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Morty Jacobs, the jazz pianist who served as the musical director, accompanist and straight man for George Burns for more than three decades, died April 22 in Los Angeles. He was 93.
The silver-haired Jacobs played a medley of old tunes that Burns used in his act, like “Sidewalks of New York” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” When Burns was well into his 90s, he would ask Jacobs to get him a drink during their stage act, then assist the younger Jacobs back to his seat. Burns died in 1996 at age 100.
During his long career, Jacobs also performed with Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Stan Austin, Dorothy Dandridge, Van Johnson, Lou Rawls, Ethel Merman and Stella Stevens.
He composed the hit “Palomino” for singing cowboy Herb Jeffries, and his compositions “Lefty Louie” and “Tell Me More” were recorded by the David Rose Orchestra and June Christy, respectively. Jacobs also worked as a composer with Irving Taylor and Johnny Mercer.
When John F. Kennedy was “swinging” his way through Southern California on a flatbed truck during his 1960 presidential campaign, Jacobs was the musical director and conductor for the live jazz band.
Born and raised in New York City, Jacobs was mentored by such pioneering jazz pianists as Willie Smith, Meade Lux Lewis and Fats Waller. With trumpeter Roy Eldridge, he played in a band as a youngster that accompanied the great tap dancers Sammy Davis Jr., the Nicholas Brothers and Bunny Briggs.
Jacobs served in World War II as a machine gunner and continued his musical career after the war despite suffering severe back injuries when his armored vehicle fell into a tank trap.
Jacobs was a longtime musicians’ union member and activist who helped create the pension plan for Local 47 and integrate the separate black and white musician locals. In 1958, he helped start Santa Monica-based Synanon, one of the nation’s first drug and alcohol rehabilitation halfway houses structured to help musicians.
Survivors include sons Stephen, Mark and Mitchell. Jacob’s wife of more than 50 years, Madeline, died in 1999.
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