Jose Melis

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Best known for trading barbs with headliner Jack Paar during a five-year stint as bandleader of NBC's The Tonight Show, pianist/arranger Jose Melis also cut a series of Latin-influenced easy listening…
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Best known for trading barbs with headliner Jack Paar during a five-year stint as bandleader of NBC's The Tonight Show, pianist/arranger Jose Melis also cut a series of Latin-influenced easy listening recordings. Born Jose Melis Guiu in Havana, Cuba, on February 27, 1920, he studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music before continuing his education in Paris via Cuban government scholarship. At 16, he relocated to the U.S., where he graduated from the Julliard School of Music. While there Melis began moonlighting as a lounge pianist, and during World War II he served as musical director for the USO's New York City branch, where he first met actor/comedian Paar, a lifelong friend. After World War II Melis earned his U.S. citizenship, remaining a fixture of the New York City nightclub scene. When Paar signed to host a summer replacement series for radio's The Jack Benny Show in 1946, he named Melis his musical director, a position the pianist reclaimed for the CBS television variety showcase The Jack Paar Show, which aired from 1953 to 1956. When Paar was named to succeed Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show, Melis was again in tow. With the orchestra on-stage (instead of relegated to the pit) and its leader regularly incorporated into the late-night chatter, Melis became a star in his own right, composing the show's theme, "I-M-4-U," and creating its popular "telephone game," improvising melodies based upon audience members' phone numbers. As his popularity grew he signed to the Seeco label for a series of LPs including Jose Melis at Midnight and The Many Moods of Jose Melis. A subsequent stint with Mercury yielded On Broadway and Tonight, It's Music. After Paar resigned his hosting duties in 1962, Melis toured behind Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra, but health problems dogged him and he eventually lost his sight and hearing, dying from respiratory failure in Sun City, AZ, on April 7, 2005.