Read an Excerpt
Singing Was the Easy Part
By Vic Damone, David Chanoff
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Vic Damone with David Chanoff
All rights reserved.
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?"
"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.
"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 onehit 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?"
"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 Europe an 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. Hillcrest 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."
Excerpted from Singing Was the Easy Part by Vic Damone, David Chanoff. Copyright © 2009 Vic Damone with David Chanoff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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