New York City, New York - Singer Nicky Toledo first came into prominence in 1952 when he was touted by the famed New York nightclub The Rainbow Room as 'the next Frank Sinatra.' The Rainbow Room had him under contract for the next 6 months and Nicky proceeded to pack them in. Critics dismissed the singer as a "wanna-be" but his audiences came back again and again to hear what one reviewer called "a not so golden voice but one heck of a performer."
The early history of Toledo is mostly undocumented. Born sometime in the late 1920's Nicky's real name has always been something of a mystery. Written accounts state that he was really Nicholas Grandy and was born in New Hampshire where he worked on his father's farm and learned to sing as a way to pass the time out in the fields. Other's insist that this is a false history created by the Rainbow Room and spread by reporters.
Does this photograph show 50's singer Nicky Toledo at a witch coven?
What is known is that Nicky was first heard by promoter Al Dubbins at the Hi-Hat club in Trenton New Jersey in 1951. In his autobiography Dubbins writes, "I knew the kid had something. It wasn't so much as his voice, which was so-so but his style. He could work a room like nobody's business. Every woman in the joint thought he was singing to her and every guy wanted to buy him a beer and call him a pal."
Dubbins quickly signed Nicky and got Ralph Norgate, owner of the Rainbow Room, to let him audition. He was hired on the spot as an opening act. By early 1952 Nicky had moved up to star status and was singing in the club 6 nights a week. In April of that year Dubbins got Nicky a slot on the Dumont networks "New York Nights" a locally televised variety show.
Dubbins recalled what happened in his book. "Everybody in the studio thought the kid was dynamite. He was doing the show stopper from his act and I thought he was better than ever. But then after the show the network started getting calls about how awful he was. Back in those days people didn't hesitate to call up and complain if they didn't like what they saw and with Nicky nobody liked what they saw. I couldn't understand it but the people spoke and Nicky was never invited to appear on the networks again."
Toledo was still selling out the nightclub so he continued to work there. Dubbins convinced a small record label named Pompadour to record his live act. The result was "A Night With Nicky Toledo " which had a modest run of 5,000 copies. Although the records sold well in the Rainbow Room's gift shop they failed to move when placed in Manhattan record stores.
Depression set in for Toledo who started abusing alcohol and, some say, harder stuff. In January of 1953, Toledo crashed his sportscar in Brooklyn Heights. He died instantly.
The story of Nicky Toledo would be delegated to the back pages of music history books if it wasn't for Alice Smithers who runs "Be-Bop-A-Lu-La Vintage Music" in Greenwich village. Alice was only 13 years old when Nicky died but she was at an age when girl's develop crushes and she had a huge one on Nicky Toledo.
"I was a big eyed slobbering fool over that man," Alice told me. "I lived with my parents just across the street from the nightclub where he use to perform and almost every night I would open my bedroom window and use my fathers binoculars to watch him sing. I was sure I was in love."
Alice remembers another part of the Toledo story that came to light in 1954. It was then that Samantha Hornbeck of Brooklyn Heights claimed that she was the mother of Toledo's illegitimate son. She threatened to sued Al Dubbins for moneys owed to Toledo by the club at the time of his death. The matter was settled out of court.
"The article about Nicky's love child was one of the last things I pasted into my scrapbook." Alice told me. " By that time I was moving out of my crush stage I guess. It wasn't until 1972 when I was co-writing a book with my husband that I came upon my old scrapbook and thought about Nicky Toledo again. That got me to wondering if Samantha Hornbeck was still around. If she was she might add an interesting spin onto the story. The book was a history of the New York music scene of the 40's and 50's and Toledo played a small part in it."
Alice and her husband traced Hornbeck to Gray Springs Iowa where she lived with her daughter. They flew to meet her but little new information was gained. Samantha even refused to speak of her and Toledo's son Arthur, who had been killed in Vietnam.
Alice recalls, "I remember at one point she looked at me and said 'The Nicky I fell in love with was not the real Nicky. If you want the real Nicky then you should listen to that God-awful record. Nicky Toledo was all smoke and mirrors.' Well that was interesting but hardly the thing we could put into our book. About the best thing that she did was give us an old photo album of Nicky's that she had kept over the years. It was in there that we found the photo stuck behind some old Rainbow Room publicity stills."
The photo Alice refers to is an old black and white that shows a group of people in some sort of ceremony. The participants are in robes and facing away from the camera..
"Now why would that be in Nicky Toledo's photo album?" Alice continued. "I mean look at the photo itself, it just looks evil to me. People in robes? I decided to do some investigating and with Nicky being a dead-end I focused on Samantha. I found out that in 1952 Samantha Hornbeck had been arrested by police when they broke up a meeting of 'witches' at an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn. Oh the police didn't call them witches but from the written witness statements and old police reports you can tell that's what everyone was thinking they were. So I looked closer at the photo in hopes of seeing Samantha behind one of those cowls and that's when I noticed the ring on the person's hand. I had the photo blown up and that ring just happened to look exactly like the kind of ring that Nicky Toledo use to wear."
Toledo's ring is a matter of public record since he always wore it. Interviewed by one reporter he stated that it was his "good luck charm" A closer look of the ring reveals that it is a simple metal band with a pentagram engraved upon it. Alice and her husband now thought that they had a new spin on a old story but Samantha Hornbeck refused to confirm their findings.
"She just said that she did a lot of stupid things when she was a girl." states Alice "Well if you ask me there's stupid and then there's real stupid. Screwing around with witchcraft? Real stupid."
Alice's husband died during this time and their book was never published. But over the years Alice has come back to the Nicky Toledo saga and formed a theory.
"I know that this will sound crazy to you but I think that Nicky Toledo sold his soul to the devil for the gift of charm. It fits all the facts. He came out of nowhere and knocked everybody over with his act. He sold out night after night at the Rainbow Room for over 13 months! That pentagram ring was the focus of the powers and as long as Nicky wore it he was the shiny penny that everybody wanted. But I think the devil put a loophole in the contract. He made it so that Nicky could only work his charisma on you in person. That's why he fell so flat on TV and his record did so bad. That's why Samantha called him 'all smoke and mirrors.' Finally Nicky himself realized that and it drove him to drink. It finally drove him to death."
There's little evidence to fit the entire theory but when you listen to Nicky Toledo you have to wonder how he could have packed them in night after night. Perhaps he did have a little something extra.
- Phone interview with Alice Smithers on March 12th, 1999
- Lamont and Alice Smithers. 'New York Music' unpublished manuscript
- Dubbins Alfred. 'Making the Cut; My Life in the Music Business' Pentum Books 1985
- Smithers, Alice. various newspaper clippings, undocumented sources
- Deerfield, Tim. '50's Lounge' Saint John Press 1996
-kinescope clip courtesy of Mark Thomas and 'The Dumont Network Television Archives" New York City
-photo courtesy of Alice Smithers