Lauded by Sinatra for beautiful voice

Vic Damone died of complications of respiratory failure on Sunday at a hospital in Miami Beach.
Vic Damone died of complications of respiratory failure on Sunday at a hospital in Miami Beach.PHOTO: AGENCY FRANCE-PRESSE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

NEW YORK • Vic Damone was said by Frank Sinatra to have the best voice in the business. Now, the popular 1950s pop crooner and nightclub star has died at 89.

Damone, whose creamy baritone and good looks fuelled his success at the jukebox and on-screen in the post-World War II era, and for five decades more in nightclubs and concert halls, died on Sunday at a hospital in Miami Beach. The cause was complications of respiratory failure.

He made more than 2,000 recordings, as well as dozens of movie and TV appearances, and sold out live performances until he retired in the early 2000s after a stroke.

He made his professional debut at 17, tying for first place in a radio contest, and his 1947 recording debut heralded an enviable new talent.

"If I had one wish," Sinatra was said to have remarked, "it would be for Vic Damone's tonsils. Vic has the best pipes in the business."

Music critic Will Friedwald, in his volume A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers, attributed to Damone all the hallmarks of Sinatra's early romantic balladeer phase - "the beautiful voice, the light clear sound, the precise articulation, the impeccable phrasing".

What Damone lacked, in Friedwald's view, was the lived-in vocal shading that Sinatra cultivated over a turbulent life of wine, women and ring-a-ding mischief.

It was not that Damone led a tumult-free life: He had several rocky marriages, including to actress Pier Angeli and actress-singer Diahann Carroll, among the five in total. He was once dangled out of a New York hotel window by a Mafia kingpin and struggled back from bankruptcy after he was swindled by business partners.

But Damone's earnest voice could not match Sinatra's wounded soulfulness or introspective depth, nor did he push the boundaries of the pop form with his sunnily delivered standards, hit-parade titles, show tunes and updated Neapolitan love ballads with syrupy orchestrations.

Damone's early hits included I Have But One Heart and Angela Mia, but he was especially known for the ballad On The Street Where You Live from the musical My Fair Lady.

The advent of rock 'n' roll drove him from his perch atop the pop charts but he made two of his finest albums during that phase of his career, featuring the singer at ease with jazzy up-tempo standards.

A favourite of then United States president Ronald Reagan's, he sang at the White House at least three times during the 1980s.

Damone was born in Brooklyn on June 12, 1928. At 16, he left school to support his family as an usher and lift operator at a theatre while aspiring to a career like Sinatra's.

"I found the timbre of my voice was similar to his," he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel decades later. "I was singing Sinatra songs to girls and they loved it. I thought this is what I want to do."

After Damone's triumph in the radio contest, comedian Milton Berle helped him get a contract with Mercury Records.

Many years later, with author David Chanoff, Damone wrote a memoir, Singing Was The Easy Part (2009), a title that alluded to his dramatic private life.

There was the hotel window incident, apparently provoked by his decision to call off an engagement to the daughter of a Mafioso. A sit-down brokered by Luciano crime family boss Frank Costello spared his life.

The singer subsequently squired a series of screen goddesses, including the hard-living Ava Gardner. Once, the usually non-drinking Damone downed at least four double vodkas to keep her interested.

He did not forsake education too. Long bothered by his lack of formal education, he completed the coursework for a diploma from his old Brooklyn high school in 1997.

The same year, he received the Songwriters Hall of Fame's lifetime achievement award.

In his sunset years, he settled in Palm Beach County, Florida, focusing on his golf swing and practising the Baha'i faith that he said brought him "balance".

"You know, I never wanted to be a superstar," he told the Palm Beach Post in 2009. "The entourage, four or five guys walking everywhere with me. I just wanted to pack up the bag, go to the airport and go do my job. I was happy with what I was doing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Lauded by Sinatra for beautiful voice '. Print Edition | Subscribe