Frankie Laine, an entertainer whose career spans literally six decades, is one of those consummate artists whose performing style has always ridden high above the wave of musical fads. Laine’s approach to his music is distinctive and
recognizable even to many listeners today in an era when you’re never quite sure what’s coming on your radio next. The major hits of his repertoire, such as “I Believe,” “That Lucky Old Son” and “Mule Train,” to mention a few, even today can be found on many restaurant juke boxes.
Born Frank Lo Vecchio in Chicago on March 30, 1913, Laine first sang in public as a member of the choir at The Church of the Immaculate Conception. As early as age 15, still in the late ‘20s, Frankie, urged on by friends, would take the bandstand at the Windy City’s Merry Garden Ballroom, singing a tune or two with
the likes of Jess Stacy, Gene Krupa, Dave Rose and Muggsy Spanier, all jazz greats in the making.
In 1930, when he was 17, Laine left home to try his luck as a marathon dancer, a raging fad at the time. For the uninitiated, in this unusual rite, dancers would continue their own versions of dancing uninterruptedly, with partners or as soloist, for days, weeks, even months at a time. He and a later partner, Ruth Smith, set the all-time dance marathon record in Atlantic City, decades before the casino era began, of 3501 hours, just under 146 days.
However, the singing bug prevailed and for the purpose of making a living, Laine tuned away from his feet, to his voice. With many gigs in nondescript clubs in tank towns from coast to coast, a distinct break developed during an impromptu appearance at Billy Berg’s club on Vine Street in Hollywood. Hoagy Carmichael, composer of “Rocking Chair,” was in the club one evening when Frankie sang the tune. The chance encounter led to steady employment at the club and eventually to a recording contract with Mercury Records.
On his very first session, he recorded a forgotten 1931 ballad, “That’s My Desire,” and from that moment forward, Frankie Laine took off to a much higher level of success with significantly larger monetary rewards.
Along with Nat King Cole, who burst on the scene with his trio and a recording of “Sweet Lorraine” a year earlier, Laine became a leader in the popularity of the pop singer over the big bands of the previous decade. His success helped set the pattern for the later song stylists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Ray, Tony Bennett and Tom Jones, all of whom were influenced in one form or another by his style, particularly Bennett and Jones.
In addition to his never-ending run of record hits, Laine has also been active in the motion picture field. He sang the theme for the Wamer Bros. film “Blowing Wild” and over the years sang the title songs for a dozen different movies, including the memorable Mel Brooks’ western farce “Blazing Saddles,” as well as the theme for the television series, “Rawhide.”
Riding the wave of still more hits like the self-penned “We’ll Be Together Again,” and later “That Lucky Old Son,” Laine’s horizons expanded even more during the mid and late ‘50s, when his recording of the Ervin Drake song “I Believe” topped the charts in Britain for a total of 18 weeks, a feat that even the Beatles never duplicated. For many years, Laine was one of Britain’s most popular stars and he performed there many times. He also performed widely in many European countries, South Africa, Australia and the Orient.
Laine was married to Nan Grey, a former Universal Pictures starlet, in June 1950. The pair were together for 43 years, until her death in 1993, on her 72nd birthday. Over the years, Laine, based on his record hit, has generated what he calls “I Believe days” on certain Saturdays and Sundays in May, when people may reaffirm their faith in a higher power. In 1985 and again in 1990, Laine had quadruple bypass surgery, but at age 83, he continues an active career, most recently with the penning of an autobiography titled, “That Lucky Old Son.” His most recent recordings, “Song of India,” in September 1995 and “Old Jazz Man,” recorded in April of this year, are expected to be released soon as parts of upcoming CD packages.