It began as a typical classroom assignment undertaken by a not-so-typical college student.
Bob Reilly, 72, was taking a philosophy course at Prince George's Community College a couple of years ago. The assignment was simple enough: Write down a goal you plan to accomplish this year. Surrounded by students young enough to be his grandchildren, Reilly picked up his pen and wrote the following: "I, Bob Reilly, promise to cut my first album this year."
Which is precisely what he did. In fact, Reilly, who possesses a warm and remarkably clear tenor voice, had the disc by the end of the course. As the other students turned in their reports, Reilly turned on a phonograph and played them the results -- a handsome, fun collection of romantic ballads and sentimental Irish favorites called "Secret Love." "And what do you know," Reilly says with delight, "about half the kids bought a copy."
For Reilly the album was the happy culmination of a lifelong dream. "I've been singing all my life," he says, before listing the places he has sung over the years. He mentions nearly forgotten clubs like the Stage Door Canteen, where he appeared on the same bill as Perry Como in 1946, and then he pauses a moment to sum up: "Just about every ballroom, hotel and military installation in and around Washington, I've entertained there."
But not before getting his start in New York. Born in Hoboken, N.J., Reilly was raised in Manhattan, where he recalls singing at an audition for young talent staged by Paul Whiteman's band. Only 12 at the time, Reilly wasn't exactly a serious candidate to replace Whiteman's vocalist, a crooner by the name of Bing Crosby, but the experience of auditioning for Whiteman remains one of Reilly's fondest memories.
Though he eventually began to sing with bands and orchestras in and around New York and later worked with radio amateur groups, Reilly decided early on that he needed to help support his family and so found more secure work at the New York Curb Exchange (now the American Stock Exchange). He admits his timing could have been better. It was 1929, barely a month prior to the great market crash.
"The anxiety and tension, it was madness," Reilly says of the crash. He stayed on, though, and soon began performing at various market social functions. Someone dubbed him "Exchange Tenor" and the nickname stuck.
After moving to Washington in 1941, Reilly continued to perform whenever and wherever he could, working all the while as an accountant and data processor for a variety of government agencies here. Now a retiree with 31 years of government service behind him, he remains active and says he returned to college to "keep growing." And besides, he adds, as if recording an album at his age wasn't proof enough, "I've always been a late bloomer. I didn't marry until I was 46. We have four children. They're grown now -- they love the album."
Reilly says he is content with just breaking even on the record. He sells his albums at all of his performances, and so far he's received air play from three local radio stations. He's accompanied on the record by some of Washington's best-known jazz musicians, including pianist Stef Scaggiari, bassist Paul Langosch and drummer Chuck Redd.
Reilly has one quibble, though. "If I had to do all over again," he says, "I would have wanted to work on the arrangements more, especially 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.' I'd rather sing it as an Irish ballad than like a jig. I sang it as a ballad just this morning at college and I was told I'd never sounded better."
Like all singers Reilly has his favorites. The great Irish tenor John McCormack, Perry Como, Al Martino and, not surprisingly, that other singer from Hoboken, Frank Sinatra, are near the top of his list.
"But Sinatra," Reilly says, barely stifling a laugh, "you know he really can't claim Hoboken as his home town. I'm a couple of years older. I was there first." Even so, Reilly says he made sure that Old Blue Eyes received a copy of his album on a recent visit to Washington.
Nor is Sinatra the only celebrity who has gotten a copy of "Secret Love." Reilly has letters of thanks and encouragement from the prince and princess of Wales ("My kids flipped over that one," says Reilly with a chuckle), Luciano Pavarotti and even one from a fellow septuagenarian, which reads in part:
As former entertainers, we admire your spirit and certainly appreciate your sharing your talent with us.