Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lend Me a Crooner

In the pantheon of great American male pop singers, there's an unfortunate tendency to place them into only two designations: Sinata, and Everybody Else. The temptation is understandable: when Sinatra exploded onto the scene in the 1940's, his contemporaries, and his immediate successors in the early 1950's, all covered the same kind of romantic ballad repertoire; all possessed clean cut good looks; and almost all were Italian-American.

Young man with a song: Vic Damone, 1947

Today's birthday celebrant is Vic Damone, born Vito Rocco Farinola, the skinny Brooklyn boy who went from Paramount Theater usher to singing sensation almost overnight (discovered by another Sinatra competitor, Perry [formerly Pierino] Como). He seemingly shadowed Sinatra even more closely than the rest; twice in his career, Damone was signed by Sinatra's former record labels in a bid to replace their golden gander -- in 1956, by Columbia, after Sinatra had defected to Capitol; then in 1961, it was Capitol who came calling, after Sinatra jumped ship to begin his own imprint, Reprise. And when Sinatra had a row with Louis B. Mayer and was fired from MGM in 1951, guess who was signed to a movie contract?

But it would be wrong to dismiss Vic Damone as a mere Sinatra clone. For one thing, the sheer beauty of his voice is dazzling: more classically trained than Sinatra's; prettier and more supple than Tony Bennett's; more muscular than Jack Jones'. And for another, in his relatively brief film career, Damone demonstrated a natural, easy charm in front of the camera, as well as a more traditionally handsome face and form than his idol.

Unfortunately, none of Damone's films for MGM were particularly memorable. He made his debut in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) -- the title referring, incidentally, to Metro's resident operatic chirper, Jane Powell, not Damone! Although he made a positive impression, especially with the female audience, the film itself was no more than a charming diversion.

Vic Damone (top) with Wendell Corey, Jane Powell and Fernando Lamas in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951, MGM)

A stint in the Army placed Damone's career on hold briefly; upon his return, he was quickly cast in four musicals: Athena (1954), Deep in My Heart (1954), Hit the Deck (1955), and Kismet (1955), all but the last with Powell.

Deep in My Heart (1954, MGM)

Hit the Deck (1955, MGM)

Vic Damone and Jane Powell on the set of Athena (1954, MGM)

All were resounding failures, and such participants as Damone, Powell, Howard Keel, Ann Miller and Dolores Gray found themselves unceremoniously dropped from MGM's roster of stars. Damone's musical fortunes, however, continued to shine brightly: since his meteoric debut in 1947, Damone had notched up an impressive run of Top 10 hits, and in 1956, he scored one of his biggest, a cover of "On the Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady. The following year, Damone could be heard crooning the lachrymose title song to An Affair to Remember (1957) starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and scored yet another major hit.

Almost overnight, however, the hit records dried up, as rock and roll swept the country. Damone's personal life was in shambles, as well: he had married Italian-born starlet Pier Angeli in an unexpected 1954 ceremony -- surprising everyone, including Angeli's lover, James Dean, who, according to urban legend, sat outside of the church during the wedding, weeping astride his motorcycle.

Vic Damone and Pier Angeli marry, November 24, 1954

When the Damone/Angeli marriage ended in 1958, it was amid ugly accusations of gambling, infidelity, alcohol abuse and wife beating. The publicity didn't help Damone's public image, which was already tainted by what many perceived as cockiness and brazen egoism. He was dropped by his press agents, blasted by his own manager as a "S.O.B.," and was in and out of courtrooms as he and Angeli waged a bitter custody battle over their son, Perry; at one point, Angeli actually had Damone arrested for kidnapping when he violated a visitation order.

Perry Damone, Pier Angeli and Vic Damone (with second wife, Judy Rawlins) following a custody hearing, 1965

Redeeming Damone's image somewhat was the surprise success of a 1962 summer replacement series called The Lively Ones, which Damone hosted, aided by two comely sidekicks, Joan Stanley and Shirley Yelm. Showcasing an impressive array of jazz talent, ranging from Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald to Dave Brubeck and Shelley Manne, the program was clearly aimed at a sophisticated, adult audience, and Damone was praised for his hosting skills, as well as his musical abilities. It was considered such a hit, Capitol quickly issued a "tie-in" album by Damone to cash in on the show's success.

The Lively Ones returned for the summer of 1963, this time with Quinn O'Hara and Gloria Neill supporting Damone. And, once again, Capitol decided to "capitol"-ize on its popularity by titling one of Damone's albums after it: The Liveliest captured Damone's slick nightclub act at New York's famed Basin Street East -- and, in a nod to the show's sponsor, Damone, O'Hara and Neill were prominently photographed with a gleaming new Ford Galaxie 500.

Strangely, despite his obvious appeal and talent, Damone never had a regular series of his own, although he hosted several other summer replacements, starting back in 1957 with, appropriately enough, The Vic Damone Show; and, in the summer of 1967, The Dean Martin Summer Show with Broadway vet Carol Lawrence and Dino's daughter, Gail Martin.

Vic Damone with Carol Lawerence and Gail Martin, The Dean Martin Summer Show (1967)

Although Elvis, and then the Beatles, spelled the death knell for the crooners on the charts, Damone and his contemporaries retained a steady, popular presence throughout the 1960's, thanks to television and nightclub work. Things started to bottom out in the 1970's, however; Damone declared bankruptcy in 1971, and that same year, his ex-wife, Pier Angeli, died at age 39 from a drug overdose. Three years later, his second wife, Judy Rawlings, committed suicide in the same manner.

L-R: Twin sister Marisa Pavan, son Perry Damone, mother Enrica Pierangeli, drama coach Helen Sorrell, and ex-husband Vic Damone arrive at Pier Angeli's funeral, September 13, 1971

Damone paid of his debts by touring constantly, particularly the lucrative Las Vegas circuit, and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1980's, particularly when he married fourth wife Diahann Carroll, who was just coming off of the height of her Dynasty fame. The two performed a well-received act together, but would eventually divorce in 1996. Despite their nearly 10 year union, the breakup was not a pleasant one, with Carroll later revealing some harrowing details about what she described as his demeaning behavior towards her, and Damone suggesting that Carroll's hard-as-nails ambition and show business drive were at odds with what was by then his more laid-back lifestyle.

Vic Damone and Diahann Carroll, 1990

Since 1998, Damone has been married to fifth wife Rena, and seems content to have left his tumultuous past behind in favor of a relaxed family life. He has aged well and gracefully, and although he's been effectively retired since 2001, friends and family report that his gorgeous pipes are still in fine shape -- he simply would rather play golf and spend time with his six grandchildren than make the concert hall rounds again. In his best recordings, and in the glimpses of potential shown in his MGM films, Damone steps out from behind Sinatra's shadow to leave a lovely legacy of song.

June 12, 1928


  1. ah...I remember my mother being fond of him....a bit of a crush even I think.

  2. Marisa looks hard in that shot! I know it was a bad day and all, but...

    I wanted Vic and Diahann to make it. It's a shame they didn't.

  3. Thanks for the lovely and thorough bio and bio-pics!

  4. thanks for the great bio and bio-pics!

  5. He's SO underrated - and his voice is the best of all the boy singers! Thanks for this! xxx

  6. Jason - I'll join your mom with that. It's the voice, mainly -- so beautiful, yet virile. And in his movies, he's really quite charming.

    Poseidon3 - I've heard differing opinions on Vic, some quite damning re: his treatment of his wives, and women in general. Having said that, my opinion of the divine Diahann has been altered somewhat in recent years, based on the lady's own words and interviews; she comes across as quite bitter and confrontational nowadays, and it's not very attractive.

    Jon - Do you know something we don't? ;-)

    marksparky - Thank you!

    MC - His "Kismet" medley with Judy from TJGS gives me goose bumps.

  7. Hey... what about the Dick Van Dyke Show episode where Vic played Sally's beau Ric Vallone?"