One of the most enduring American pop music crooners, Damone, writing with Chanoff, tells his story in this straightforward, honest memoir by an ambitious boy from a middle-class Brooklyn Italian family, rising to fame on hit charts over a 60-year career. In his foreword, CNN talk host Larry King writes, "With a little better luck Vic would have classed right with Frank Sinatra. At that he is probably regarded one rung below, but it is a very short rung." As Damone tells it, he experienced it all-he was a babe magnet with the creamy voice; a one-time Paramount usher, he had his life saved by Frank Sinatra; he dated Ava Gardner and Liz Taylor and married the beautiful actress Pier Angeli; he starred in several films, all this between gigs at Ciro's, Mogambo, the Copa and Vegas. Highlights of this celeb-laden book include dealing with a bigot in defense of boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson, having mob chieftain Frank Costello save his life against a hateful capo and marrying singer Diahann Carroll. With many dramatic moments, this memoir-complete with bold-faced names and mob stories-makes for a delightful summer read. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Singing Was the Easy Partby Vic Damone, David Chanoff
American Songbook legend Vic Damone, friend of Sinatra, husband of Anna Maria Pierangeli and Diahann Carrol, and Las Vegas headliner tells the story of his rise from Bay Ridge to the top of the Billboard Charts.
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American Songbook legend Vic Damone, friend of Sinatra, husband of Anna Maria Pierangeli and Diahann Carrol, and Las Vegas headliner tells the story of his rise from Bay Ridge to the top of the Billboard Charts.
Damone is a talented singer who had both the luck and the misfortune to come of age a few years after Frank Sinatra had become a star. He was lucky because Sinatra literally and stylistically paved the way for Damone's career, unfortunate because he would always remain a notch or two below Sinatra's level of success. His life is a classic American rags-to-riches story of talent and determination winning out, and this enjoyable and highly readable memoir feels as if it is being told straight from the man himself-unlike many memoirs written with a supporting writer, which often lose the author's unique voice. This isn't a tell-all but a collection of anecdotes sure to be enjoyed by anyone interested in the last 50 years of American entertainment; Damone relates stories of his career in radio and films, Las Vegas, seemingly obligatory involvement with the Mafia, love, loss, religious reawakening, and even, surprisingly, composer John Williams. A casual, conversational life story; recommended for all public libraries.
“A crooner's breezy memoir...offers tales of vengeful mobsters, celebrity heartbreak, and carousing in Las Vegas at the height of its glamour...A forthright, compelling look at a vanished, glittering era of show business.” Kirkus Reviews
“Enjoyable and highly readable memoir...sure to entertain anyone interested in the last 50 years of American entertainment.” Library Journal
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Stardust on His Shoulders
I’ve had a couple of angels in my life. One was Frank Sinatra, who was my idol when I was a teenager just learning how to sing and was my friend from the moment he forgave me in Madison Square Garden for the disrespect I showed him not once but twice in an embarrassing case of mistaken identity. Frank saved my life once, but I’ll tell you about that later. First I want to tell you how we met. That’s probably as good a place as any to begin my story, since it happened in Brooklyn, where I’m from. Brooklyn, as in Bensonhurst, 288 Bay Fourteenth Street. A neighborhood full of Italians when I was born there in 1928, and still full of Italians seventeen years later when WHN asked me to sing for The Gloom Dodgers.
WHN was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ radio network—they broadcast all the games. And every morning at nine a.m. during the baseball season the Gloom Dodgers show would come on. The Gloom Dodgers was pure entertainment, jokes and music meant to chase away the gloom after the Dodgers lost another one, as they regularly did in those pre–Jackie Robinson days. Morey Amsterdam was a funny, talented guy, and when I won the audition to sing on the show he said, "You know, the name Vito Farinola just isn’t going to work. I think you have to change it."
I could see that, even if I was only seventeen. "Yeah," I said, "I agree. We’ve got to change it. But since it’s my name, I’ll tell you what the new name will be. Vito . . . Vito . . . How about Vic?"
"Yeah," he said. "Vic. I like it."
"No," I said, "I like it." I was a pugnacious little street kid, and anyway, it was my name we were changing. "Now, how about the second name, something American, like . . . Drake? Vic Drake."
"No," he said, "I don’t like it."
"Good," I said. "Neither do I. Let’s see, Farinola. Maybe Farin. No, that doesn’t sound right. Hey, my mom’s maiden name was Damone. How about Damone? Vic Damone?"
"Terrific," Morey Amsterdam said. "Vic Damone! I like it."
"Me too," I said. "My father won’t he happy, but my mom will love it."
And from that moment on, as far as performing went, I stopped being Vito Farinola and became Vic Damone.
After I had been singing on Gloom Dodgers for a while the program director said he’d like to try something different. Sometimes during the Dodgers’ games there would be rain delays. Whenever that happened Red Barber, the famous Dodgers announcer, would have to fill in with patter. But WHN had an orchestra, and the program director thought that if I were to sing with the orchestra during rain delays it might help keep the audience tuned in.
"Let’s give it a try," he said. "We’ll put together maybe fifteen minutes of music. Then, when there’s a rain delay, we’ll put you on live. But we won’t tell them you’re live. All we’ll say is "And now here’s Vic Damone to entertain you."
That sounded okay with me. I sang with the orchestra on Gloom Dodgers, so I knew them well. "What I’d like to do," I said, "is get hold of some of Frank Sinatra’s arrangements. I love Frank Sinatra. We can learn his arrangements, and I’ll try to sing them exactly the way he does. It’ll be like a tribute to him." I’d been listening to Sinatra on the radio every chance I got since I was about thirteen and I had tried hard to imitate his sound. I knew I had the timbre of my voice just about right, that I had his phrasing down, that I could really make myself sound like him. As far as I was concerned, Frank Sinatra was it, the model for how I wanted to be able to sound.
We did manage to get hold of five or six copies of the original Alex Stordahl arrangements of Sinatra’s songs, but the first night I went to the studio there was no rain. So we rehearsed. We rehearsed the second and third nights, too. We had those arrangements down pat. Then the fourth night it did rain, and the game was delayed. "Five minutes," said the producer. "You’re on in five minutes." We were ready, the orchestra, the conductor, and me, all of us cramped into WHN’s little studio. We were going to do the numbers one after another, no pauses, no announcements, no applause, since there was no audience; it would sound just like a record, one cut followed by the next followed by the next.
Five minutes later Red Barber announced, "Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, during the rain delay we’re going to have some entertainment. Here, for your listening pleasure, is Vic Damone." At that the producer signaled us from the control booth, and we launched into "Somewhere in the Night There Must Be Someone for Me." I thought I was sounding just like Frank.
At exactly that moment in an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan a bunch of guys were sitting around playing poker. In the background the radio was on. They had been listening to the Dodgers game, but now that there was a rain delay, they had turned it down and were concentrating on their hands and their kibbitzing. The guys sitting around the table were Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, and Jimmy Van Heusen, all famous songwriters. Also Bullets Durgom, a talent manager, and Frank Sinatra. It was Frank’s apartment. The guys hadn’t heard Red Barber say that Vic Damone was singing, but they recognized the music, even if it was soft in the background. Sammy Cahn cocked his ear and said, "Frank, listen. Those are your records?" And Frank said, "Yeah, there’s a rain delay, so they’re playing my songs."
They listened for a bit, to one song, then another. I was singing my heart out, mimicking Frank Sinatra for all I was worth. And finally Red Barber came back on. "Ladies and gentlemen, the rain has let up and it looks like we’re going to resume play. That was Vic Damone singing for your enjoyment."
And Frank said, "What? Who?" He threw his arms up in the air. "Who did he say? That was me singing! Vic who?"
Back in the studio we were off the air and congratulating each other. "Hey, great band. Good work. Great, yes, thank you." Just then the phone rang in the control booth and the engineer pushed the button to talk into the studio. "Hey, Vic, there’s a guy on the phone says he wants to talk to you. It’s Frank Sinatra."
"Yeah, right," I said. "Frank Sinatra’s calling me. Right." I knew who it was, and for sure it wasn’t Frank Sinatra. It was the guys in Brooklyn, my buddies. They all knew I loved Frank, that I practiced singing like Frank, that I was trying to be Frank. And of course they were listening to the game. Who in Brooklyn wasn’t? So I took my time getting to the control booth, and while I was going there I was doing in my head what Danny Thomas used to call the "Jack story." The Jack story is about the guy who buys a beautiful new car that conks out on a deserted road. He’s frustrated, angry. He just bought the car. As soon as he gets out to walk to the nearest service station, it starts to rain. Now he’s really angry. The whole way to the service station he’s talking to himself. They’re going to charge him a fortune to fix the car, they’re going to charge him even more, the bastards, for having to go get the car. Then, when they see it’s a new car, they’re going to jack up the price even more than that! The bastards are going to leave him penniless. By the time he gets to the service station, he hates the mechanic heart and soul. "Don’t you tell me how much you’re going to charge!" he yells at the startled mechanic, who hasn’t the vaguest idea what he’s talking about. That’s the Jack story; you build something up in your mind that’s completely disconnected from reality.
On my way to the control booth I was doing the Jack story. The Bay Fourteenth Street guys are calling me, pretending to be Frank Sinatra. Just to break my balls. Bastards don’t like that I can sing like Frank, huh? Think it’s funny, huh? Have to call me here at work where I’m trying to make a few bucks, lazy bastards! Frank Sinatra on the phone. Right!
By the time I picked up the phone I was fuming.
"Yeah," comes this voice, "I wanna talk to Vic Damone. Is he there?" "Yeah, who is this?" "Frank Sinatra!" "Yeah, right. And I’m the pope!" Slam! I hang up. "Hey," said the engineer, "you just hung up on Frank Sinatra." "That wasn’t Frank Sinatra," I said. "That was my buddies from Brooklyn. Frank Sinatra’s not gonna call me. What’re you, crazy?" Just then the phone rang again. I was still standing next to it, so I
picked it up. "Hello." "Listen, I want to talk to Vic Damone. This is Frank Sinatra
and—" "Yeah, and I’m still the pope." Slam!
Eight months later I had recorded a song, "I Have But One Heart," that had gone straight up the pop charts. At that point I was a one-hit wonder; no one knew if I could do it again, including me. But at least people recognized my name. So much so that Ed Sullivan invited me to sing at a Madison Square Garden charity fund-raiser as part of a star-studded lineup that included some of the biggest names in the business. I was going to sing in front of thousands of people, at Madison Square Garden. I was in awe.
On the day of the concert I was standing backstage with my manager, Lou Capone, and Jack Kelly, my piano player, watching the stars arrive. All of a sudden I see Frank Sinatra coming in the middle of his retinue, with his bow tie hanging down, the way he used to wear it then. "Oh my God," I whispered to Lou Capone. "Look, it’s Frank. Aw Jesus, it’s Frank Sinatra." I was absolutely star-struck. I was going to sing on the same stage as Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t believe it.
All of a sudden Frank’s eyes caught mine—he must have sensed I was staring at him—and somebody said, "That’s Vic Damone." Now he was looking straight at me. "Jesus, Lou," I whispered, "I think he’s looking at us."
"No, he’s not," said Lou. "He’s looking at you."
"Wh . . . wh . . . wh . . . why is he looking at me?"
And then Frank Sinatra points at me and says, "You!"
And I say, "Me?"
"You! Come here!"
"He wants to see us," I whisper to Lou.
"No, he wants to see you."
So I go over, with Lou and Jack Kelly, my piano player, trailing behind. And Frank Sinatra sticks his finger in my chest. "Who do you think you are," he says, "hanging up on me?" "What?" "Who do you think you are?" He’s jabbing me in the chest with
his finger. "I called you after that show. The Dodgers game? I heard you singing. You sang great. And I called you. And you hung up on me" Jabbing.
"Whoa," I said. "Was that really you?"
"What do you mean, was it me? I said it was Frank Sinatra!"
"Yeah, but I didn’t know it was you. I wouldn’t hang up on you. You’re the greatest. I try to copy you in every way. "
"I thought it was my pals in Brooklyn putting me on. Why would Frank Sinatra ever call me?"
"Well, I did call you. And you hung up on me. Twice!"
"But I didn’t know. I’d never . . . I thought it was my pals in Brooklyn."
"Kid." He’s looking at me. "Is that really what happened?"
"Yeah, yes. I’d never hang up on you. You’re like God to me."
And Frank Sinatra grabbed me around the neck, and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, and said, "Kid, okay. Now I understand."
Then he went over to Ed Sullivan, who was also greeting people backstage. "Ed," he says, "this is Vic Damone. I want him to follow me, and I want to introduce him."
"Sure," said Ed Sullivan. "Whatever you say, Frank."
A little later Sinatra was onstage singing a couple of his songs, and when he finished, and the screaming and yelling had died down, he said, "Folks, I’m going to bring a kid out here. And this kid can sing. He’s got a hit record and he’s doing great. This kid has stardust on his shoulders. Vic Damone!"
Frank and I kept a close relationship until he died. He always had a certain thing about me, a little as if I was his younger brother. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and at the beginning of my career, before I matured and developed my own style, I did do my absolute best to copy him. I think he was touched by that. He also appreciated my voice, which, of course, meant a lot to me. Respect is a big thing for Italians, and to get respect from Frank Sinatra meant the world, especially for a young singer. But, of course, he knew how much I reciprocated his feelings, and it was the reciprocity that kept us tight for all those years. The fact was, I owed him a lot. He saved my life once. I’m not saying that lightly. He really saved my life.
I was married to Anna Maria Pierangeli at the time, a beautiful Italian movie star who was making movies in Hollywood. Anna Maria had been going out with James Dean when we met, but when the dust settled it was me that she ended up marrying. We had been together for four years or so, and we had a son, Perry, who was three years old when these events happened.
My career was really in high gear then. I had developed a fan base in Europe as well as in the United States, and I had gone off on a European tour for a couple of weeks. Everything had been more or less fine between us when I left. Normal. No big fights, no jealousies, nothing. But when I got back Anna Maria told me she wanted a divorce. No reason given. She just wanted one.
I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. But after I calmed down a little I moved out of the house to give her some space to think about it. At the same time, I had my suspicions. What would make her suddenly want a divorce? The only thing I could think of was that maybe there was some other guy. With that in mind, I hired a private detective to watch and see whether there was something going on, somebody I didn’t know about.
My agent at that time was Fred Apollo, and every morning at ten-thirty I would go over to his office in the William Morris Building to see what developments might be happening with my career. And every morning while I was there I would call the private detective for an update. "Anything happen last night?" I’d ask. And for the first three or four nights he was on the job, the answer was, "Nothing.
She never left the house." Then one morning I asked and he said, "Yes." "Okay," I said, "let me hear it." So he gave me the report.
"On or about eleven-thirty last night your wife got into her car and drove off. We followed her to Bel Air, the west gate. She pulled up at a house and rang the doorbell. A man opened the door and kissed her. Then they went inside."
"When did she leave?"
"She left at three a.m."
"Do you know whose house it was?"
"The house belongs to Al Hart."
"Al Hart?" I think I screamed this into the phone. "That son of a bitch! I’m going to kill that son of a bitch right now!" I slammed the phone down. Freddy Apollo was staring at me. His mouth was working, but nothing was coming out. I was beside myself. Al Hart, that weasily little son of a bitch! That weasily little soon-to-be-dead son of a bitch! I kept a gun in the glove compartment of my car. We lived up on Moraga Drive in an out-of-the-way area, which is why I had it. Well, now I was going to use it. I’m going to drive over to that son of a bitch’s office and shoot him right between the eyes—that was the one thought I had in my head. I was going to kill the lying little prick. I was so enraged I could hardly see.
Al Hart! A so-called friend. Al Hart was a rich man; he owned the City National Bank in Los Angeles. He was a member at the exclusive Hillcrest Country Club, which was saying something. Hill-crest was known for its championship golf course and its spectacular Sunday brunches. Hillcrest’s brunches were the talk of the town, they were so lavish. And Al Hart used to invite us for brunch, after which he’d say, "Vic, why don’t you play some golf while you’re here?" I was already semi-obsessed with golf, and the Hillcrest course was beautiful. We’d eat and he’d say, "Go ahead play nine holes. Don’t worry about Anna Maria, I’ll take care of her." So I got used to playing at Hillcrest on Sundays while Al "took care" of my wife. Which I now knew what he meant.
I was out the door and on my way down the stairs before Freddy could say anything. I was going to drive over to the main bank where Hart had his office. I was seeing this in my head as I hurried across El Camino to the parking lot. Hart wouldn’t be expecting me. I’d say, Hi, I need to see Mr. Hart. It’s Vic Damone. Very nice. I knew he’d invite me in. And once I was in I’d take out the gun, put it right between his eyes, and blow his fucking brains out.
I got in my car, a special Dual-Ghia sports model, and checked the glove compartment. There it was, the snub-nose .38. I started the engine and went to pull out of the lot. But suddenly there was Poochie standing right in front of the car, blocking me. Pucci. Pooch. Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard. A huge former football player who weighed in at around three hundred pounds. Stronger than an ox. I knew Pooch. We all knew Pooch. Anyone who hung out with Frank knew him.
"Pooch, get out of the way. I gotta go."
Pooch stood there. The man was like a mountain. "Get out of the car!" he said.
"Pooch, I gotta go do something. Get out of the way."
"I said, get out of the car. Mr. Sinatra wants to see you."
"Well, I can’t go see him now. I gotta do something."
"Listen. You don’t get out of the car, I’m gonna pick it up and throw it."
This Dual-Ghia was one of the great cars of all time. There were only four of this special model in the country. I had one, Peter Law-ford had one, Frank had one, and someone else we didn’t know had one. The front of it looked like a jet. Poochie dwarfed the thing. The guy was definitely big enough to do it.
"No, no, no," I said. "Don’t touch the car."
I got out. "All right. What?"
"Come with me." Pooch put his arm around my shoulder. Very heavy. "Mr. Sinatra wants you." Sonofabitch. "I’ll be right back," I said to the parking attendant. "Leave the car right where it is."
I was walking with Pooch back across El Camino to the William Morris Building, where Frank had his office, too. But my mind was still on Al Hart and how I had to kill him.
"Pooch," I said, "what does he want?"
"He wants to talk to you." His arm still around my shoulder.
"I wonder what he wants to talk to me about. Only for him. He’s the only guy. I gotta go do something." "I know. That’s what he wants to talk to you about." I was still puzzling this out as we rode the elevator up to Frank’s floor. How did Frank know? We got out of the elevator, and there was Frank standing in the hallway, his arms folded. "Frank," I said. "What is it? What do you want?" "C’mon, kid," he said. He put his arm on my shoulders and guided
me into his office. When we got in he turned around and locked the door behind us, leaving Pooch outside. In case I should escape or something.
"You know what?" he said.
"Wait. First, you want a drink?"
I didn’t drink, but this time I could really use one.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do want a drink. Anything."
Frank poured a Jack Daniels for himself and one for me.
"You know what?" he said. "Instead of killing him, why don’t you kill her?"
I’m thinking, Freddy Apollo called him. That was the only way. Fred knew me. He knew I had a temper, and if I said I was going to do something, I was going to do it. If I said, "I’m going to kill that son of a bitch Al Hart," Fred knew that that was what I was going to do. So then what? Fred’s stunned, except suddenly he thinks, Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra can stop me. And Frank’s office is in the same building. So he calls. "Vic Damone is on his way to kill Al Hart. He’s got a gun in his car. You better stop him." So Frank tells Pooch, "Go down and get him. He’s going to kill somebody. Stop him and bring him up here." That was how.
"Don’t kill him," he says, "you ought to kill her. Him you should send roses to."
Send roses to him? What was he talking about? And suddenly I snapped out of it. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of cold water over me.
"Roses? What are you saying?"
"Dago, listen." He called me Dago. "You want to find out how the fuck this guy ever did it. I mean, just how did he do it? You’re a good-looking guy, you have a kid with her. And look at him. Jesus. How in the world did a guy like that manage it? I want to know. I want to learn how he got her away from you. Send him roses. Talk to him. ‘You son of a bitch, how did you do it? What did you say to her?’ And if you’re going to kill someone, kill her. But you know what? She’s not worth it."
And I thought, Oh my God, he’s right. Why should I kill him? And her? She’s not to be trusted. She has no character. For her to do that to me, and us with a child? She’s not worth a cent. I felt as if I had awakened from the blind rage I was in. I was thinking again. And what if I had gone to the bank and shot him? They would have killed me. The bank guards wouldn’t have waited for the police. They would have stormed in and gunned me down. And if it hadn’t been for Frank, that’s exactly what would have happened.
The way I got out to Hollywood in the first place was that after I had a couple of hit records William Morris booked me at the Mocambo on Sunset Boulevard, one of the two big Los Angeles clubs. My PR people there, Henry Rogers and Warren Cowan, did a great job at getting the word out, and celebrities began coming out to my shows, including Joe Pasternak, a famous MGM producer. Pasternak had made various hits, including Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich and Anchors Aweigh, with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. He was now in the planning stages for another one, and when he saw me at the Mocambo he asked me to come in and do a screen test. I did that, and suddenly I found myself under contract with MGM.
My maiden voyage there was Rich Young and Pretty, in which I played Jane Powell’s love interest. Pasternak’s next movie was going to be Golden Boy, a remake of a 1930s William Holden movie about a boxer. Something told him that I might be right for the boxer’s role, and when we sat down to talk about it, one of the first things he asked was if I knew how to fight. "Sure," I said. "I’m from Brooklyn. Of course I can fight—dirty."
"No," Pasternak said, "I mean box. You have to know how to box. If you can’t, I suggest you get yourself a professional trainer and learn. You’ll need it."
That was how I met Al Silvani. Al was a famous boxing trainer Sinatra had hired to teach him how to defend himself. Silvani was a legend. He trained Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, and Ingemar Johansson. By the time he retired he had trained twenty world champions, including Floyd Patterson, Alexis Arquello, and Eddie Machen. He was also a stuntman and technical adviser to the movie industry. If you remember Sylvester Stallone’s corner man in the original Rocky, the guy with the Q-Tip in his mouth? That was Al Silvani. Al knew everybody. If he hadn’t trained them, he was friends with them.
So Al agreed to teach me how to fight clean—I mean, to box. He started me with calisthenics, put me to work on the speed bag, the heavy bag, taught me to bob and weave, the whole works. I took to it like a duck to water. Golden Boy, the movie, was never made, for reasons I don’t know. But Al and I got along great, and he stayed with me for a year and a half, working out almost every day, even when I was on the road. Later I got interested in kung fu and spent a lot of time training with Bruce Lee. But that’s another story.
Hanging out with Al Silvani, I got to know most of the big fighters, including Sugar Ray Robinson, a sweet man who was maybe the greatest fighter of all time, and Giacobbe LaMotta, that is, Jake La-Motta, the Raging Bull, who might have been the toughest fi ghter of all time. Al and I would go to the boxing matches together, then get together with the fighters afterward. When I began performing all over the country I got to see lots of fights. I’d sing, Al and I would work out, then we’d go see whatever fights were going on.
That’s what I was doing in Miami in the winter of 1950. I was singing at the Beachcomber Hotel there, a mob- owned place, on a bill with Cab Calloway and the Ritz Brothers. Cab was famous from his stint at the Cotton Club, and the Ritz Brothers, Al, Jim, and Harry, were a big song, dance, and comedy act, like a cross between the Nicholas Brothers and the Marx Brothers. On opening night I went on first and Cab went after me, with the Ritz Brothers headlining and going last. We were doing two shows a night.
After the opening, though, the mob manager decided to change the order. I was onstage in a tuxedo doing beautiful songs, and Cab following me with his hi-di-hi-di-ho routine just didn’t work, they said. So they told me, "Tomorrow Cab Calloway’s going on first and you go second. He can’t follow you." I said, "Okay, but I think it’s going pretty well as is."
"What?" the manager said. The way he looked at me, he didn’t have to say anything else.
I knew this wasn’t going to sit well with Cab, and it didn’t. It pissed him off that he had to open the show. But who’s he going to be pissed at, the mob? So instead he was pissed at me. Really pissed. A couple of nights later, between acts, he saw Al Silvani with me backstage, and he recognized Al.
"You’re a boxing trainer, aren’t you?" he said. "What are you doing with the singer?"
"Well," says Al, "he’s doing a movie and I’m teaching him how to fight."
"You’re teaching him how to fight?" Cab says. "How to box? Good! Why doesn’t he box me?"
"What do you mean, box you?" says Al.
But now Cab was looking at me. "Come over here," he says. "Al’s teaching you how to fi ght?"
"Yeah, he’s getting me in shape for a movie."
"Good," he says. "Put up your dukes." And he throws up his hands.
"Cab," I say. "What are you talking about? What are you doing?"
"Come on," he says. "Let’s see what he taught you."
Cab Calloway was a burly guy, strong, and also completely nuts. "Come on," he says. "Put up your dukes."
"Cab," says Al. "C’mon. Cut it out. Why are you doing this?"
"I’m going to see how good he is," says Cab. "Come on, put ’em up." I hadn’t realized how truly pissed off he was.
"Why?" says Al. "What for?"
And bam, Cab hit me right in the face. Not hard, but hard enough.
"Hey," I said. "Don’t do that!" But before I could do anything Al had grabbed him and pulled him off to the side. "Don’t you get cute with him," he says. "You get cute with him, I’m gonna get cute with you. You want to show how tough you are? You want to go? You want to fight somebody? How about me? You want to pull some shit with me?"
Al was a tough son of a bitch, intimidating.
"Okay," says, Cab. "Okay, I got it."
"Don’t fuck with him," says Al. "You fuck with him, you’re gonna fuck with me. He’s a nice kid. What’d he ever do to you?"
"Okay," Cab says. "I got it. I got it."
Meanwhile, every day Al and I were going to the gym. He’d have me working on the speed bag, the heavy bag. In the ring he’d put on two catcher’s mitts and move them around while I hit and ducked, hit and ducked, left hook, right cross, bam, bam, bam. I loved it. I felt great. One day we were in the gym, and there was Sugar Ray Robinson and his manager, George Gainford. They were friends of Al’s, of course, and when he introduced me, Sugar Ray said, "You sing, man, right? You sing so pretty. I love the way you sing. What are you doing here?"
"Thanks, Sugar Ray," I said. "I’m doing shows at the Beachcomber."
"I’ve gotta do this fight tonight," he said. "An exhibition. You gonna come and see me?"
"I hadn’t planned on it."
"But would you like to come?"
"Are you kidding? I’d love to see you fight."
"George," he says to Gainford, "set it up. And let me know when he gets there."
This was just great. I was going to see Sugar Ray Robinson fight. "Ray," I said, I’ve got to do a show, but I’ll come right over afterward."
"I’ll tell you what," he said. "In case the fight starts before you get there, come to my corner and let them know you’re here. Don’t worry about it, it’s just an exhibition. Make sure you come over to my corner, so I know you’ve arrived."
"Okay," I said. "We’ll get there just as soon as we can."
When we got back to the Beachcomber, I talked to Cab—I figured our little episode was behind us. "Cab," I said, "could you do me a favor? Sugar Ray Robinson’s fighting tonight. I saw him today at the gym, and he asked me to come see him. I’d like to get there as soon as I can. Would you mind shortening your act a little? Then I could shorten mine and get to the fight on time."
"Sure, kid," he said. "No problem. You got it."
As you might have guessed already, that night he stayed on an extra twelve minutes. I was staring at my watch the whole time. "That son of a bitch," said Al. "We ask him to do us a favor."
"Get a cab ready," I told Al, "so when I finish we can hop right in and get over there." I cut my own act ten minutes and practically ran off the stage without even taking a bow. But by the time we got to the fight, it was already the fourth round. We went immediately down to Sugar Ray’s corner to tell him, and when the round was over I could see he was mad.
"We just got here," I said. "I’m sorry it took so long."
"Where you been, man?" Ray said. "I want to put this bum away. I’ve been waiting for you. Where you sitting?"
"Right over there," I said, pointing. George Gainford had gotten us ringside seats, second row.
"Okay," said Ray, "I’m gonna put him right in your lap."
When the round started I could see Sugar Ray looking for where Al and I were sitting. I could also see that the guy he was fighting felt cocky. He was moving around and putting on a little show. The great Sugar Ray Robinson had done nothing over four rounds, and he figured maybe he could even put him away in the fifth. But it only took a minute before Sugar Ray had danced him into position near the ropes on our side, just feet in front of us. Then suddenly, boom, boom, boom; left jab, right hook, right cross, and the guy went down like a tree, right in front of us. Ray stood there for a moment and smiled. It was beautiful.
Afterward we went to Ray’s dressing room and watched while they took pictures of him giving a check to Walter Winchell, who accepted it for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. The fight had been a benefit for them. "Hey," he said, "wait for me while I take a shower, then we’ll go over and see your show." The second show at the Beachcomber went on a little later in the night.
So Al and I waited, and we walked out of the dressing room with Ray, George Gainford, and another of Ray’s boxing friends. On the way out Ray said, "Man, I’m thirsty. I haven’t had a drink." We had just passed the arena soft drink stand, which was still open. "Let’s stop at the stand," I said. "I’ll get you a Coke."
"No, no," he said. "It’s all right. I’ll get something later." He knew something I didn’t. This was segregationist Florida in 1950, and it didn’t even occur to me. So I said, "No, let me," and I walked over to the stand. "I’ll have five Cokes," I said to the guy, thinking Al, me, Ray, Gainford, and Ray’s other friend.
"You can have two," the guy said.
"No, no, there’s five of us. I want five."
"I don’t serve niggers," he said.
"What?" I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was joking. "Niggers? That’s Sugar Ray Robinson!"
"I don’t give a shit," the guy said. "I’m not serving him."
"Sugar Ray Robinson," I said. "You know who he is?"
"I told you, I don’t give a shit."
"You don’t give a shit? You made your money tonight because of him. You’re not going to serve him a drink?"
"That’s right. I’m not."
I was so angry I just dove over the counter and grabbed the guy by the collar and started shaking him. I’m shaking him. I’m ready to choke the son of a bitch to death when I hear Ray and the others laughing. And while they were laughing Al grabbed me from the back and pulled me off the guy. They’re laughing and laughing. "I can’t believe it," said Ray. "You fancy-Dan singer. You doing that for me? Forget about it. I’m used to this shit. C’mon, I want to see your show."
At that moment I was embarrassed to be white. Can you imagine, the great Sugar Ray Robinson not able to get a Coke? But I saw the humor in it too, why they were all laughing. There I was with these four very tough guys, and I was the one who went over the counter. They thought that was hilarious. I saw Ray many times after that, and he never forgot it. "Hey, tough guy," he’d say. "How you doin’, tough guy?"
After the show that night I introduced Ray to Cab Calloway, although I think they probably knew each other from before. And Ray told him what had happened. "You know what this crazy son of a bitch did for me tonight? He was going to fight this white pecker who wouldn’t give us a Coke. Called us niggers. He went over the counter. Can you believe that? The singer!"
Cab listened. When Ray Robinson talked, everybody listened. But Cab never forgave me for taking his spot. And I had nothing to do with it.
Jake LaMotta was another fighter I became friends with through Al. Jake was from the Bronx; I think they called him the Bronx Bull before they called him the Raging Bull. He was middleweight champion for a while and had six fights with Ray Robinson, only one of which he won. But he was so tough even Robinson couldn’t knock him out. The referee stopped their last fight in the thirteenth round, after Robinson had hurt Jake so badly he couldn’t raise his arms to defend himself anymore. Robinson was beating the hell out of him, but the man just refused to go down. I got to know Jake well, and also his pal Rocky Graziano, another killer in the ring. Strangely enough, they were both funny guys. Graziano even became a stand-up comedian after he retired, which Jake also tried for a while.
Al trained Jake at some point, and was his cut man too, so the fact that he was training me put me in a kind of elite circle. I got so interested in self-defense that I started doing kung fu in addition to boxing, and through Jay Sebring I met Bruce Lee. Jay Sebring was close friends with Sharon Tate and was at her house along with other friends when the Charles Manson family arrived and murdered everyone there. Jay had been a great hairstylist, and hugely successful. He cut a lot of celebrities’ hair—Steve Mc-Queen, Warren Beatty, Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas even hired him to do all the hairstyling for the movie Spartacus. Jay cut my hair also, and I sent all my friends to him. I even helped finance his Hollywood salon.
Among other things, Jay practiced kung fu and worked out with Bruce Lee, and I started working with him, too. From Bruce I learned how to stun someone if he came after you, and how to cripple him if he still came after you. Bruce taught these techniques in steps, the final one being how to break a person’s neck if he was really nuts and kept coming at you. Bruce said that fighting is not something you look for, but something that looks for you. That might be, though I didn’t find it to be true in my case. I actually kept waiting for someone to try something with me, but whatever confrontations I did have never descended to that level. I was ready, though. Maybe not anxiously waiting, but waiting, anyway.
I thought my time had arrived one night when I was singing at Basin Street East in New York. I was in the middle of a soft ballad when I heard a bullhorn voice from the back somewhere go, "Sing it, you Italian faggot!"
I couldn’t believe my ears. I stopped singing. My conductor, Joe Parnello, was looking at me; he had heard it, too, and he didn’t know what to do. I had stopped singing. Should the band keep playing, or what?
"Stop the music," I told him. "I just heard someone say something to me that wasn’t very polite." I said this into the mike, to the audience. "And I don’t know if I heard it right."
Just then it came again. "I said, Sing it, you Italian faggot!"
"Okay, now I definitely heard it," I said.
Oh my God. I’d been just waiting for something like this. I had trained, boxed with Al, done martial arts with Bruce. All the time just waiting for some wise guy to say something like this. And here it was. Oh man, was I ready.
"Will you turn up the house lights, please?" I said. "I want to see who said that. Would that person please stand up?" And someone stood up in the back and yelled, "It’s me, you schmuck. It’s Jake La-Motta."
"Jake LaMotta, you son of a bitch." The audience was absolutely on edge until Jake and I both started to laugh. Then they broke out laughing, utterly relieved, I’m sure. "Ladies and gentlemen," I said, "of all the people in the world. I’ve been learning how to take care of myself, waiting for some crazy bastard to come along so I could whack his head off. And of all people, it’s Jake LaMotta, the world’s toughest man. Come up onstage, you crazy son of a bitch." Which he did, and started to tell funny stories. I practically had to push him off so I could get on with the show.
Excerpted from Singing was the Easy Part by Vic DaMone with David Chanoff..
Copyright © 2009 by Vic DaMone with David Chanoff..
Published in 2009 by St. Marin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
What People are Saying About This
"Enjoyable and highly readable memoir...sure to entertain anyone interested in the last 50 years of American entertainment."Library Journal
Meet the Author
With seven gold records and innumerable hits, Vic Damone was one of the greatest expositors of the American Songbook. Frank Sinatra said he had "the best pipes in the business." Luciano Pavarotti called him simply "The Voice."
David Chanoff has written on foreign policy, education, literary history, and other subjects for such publications as the New York Times, The American Scholar, and The Washington Post. His sixteen books include collaborations with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Crowe.
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Singing Was the Easy Part is an EXCELLENT autobiography by one of our best singers ever!!! This was one of the most interesting and enjoyable books I have ever read.
A great read. Especially for those who followed Vic's long career. Reading it made me see that Vic is a genuine and good person. He was in the business where there are many vultures but he came through it alive and well.
I enjoyed the collection of his stories, I just couldn't put the book down. I'm glad in the end he found his love. I'm looking forward to her book too.