March 30, 2013

Mr. Rhythm: The Frankie Laine Story

Frankie Laine
By Niccolò Graffio
“All things that great men do are well done.” – H.G. Bohn; Handbook of Proverbs, 1855
I am a child of the 1970’s.  I was too young to truly enjoy the music of the ‘60’s (and all the drugs that went with it).  Instead, I was ‘lucky’ enough to go through adolescence during that most wonderful epoch of music known as the Disco Era.

Unlike many of my peers in high school, however, I carried with myself something they didn’t – an appreciation for musical genres of previous generations.  Being from a fairly tight-knit family, growing up I was regularly exposed to the music of my parents and grandmother.  As a result, I often found myself listening to songs my fellow teens mocked, if they bothered to listen to them at all!

From my paternal grandmother, a deeply religious woman, I gained an appreciation for Gregorian chants and the moving prayer songs of Southern Italy. She would sing them often while sitting on the sofa, sewing.  From my father I learned to like opera and Southern-Italian folk songs.  Being older Italian immigrants set in their ways, neither really liked listening to anything else.

It was my mother, an American-born Sicilian woman, who taught me the love of American genres of music.  Her tastes were more varied and modern than my father or grandmother’s.  She liked listening to music from the swing and boogie-woogie eras, as well as 50’s and even some ‘60’s era rock music.  Having spent part of her youth living in Texas, she also liked listening to country western music.  Growing up at her knee, I listened to such musical luminaries as The Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  In addition, I can recall hearing the music of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

When I was in high school one of my mom’s favorite singers was Engelbert Humperdinck.  One of the most amusing memories of my adolescence was that concerning a beautiful silver-haired German shepherd we owned, appropriately named “Silver”.  This dog apparently shared my mom’s love of music, especially Humperdinck.  Whenever she would play one of his albums on the stereo, Silver would come running into the room, laying down next to one of the speakers and pressing his ear against it.  He usually wouldn’t leave until my mom turned off the stereo.  If I then tried to play one of the (then) modern rock and disco songs on the radio, the look I got from him before he left the room was hysterical!

My mom amassed a large collection of albums from various genres and artists.  One of the ones who left an impression upon me was Frankie Laine.  Unlike many of the “one-trick ponies” out there in the music world, Laine didn’t limit himself to just one or two genres.  Rather, he sang across the musical spectrum.  He also had the voice to do it.  Maybe that’s why he was always one of my mom’s favorite singers.

Singer, songwriter and actor, his influence has spanned generations.  It was therefore a pleasant surprise to me to discover this musical pioneer was, in fact, a Southern Italian.  Additionally, the centenary of his birth is rapidly approaching.  What better time, then, to pay homage to him, a true Titan of the South?

Francesco Paolo LoVecchio was born on March 30, 1913 to Giovanni and Cresenzia (neé Salerno) LoVecchio in Near West Side, Chicago.  The oldest of eight children, his parents were immigrants from Monreale, Sicily.  As what has happened all too often to so many of our people (and so many other peoples), his name was ‘Americanized’ on his birth certificate to “Frank Lovecchio”.  To add insult to injury, his mother’s name was likewise written as “Anna Salerno” on the same certificate.  Thus, from birth began the inexorable process of cultural hegemony to rob him of his true heritage!

Historical evidence shows his family had several connections to organized crime. His father’s chief claim to fame was at one time he was the personal barber to gangster Al Capone.  Young Frankie was living with his grandfather when the latter was gunned down by Chicago mobsters.

Franke was first introduced to singing as a member of the choir in the Church of the Immaculate Conception’s elementary school.  Later he attended Lane Technical High School (now Lane Technical College Prep High School).  It was here he first realized he wanted to be a singer when he cut school to watch Al Jolson’s film The Singing Fool.  Years later, in 1949, when both were filming pictures, Al Jolson would visit Laine and remarked he would soon put all other singers out of business..

Frankie Lovecchio’s vocal talents were already apparent to those around him in high school.  Older students would invite him to parties and local dance clubs to sing for them.  By the time he reached the age of 17 he had already achieved enough local renown he performed at The Merry Garden Ballroom before a crowd of 5,000 people!  His performance elicited such a positive response from the audience that he wound up performing five encores his first night!

A number of singers from various genres influenced him at this point in his life including Enrico Caruso, Gene Austin, Carlo Buti and especially Bessie Smith.  It was Smith’s songs that introduced the young Frankie Lovecchio to jazz and the blues, thus beginning a musical love affair that would last the rest of his life.

After graduating high school Frank Lovecchio (as he was still billing himself) signed on with The Merry Garden’s marathon dance company, touring with them.  This was good work to find during The Great Depression.  He would entertain crowds with his singing during the fifteen-minute breaks the dancers were given each hour.  It was during this time he also set the world’s record for dancing (3,501 hours in 145 consecutive days with partner Ruthie Smith at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier in 1932).  

During his days touring with The Merry Garden’s marathon dance company he worked with a number of up-and-coming entertainers including Rose Marie, a fourteen-year old Anita O’Day (for whom he served as a mentor) and the now legendary Richard Bernard “Red” Skelton.  

Even with his job, he needed to supplement his income, which he did by doing car sales and machinist work.  

As he grew older, other performers of the time began to influence his singing style including Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole.  Frankie befriended Cole in Los Angeles.  Cole later performed a song Frankie had written, It Only Happens Once.  The two would remain good friends for the rest of Cole’s life, and Frankie Laine was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

While living and working in Los Angeles, one day Frankie noticed a young boy struggling in a neighborhood swimming pool.  Jumping in, he saved the boy from drowning.  The boy was Ronnie Como, son of crooner Perry Como.  By an amazing coincidence, Frankie Lovecchio was hired to replace Como with the Freddy Carlone band.  Como had left but changed his mind at the last minute.  When he found out about Lovecchio’s predicament, Como called Carlone and got him a job touring with them.

It was not to last.  As Laine later recounted, because bookings were scarce, two weeks after hiring him, Carlone fired everybody!  Nevertheless, Laine and Como would remain friends.  Como, in fact, would later “loan” Laine $27 to get to a possible singing gig (which Laine later sheepishly admitted he never paid back).

In 1938 Frankie received a job singing for radio station WINS.  The program director, Jack Coombs, urged him to Anglicize his name because Lovecchio sounded “too foreign” (sound familiar?).  He decided on the surname “Laine” with the “I” added to avoid confusion with a girl singer who worked at the station named Frances Lane.

WINS, however, eventually dropped him, but he was able to find a job singing on a sustainer (non-sponsored) radio show at WNBC.  Unfortunately, as he was to begin, Germany invaded Poland.  All sustainer radio shows were dropped in deference to military needs.
Frankie Laine

In 1943 he made his way to California where he landed a job singing in the background of several movies including The Harvey Girls.  The following year he met and befriended composer/pianist Carl T. Fischer.  Fischer would remain Laine’s songwriting partner, piano accompanist and musical director until his death in 1954.

At the end of World War II Laine found himself out of a job again.  He “crashed” at the home of Al Jarvis, a disc jockey he had befriended several years earlier.  Jarvis tried to promote his friend’s small singing career while Laine went from club to club hoping bandleaders would invite him up on stage to sing.

In late 1946, while at the Billy Berg club in Los Angeles, jazz singer and songwriter Slim Gaillard invited Laine up on stage to sing.  Frankie decided to sing “Rockin’ Chair” by Hoagy Carmichael.  Unbeknownst to Laine, Carmichael was sitting in the audience.  Carmichael liked his rendition so much he approached him afterwards.   This chance encounter eventually led to a contract for Frankie Laine with Mercury Records and his first big break in the music industry.

While still singing at the Billy Berg Club Laine did a cover for a song first produced 15 years earlier entitled That’s My Desire.  Though the song had been recorded a number of years earlier, Laine’s rendition was a smash!  It catapulted him into being the star attraction at Berg’s.

Frankie Laine wound up cutting the song for Mercury Records which quickly went to the #3 spot on the R&B charts.  Hysterically, many people listening to the song for the first time thought Laine was black as few white performers previous to him had made it to the R&B charts.  The song proved so popular that other performers, including Hadda Brooks and Sammy Kaye, did their own covers.  Laine’s, however, became the standard and it went gold.

By the late 1940’s Laine became recognized as a major talent in jazz when music giant Mitch Miller, then the A&R (artists & repertoire) man at Mercury Records, decided to branch him out into popular songs, especially those of a folksy and western bent.

The duo soon began producing chart-topping songs.  One of the first was That Lucky Old Sun which went gold just three weeks after its release.  It was Laine’s fifth gold record and it helped to establish him as a great singer, not just a “one-trick-pony”.

Laine and Miller’s next song, Mule Train knocked Sun to the #2 slot and gave Laine the honor of being the first singer ever to hold the #1 &#2 slots on the popular music charts simultaneously.  The duo’s domination of the Top 40 charts would continue until the rise of rock ‘n roll in the 1950’s.  Frankie Laine had already established himself as an influential force in the music industry and his vocal renditions would later influence others such as Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and even The Beatles.

In 1950 Mitch Miller left Mercury Records to sign on as the A&R man for Columbia Records.  A year later, when Laine’s contract with Mercury expired, Miller convinced him into signing on with Columbia, as well.  Frankie Laine’s contract with Columbia would remain the most lucrative in the music industry until RCA bought Elvis Presley’s contract five years later.

It was also in 1950 that Frankie married actress Nan Grey and adopted her two daughters (Pam and Jan) from a previous marriage.  They would remain married until Nan’s death in July, 1993.  

His time at Columbia would prove the most fruitful of his long career in music.  Among the hits he produced for them was Jezebel, High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me) and Your Cheatin’ Heart.  His fame reached across the Atlantic into the United Kingdom.  In 1954 he did a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II (which he later stated was one of the high points of his career).

Many of the songs he recorded at Columbia were used as theme songs for major motion pictures and TV programs with a Western theme.  He became so identified with Westerns, in fact, producer Mel Brooks would later hire him to sing the opening theme song of his hilarious Western spoof Blazing Saddles (1974).

The rise of rock ‘n roll artists like Elvis Presley cut into Laine’s stardom.  Ironically, as Laine’s star was setting somewhat in the U.S. it was rising in the UK.  Many of the songs he cut that were only minor sensations here in America went to the top of the charts in the UK.  In fact, by 1960 he was still way ahead of Elvis Presley on British charts in terms of popularity!  His song, I Believe, which has a spiritual theme, was the most popular song in the UK during the 1950’s, beating out even Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets.

Frankie Laine translated his popularity into social activism.  When his friend Nat King Cole tried to have his own TV show, he could not get any sponsors.  Laine “crossed the color line” and appeared on it for scale, foregoing his usual $10,000 per appearance fee.  He encouraged other white performers to appear as well.  The show ultimately flopped, however, as Cole was still unable to find any sponsors.

Frankie Laine also worked tirelessly supporting many charities including Meals on Wheels, The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Village.  He was especially active in supporting charities in and around the San Diego, California area.

A tireless workaholic, nevertheless he slowed down in the 1980’s due to heart bypass surgeries.  Incredibly, though, this stalwart force in the music industry was still recording songs well into his 70’s.  He cut an album in 1986 entitled Round Up with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra which made it to the Classical music charts.  Laine was reportedly pleased and amused to have recorded songs that made it to the Classical, R&B, Country & Western and Popular charts during his lifetime.

On March 30, 1993 (his 80th birthday) the U.S. Congress declared him a national treasure.  Shortly after the infamous 9/11 attacks by Islamic terrorists, he recorded his last song, Taps/My Buddy, which he dedicated to the firefighters of New York City.  He directed that any and all profits from the song were to be donated to the FDNY in perpetuity.

He made his last public appearance (which I had the honor of watching) on PBS’ My Music special in 2005.  This in spite of having suffered a recent stroke.  He sang That’s My Desire and the audience showed their appreciation to this living legend by giving him a standing ovation!  

He died of heart failure on February 6, 2007 in Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, CA.  Like so many others among our people, his influence on those around him (in his case, in the music industry) is rarely mentioned, yet it is also undeniable!  As previously mentioned, he influenced the likes of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and The Beatles.  Yet there are also many others, too many to be listed in this short space.

That fact, plus his 21 gold records and global record sales totaling over 100 million more than adequately justify his being labeled a “Titan of the South”.  This past Sunday, March 24th, 2013 his family and friends threw a centenary tribute to him at the Kona Kai Resort on Shelter Island in Point Loma, San Diego, CA.  How I wish I could have been there.

Further reading:

• Richard Grudens: Mr. Rhythm – A Tribute to Frankie Lane; Celebrity Profiles Publishing, 2009