Music, money, and Bunnies: Playboy’s adventures in popular music

Playboy Swings, a new entertainment history by Patty Farmer with contributions from pop music writer Will Friedwald, is primarily a nostalgic look back at mainstream showbiz of the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. The period Farmer chronicles hews closely to the last era when jazz and swing inspired pop dominated pop music, as well as the heyday of swanky cabaret rooms, lounges, and saloons that were proving grounds for generations of singers, musicians, and comedians. Playboy Swings is largely a collection of anecdotes employed throughout the nearly 400 page book which is divided into three Parts.

                                                                                       Cover image source:

                                                                                       Cover image source:

 This is probably the first book to attempt its mission to capture the role of music within the Playboy empire but its title fudges on its content. While the authors discuss musicians throughout the book’s initial focus is undermined by a diffuse attempt to cover virtually every enterprise Playboy explored including clubs and resorts, as well as overly long profiles of comedians and “Bunnies.” The cover’s depiction of two trumpeters performing live and the title implies a strong tie to jazz-oriented music, but the book never quite delivers on the promise of its title feeling more like a rambling ballad than a pert swinger. Though the pages of Playboy promoted jazz as an important accouterments for its heterosexual male consumers in the 1950s it eventually altered its annual Jazz poll to a Jazz and Pop poll in 1968 and briefly released pop and country records on its record label.

 One of the book’s key tensions is its fuzzy attempt to champion racial politics while turning a blind eye to gender politics. The book overtly depicts the way Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner and the organization consciously challenged the racial segregation prominent in the entertainment industry of the time by supporting integration among performers. The book credibly argues that the magazine was one of the few magazines outside of the music community to profile black musicians.

 For example, in 1959 the Playboy organization hosted the first indoor jazz festival at the Chicago stadium and featured an integrated line-up or performers as well as a racially mixed audience. The magazine also profiled black musicians like Louis Armstrong. Playboy’s first TV show, Playboy Penthouse (filmed between 1959-61) featured black musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole on its premiere episode at a time when this was rare on TV. The 1968-69 iteration, Playboy After Dark featured Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis and other black musicians. Throughout the book Hefner is also pictured with a culturally diverse range of musicians, and many of the musicians interviewed noted their gratitude for opportunities to perform in (now defunct) Playboy Clubs and at the annual Playboy Jazz Festival.  

 But the book is strangely passive on Hefner’s gender politics. Much ink is devoted to the wholesomeness and training of Bunnies, and an entire chapter addresses actress/singer Lainie Kazan’s tenure as entertainment director in the L.A. Club in the 1970s. But these are mere consolations for the fact that the core of Playboy’s enterprise is the parade of women as consumable sexual objects for men. The authors deflect from the magazine’s prurient nature to emphasize the serious writers (Charles Beaumont) and artists (Shel Silverstein) it has published not to mention its editorial taste in musical coverage (i.e. reviews, profiles). In failing to acknowledge Playboy’s gendered reality Farmer and Friedwald fail to address basic questions like how peering at genitalia relates to serious ideas or music? Or more to the point why, was the objectification of women essential to getting people to read about such subjects? Why couldn’t Hefner make a serious magazine and forego the pin-ups?

 The authors are also strangely silent on the tacitly racist assumption that blacks and other racial minorities are acceptable onstage, a longstanding American assumption, but not considered for administrative roles. Few, if any, ethnic minorities are referenced when the book discusses the organization’s administrative staff. Anecdote after anecdote essentially celebrates the good ol’ boy network that ran Playboy’s business ventures with nary a mention of the racial and gender homogeneity. These contradictions undermine the book’s attempts to frame the magazine as progressive. I’m guessing they would have had less access to some of their interviewees (which does not include Hefner himself) had they addressed these issues.

 A reader could easily dismiss my political observations as the rantings of a liberal but there are murkier questions about the book’s intended audience. People seeking pornographic images can cruise the internet so a reader who pays for the magazine is probably a bit more intentional. Still, even a casual Playboy reader would probably have limited interest in Hefner’s politics or the book’s minutiae about Club décor, Bunny training or the Big Bunny airplane. Readers of the book drawn in by the title would find some fresh information such as co-founder Victor Lownes’s fascination with and promotion of Welsh cabaret singer Mabel Mercer and the impressive number of major musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald who performed in various Playboy sponsored mediums including festivals, clubs, and television. A book focused primarily on this aspect would have been fascinating, but the coverage is uneven.

 There are abundant stories from observers about performers; as an oral history there are some genuinely juicy excerpts. Too frequently they feature non-descriptive language or are presented more as a litany than with insight into what was sung or played and why it was amazing. This gives the book a “you had to be there” feeling rather than illuminating something specific about the musicians themselves.

 Aficionados of Playboy history and/or ‘60s showbiz culture will relish many of the stories, though their often unedited feel might test even their patience. Part One is a relatively brisk overview of the magazine’s founding, Hefner’s interest in integration, and his love for jazz. But Part Two: Swinging at the Clubs’ roll call of the founding, décor, staff training, and other elements of Playboy Clubs in major cities is numbing. By the time it reaches discussions of short-lived Playboy Resorts in Lake Geneva and Jamaica you wonder why it has veered away so far from discussions of music as opposed to business or scenes.

 Another challenge rests in the book’s underdeveloped discussion of Hefner. Though he is the founder of the “brand” and his name is in the cover’s subtitle Part One’s initial discussion of him is never really fleshed out. The book provides generic information on his escape from his repressed mid-western Methodist family, and you learn about how he mortgaged his house to found the magazine, as well as his integrative actions. But you get little insight into him as a person. Did he leave home for sexual repression only or did he object to the racial politics of his home community? When and where did his attitudes develop? When did he develop his taste for jazz? Did he really love jazz or was it just a symbol of sophisticated taste?  Does he relate to the musicians pictured in the book or are they just celebrity friends? By not probing these questions you’re left with a remote impression of the mogul who has little presence in the book’s central chapters aside from appearing on a Playboy TV show or figuring out the next deal. Though several people close to him (i.e. Assistant Editor Albert Podell) note he was initially aspirational rather than truly sophisticated this is never probed thought it might actually illuminate something about the role of music in building Playboy’s brand.

 After introducing you to the basics, and wearing you down in the middle section, the book concludes in an almost elegiac tone in Part Three: The Beat Goes On. Though the middle discusses the Clubs in a mostly celebratory tone the final section recounts the management and financial issues that plagued most of the brand’s ventures beyond the magazine. The authors also espouse a somewhat naïve belief that Playboy’s brand within the live entertainment world was undermined by rock and disco, rather than the obsolescence of many of the performers who frequented the club. Freda Payne and Bobby Rydell are examples of artists whose talents were commercially and artistically viable in the recording industry for a specific era that has passed. Comparatively, the great Tony Bennett, a friend of Hefner and a frequenter of the brand’s Clubs and TV programming, took a break from recording in the ‘70s and came back in the mid-1980s because his skills transcend musical trends. The authors also allude to Playboy’s struggle to remain a unique (pornographic) brand with increased competition from other magazines like Penthouse. All of these rationales are shrouded in the pretense that Playboy, built on an empire of female objectification, represents a kinder, gentler era of entertainment. But one should not be fooled by the velvet, the lights, and the costumes.

 One of the more amusing pictures in the book features the great Sarah Vaughan standing at a table gathering food surrounded by Bunnies at the Chicago Playboy Club in 1961. There is no discussion in the book of what she sang, who was in her band at the time, or how the audience responded to Vaughan, perhaps the greatest of all jazz divas.  She is merely an accessory whose cachet can rub off on the brand’s main focus represented by the supposedly “wholesome” yet sexualized women surrounding her in ridiculous costumes (An interesting sidebar among the book’s minutiae: The New York Club briefly attempted to feature male Rabbits in the 1980s which flopped, according to the book, because it attracted gay men rather than the magazine and Club’s desired audience horny, well-heeled straight men).

 I can imagine a chronicler of cabaret culture seeking info on the rise of certain performers employing excerpts from Playboy Swings’s myriad anecdotes from various entertainment figures. But the book is an incomplete reading whose whole is less than promised. Like pornography itself it’s a shell of the real thing with limited insight into its actual subject.