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A Manhattan Theft Rooted in a Tale of Songwriting, Sinatra and Cigars – The New York Times

A Manhattan Theft Rooted in a Tale of Songwriting, Sinatra and Cigars – The New York Times


A Manhattan Theft Rooted in a Tale of Songwriting, Sinatra and Cigars

Avo Uvezian, a cigar maker and Juilliard-trained musician, at his home in Orlando, Fla. Jacob Langston for The New York Times 

The story of the thief who walked out of an expensive Manhattan cigar store with four boxes of medium-blend Dominicans last month actually begins decades earlier, before he was born. It starts in the 1960s, with an encounter between two men that would change both their lives. One of those men was Avo Uvezian, an Armenian jazz musician living in New York City. The other was also a musician, from New Jersey, named Frank Sinatra.

Mr. Uvezian was born in 1926 in Beirut. He became an accomplished musician who traveled the Middle East, speaking multiple languages along the way.

“I usually count in Armenian in my head,” he told Cigar Journal in an interview this year. “I find the best language to swear in is Turkish, and when dreaming of pretty women, French is the best language.”

Playing piano, he led a jazz combo that performed in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, where he became the personal entertainer of the shah. In 1947, he moved to New York and entered the Juilliard School.

By the 1960s, he had written his own music. One melody stood out.


Mr. Uvezian says he wrote the melody to "Strangers in the Night," which became a No. 1 single for Frank Sinatra. Jacob Langston for The New York Times 

“The song itself is a very simple song,” Mr. Uvezian, 89, said this month by telephone from his home in Orlando, Fla. “You take the thing and you repeat it. ‘Dah-dah-dah-dah-daaaah.’ It’s the same line repeated throughout.”

He had a friend who knew Sinatra. The friend set up a meeting and told Mr. Uvezian to bring along his music. Someone else had put lyrics to the melody, and called it “Broken Guitar.”

Sinatra gave it a listen.

“He said, ‘I love the melody, but change the lyrics,’” Mr. Uvezian recalled. The task was given to studio songwriters, and they came back with new words. Sinatra, legend has it, hated it. “I don’t want to sing this,” he said when he first saw the sheet music, according to James Kaplan’s new book, “Sinatra: The Chairman.” Nonetheless, with his last No. 1 single several years behind him, he was persuaded to record the song in 1966.

The title was new, too. “Broken Guitar” was out. The new name was “Strangers in the Night.”

The Avo XO, one of the cigars created by Mr. Uvezian. Ramsay De Give for The New York Times 

In Mr. Uvezian’s telling, what should have been a monumental triumph and breakthrough turned out to be a source of great grief. He did not receive credit for the song. Before Sinatra ever heard the music, Mr. Uvezian, a novice, had sent it to a friend, Bert Kaempfert, an established German composer, to be published there, he said. Mr. Kaempfert is credited with the composition, a snatch of which was first heard buried within the title song of a James Garner film called “A Man Could Get Killed.”

Mr. Kaempfert, who died in 1980, did not seem to hesitate in listing the song as among his highest achievements, but Mr. Uvezian said that Mr. Kaempfert had given him credit for its creation many times, including in a written letter.

A reporter ran this version of the events behind “Strangers in the Night” past the New York City radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, an authority on Sinatra. “I haven’t heard it before, but I wouldn’t doubt it,” Mr. Schwartz said in a recent interview. “It sounds authentic to me.” Mr. Kaplan, in his book, credits Mr. Kaempfert as the composer.

The experience soured Mr. Uvezian on the music business and on New York City, he said. “It’s a painful thing for me. I want to forget it,” he said. “I have a hell of a lot of better music.”

He moved to Puerto Rico and started over. He played piano at a resort. He had smoked a pipe in the past, but he was introduced to good cigars on the occasion of his daughter’s christening in 1982, he said. A friend ordered him one, and Mr. Uvezian could not believe what it cost when the bill came. He saw an opportunity that would lead to a flourishing second career.


A thief stole four boxes of Avo XO cigars from the Davidoff store on Avenue of the Americas. Ramsay De Give for The New York Times 

He traveled to the Dominican Republic and visited a cigar manufacturer. He met a master blender named Hendrik Kelner. “He made 10 or 12 different blends,” Mr. Uvezian said. Mr. Uvezian sampled them over a month or so, and came back with his favorite. It would become a brand called the Avo Classic.

“The beginner or longtime smoker, he could find satisfaction in that Classic,” Mr. Uvezian said.

The musician handed out his cigars from his piano bench at gigs. People came back for more. He sent samples to Davidoff of Geneva, a worldwide distributor. Davidoff bought the Avo line of cigars in 1995 and now sells some two million a year, said Scott Kolesaire, the brand manager.

“The construction, balance and palate stimulation were just top notch,” Mr. Kolesaire said of the Avo Classic.

Another blend, stronger in taste, was created, the Avo XO. The Davidoff store on Avenue of the Americas just below Central Park, which contains a smoking lounge, keeps its Avo line in the climate-controlled, walk-in humidor it installed in January. It was into this humidor that an unidentified man in his 30s walked, alone and unnoticed, on Nov. 23 at 4:20 p.m. He scooped four boxes of cigars into a big Bed Bath & Beyond bag and left. They were Avo XOs, each box worth $261.22.

Mr. Uvezian, informed of the theft by a reporter’s call, was unfazed. He’s had bigger headaches than 80 of his two million cigars going missing. “It can happen,” he said.

A salesman at the store, Rafael de los Reyes, pulled a similar box off the shelf in mid-December and pointed to the name on the cover.

“This guy,” he said, “wrote ‘Strangers in the Night.’ ”

Correction: December 29, 2015 

The Crime Scene column on Monday, about the theft of cigars created by Avo Uvezian, a musician, misstated the name of the school he attended. It is the Juilliard School, not the Juilliard School of Music.



Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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