10/24/11 By Christopher Loudon
Robert Davi Sings Sinatra
A singer turned actor turns singer again
Hollywood history is littered with leading men who have raised their voices in song, ranging from the pitiful (Jimmy Stewart’s plucky but misguided attempt to warble “Easy to Love” in 1936’s Born to Dance) to the surprisingly good (Robert Mitchum, who laid down a genuinely decent calypso album in 1957). Heavyweight Robert Davi, known for his roles in Die Hard, License to Kill, Profiler and more than 100 other films and TV series, now numbers among them.
But Davi is different. Like his hero, Frank Sinatra, Davi started as a singer—indeed, hoped and planned on an opera career—before finding success as an actor. And it is to his musical hero that Davi dedicates his longtime-coming debut album, Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance (Fontana).
Born in the Astoria district of Queens, where Tony Bennett also hails from, Davi says, “Singing was my first love. I studied with a guy on Long Island, Michael Signorelli, who was with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Dan Farrell at Juilliard and also with Samuel Margolis, who trained Robert Merrill and was a teacher at the Metropolitan Opera. I was heavy-duty into opera.”
Davi deeply admired the bel canto tradition that both Sinatra and Bennett brought to popular music. In high school, he won first place in the New York State School Music Association’s solo competition, performing “Without a Song.” Concurrently, he won first place in the New York State Dramatic Interpretation competition.
Torn between singing and acting careers, Davi’s decision was facilitated by severe vocal strain caused, he says, “by being a baritone with the heart of a tenor, trying to sing the tenor arias I love.” He attended university on a drama scholarship and clocked more than 700 performances of Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and other theatrical classics before making the move to Hollywood.
Ironically, his debut screen role was in the 1977 TV-movie Contract on Cherry Street, starring Frank Sinatra. “I’m an Italian-American kid, grandson of Italian immigrants. In families like mine you only worship two people: the Pope and Sinatra,” he says with a laugh, adding, “and not necessarily in that order. So doing my first movie role with him was pretty intense.” Over the years, their paths often crossed, and they shared a close friend in Jilly Rizzo, but Davi never informed Sinatra of his youthful singing aspirations. “I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I mean, how do you tell Sinatra you’re a singer?”
Though Davi, now 60, admits that he’s “made some compromises in my acting career; there’ve been lots of good films but some lesser ones, too,” he was unwilling to make any concessions with his first album. Recording at Capitol Studios, site of so many brilliant Sinatra sessions, working with a 30-piece orchestra and using the microphone that was, back in the day, reserved solely for Sinatra, Davi enticed the A-team combo of producer Phil Ramone and recording engineer/mixer Al Schmitt to oversee the proceedings.
“If you were a surfer and wanted to find the world’s most perfect waves, where would you go?” says Davi. “Well, that’s how I felt about working with Phil and Al at Capitol. Not just Sinatra, but Nat ‘King’ Cole, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin and so many other giants stood where I was standing. You can feel all that coming through the walls.”
Adds Schmitt, “It’s been a long while since I’ve worked on an album that I enjoyed as much as Davi Sings Sinatra. [Davi] brings his own sophistication and considerable charm to these great songs. His phrasing and uniquely beautiful baritone voice blend perfectly with the arrangements and the result is what great music is all about.”
The results are, indeed, uniformly impressive. A solid swinger and equally capable balladeer, Davi doesn’t attempt to emulate Sinatra, settling instead into an easy, Jack Jones-esque groove. The album’s title borrows a line from “Nice ’n’ Easy,” one of Sinatra’s sturdiest mid-career signatures, and it is his dazzling, mid-to-late ’50s Capitol recordings that inspire most of the playlist. Particularly effective are Davi’s handling of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” as gently bruised as Sinatra’s definitive 1959 version, his breezy “The Best Is Yet to Come” and a velvety, twilit reading of “Mam’selle” (a tune more closely associated with one-time Sinatra rival Dick Haymes).
Elevating all 12 tracks are arrangements, courtesy of Nick Tenbroek, that mirror the vibrancy of Nelson Riddle and Billy May without being derivative. Davi first connected with Tenbroek in 2007. Making his directorial debut with The Dukes, a terrific (if underappreciated) film about a once-successful doo-wop trio involved in a bank heist, he was looking for someone to create “a Nina Rota kind of score, and, after meeting with a ton of guys, I heard a sample that Nick provided, really liked it, and we’ve had a tremendous working relationship ever since.”
Currently touring with an expanded Sinatra salute, Davi intends to record a companion volume of Sinatra material, with one original song that will, he says, “set up a third album.” He’s also written a screenplay that was recently optioned. It’s called The Voice, but has nothing to do with Sinatra. Instead, he suggests, “Think of it as Rocky, but in a musical setting.”
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