Vic Damone: What Makes Vic Tick

A review of the singer's new autobiography

Around 1965, none other than Frank Sinatra said that Vic Damone "has the best pipes in the business."

Ol' Blue Eyes may have been right.

"My gift was singing," Damone says in his generally delightful autobiography, written with David Chanoff, entitled Singing Was the Easy Part.' "I had been given a voice and the ability to use it. I can only think that God gave that to me. I always felt somehow that it was my obligation to use that gift I had been given."

And use it he did, for an astounding seven decades, beginning at the age of 19 when he recorded "I Have But One Heart" in 1947 for Mercury Records. It was the first of many hits, the biggest being “On The Street Where You Live.”

Born Vito Farinola in Brooklyn in 1928, Damone was singing professionally at age 12 on a radio program called "Rainbow House," broadcast via WOR radio in New York city. Things moved quickly for the youngster with the big voice after that. He sang with Ted Mack (co-creator of the original "Amateur Hour”), then caught the ears of Perry Como, Milton Berle and Arthur Godfrey. While singing on Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" program, one of the original, reality television shows, Berle promised to take Damone under his wing...if Damone won the competition.

Damone did indeed win, and Berle took him to the famed, William Morris Agency and said, "Sign this kid."

Shortly after, Damone had his own "Saturday Night Serenade" radio show, was appearing in theaters, the better clubs and standing in for Frank Sinatra on "Your Hit Parade." Movie star handsome, he was signed by MGM in 1950, by noted film executive Joe Pasternak, who saw Damone with comic Danny Thomas at the Riviera in New York city.

Through the years, there were four marriages to certifiable beauties--including film star Pier Angeli and singer Diahann Carroll--plenty of unavoidable contacts with the mob (who owned most of the nightclubs through the 1960s), close friendships with Sinatra and the Rat Pack, the Kennedys, golf stars like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, and his conversion to the Baha'i faith.

Quite a career, and one that seemed to have "superstardom" written all over it.

Vic Damone did well and worked the "better rooms" and Vegas regularly, but true superstardom never happened.

One of the key reasons why has do to with the second half of Frank Sinatra's legendary, "best pipes in the business" quote, that is often omitted these days. What Sinatra actually said, was, "Vic has the best pipes in the business...but he doesn't always know what to do with them."

Movies, television programs, influential friends and hit l records notwithstanding, Damone never made it to the top rung. In Vegas, Sinatra sang in the main room while Damone worked the lounge. Yes, he may have had great pipes, but what he lacked was showmanship and charisma.

He acknowledges this in his book and has no apologies for it.

"I just did not feel comfortable with what show business expected of me," he explains. "I was not given a special talent as a show person. That wasn't my particular gift."

Damone actually turned down appearances on "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson.

"If I had a movie coming out, or a TV show I was starting, or a hit record, I'd want to go on Johnny Carson to talk about it," he says. "But if I had nothing like that, what would I do? I'd sing my song and go and sit there. Johnny would say, 'Hey, Vic. Great song. What's new?' What would I say? 'Nothing, Johnny. Nothing's new.' The point was, I was just not motivated to get my face in front of people all the time, no matter what. That attitude was detrimental to my career, I'm sure."

This is an attitude pretty rare in celebrities of any magnitude, though his ego did seem to get the best of him during his marriage to Diahann Carroll (appearing frequently in tandem with her, she received first billing, and Damone writes that he "began to feel less and less valued").

Ultimately, he appears to be peacefully comfortable with himself. He married Philadelphian Rena Rowan, co-founder, with Sidney Kimmel, of the Jones New York women's clothing company, in 1998.

"We both wanted," Damone says, "what I think most everybody wants: love with someone who loves you."

Despite his immense talent and extraordinary career, above all, Vic Damone comes off as surprisingly normal, a rarity in show business.

Damone’s connections with jazz were mainly via association. Though he worshipped Sinatra—and there were times, in the early days, that listeners could not tell Damone and Sinatra apart—Damone had little of the natural, jazz-oriented talent for phrasing that endeared Old Blue Eyes to jazz fans and musicians. Yes, Damone had “the golden throat” and used it tastefully, and it’s clear he had a love for jazz. Damone’s 1962 “The Lively Ones” television show had a host of jazz giants as guests, including Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, and in one memorable episode, drummers Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson and Shelly Manne, each playing drum kits in and around Dodger Stadium (that complete episode, by the way, is available via www.JazzLegends.com). But Damone’s sense of swing, in reality, little or none, depended in who his accompanists were (Burt Bachrach was a famous one).

The only disappointments in the book are a number of errors that could and should have caught by editors and/or fact checkers:

Bandleader Benny Goodman did break the color line by hiring black pianist Teddy Wilson, not vibist Lionel Hampton. Hampton was hired after Wilson.

The Frank Sinatra film is called "Step Lively," not "Step Widely" as identified in the book.

The song title identified as "Embrace Me (My Sweet Embraceable You)" is actually "Embraceable You."

The actual title of what Damone names as “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” is, simply, “White Christmas.”

There are others, which is surprising, given that the correct information is commonly available.

No, you won't find out what Sinatra was really like, but you will learn how Damone almost got thrown out of a window by a member of the mob and other neat anecdotes. Singing Was the Easy Part is an often fascinating read that stands as a fine addition to showbiz lore.


SInging was the Easy Part
Vic Damone with David Chanoff
Foreword by Larry King
St. Martin's Press, New York
271 pages, $25.95

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Bruce Klauber