Frank Sinatra tossed his cards on the table.
“I fold,” he said. He was playing poker at a friend’s apartment in
Manhattan. It was the summer of 1946, and WHN was broadcasting a game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
That evening’s hard rain had delayed the game, and music filled the gap.
The smoke from cigars and cigarettes rose from the table; whiskey-soaked ice clinked in glasses.
“Night and Day” came on the radio, the Cole Porter song from the musical Gay Divorcee.
“Hey, Frankie. Is that you?” asked his friend Sammy Cahn, the composer and songwriter.
“Yup,” Sinatra answered, still concentrating on the game. Jimmy Van Heusen, another songwriter, nodded in agreement. Sinatra had had a hit with his version of the song, arranged by Axel Stordahl, in 1942 and again in 1944.
They continued to play, and at the song’s end the radio announcer said: “And that was the voice of Vic Damone.”
“Who?” Sinatra said, pushing his chair back. “What the hell did he just say?”
Sinatra got up from the table, picked up the phone, and dialed the radio station.
“This is Frank Sinatra, and I want to speak with this Vic Damone,” he demanded.
The announcer tapped on the booth where Damone, backed by a small ensemble, had just finished singing. “Some guy says he’s Frank Sinatra wants to talk with you.”
“Yeah, like Frank Sinatra is going to call me,” Damone said. It must be the guys back in Brooklyn, he thought, playing a prank. He picked up the line.
“This is Frank Sinatra, and I want you to stop singing my songs.”
“Yeah, if you’re Frank Sinatra, then I’m the pope.”
Damone, laughing, hung up on the man known to everyone in the music world simply as “The Voice.”
That’s how Vic Damone told me the story one day nearly sixty years later.
“I was imitating him. That day, I was live on the radio. I paid an arranger to copy Sinatra’s Stordahl arrangements, and I was singing it live. All of us singers then wanted to sound like him.”
We were talking on the telephone. A few weeks earlier I had sent Damone a letter, along with a book I had written. In the letter I asked for an interview. I didn’t expect to hear back from him: the word was that he had retired from show business after suffering a stroke a couple of years earlier, and that he hadn’t spoken with writers in some time. One night I came home to a message on the answering machine: “Hello. This is Vic Damone. I was a singer—am a singer. I got your letter, and I’d be happy to talk with you.”
I played the message several times, listening to the voice, at once humble and confident, over and over. The voice that generations of people had heard on the radio and in concert halls was now on my answering machine—in my home. I felt I had reached right back to the late 1940s, when the voice of Vic Damone and singers like him filled the homes of people across America with music—Italian American music.
Within four months of each other in 1947, Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone released versions of “I Have But One Heart.” It was a song in English, based on an Italian folk song called “O marenariello” (The Sailor). Damone’s version came out Qrst. He was eighteen years old, and it was the Qrst song he recorded for a major label, Mercury.
Released May 30, it went up to number seven on the Billboard charts—just months after he had sung during the Dodgers-Giants rain delay, and before anyone outside of Brooklyn had ever heard of him—and stayed there for seven weeks. On September 20, Sinatra released his version, which stayed on the charts for just two weeks, reaching only number thirteen. Judging by Damone’s numbers, his version was Qlling living rooms across the country, making its way into the hearts of teenage girls.
The competition certainly wasn’t a catalyst for Damone’s rise or Sinatra’s fall. But it reflected a change in a momentous year for both singers. For one thing, Sinatra, thirty-one years old and no longer the young darling, was starting to get bad press—for being a Communist, according to conservatives then coming into power; for being linked to the MaQa; for cheating on his wife; and for lashing out, both verbally and physically, at reporters.
For another, that same year Italian Americans, long a poor and embattled minority, began entering public consciousness en masse.
Nearly seven million Americans of Italian descent were living in the United States. For decades they had lived in neighborhoods of their own, enclaves within the big cities. Suddenly they were visible nationwide.
In boxing that summer, titles had been won and lost by Italian Americans within a couple of months of each other. In July, Rocky Graziano (given name: Thomas Rocco Barbella) won the world middleweight title against the Polish American Tony Zale, and a month later Willie Pep (Guglielmo Papaleo) successfully defended his world featherweight title against Jock Leslie. The middleweight Jake LaMotta (Giacobbe LaMotta) lost to Billy Fox. In September, Joey Maxim (Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli) defeated Clarence Jones, and Roland La Starza knocked out Jim Johnson. That year, Rocco Francis Marchegiano fought his Qrst professional bout under the name Rocky Mack. He soon changed his name to Rocky Marciano, and he would become the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.
But it was a trio of figures who would be recognized forever among the great Americans of the twentieth century: La Guardia, DiMaggio, and Sinatra.
In 1947 those three names rolled o( the tongues of Americans as never before. And Italian Americans in New York and throughout the country wore those names like badges of honor, signs that they, and their people, had made it in America. Fiorello La Guardia—known as “the Little Flower” on account of his first name and his size (he was just over Qve feet tall)—had served as mayor of New York City from 1934 until 1945. He held the city’s hand through both the Great Depression and World War II. He was America’s first Italian American mayor of a major city.
Born in 1882 on Varick Street in Greenwich Village to an Italian father (whose family came from Apulia and Sicily) and a Jewish mother from Trieste (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), La Guardia grew up Episcopalian and spent his early childhood in the Arizona Territory. In his late twenties, he worked as a translator at Ellis Island, becoming a champion of the little guy, the voice of the immigrant and the labor unions. In time, he became a congressman, representing Italian American East Harlem, and then, on the Fusion ticket, was elected mayor of New York City.
After declining to run for a fourth term as mayor, La Guardia stayed in the public eye, serving on various boards and committees, but two years after leaving o4ce, on September 20, 1947, he died of pancreatic cancer. Nearly forty thousand mourners filed past his open casket the next day at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan.
On September 30, Joe DiMaggio, a Sicilian Fisherman’s son from San Francisco, played in the Qrst televised World Series as the Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers. The big story was the presence of Jackie Robinson, who had joined the Dodgers that season, breaking baseball’s color line. But there were plenty of Italian Americans on both sides: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Vic Raschi playing for the Yankees; Carl Furillo, Ralph Branca, Al Gionfriddo, Cookie Lavagetto, and Vic Lombardi for the Dodgers. In game six, Gionfriddo caught a DiMaggio Ry ball at the wall in Yankee Stadium, denying him a home run and forcing a game seven. The Yankees won the series, and DiMaggio earned his third American League Most Valuable Player Award.
The third member of that Italian American pantheon was Francis Albert Sinatra, who grew up just across the Hudson River in Hoboken.
On the radio in 1947, Americans tuned in to Buddy Clark’s “Peg O’ My Heart,” the Andrews Sisters’ “Near You,” Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” and Dinah Shore’s “Anniversary Song.” Perry Como crooned “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” while Frankie Laine belted out “That’s My Desire,” and Tony Pastor performed “Red Silk Stockings and Green Perfume.”
That year Bing Crosby released the version of “White Christmas” we all hear today.
Frank Sinatra also recorded a version of the song, but with less success—Crosby sounded like a father singing to his kids, Sinatra like a young man singing to his girlfriend. Every year since 1943, Sinatra had been one of the top-ten recording artists, reaching the top three in 1946. That year Sinatra had eight Top 10 hits (Bing Crosby had five). His songs were played everywhere all year long: on the radio, on jukeboxes, on home record players.
In the first half of 1947, Sinatra had hits with “I Believe” and “Mam’selle,” which reached number one and stayed on the charts for ten weeks. Then that was it. By year’s end, his career was in a decline that would last nearly seven years. Meanwhile, for Damone—and many other singers—1947 represented their big break, marking a rise in the popularity of Italian American singers.
Damone represented the many Italian Americans who were just beginning to leave their close-knit urban neighborhoods. Italian Americans were in the news—as great ballplayers, boxers, singers, and politicians—though America’s attitude toward them as a group was slow to change. Italian Americans were either violent mafiosi or girl-chasing, macaroni-eating romantics. Sinatra attracted both the pride and the prejudice. In many ways he became emblematic of all Italian Americans.
Whatever anyone felt about Italians, though, Italian-inspired songs were making their way onto the lips of Americans across the country.
I heard Vic Damone’s version of “I Have But One Heart” long before Frank Sinatra’s, on a CD release of his Qrst recordings on the Mercury label. And while I like both versions, Damone’s is exceptionally smooth, lyrical, rich—even Sinatra lauded Damone as having “the best pipes in the business.” Listening to it—late at night after a glass or two of wine—I see the waters off the coast of Naples, Sorrento, or AmalQ. The sun is setting, and the rhythm is that of a boat being gently rowed over glassy water. With each oar stroke, a phrase is sung. Damone’s rich voice brings to life the voice of the sailor of that song’s title, tired, but proud of his full net of Fish: Vicin’ o mare, faciammo ’ammore a core a core, pe’nce spassa . . .
The literal translation (not the lyrics of the hit) is: By the sea we are making love, Heart to heart we spend the time . . .The song was written in the late nineteenth century by two Neapolitans, Salvatore Gambardella, a musician and songwriter, and Gennaro Ottaviano, a poet. For Italian Americans, “O marenariello” was as popular as “Danny Boy” is for the Irish, or “Guantanamera” for Cubans. Italian Americans had heard versions of the song performed by the great opera singers Enrico Caruso, Tito Schipa, and Carlo Buti. In the 1940s it was adapted by Johnny Farrow, with Marty Symes writing English lyrics. Unfortunately, the lyric the radio listeners of 1947 heard—“I have but one heart, this heart I bring you, I have but one heart to share with you”—was pedestrian love stuff, without a hint of Italy in it. Within months of the release of the Sinatra and Damone recordings of “I Have But One Heart,” songs both Italian-sounding and sung in Italian would be played on the radio. Perry Como sang
“Chi-baba, Chi-baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep),” which was also recorded by the Charioteers and Peggy Lee; the Andrews Sisters sang “Bella Bella Marie” with the Italian American Phil Brito; Eddie Fisher sang “Anema e core”; the Gaylords sang “Tell Me You’re Mine” (from the Italian “Per un bacio d’amore”); Tony Martin (who changed his name from Alvin Morris) sang “Luna rossa” and
“There’s No Tomorrow” (based on “O sole mio”); Vaughn Monroe sang “Vieni Su, Say You Love Me Too”; and Rosemary Clooney had hits with “Botch-A-Me,” “Mambo Italiano,” and the Italianaccented
“Come On-A My House.” And the Italian American hits continued—“Eh, cumpari” ( Julius La Rosa), “Darktown Strutters’
Ball (Italian-Style)” (Lou Monte), and “Angelina” and “Oh, Marie” (both Louis Prima).
In 1949, Vic Damone recorded another Italian-inspired song—“You’re Breaking My Heart,” which was based on “Mattinata” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, who had written the nineteenth-century opera Pagliacci. Written and arranged by Pat Genaro and Sunny Skylar, the song went right up to number one.
But more than just Italian-sounding songs—or songs that evoked an Italian feeling—Italian American singers appeared in full force.
They came from New York City, New Jersey, Chicago. Theirs was an uban sound. The music they sang wasn’t the high lonesome of the rural South, nor was it the sound of the rugged mountains of the Old Country. It was the sound of the streets, the mixing together of songs, arrangements, and interpretations by artists from all backgrounds. Flipping through the pages of Joel Whitburn’s collection of Bill-board hits from 1940 to 1954, I counted only Qve Italians making the Top 40 list before 1947: Phil Brito, Jimmy Durante, Louis Prima, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra. Then, in 1947 alone, Sinatra, Damone, Perry Como, Buddy Greco, Frankie Laine, and Louis Prima all had Top 10 hits.
And then came the grande bacio—the big Italian kiss.
During the first part of the Italian decade—from 1947 to 1954, the year of Frank Sinatra’s comeback—more than twenty-five ItalianAmericans brought music to America: Tony Bennett, Don Cornell, Jerry Vale, Al Martino, Alan Dale, Johnny Desmond, Jimmy Durante, Joni James, Julius La Rosa, Mario Lanza, Dean Martin, Lou Monte, the Gaylords, June Valli, the Four Aces, the Four Lads, Liberace, Mantovani & His Orchestra, Tony Pastor, and Ezio Pinza. And that was just the first seven years.
Eight months after Vic Damone hung up on Frank Sinatra at the radio station, the young singer himself, with his “I Have But One Heart” hit, made his first appearance at Madison Square Garden at a charity fund-raiser hosted by Ed Sullivan. He was on the same bill as his idol.
“I’m waiting backstage, and there’s Frank Sinatra,” Vic Damone remembered. “Someone whispered something in his ear, and I see Sinatra look at me. His eyes narrowed; he just stared at me.”
Sinatra then pointed to him and with a crooked index finger motioned Vic Damone over.
“Who, me?” Damone said.
Damone hesitantly approached Sinatra. His idol poked him in his chest with a force that pushed him back a couple of steps.
“What are you, some sort of wise guy?” Sinatra said. “Wise guy?” Damone said nervously. “Mr. Sinatra, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Frank Sinatra recounted the incident at WHN, and it occurred to Vic Damone then that it really had been Sinatra on the phone.
“Was that you?”
Sinatra laughed. He gave Damone another look and said, “Okay, kid. I’m going to introduce you tonight.”
Sinatra told Sullivan that he wanted Damone to sing after Sinatra and that he would like to introduce Damone himself. Sinatra went onstage, sang a couple of songs, then spoke to the audience: “I’d like to introduce to you Vic Damone. This kid’s a really great singer. He’s got stardust on his shoulders.”
With those words, Frank Sinatra ushered in the Italian decade, then stepped off stage.
It was as if he were referring not only to this teenager from Brooklyn who had a hit with an Italian popular song but to all the Italian American singers who would interpret pop standards for American audiences—singers who had grown up listening to their parents’ songs from the Old Country but who lived entirely in the new.