By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Frankie Laine, 93, whose robust vocals on such hits as "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Mule Train" made him one of the most popular singers of the 1950s and whose voice was long identified with the theme song of the TV western "Rawhide," died Feb. 6 at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. He had cardiovascular disease.
Mr. Laine sold more than 250 million records during a six-decade career. At his peak, he was a frequent presence on TV variety shows and had his own CBS program in the mid-1950s as a replacement for Arthur Godfrey. He was invited to perform at the world's top concert halls and nightclubs, including the London Palladium, New York's Copacabana and Las Vegas's Desert Inn.
Often playing himself, he starred in several musicals from the early 1950s, including "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder." He sang the title songs of many western movies, including "Man Without a Star" starring Kirk Douglas and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" with Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
By the early 1960s, the rise of rock-and-roll music left Mr. Laine far from the vanguard of popular music. He toured widely in Europe and Australia and made commercials for Campbell's Soup, among other products.
In 1974, he unwittingly lampooned his own image by singing the theme song for Mel Brooks's western spoof "Blazing Saddles" over the opening credits. The song emphasized loud whipping sounds between otherwise innocuous lyrics ("He rode a blazing saddle. He wore a shining star . . . ").
Brooks later told a reporter, perhaps jokingly: "You know, what's so sweet and so sad was that Frankie Laine sang it with all his heart. He didn't know [the movie] was a comedy. We got Frankie Laine because he'd done all these Western theme songs. With tears in his eyes he said to me, 'This is a beautiful song.' I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to tell him it was funny. He didn't get it."
The son of Sicilian-born parents, Francesco Paolo LoVecchio was born in Chicago on March 30, 1913. During the Depression, he began working and scrapping to support his family. He became a marathon dancer and claimed once to have danced for 145 days straight in Atlantic City when he was 17. He and his partner split the $1,000 prize.
His first professional singing date came unexpectedly during a marathon dance, when he launched into a highly emotional song called "Beside an Open Fireplace."
"They had called me up to entertain because there were only three couples left in this particular marathon, and none of them could sing or dance or tell jokes," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. When the audience reacted well, he was encouraged to try to earn money as a singer.
At one point, he took over Perry Como's singing spot with a Cleveland band, and he appeared on New York radio for $5 a week. He also was a machinist, a car salesman and a bar bouncer from Chicago to Baltimore.
To distinguish himself from the creamy-voiced crooners of the early 1940s, he developed a rhythmically charged performance style. This caused further problems. He said he was discriminated against because his voice "sounded black." He told the Tribune "there really was no market for a white kid who sounded black and didn't sing dreamy ballads."
In 1946, pop composer Hoagy Carmichael saw Mr. Laine one night at Billy Berg's Vine Street Club in Hollywood and heard his bluesy rendition of Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair." Carmichael reportedly refused to leave until Berg agreed to retain Mr. Laine at a much higher salary -- $75 a week.
Within the week, at Carmichael's urging, Mr. Laine began recording for Mercury Records and came under the guidance of pop music director Mitch Miller. Mr. Laine's version of "That's My Desire" sold more than 1 million copies, a figure soon topped by "Mule Train." He followed with 1 million sellers such as "That Lucky Old Sun," "Shine" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."
He was initially deeply reluctant to record "Mule Train," the first of his cowboy songs, saying he would lose fans who embraced his pop ballads. He went on, as Miller had insisted, to win far more newer fans. His cover of the "High Noon" theme, sung in the 1952 movie by Tex Ritter, also became a best-selling recording.
In later years, Mr. Laine recorded and performed jazz and blues and stretched into other areas. One album, "Foreign Affair" (1958), was made with French jazz pianist and composer Michel Legrand.
"Michel was the one who first showed me what was going on with our [music] in Europe," Mr. Laine told a San Diego reporter in 2005. "He said, 'Oh, yah, Frankie Laine, big star.' I said, 'You're kidding?' . . . So I went ahead and made an album [with him] in French and Spanish, Italian and English. It was a big bomb because the Spaniards didn't want to hear the French and the French didn't want to hear the Spaniards."
In more recent years, he wrote a memoir ("That Lucky Old Son") and continued playing to large audiences, notably in 1999 when he opened at the Orleans club in Las Vegas.
Mr. Laine also composed songs and had his greatest success in the late 1940s, when he and his longtime pianist Carl Fischer co-wrote the pop ballad "We'll Be Together Again."
Mr. Laine was married to film and television actress Nan Grey from 1950 until her death in 1993.
Survivors include his wife, Marcia Ann Kline, whom he married in 1999; two stepdaughters; a brother; and two grandchildren.