BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
In his heyday, singer Frankie Laine was all over the radio, on records and in jukeboxes, and on the soundtracks of movies and television shows. But when he did an interview with me at age 63 in 1976, he wanted to talk first about his little-known Depression-era career as a marathon dancer. His name then was Francesco LoVecchio and he participated in these endurance contests, he said, both for the opportunity to win prizes and for the chance to make some money singing when the dancers were taking their breaks.
In the summer and fall of 1932, Laine and his partner, Ruthie Smith, danced for 145 days straight at a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They shared $1,000 in prize money (“You can figure out how much an hour that worked out to,” he said) and got their names into The Guinness Book of World Records. Laine was 19 and doing whatever it took to survive economically. Competing in marathon dance contests was a good way to make money, he said, because “we had no laundry bills or rent to pay during the time we were dancing.” The only reason he and Ruthie stopped dancing when they did was because they had to be out of the ballroom by October 20, 1932. “It was rented out for a wedding reception or something like that.”
Their achievement endured as an all-time dance record until the Guinness book recognized the performance of one Cullum L. De Villier and Miss Vonnie Kuchinski of Somerville, Massachusetts, who danced for 280 hours longer, starting two months after Laine and his partner finished dancing. Laine, however, disputed that achievement and insisted his record still stood. “They changed the rules after we finished, so those guys were able to sleep from midnight to 6.a.m. every day,” he said. “We didn’t get any sleep except for a rest allowance of 15 minutes every hour. As far as I’m concerned, our record still stands.” So there!
After Atlantic City, Laine entered a dance marathon in Baltimore, Maryland, and shared $2,800 with a new partner. All told, he danced in 14 marathons and won three before he quit due to injuries and exhaustion. At that point, he might have become a pharmacist or an architect as his Italian father wanted, but Laine knew what his career choice would be after hearing Louis Armstrong for the first time. “You might say that jazz saved me,” Laine told me. Instead of trying to emulate the crooning styles of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, the most popular singers of that era, Laine tried to capture with his voice the majestic sound Armstrong produced with his trumpet. It was later said of Laine that he was “the first white man who sang black.”
It took Laine 17 years to hit the big time, which he said was about 10 years longer than he would have liked. But that long apprenticeship, mostly spent singing in jazz clubs for peanuts, gave Laine an opportunity to see the seamier side of the business. “My saving grace was that lightning didn’t strike for me until I’d been around long enough to witness first-hand the toll that booze, pills and the wild life can take.”
His big break came in 1947 when a producer for Mercury Records told the 35-year-old Laine he liked his “blue-collar voice” and suggested he switch from jazz to pop. The resulting That’s My Desire hit #7 in the American charts and became the first of 14 million-selling discs that Laine recorded over a 20-year period. His 1949 hit, Mule Train gave him his musical hallmark. The addition of a whiplash to a driving rhythm, combined with a voice – to quote an early reviewer – that sounded like Laine had “tonsils of steel,” produced one of the most dramatic pop records yet heard.
When I talked to him, Laine had done it all. His voice had been heard on the soundtracks of such movies as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Man Without a Star and the Mel Brooks comedy, Blazing Saddles. Nobody had told him beforehand that Blazing Saddles was a comedy, so Laine gave the song his best dramatic reading as if he was recording it for another High Noon. He had also starred in several movie musicals, and sung the theme song for television’s Rawhide series starring Clint Eastwood, then in his early 30s. At age 63, Laine had nothing left to prove. “This group sounds like it wants to wallow in nostalgia,” he said to the club audience when I heard him sing. But “to show you how we keep up with the times,” he included such recent hits as Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down and Canadian Gene MacLellan’s Put Your Hand in the Hand. Laine’s voice lacked the whip-cracking delivery and intense power that had characterized his recordings of 20 years earlier. However, as I wrote in my review, “he occasionally grabs for a growling low note or sustains a powerful top note to show that the strength is still there.”
One song revealed Laine in a sentimental mood. The lyrics, written by Michel Legrand, might have been written for Laine himself: “My heart is the heart of a young man who doesn’t want to go.” Laine told me there were times when he was unable to finish the song, The Years of My Youth, because he got choked up over the lyrics. “When I sing that song, I’m thinking back on the years of my youth and remembering that – just like it says in the song – ‘I’m growing old like mellow wine.’”
But growing old didn’t mean slowing down. Laine said he planned to remain on the road six months a year, and had a number of recording projects in the works. He feared that if he didn’t stay working, he would “come down like a cement balloon.” Seventeen years in the musical wilderness as a young singer starting out had taught him that success could be transient.
He remained active into his 90s, twice undergoing coronary bypass surgery and then carrying on as before. He cut down on his touring schedule at age 92, only because radiation treatment for a vocal-chord problem weakened his singing.
As for his former dance partner Ruthie Smith, the former Francesco LoVecchio told me he knew she moved to Florida but he had never been able to get in touch with her. He tried to reach her by phone a couple of times to reminisce about their 1932 record-breaking achievement, but she never responded. “Maybe she doesn’t know I changed my name,” he joked. He died in 2007 at age 93.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
Related: Frankie Laine, age 92, performing on Moments to Remember on PBS, recorded October, 2005:
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