Obituary: Frankie Laine / Had string of hits in the 1950s

March 30, 1913 - Feb, 6, 2007

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Frankie Laine, the singer with the booming voice who hit it big with such songs as "That Lucky Old Sun," "Mule Train," "Cool Water," "I Believe," "Granada" and "Moonlight Gambler," died yesterday at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. He was 93.

Mr. Laine entered the hospital over the weekend for hip replacement surgery but suffered complications from the operation, said his friend A.C. Lyles, the longtime producer at Paramount Pictures who announced Mr. Laine's death.

In all, Mr. Laine sold well over 100 million records and was hugely popular not only in the United States but also in Britain and Australia.

Even after his popularity crested after the rise of rock 'n' roll, Mr. Laine was heard for many years singing the theme to the TV series "Rawhide," which featured a young Clint Eastwood and ran until 1966.

Most of those who remember Mr. Laine for his biggest hits would hardly know that his body of work included "Baby That Ain't Right," "Rosetta" and many other songs that were more in the style of what Mr. Laine considered his roots -- jazz and blues.

"Years before Elvis Presley, Laine brought a potent blend of blues, jazz and country to popular music," jazz critic Don Heckman said. "Rarely acknowledged in Laine's work, he sang with the easy, loose phrasing and imaginative articulation of jazz performers."

Mr. Laine started out in jazz but was sidetracked by arranger Mitch Miller, who fashioned Mr. Laine into the popular artist that he is best remembered for being.

Mr. Miller produced most of Mr. Laine's hits in the 1940s and 1950s, including "Mule Train" and "That Lucky Old Sun." He said he loved Mr. Laine's voice because it sounded like "the blue-collar man, the guy who didn't know where his next paycheck was coming from."

Francesco Paolo LoVecchio was born March 30, 1913, the eldest of eight children of Sicilian immigrants who settled in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago. His father was a barber whose customers included Al Capone; his maternal grandfather was the victim of a mob hit. Mr. Laine said he came from a "big and poor, but happy" family.

As a kid, Mr. Laine sang in the all-boy choir at church, but he first became excited about music when he listened to one of his mother's records on a wind-up Victrola: Bessie Smith singing "Bleeding Hearted Blues," with "Midnight Blues" on the flip side.

This record was his first exposure to jazz and the blues, which would draw him into music.

At 18, with the Depression under way and his father out of work, Mr. Laine hit the road as a dance marathoner. Altogether he participated in 14 marathons, coming in first on three occasions. He and his partner, Ruthie Smith, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for dancing 145 days straight.

Mr. Laine would not hit it big until his mid-30s. Then he got a break -- an audition at WINS radio station, where he got a $5-a-week job singing on a live half-hour show.

It was the program director at WINS who changed his name from Frank LoVecchio to Frankie Lane. (Mr. Laine added the "i" to avoid confusion with another singer with the same last name.)

Years more of moving around, working other jobs and testing his talent brought him eventually to Los Angeles, where he hung out at clubs such as Slapsy Maxie's and Billy Berg's. It was at Billy Berg's that he met Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and many other legends. And it was there that he would occasionally get to sing for free before eventually being hired.

Even this did not provide an unbroken ladder to success, but eventually Mr. Laine did get a chance to record a few songs for Mercury Records. He decided he wanted to do an old song he'd heard years ago, "That's My Desire," but he couldn't remember it well enough to sing it the way it was written, so he improvised.

"Desire" was the song that proved the breakthrough for Mr. Laine, although it took almost a year. First it hit the so-called "Harlem" pop charts, which recorded sales to black record buyers.

"That didn't surprise me," Mr. Laine said. "In my leaner days I failed many an audition because, I was told, I sounded 'too black.' ... I'm certain the confusion was the direct result of the music that influenced me while I was developing my style. I guess I became the first of the so-called blue-eyed soul singers." During 1947, "Desire" got more and more air play, even in Europe. By fall, Mr. Laine got his first royalty payment for the song: $36,000. He was 34.

1956 file photo, Associated Press
Frankie Laine
Click photo for larger image.


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