Quantcast

Point Loma's Frankie Laine – singing before rock music

Between a Flat Foot Floogie and a Hound Dog

So Ultra Rare, 1983. In the early 60s, Columbia did cut a full-blown pop-rock session with Laine. Laine adapted well to the fuzz-tone electric guitar, but it was too late. “My staunch fans from the past resisted it, and I didn’t pick up enough new fans in the rock ’n’ roll audience to make a dent.”
  • So Ultra Rare, 1983. In the early 60s, Columbia did cut a full-blown pop-rock session with Laine. Laine adapted well to the fuzz-tone electric guitar, but it was too late. “My staunch fans from the past resisted it, and I didn’t pick up enough new fans in the rock ’n’ roll audience to make a dent.”
  • This time, Lord, you gave me a mountain
  • A mountain I may never climb
  • And it isn’t a hill any longer
  • You gave me a mountain this time.

Frankie Laine’s dream house, a sprawling gray structure with white trim, sits atop a red sandstone hill near the tip of Point Loma. From its flowing first story, which encompasses living room, den, dining room, and kitchen, past the back yard with its hot tub and shallow pool, he looks out over San Diego Bay and harbor. It’s a clear day, the 75-year-old singer notes, pointing to Tijuana in the distance.

Frankie Laine looks out past the back yard with its hot tub and shallow pool, out over San Diego Bay and harbor.

Frankie Laine looks out past the back yard with its hot tub and shallow pool, out over San Diego Bay and harbor.

Although it’s been 20 years since he scored a pop chart hit, with the melodramatic Marty Robbins-penned “You Gave Me a Mountain,’’ Laine is the king of the popular music mountain in his adopted border city, where he and his wife, 1930s film actress Nan Grey, have lived since 1958. Few other singers of his era — or any era — can match his achievements: 21 gold records to date (“That’s My Desire,’’ “Mule Train,” “Jezebel,” “High Noon,” “I Believe,” ‘‘Moonlight Gambler,” and “Rawhide” among them) and an estimated total of 100 million to 200 million discs sold worldwide. In England, where the Frankie Laine Appreciation Society remains quite active (80 of its members flew to San Diego several years ago for his annual birthday concert), “I Believe” topped the charts for months on end — according to Laine, for longer than any record by any other artist, including the Beatles.

With All My Heart, 1951. 80 of the Frankie Laine society members in England flew to San Diego several years ago for his annual birthday concert.

With All My Heart, 1951. 80 of the Frankie Laine society members in England flew to San Diego several years ago for his annual birthday concert.

In the U.S., during the post-swing, pre-rock early ’50s, he was the third biggest selling recording artist, just below Perry Como and Eddie Fisher and above Nat (King) Cole, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. While some of the material he sang may have been schmaltzy, he easily out-belted the competition. History may have permanently assessed the pre-Presley period as being boring, but Laine was different from the rest. He demanded his audience’s attention with the sheer gusto of his impassioned delivery. Mitch Miller, the producer who steered him away from jazz and convinced him that he could put across any type of tune, may have been right when he once observed that Frankie Laine was the first “he-man” singer.

Too Marvelous For Words, 1953. During the pre-rock early ’50s, he was the third biggest selling recording artist, just below Perry Como and Eddie Fisher and above Nat (King) Cole, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.

Too Marvelous For Words, 1953. During the pre-rock early ’50s, he was the third biggest selling recording artist, just below Perry Como and Eddie Fisher and above Nat (King) Cole, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.

He may no longer command a major-label contract, but Laine issues cassettes regularly on his own mail-order label. Score Records, and his voice, alternately breathy and booming, betrays none of the decline typical of singers his age. After more than a half century of delivering songs of many types — jazz, blues, odes to the Old West, and quasi-religious anthems — the husky idol of the bobby-sox generation still has remarkable chops. His intonation is flawless, and the upper reaches of his low tenor register are clear and unscathed. And when he digs into his own lyrics on Duke Ellington’s “What Am I Here For?” (from the latest Score release, New Directions), he lays back, scooping up to notes, accenting the upbeats like the jazz singer he set out to be 60 years ago in Chicago’s Little Italy. Even though the arrangement employs a hackneyed light-rock beat and tinny synthesizer touches, Laine manages to swing.

Command Performance, 1954. Father Joe Carroll, the St. Vincent de Paul homeless activist, suggested that this year’s birthday concert in San Diego celebrate the 35th anniversary of “I Believe.”

Command Performance, 1954. Father Joe Carroll, the St. Vincent de Paul homeless activist, suggested that this year’s birthday concert in San Diego celebrate the 35th anniversary of “I Believe.”

The barrel-chested vocalist, whose memory is as finely tuned as his pipes, had just returned from his daily cardiac therapy. Quadruple bypass surgery in 1985 had delayed by nearly a year his move into the new house (which his wife had a hand in designing), but now he is active, preparing for a February 25 pops concert with the Houston Symphony and a 76th birthday concert on May 27, tentatively slated for the First Presbyterian Church on Date Street. The $76-a-ticket show will help to raise funds for the singer’s pet project, the nonprofit San Diego Composers Festival, scheduled for February 8-10 of next year. Modeled after Italy’s San Remo Festival, in which Laine participated in 1964, the San Diego event will be an annual competition for songwriters of all stylistic persuasions. Father Joe Carroll, the St. Vincent de Paul homeless activist who suggested that this year’s birthday concert also celebrate the 35th anniversary of “I Believe” having been awarded a gold record, serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors, and Mitch Miller, the man who produced the majority of Laine’s million-sellers, is honorary chairman. Laine said that he hopes the festival will become international in scope and attract millions of tourist dollars to the area.

Foreign Affair, 1957. When he was ten, in the fourth grade, Frankie was asked to join the boys’ choir at Immaculate Conception church. “They needed voices, and they said, ‘You, you, and you,’ ”

Foreign Affair, 1957. When he was ten, in the fourth grade, Frankie was asked to join the boys’ choir at Immaculate Conception church. “They needed voices, and they said, ‘You, you, and you,’ ”

The eldest of eight children, Francesco Paolo LoVecchio was born in 1913 in Chicago. His parents had come there nine months apart in 1905 and ’06 from Monreale, a village outside Palermo, Sicily. Although they were raised only three blocks apart, they didn’t meet until they emigrated and had settled in the new Little Italy. A companya (farm worker) in the old country, Frankie’s father had tremendous chest and arms, which he further developed here by getting railroad jobs, first as a waterboy, then as a spike driver. After marrying, he went to barber college, eventually opening a shop on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago. Before the Depression wiped it out, it had grown to eight chairs.

Jazz Spectacular, 1957. Although he recorded a couple of superb jazz albums, Laine was never again taken seriously as a jazz singer.

Jazz Spectacular, 1957. Although he recorded a couple of superb jazz albums, Laine was never again taken seriously as a jazz singer.

Al Capone was among the customers but, the singer recalled as he sat near his circular fireplace, “he never came to the shop. Pa always had to go to the hotel to take care of him.” Asked for further memories of the notorious gangster, Frankie said that “those kinda things were always very closed-mouthed. You never talked about those people, and Pa wanted nothing to do with ’em.”

Laine’s earliest clear memory is of the diphtheria that struck him and his sister Rose as small children. “When she died,” he recalled, “my father picked me up over the coffin, and I kissed her good-bye.”

You Are My Love, 1958. Al Capone was among his father's customers but “he never came to the [barber] shop. Pa always had to go to the hotel to take care of him.”

You Are My Love, 1958. Al Capone was among his father's customers but “he never came to the [barber] shop. Pa always had to go to the hotel to take care of him.”

When he was ten, in the fourth grade, Frankie was asked to join the boys’ choir at Immaculate Conception church. “They needed voices, and they said, ‘You, you, and you,’ ” he explained. “That’s how fate deals you a hand.” He never soloed with the choir. “I wasn’t considered good enough, I guess. There was one guy, Eddie Ryan, who usually stood next to me who had a glorious voice, and he always got the cream of the crop when it came to solos.”

Hell Bent For Leather!, 1961. “Mule Train,” with Laine’s macho vocal and Mitch Miller’s dubbed-in whip cracks, anticipated a series of Hollywood cowboy-type numbers, including the Rawhide television theme and “Blazing Saddles” for the Mel Brooks film.

Hell Bent For Leather!, 1961. “Mule Train,” with Laine’s macho vocal and Mitch Miller’s dubbed-in whip cracks, anticipated a series of Hollywood cowboy-type numbers, including the Rawhide television theme and “Blazing Saddles” for the Mel Brooks film.

Besides the Latin hymns he sang with the choir, the only music young Frankie was aware of was Italian opera. ‘‘I never heard anything about any Russian composers or French composers or Spanish composers,” he explained. ‘‘All we ever heard was Italian composers. And no Mozart.” Once his mother, who was especially fond of a light-opera singer named Carlo Butti, took Frankie to see an opera at a local park, although he can’t recall what work was performed or who was singing. ‘‘I loved what happened at Rivina Park, but I didn’t know what the hell it was all about. All I knew was the people were up there singing when they should have been talking or talking when they should have been singing.”

Frankie Laine, 1975. Laine became a marathon dance champ due to his ability to stay on his feet for days on end. The trick, he said, was to sleep while your partner held you up.

Frankie Laine, 1975. Laine became a marathon dance champ due to his ability to stay on his feet for days on end. The trick, he said, was to sleep while your partner held you up.

In 1925 the LoVecchios moved out of their apartment and into a house. The previous tenants left behind a Victrola console — a handsome piece of furniture — and a stack of 78s. They were all Italian opera, except one, something titled “Bleeding Hearted Blues” on the Columbia label by an artist named Bessie Smith. Frankie dropped it onto the turntable, cranked up the machine, and listened as Smith moaned ‘‘when you’re sad and lonely, thinking about your only, feelin’ disgusted and blue...” in booming, larger-than-life contralto tones over a chiming piano played by Fletcher Henderson. It was so different from anything he’d ever heard. And immensely appealing.

Now And Then, 1981. “Mitch [Miller] did a very foolish thing in 1957. He went to a disc jockey convention in Kansas City and did a tirade against rock ’n’ roll. He never recovered from that. It’s a good thing that he lucked up on the sing-alongs."

Now And Then, 1981. “Mitch [Miller] did a very foolish thing in 1957. He went to a disc jockey convention in Kansas City and did a tirade against rock ’n’ roll. He never recovered from that. It’s a good thing that he lucked up on the sing-alongs."

“That was my undoing,’’ Laine said of the 1923 acoustic recording. “I listened to that until it wore out. That’s how I came to fall in love with the blues. I was only 12 years old. I was just getting ready to go into high school ”

Three years later, in 1928, Laine skipped school one day to see The Jazz Singer Starring Al Jolson, the superstar minstrel singer, it was the first talkie. Historians have long agreed that Jolson was in no way a jazz singer, but his highly active, black-faced performance at the time must have had the same impact on the young “jazz era” generation as when Elvis Presley later switched his hips on Steve Allen’s show or when James Brown cast aside capes of many colors on Ed Sullivan.

‘‘I don’t really remember being aware of anything but the songs and the way he moved and when he knelt at the end,” Laine said of Jolson. “When he said ‘Sonny Boy,’ he made me cry. I knew then that that was what I wanted to do — what he was doing. I guess that was the first conscious thought that I may have had that led me in a direction.

“I decided to stay and see the picture again. By the time he finished ‘Sonny Boy’ the second time, I knew the song, the lyrics, the tune, everything.” Coming home that afternoon, he eagerly sang it for his mother and brothers. “Where did you hear that?” she asked. Learning he’d cut classes, she struck her son. “That’s the only time I can remember her whacking me,” he said. ‘‘But she liked the song.”

Although it was called “Little Italy" the neighborhood in which the LeVecchios lived was quite integrated. Frankie’s best “chum” was Tom Hannahan, “an Irish lad.” A black family lived across the street. “I was in their house as much as they were in mine. Grandpa had a grocery store, and they were our customers. I was never conscious of any line of any kind. Most of the guys used to call me ‘Spaghet.’ Some of the guys were German. We lived next door to a French family. On the other side was an Italian family. Two doors away was an Irish family. It was all mixed up. We didn’t seem to have any bickering going on between neighbors or ethnicity.”

When he was 15, Frankie was invited to the 18th birthday party for Tom Hannahan’s sister. It was there that he first discovered the power his voice could hold over people. “There was a kid there named Tony Benson,’’ he recalled. “He was kind of a half-ass ukulele player. He played a strange instrument, which I have never seen again to this day, called a tipple. It was an eight-string ukulele-sized instrument. Each string is doubled an octave. He played by ear, and I learned everything by ear, by listening to the radio.” The party guests began singing “Mia Bella Rosa,” a sentimental old Italian tune that Frankie was familiar with, and he joined in. “I wasn’t really aware of it, but they kept dropping out.

All of a sudden, I realized I was singing by myself. I was so moved by the song and the feeling and the way Tony was playing that I guess I kinda choked up a little bit and the tears started. Everybody in the room was crying when I finished, all the girls and most of the guys. I had to sing it again.”

Although Hannahan’s sister and her friends were a few years older than Frankie and Tom, they allowed the boys to run with their gang because they liked the way Frankie sang. They called their group “the Ta-Fi Fratority,” meaning true friends fraternity and sorority, and they spent much of their time at the Merry Garden Ballroom on Chicago’s North Side. Many of the leading entertainers of the day — Charlie Agnew, Kay Kyser, Cab Calloway, Paul Whiteman — played for the Merry Garden dancers, and most of these bands included jazz musicians. In the Chicago-based Agnew band, for instance, was Muggsy Spanier on cornet and Gene Krupa on drums. They seldom got to play jazz, however.

“They were playing dance music — stock arrangements, you know,” Laine explained. “It wasn’t a jazz-band area in the sense of going to hear jazz. You went to hear dance music. If you happened to hear some of the guys take off once in a while, it was really on the spur of the moment when the bandleader was off the stand in the john somewhere and the guys decided to cut loose. But really, it was a controlled situation.”

Frank Teschemacher, a leading white jazz clarinetist of the ’20s, “the Benny Goodman of his day,” by Frankie’s estimation, took the teen-ager under his wing. “He treated me not like a kid but like a fellow musician,” the singer remembered fondly. “I started asking questions about playing.” Frankie was also impressed by Teschemacher’s dapper appearance. “He had a little mustache and parted his hair in the middle, which was popular in those days.... He was kind of a hyper guy, and yet his music was so controlled.”

Teschemacher offered his young friend clarinet lessons, and Frankie’s father bought him a Boehm instrument. “I could play exercises and tunes,” Frankie said. ‘‘I was just playing from the paper. At that time, I don’t think I really knew anything about what improvising meant.” Frankie’s only formal music studies ended abruptly when Teschemacher was killed in an auto accident in 1932.

Although the leaders sometimes allowed Frankie to sing a song or two with their bands, it was as a dance instructor that Frankie served at Merry Garden. He taught the waltz, the two-step, and the fox trot. “We did nothing complicated” he explained. “In feet, they made it as easy as possible, ’cause we were like half-assed teachers.” There was no pay, but his dance instructor’s card gained him free admission. “I had someplace to go five nights a week,” said Laine, who had dropped out of high school during his junior year to work as a bookkeeper for the International Harvester Company to help support his growing family.

The key incident in Frankie’s stylistic development as a vocalist occurred when the so-called King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman, passed through the ballroom with his grandiose, quasi-jazz orchestra in 1930. The band featured several jazz soloists and a singer named Mildred Bailey. A large woman, part native American, she was among the first nonblack vocalists to grasp fully the nuances of jazz phrasing. Her featured number with the band was “Rockin’ Chair” by Hoagy Carmichael, a songwriter who, some 14 years later, would give Frankie his first real break in show business. Besides Bailey’s wonderfully plaintive, high-pitched delivery, the song itself was informed by jazz. As composer Alec Walder has observed, “Rockin’ Chair” is “a simple song, yet it never resorts to cliché. Its form is not conventional... There are small but rewarding moments.... And throughout, the harmony is more satisfying than that of most songs of that time.”

“That was the turning point for me to go the jazz route,” Laine said of Bailey’s treatment of the song. “When I heard her, that wiped out Jolson in my mind for wanting to do that. I don’t think I was capable of making any judgment as to the relationship or the differentiation. It was just that I would rather have listened to her than to him. I liked what she was doing more than what he was doing, although I didn’t not like what he was doing. So ‘Rockin’ Chair’ became a kind of guiding theme song for me, and to this day, I still do it as my second song in every show.”

Along with Bailey, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway became major vocal influences, and Laine later recorded versions of Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” and “Shine,” in spite of their racial references. Laine could sing lines like “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case, ’cause I can’t hide what is in my face” with unflinching conviction.

The Depression crept up on the novice singer. “I was too young to know what the hell was going on, but I knew that Pa was in trouble downtown with the barbershop,” he explained. “That was a signal.” Another sign was that the box-office take at Merry Garden was falling off. To boost attendance, marathon dances were introduced by management. Laine became a marathon champ due to his ability to stay on his feet for days on end. The trick, he said, was to sleep while your partner held you up. Eventually he learned to sleep on his feet while dancing solo. In Baltimore, he danced for 106 days, 90 of them without a partner, and won a grand prize of $1000.

“You danced 45 minutes out of every hour,” he said, “then you went and laid down, rested, went to the john, took a shower, shaved, or wrote a letter. Fifteen minutes later, you had to be back on the floor. That was 24 hours a day. At night, it would be show-time from 8:00 till midnight. That’s when the rules were relaxed and the contestants were called upon to sing. Because of my singing, I always wound up being kind of a favorite and had a sponsor. We’d wear sweaters with businesses’ names on ’em, which meant they were sponsoring us. They gave us 25 bucks a week. Well, Jesus, 25 bucks a week in those days was like, you know...”

The marathon dance craze that had swept the U.S. began to peter out by the mid-’30s. A Chicago marathon promoter introduced a new spectacle called Roller Derby, and many of Laine’s fellow dancers switched to skating. Laine, however, had no inclination for the daredevil sport and decided instead to go for broke as vocalist. For the next decade, he remained broke much of the time. He often hitchhiked from engagement to engagement in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, New Jersey, Boston. He sang on New York radio station WINS for a spell, and it was there that Frankie LoVecchio became Frankie Laine. There was the time, back in Chicago, when Perry Como recommended him as his replacement with the Ted Weems Orchestra. But Laine’s gutsy, jazz-imbued style was not to the conservative bandleader’s taste. Singing engagements, in restaurants and inns, seldom lasted long. Once, while trying to break into the Big Apple jazz rooms, he spent a night on a bench in Central Park. In the morning, he bought a candy bar with the five pennies in his pocket.

Back in Cleveland in 1939, Laine sat in at a club called the College Inn, “broke it up,” and was hired on the spot for $20 a week. A few days later, he invited a young singer, “who sounded just like Mildred Bailey,” to sit in, and she was hired immediately — for $35 a week. Within four days, Laine was fired, but the singer, June Hart, took pity on him and allowed him to share her hotel room. “I never touched her,” he stressed, “and I was there for ten days.”

From Hart, who soon left Cleveland as Mildred Bailey’s replacement with the Red Norvo band (at Laine’s recommendation), he learned an obscure 1931 pop song entitled “That’s My Desire,” which would become his first million-selling record eight years later. “I learned it wrong from her,” he stated. “I used different words at the beginning of the phrases. I wound up singing ‘to spend one night with you.’ I used different notes. I sang an alternate note in the chord. Where they had tonic, I sang the fifth. That’s the way I remembered her singing it. When the song made it, the publisher came to me and wanted to change the sheet music to put it out like I did it. I said, ‘Hey, that calls for a little ... ‘” Laine became listed as co-writer of “That’s My Desire” and, since 1947, has shared royalties with the two original composers of the now-standard, highly lucrative number.

When World War II hit, Laine landed a well-paying job at Parker Appliance Company, a Cleveland defense plant that made airplane valves. “My first week on the machine — and I didn’t know what I was doing — I made $150,” he recalled. “The week before, I was starving. After the first paycheck, I said, ‘To hell with singing.’ That’s the way I felt the first week, but after the monotony of working on the machine for month after month, I knew I had to get back into singing.”

To relieve his boredom while working, Laine began writing songs. The first, “It Only Happens Once,” was later recorded by Nat (King) Cole. Another Laine composition, ‘‘We’ll Be Together Again,” written later in Los Angeles with Johnny Mercer, became a standard. Some 120 versions have been recorded to date and, Laine stated proudly, two new ones are due out shortly on albums by Anita O’Day and Stephane Grappelli. And his lyric to Ellington’s “What Am I Here For?”, which he said Mitch Miller wouldn’t let him record when they worked together at Columbia Records during the ’50s, was subsequently cut by the likes of Patti Page, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. One of the few things that Laine regrets about his eventual success as a performer is that it took him away from the songwriting craft.

When Parker Appliance announced that it was going to open a division in Southern California, Laine was the only worker willing to make the move. His motive was not to break into show business himself — he’d begun to think that would never happen — but to help an old girlfriend, singer Linda Barry, with her group, the Three Barries, which had just signed a contract with the fledgling Capitol label in Hollywood.

Parker Appliance sent Laine to its new Southgate plant, named Pacific Screw Products, during the summer of ’43, giving him new tires and gasoline ration stamps for the trip, even though he wasn’t qualified for the job. “I really didn’t know how to set up jobs on those machines,” he confessed. “I just figured I’d fake it.”

Laine worked at Pacific Screw from 5:00 p.m. till 5:00 a.m. in order to have his days free to manage the group, whose debut recording went nowhere. He pestered Capitol officials, disc jockeys, and booking agents. And he never sang with the trio. “They didn’t even consider me worthy of it,” he explained. “That’s how they treated me.”

During the meetings he held on the group’s behalf, Laine never pushed himself. According to then-Capitol executive Dave Dexter, Jr., “He talked only of the Barries and how they should be recorded more prolifically. I do not remember his ever mentioning that he was a singer and songwriter.” (Dexter’s comments are made on the liner notes to The Uncollected Frankie Laine on the Hindsight label, a two-record set of expertly recorded 1947 radio transcriptions that contains the best currently available examples of Laine’s jazz side.)

When the Barries began to fizzle, Laine started sitting in at local jazz joints, often with jive singer-guitarist Slim Gaillard of “Flat Foot Floogie (With the Floy-Floy)” fame. And through influential disc jockey Al Jarvis, whom he met while trying to sell the Barries, he was hired to entertain troops, singing the blues with a black group, guitarist Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. The trio featured singer-pianist Charles Brown, who would soon be as big an idol in the black community as Laine became in the white pop world.

Laine made his first record, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (not the same-titled tune that was later popularized by Frank Sinatra) and “Brother, That’s Liberty,” in 1944 for the tiny Belltone label. It went nowhere. Later that year, he recorded again for another Southern California shoestring operation, Atlas Records. Asked to imitate Nat (King) Cole, Laine used his breathy timbre to croon the sentimental “Melancholy Madeline” over jazz accompaniment by the Three Blazers with guest guitarist Oscar Moore from Cole’s own trio. This record received some radio play in Los Angeles and New York.

Still, Laine could find no paying gigs. While working without compensation as intermission vocalist at Billy Berg’s in Hollywood, the area’s hottest jazz spot, he sang the old Mildred Bailey number “Rockin’ Chair” with Slim Gaillard’s group, not knowing that its composer, Hoagy Carmichael, was in the audience.

“I noticed this guy get up and go, ‘Shish, shish,’ ” the singer recounted. “I had my glasses off, so I couldn’t tell who it was. When the song was over, he approached the bandstand, grabbed my hand, and said, ‘Where are you working?’ I said, ‘I’m not.’ ”

Carmichael, then an influential figure in Hollywood circles, talked Billy Berg into hiring Laine for $75 a week. Then, when just-discharged Air Force man Milton Delugg (original musical director for The Gong Show years later) came into the club with his jazz group, the Swing Wing, the pianist hired Laine to sing one side on a four-song session for Mercury, a new, well-financed company based in Chicago. “I May Be Wrong,” with the label reading “vocal by Frankie Lane” [sic] in fine print, was the only one of the four to get any airplay, prompting Mercury executives to fly from Chicago to check him out. They caught him at Billy Berg’s, where he was now making $100 a week, singing “That’s My Desire,” and offered him a five-year contract. Although Laine had heard the widespread rumors that Mercury in the ’40s was connected to the old Capone mob, he didn’t hesitate to sign. “All I know,” he explained, “was that I was sure glad to be recording.”

“That’s My Desire,” on which Laine was backed by an all-star jazz combo under the leadership of ace L.A. studio trumpeter Manny Klein, became one of the biggest hits of 1947 and established the long-struggling 34-year-old vocalist overnight as a hero of the saddle-shoe set. It was also through the tune that he met Nan Grey the following year. As an actress, she had played supporting roles in such motion pictures as Three Smart Girls, Babbitt, Dracula’s Daughter, and House of the Seven Gables before joining the cast of the popular Those We Love radio soap opera of the ’40s. For her birthday, she asked friends to take her to the Coconut Grove in Hollywood to see the guy who sang “That’s My Desire.” From listening to the record, she had assumed he was a black man but discovered otherwise. They were married two years later.

Laine's transition from jazz to pure pop came in 1949 after Mercury had hired as staff producer Mitch Miller, a classically trained oboist who once played alongside Charlie Parker on a Bird with Strings session. Miller presented the company's star artist with an offbeat Western number called “Mule Train.” Laine was initially appalled, rejecting it as being “hillbilly.” “I’ll lose every jazz fan I ever had,” Laine told Miller. “He said, ‘No you won’t, Frank. You’ll come up with a whole new ballgame of people following you. You’ll have great universality. You can take any song and make it fit what you wanna do with it.’ ”

“Mule Train,” with Laine’s macho vocal and Miller’s dubbed-in whip cracks, became the biggest seller to that date in the singer’s career and anticipated a series of Hollywood cowboy-type numbers, including the Rawhide television theme and “Blazing Saddles” for the Mel Brooks film. Miller’s advice proved wise, at least for a good eight-year stretch of hits when singer and producer were reunited at Columbia Records during the ’50s, as Laine’s material became more and more diverse and increasingly popular. Although he recorded a couple of superb jazz albums during the mid-50s at Columbia — Jazz Spectacular with Buck Clayton, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, and Rockin' with Paul Weston’s orchestra (both now sadly out of print) — Laine was never again taken seriously as a jazz singer by hard-core fans of the genre. As he once told critic John Stanley: “When you...make it, they stop calling you a jazz singer. From then on, you’re strictly pop.”

The rise of rock ’n’ roll in 1956 knocked most pop vocalists of Laine’s era off the charts, although he did have a few more big hits into the late ’50s. While Laine’s rhythmically assured style and affinity for the blues would have made him an easy candidate for a transition to the new craze, neither Columbia nor Miller had the foresight to encourage him. Instead, Miller blasted rock with a vengeance.

“Mitch did a very foolish thing in 1957,” Laine explained. “He went to a disc jockey convention in Kansas City and did a tirade against rock ’n’ roll. Most of the guys there were young disc jockeys who were getting into rock ’n’ roll. He never recovered from that. It’s a good thing that he lucked up on the sing-alongs. That got him out of the A&R [artist and repertoire] end of things. Columbia Records knew that they had been hurt by what Mitch had done in Kansas City.”

Eventually, in the early ’60s, Columbia did cut a full-blown pop-rock session with Laine, with Doris Day's son Terry Melcher serving as producer. The medium-tempo song, a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weill composition entitled “Don’t Make My Baby Blue,” found Laine adapting well to the fuzz-tone electric guitar, Brill Building Latin beat, and Jack Nitzsche’s Phil Spector-inspired “wall of sound” orchestration, but it was too late. “My staunch fans from the past resisted it,” the singer speculated, “and I didn’t pick up enough new fans in the rock ’n’ roll audience to make a dent.”

But Laine never gave up recording and performing, now mostly on nostalgia package shows and at symphony pops concerts, and searching for new songs. Much of the material on his recent Score releases has been of a quasi-country nature, and a CD of Western numbers, Round Up with the Cincinnati Symphony on the Telarc label, enjoyed a brief fling on the classical charts in 1987. One classical critic called it “hi-tech camp” but admitted that it was “at once outlandish and a lot of fun.”

Relaxing in a fashionable baby-blue jogging suit, his wide, gray beard stretching from ear to ear, the veteran vocalist said that sincerity has been the key to his success as a performer. “I communicate immediately with an audience,” he stated. “They believe that I believe in what I’m doing. I never go do a showy show. I can look at a singer’s face and tell you whether he means it or not. There’s something about a performer’s face, or I hear it in the voice. Some singers are so great and yet feel nothing. There are some singers who are second-rate who do better than a first-rate singer because they’re pouring their heart out. Some of your best singers don’t always have the best intonation. In feet, sometimes emotion throws your intonation off. They’re not always in complete control, although there’s a lot to be said for somebody who’s always in great control.”

If, at age 75, Laine has any complaints, it’s that the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, an organization he helped to found in 1952, has never awarded an after-the-fact Hall of Fame Grammy to any of his mammoth hits. “Everybody’s talking about legends these days, but I’ve never received an award of any kind,” he said. “So many of the singers who were so hot in the early ’50s have never been nominated. Their music got away from us. Unless you’re dead, like Nat (King) Cole, they don’t even think about anybody who was hot during that period.

“I can’t say that I haven't had enough happen to me,” added Laine, who is still known to cry openly when he sings “I Believe.” “I can’t bitch about exposure. All I want is a little recognition and enough money to take care of my family, and I’ve gotten that a thousand times over. I’m very well off, very secure.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

I took this photo of Father Joe on March 30, 2010, when Laine was honored with a "star" plaque in Little Italy. Father Joe, a longtime friend of Frankie, said at the time: "I was holding his hand in the hospital as he passed away. To honor Frankie Laine today is just phenomenal."

None

by dwbat

None

by dwbat

Log in to comment

Skip Ad
Close

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader