just practiced. I went through a small market.
If I had stayed in High Point my entire life, I would’ve had a great life. I loved it down there. In fact my most sophisticated lifestyle—drove to work in my convertible with the top down, did a television show, went out, played tennis in the afternoon, swam in my pool, went for walks with my dog, and had a pretty nice life. Why I left that to come to New York for a one bedroom apartment, I don’t know, but I did.
What is the secret to a good interview? You just mentioned listening.
Yeah, listening. If you’re having a conversation with somebody. You’re really essentially listening to them. You’re really not programming your next question. I always say, listen with the intention of understanding rather than responding. If you understand what somebody is saying, then you have a natural response.
Interesting. Just kind of what you just mentioned, who do you think does that? Other than yourself, what interviewers out there do you think have that skill of being great listeners?
Well, there’s all kinds of interviewers now on television. I like all of the people on CNBC, like Maria Bartiromo, who is now on Fox Business—a very good interviewer. She’s smart, she knows her subjects. Specificity, she’s interviewing essentially in the world of business and finance. In terms of generalists, Regis was a good interviewer, interviewing show business people. I think Charlie Rose is excellent on a huge array of subjects. And then over the years, I like Letterman very much. Jimmy Kimmel is brilliant, in my opinion, but he’s more of a comedy interviewer. Letterman: interviewing and comedy. Carson was a very good interviewer. Jack Paar was a very good interviewer. One of my all time favorites – Dick Cavett. David Frost, going back some period of time. I think Bill O’Reilly is very good, and I think Bill Mahr is really good. Both Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher represent totally different sides—liberal and conservatives, are extremely good interviewers for their point of view.
There’s a clip on your YouTube channel of you and Howard Stern. I’m very serious with this question: what is your impression of Mr. Stern? What do you think of him as a media personality?
He’s Brilliant. He’s an excellent interviewer. I should’ve added him to the list. He meditates, he’s a major mediator—very focused, brilliant in my opinion. Howard Stern is brilliant.
We were talking about Sinatra earlier. How did you get the interview with Frank Sinatra?
I just met him at 4 o’clock in the morning in Caesar’s Palace. I was introduced to him by Jilly Rizzo. I had done an event for Sammy Davis, Jr. years ago when I was working as the dean for the University of Pennsylvania. Julie introduced me, at 4 o clock in the morning, Easter Sunday morning, 1975. Frank had been retired for a couple of years. Maybe you saw that retirement concert on the four hour special documentary. I happened to be at that retirement concert. Anyway, at the end of the conversation, we just bonded. I told him about sneaking into the 500 Club and how much his music meant to me. We just had a conversation. It was one on one, about 10 minutes, and at the end of the conversation, Frank said, “Jilly says you have a show on 5,” meaning channel 5, in New York. I said yes. He said, well, Billy, he called me, “I don’t want to promise anything but I’m going to in New York in September, maybe I’ll come by and do your show.” And that’s how it happened.
As soon as he said “maybe I’ll come by and do a show,” what do you think my instant reaction was, Paul?
I imagine your heart started to beat faster.
I simply said, “Frank, I’m not asking for anything.” He said, “I know you’re not. Maybe I’ll come by,” and he did. It turned out to be, I believe, the longest interview of his career and the first time he was ever on the talk show. As a result of that, I was in his company many times and I was able to get, or to buy, good tickets. I know I saw Frank over 120 times live in over 40 years. I probably took over several hundred people at my own expense to see Frank Sinatra. When he died, I got calls from all over the world, people saying, “thank you, Bill, for taking me to see Frank.” I just wanted to share with them what I loved and believed in.Semnat de Paul Leslie