Jerry Vale, popular crooner of the 1950s and '60s, dies at 83

Jerry Vale, a crooner of the 1950s and '60s who remained beloved among fans for his swelling renditions of romantic ballads, many of them Italian in language but universal in theme, died May 18 at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 83.

His attorney, Harold J. Levy, confirmed the death but did not disclose a cause. Mr. Vale reportedly had suffered a stroke more than a decade ago.

Mr. Vale grew up in an Italian American community in the Bronx and became in his heyday one of the most popular artists in the United States. His most noted hits included a 1956 recording of “You Don’t Know Me,” a country song of unrequited love, that sold more than 1 million copies.

His other numbers included “Two Purple Shadows,” “Have You Looked Into Your Heart,” and albums full of crowd-pleasing Italian standards such as “Al Di Là,” “Innamorata,” “Volare,” “Amore, Scusami,” “Ciao, Ciao, Bambina,” “Arrivederci, Roma” and “O Sole Mio.”

He was for years a mainstay of Columbia Records where, the New York Times reported in 1964, he was the third best-selling male singer after Tony Bennett and Andy Williams. In later decades, Mr. Vale continued to perform in clubs around the country, his audiences and continued record sales a testament to the enduring appeal of his music.


Jerry Vale, the enduringly popular crooner from the 1950s and 1960s, died May 18 at 83. (General Artists Corporation)

Mr. Vale counted Frank Sinatra among his friends and traced his musical lineage to Perry Como and, before him, Bing Crosby. Mr. Vale’s serenades were compared by at least one observer to those of a Venetian gondolier, and he endeavored to preserve his genre’s lush and pleasing style, particularly as rock-and-roll commanded increasingly large audiences.

To fit in, he said, he would occasionally add a fast piece to a performance’s lineup.

“But I don't like it,” he told the Times. “I don’t like it one bit.”

Mr. Vale appeared with some frequency on television programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and at venues ranging from the Copacabana nightclub to Carnegie Hall, both in New York.

Reviewing a 1963 performance on the latter stage, music critic John S. Wilson wrote in the Times that Mr. Vale was a singer in a “highly gimmick-conscious field” who had “hit on an astoundingly simple and effective gimmick.” He possessed, the critic wrote, “a warm, direct and lyrical voice projected with complete honesty and lack of pretension.”

Genaro Louis Vitaliano was born July 8, 1930, in the Bronx. (He once told an interviewer that the doctor who delivered him mistakenly dropped the second “n” from the standard Italian spelling of his first name.)

Music figured prominently in his family get-togethers. In his youth, he shined shoes and swept floors in a barber shop where he fetched extra tips by singing.

By his teenage years, he was performing in supper clubs. He left school for a job in a factory, according the reference guide Contemporary Musicians, and later worked with his father, an engineer, on the excavation of sewage plants. Meanwhile, he continued to perform and became known on stage as Jerry Vale.

He was appearing at a club in the early 1950s when he caught the attention of the singer Guy Mitchell, who introduced him to Mitch Miller, the influential executive at Columbia Records. Mr. Vale’s first recording with the company, with accompaniment by Percy Faith and his band, was “You Can Never Give Me Back My Heart,”

Mr. Vale’s music was featured in the soundtracks of movies including “Easy Money,” the 1983 comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield, and mob dramas such as “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995); he made cameo appearances in the last two. He was the subject of the book “Jerry Vale: A Singer’s Life” (2000) by Richard Grudens.

In 1959, Mr. Vale married Rita Grapel, an actress. Besides his wife, survivors include two children, Robert Vale and Pamela Vale Branch; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Vale’s broad appeal led to frequent invitations to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events. (The invitations came so frequently, in fact, that he ultimately recorded the anthem and was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.)

At one game in 1973, the New York Yankees found themselves in a fix when they discovered that both Mr. Vale and Robert Merrill, an operatic baritone who also had recorded the song for game-time use, were in attendance.

Rather than choose between the recordings — and risk slighting one of the singers — the Yankees management asked the men to perform a duet. The singers agreed, took their places behind home plate and, on the fly, belted out the anthem on national television.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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