Obituary: Vic Damone
Romantic crooner who had a string of hits including You're Breaking My Heart
Vic Damone, who died last Sunday aged 89, was one of America's most successful romantic crooners and enjoyed a string of international hits before his recording career was steamrollered in the 1960s by the so-called "British invasion" led by the Beatles.
Said by his idol Frank Sinatra to possess "the best pipes in the business", Damone deployed his velvety tenor voice on a range of popular standards by the greatest masters of the American songbook, among them Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Sammy Cahn.
During a career spanning more than half a century, he recorded more than 2,000 songs including covers of Ebb Tide and You're Breaking My Heart. His version of An Affair to Remember, one of the last songs written by Harry Warren, was a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1957.
The following year, when Damone came to record Lerner and Loewe's On the Street Where You Live from their Broadway hit musical My Fair Lady, the producer Mitch Miller had the idea of changing Percy Faith's arrangement to make it start with the bridge ("Oh, that towering feeling") which proved a powerful "hook". It gave Damone a top-five hit in America, a No.1 in Britain, and launched him as a recording star.
It did not last. After the British conquest of the American charts in the mid-1960s, Damone retrenched to concentrate on live appearances on the nightclub circuit.
What he did in the 1970s was become a popular fixture in Las Vegas, once paying a well-endowed showgirl to run naked through the men's steamroom while he and some fellow entertainers were there. But although acclaimed by American critics as "a 1940s Sinatra with a touch of [Mel] Torme", Damone made less of an impression on The Daily Telegraph in 1969 when he topped the bill at the Talk of the Town nightspot in London.
"Looking like a young Roman Catholic priest after a visit to Carnaby Street," sniffed the paper's music reviewer John Barber, he "uses his type of material simply to parade his voice. He puts over a song as an athlete throws a discus. All he communicates is the effort involved."
In 1971 Damone (who had made several film appearances in the 1950s and 1960s) pulled out of his role as Johnny Fontane, the singer godson of a Sicilian mobster while filming The Godfather (1972), saying that the picture was "not in the best interests of Italian-Americans". The part went to Al Martino instead.
Declared bankrupt in the same year, Damone cleared his debts of £320,000 by performing at casinos in Las Vegas and returning to the studio, releasing a further string of albums with RCA.
In his autobiography, Damone described how an angry New York mobster once tried to throw him out of a 14th-storey hotel window. Having broken off his engagement to an Italian "princess" after she insulted his mother over her cooking tips, Damone was summoned by the girl's father, an upstate Mafia boss, to a room at Manhattan's Edison Hotel, where he grabbed Damone and dragged him towards an open window.
"He was shoving me out. My rear end was over the edge already. But I had my legs hooked over the sill and I grabbed his tie. I had a death grip on that tie," Damone wrote. His agent came to the rescue with a bear hug, before brokering peace with mobsters including Frank Costello, the elder statesman of organised crime in New York. They agreed that a girl engaged to be married needs to learn how to cook and to respect her new mother-in-law. On Damone, Costello ruled: "He's gonna live. Don't touch him."
The son of Italian immigrants, Vic Damone was born Vito Rocco Farinola on June 12, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, a piano teacher, recognised his musical talent when he was a child, scraping together $1 a week for his singing lessons and subway fare from Brooklyn. On Sundays he sang at Mass with his local church choir.
When his father, an electrician, was injured at work, Vito dropped out of Lafayette High School at the age of 14 and worked as an usher and lift operator at the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan. When he met Perry Como, who was appearing there, he halted the lift between floors, sang for him and sought his advice about continuing voice lessons. Como was impressed, urged him to "keep singing", and recommended him to a local bandleader.
Vito Farinola decided to call himself Vic Damone, using his mother's maiden name. After winning a place on a radio talent show in 1947, he sang regularly on the air and at nightclubs, and had his first hit record with Again from the 1948 film Road House.
His first chart-topping million-seller was You're Breaking My Heart, based on Mattinata, a ballad written in 1904 by Leoncavallo, the composer of the opera Pagliacci.
Damone made his film debut in 1951, starring in Rich, Young and Pretty, before he was drafted into the US Army, where he served for two years before being discharged in the rank of corporal. Although he made further film appearances, Damone missed singing to a live audience and began touring America in concert halls and nightclubs.
Vic Damone was married five times, and he is survived by three daughters of his second marriage; a son predeceased him.