(Pictured: Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone, 1986.)
If this blog has a motto in recent years, it might be “you gotta pick your spots.” I don’t write memorial posts for every musician who passes from the scene because in many cases, other writers are better qualified than I. However, as somebody who grew up with easy-listening music and as a former elevator-music DJ, I think I might be entitled to write about Vic Damone, possessor of the easy-listeningest name ever, who died this week at the age of 89.
It wasn’t his real name: he was born Vito Farinola, a first-generation Italian-American from Brooklyn. Damone was his mother’s maiden name. An usher’s job at the Paramount Theater in New York City brought him into contact with various celebrities including Perry Como, who is said to have encouraged him to pursue a singing career. In 1947, 19-year-old Damone was the winning contestant on the radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and that same year he scored two Top-10 hits, “I Have But One Heart” and “You Do.” In 1949, as his TV and nightclub career was taking off, he hit #1 with “You’re Breaking My Heart.” Between 1947 and 1954, he charted 36 times, including the #4 hit “My Heart Cries for You” in 1951.
(“My Heart Cries for You” was a monster. At least seven competing versions of it were out at the same time; Guy Mitchell did it first and took it to #2 while Dinah Shore hit #3.)
The coming of rock ‘n’ roll in the middle of the 1950s made it harder for crooners like Damone to score radio hits, although his best-known hit came in 1956: “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, which made the Top 10 on three Billboard charts in that pre-Hot 100 day. Its position of #8 on the Best Sellers chart came in July, alongside Elvis, Pat Boone, and Fats Domino in the Top 10 (but also with Perry Como, Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” and two versions of “Moonglow” from the movie Picnic). As the hit songs became scarcer, it’s possible he got his most consistent airplay from a couple of Christmas songs that appeared on those Firestone collections so popular in the 60s.
By the middle of the 1950s, Damone had launched an acting career, appearing in stage musicals, on TV, and in the movies well into the 1960s. He also hosted a couple of variety shows in the late 50s and early 60s. His best-known acting role today is probably from The Dick Van Dyke Show, where he guested as singer Ric Vallone. He is said to have turned down the role of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather.
Vic Damone retired from performing after a stroke in 2002, although he gave one last public performance in 2011. He was married five times. His first wife, actress Pier Angeli, reportedly left James Dean to marry him; after their divorce, he was involved in a messy custody battle over the couple’s son. Wife #4 was actress Diahann Carroll; they were married from 1987 to 1996.
The phenomenon of the Italian-American crooner is an interesting one: Damone, Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Jerry Vale are the most famous, but there were quite literally dozens of others, first coming up in the 1930s and remaining fixtures in nightclubs and on TV for the next 40 or 50 years. While many of them sound remarkably bland to our ears today (as a callow youngster, I used to call Damone “the whitest man in show business”), they worked with legendary composers and arrangers. Damone, for example, made two of his best-selling and most-acclaimed albums with famed Sinatra collaborator Billy May in the early 60s.
We have said around here in the past that one of the purposes of art is to show people things they can’t see for themselves. But it can also be to take people out of a moment and away to some other place. That’s the art of the Italian-American crooner. As you sit in a club with your date, with gin and tonics and a candle on the table, or in front of the TV at home, while the dog barks in the kitchen and traffic rumbles outside, the crooner takes you to romantic places, idealized places, lonely places, and for five minutes or 15 minutes or an hour, you can live lives other than your own.
As artistic gifts go, that’s not a bad one to have.