NEW YORK (AFP) - Vic Damone, whose silky baritone voice made him a 1950s heartthrob and who Frank Sinatra said had the "best pipes in the business," has died, his family announced Monday. He was 89.
Ed Henry, a Fox News correspondent and family friend, said that relatives asked him to share that Damone died Sunday night in Florida.
Damone was one of the top stars of a golden age of crooners, who filled nightclubs and were frequently booked to sing in front of orchestras on television shows before the arrival of rock 'n' roll.
He scored his first hit in 1949 with Again and was catapulted to star status in 1956 with his recording of On The Street Where You Live, a song from the musical My Fair Lady. No less than Sinatra, whom Damone deeply respected, was in awe of his voice.
"If I had one wish, it would be for Vic Damone's tonsils. Vic has the best pipes in the business," Sinatra was quoted as saying by the Songwriters Hall of Fame when Damone was presented with a lifetime achievement award in 1997.
Damone made headlines when he backed out of one high-profile project - The Godfather. Damone had initially been cast in the now classic film to play Johnny Fontane, a singer with shady mafia ties - a character many viewers presumed was based on Sinatra, who was reputedly upset about the depiction and urged Damone to quit.
Publicly, Damone attributed his decision to financial disputes and his pride as an Italian American. Another crooner, Al Martino, eventually played the role.
But Damone had his own experience with the mafia.
In his memoir, Singing Was The Easy Part, he said that a mob boss once nearly pushed him out the window of a Manhattan hotel after he broke off an engagement with his daughter.
Damone, who was married five times, was born as Vito Farinola to Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, where his mother scrounged for US$1 a week to give him singing lessons.
After his father, an electrician, was injured on the job, the teenage Damone got a job as an usher and elevator operator at the since defunct Paramount Theatre in Times Square.
One night when Perry Como was starring, Damone stopped the elevator between floors and sang for the established singer, asking if his mother was misguided in paying for his lessons.
"You've got something, kid. Don't stop singing," Damone would recall Como telling him - and soon Como helped arrange the teenager's first performance, on a New York radio station.