Philadelphia, Jazz, Race and Vic Damone
THE PHILADELPHIA PROBLEM (S)
I am becoming increasingly embarrassed these days to mention that my home town is Philadelphia.
In terms of a jazz scene, we have several, wonderful colleges with top-notch jazz programs, including Temple University, University of the Arts and Rowan University. Drexel University’s music program is growing as well. But in terms of places to work? Forget it.
There are two clubs that book jazz regularly in Philadelphia, Ortleib’s and Chris Jazz Cafe’, but for the fifth–or sixth–largest city in the country, and one with such a jazz history, to have only two jazz venues is disgraceful. And though some may argue the point about this, I’ve long felt there is a racial polarization here, with groups being all white or all black. That’s not what jazz is about, and that’s not why I wanted to get into it.
The racial issue recently reared its sorry head here via an incident now receiving national attention and deserved Federal investigation. A suburban Philadelphia country club cut a deal with an organization called Creative Steps, Inc., a day camp for underprivileged children. For a fee of $1,950, about 65 children, mostly Hispanic and Afro-American, would be allowed to swim in the club’s pool, every Monday for a few hours through August 10th. Allegedly, when some of the club members got a gander at the youngster’s ethnicity, they began making insulting remarks. Ultimately, the club nixed the deal, the Creative Steps’ money was refunded, and the kids were no longer welcome to use the facilities. When asked for an explanation, club president John Duesler said, if you can believe this, “There was concern that a lot of the kids would change the complexion and the atmosphere of the club.” said something about the kids “changing the complexion” of the club. Hoo boy. Several area columnists have commented that, based on those remarks, Duesler is either racist or incredibly stupid.” I think he’s both.
Incidents like these, to be sure, are not indigenous to Philadelphia, and I’ve often wondered why the Feds have never bothered looking into the fact that two of Palm Beach, Florida’s most illustrious private clubs refuse to allow Jews as members and very, very rarely as guests. Why hasn’t that made the front pages? For the sordid details on that horrible policy, pick up a copy of Ronald Kessler’s book, “The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society.” It is absolutely impossible to believe that garbage like this still goes on. See you at the club.
JAZZ TIMES RETURNS
On the good news side, word has come that Jazz Times magazine has found a buyer, and will continue publication with an August issue. This is a rarity in the business of publications. Usually, once a “brand” is gone, it’s gone. Jazz Times boasts a great group of writers, reviewers and editors whose voices need to be heard. And though there is more than plenty of jazz information available via hundreds of web sites, there is nothing like holding–and reading–an actual magazine. There is, to me, a permanence to something like that. It’s the same feeling I used to get from holding an LP.
A SEMI-SWING READ: THE VIC DAMONE STORY
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. The matchmaker was none other than Cissy Hurst, wife of the famed, Philadelphia radio personality Ed Hurst.
“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.
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