(Pictured: Bobby Vinton, 1974.)
Between 1962 and 1964, pop stars did not come bigger than Bobby Vinton. He scored four #1 singles and hit the Top 10 on two other occasions. If you don’t know “Roses Are Red,” “There! I’ve Said It Again,” “Blue on Blue,” or “Blue Velvet” by title, you would if you heard them. When oldies stations still played 50s and 60s music, they were on a lot. His style of romantic pop seems like the kind of thing that would have become untenable once the Beatles showed up, and I’ve written as much now and then.
But here’s the thing: that style of romantic pop didn’t die. On December 12, 1964, at the conclusion of a year that supposedly changed everything, the #1 song in America was Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” a straight-up weeper in which Vinton’s voice breaks while he’s singing. It was not a hip harbinger of the future, not like the Beatles, Zombies, Kinks, Stones, Supremes, and Beach Boys, with whom Vinton shared the Top 10 in that week.
Amidst the changing fashions, some of Vinton’s mid-60s singles took on a folk-rock sound and/or socially conscious lyrics, such as “What Color (Is a Man)” in 1965. “Coming Home Soldier,” which hit #11 in 1967, sounded as old-fashioned as his early 60s hits, but its lyric resonated in that Vietnam year. But at the end of ’67, Bobby Vinton returned to the Top 10 with more of what had made him a star a half-decade before: “Please Love Me Forever” spent three weeks at #6 in November and December 1967, sharing the airwaves with “Soul Man,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Daydream Believer,” and “Incense and Peppermints.” A year later he did it again: “I Love How You Love Me” peaked at #9 for three weeks in December 1968, alongside “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Hey Jude,” and “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Vinton’s tally for the post-British Invasion 60s is pretty remarkable: 18 Hot 100 hits from 1965 through 1969, 12 of them in the Top 40, and two in the Top 10. Things would slow down a bit after that, but only a bit. Vinton would miss the Top 40 in 1970 for the first time since his career began, although he hit the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart twice. He’d be back in the Top 40 in 1972 with “Every Day of My Life,” another throwback, which got to #24 in the spring and was by some accounting the most-played jukebox record of the year. His cover of “Sealed With a Kiss” got to #19 in Billboard that summer.
With all the trouble in the world during 1974, radio playlists stuffed with disco, novelty records, nostalgic covers, and/or nostalgic styles went a long way toward helping people escape those troubles. But given his track record, that might not even have been necessary for Bobby Vinton to score big with “My Melody of Love,” a pop song not lacking in cheese, including a refrain that alternates between English and Polish. It cracked the Top 40 on October 12, 1974, and made its big leap on November 9 when it went from #17 to #6. It would peak at #3 the week after that and hold for a second week before falling to #7 for two more weeks. “My Melody of Love” was Bobby Vinton’s biggest hit since “Mr Lonely” exactly 10 years before, as was the album Melodies of Love. The song hit #1 at WABC in New York City and WCFL in Chicago, and at WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, it ranked #1 for the entire year. Vinton, who was of Polish extraction, quickly earned the nickname “The Polish Prince,” and became as big a star as American popular culture produced as 1974 turned to 1975. Later that year, he got his own variety show produced in Canada and syndicated to American stations through 1978.
Vinton’s next single could have happened only in the 1970s: a version of “Beer Barrel Polka” that made #33 on the Hot 100 and was a big Adult Contemporary hit early in 1975. Although “Beer Barrel Polka” contained a couple of disco flourishes, Vinton didn’t go all the way until 1979, when “Disco Polka” got some adult-contemporary play. (It was based on Frankie Yankovic’s “Pennsylvania Polka” from the 1940s with revised lyrics: at one point, Pennsylvania native Vinton sings, “Everybody has the mania / To do the disco from Pennsylvania.”)
Bobby Vinton’s last chart appearance came on the AC chart in 1981. He opened a theater in Branson, Missouri, sometime after that, although it’s unclear to me whether it still exists, or whether Vinton himself is still performing. If not, he’s entitled to a comfortable retirement. This spring, he’ll celebrate his 83rd birthday.