Often billed as America's Number One Song Stylist, his other nicknames include Mr. Rhythm, Old Leather Lungs, and Mr. Steel Tonsils. His hits included "That's My Desire", "That Lucky Old Sun", "Mule Train", "Cry of the Wild Goose," "Jezebel", "High Noon", "I Believe", "Hey Joe!", "The Kid's Last Fight", "Cool Water", "Moonlight Gambler," "Love Is a Golden Ring," "Rawhide", and "Lord, You Gave Me a Mountain."
He sang well-known theme songs for many movie Western soundtracks, including 3:10 To Yuma, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Blazing Saddles, although he was not a country & western singer. Laine sang an eclectic variety of song styles and genres, stretching from big band crooning to pop, western-themed songs, gospel, rock, folk, jazz, and blues. He did not sing the soundtrack song for High Noon, which was sung by Tex Ritter, but his own version (with somewhat altered lyrics, omitting the name of the antagonist, Frank Miller) was the one that became a bigger hit, nor did he sing the theme to another show he is commonly associated with—Champion the Wonder Horse (sung by Mike Stewart)—but released his own, subsequently more popular version.
Laine's enduring popularity was illustrated in June 2011, when a TV-advertised compilation called Hits reached No. 16 on the British chart. The accomplishment was achieved nearly 60 years after his debut on the UK chart, 64 years after his first major U.S. hit and four years after his death.
Frankie Laine was born Francesco Paolo LoVecchio on March 30, 1913, to Giovanni and Cresenzia LoVecchio (née Salerno). [His actual Cook County, Ill, birth Certificate, no. 14436, was already Americanized at the time of his birth, with his name written as "Frank Lovecchio," his mother as "Anna Salerno," and his father as "John Lovecchio," with the "V" lower case in each instance, except in the "Reported by" section with "John Lo Vecchio <father>" written in.] His parents had emigrated from Monreale, Sicily, to Chicago's "Little Italy", where his father worked at one time as the personal barber for gangster Al Capone. His family appears to have had several Mafia connections, and young Francesco was living with his grandfather when the latter was killed by members of a rival faction.
The eldest of eight children, he got his first taste of singing as a member of the choir in the Church of the Immaculate Conception's elementary school. He next attended Lane Technical High School, now known as Lane Technical College Prep High School, where he helped to develop his lung power and breath control by joining the track and field and basketball teams. He realized he wanted to be a singer when he missed time in school to see Al Jolson's current talking picture, The Singing Fool. Jolson would later visit Laine when both were filming pictures in 1949, and at about this time, Jolson remarked that Laine was going to put all the other singers out of business.
Even in the 1920s, his vocal abilities were enough to get him noticed by a slightly older "in crowd" at his school, who began inviting him to parties and to local dance clubs, including Chicago's Merry Garden Ballroom. At 17, he sang before a crowd of 5,000 at The Merry Garden Ballroom to such applause that he ended up performing five encores on his first night. Laine was giving dance lessons for a charity ball at the Merry Garden when he was called to the bandstand to sing:
Soon I found myself on the main bandstand before this enormous crowd, Laine recalled. I was really nervous, but I started singing 'Beside an Open Fireplace,' a popular song of the day. It was a sentimental tune and the lyrics choked me up. When I got done, the tears were streaming down my cheeks and the ballroom became quiet. I was very nearsighted and couldn't see the audience. I thought that the people didn't like me.
Some of his other early influences during this period included Enrico Caruso, Carlo Buti, and especially Bessie Smith—a record of whose somehow wound up in his parents' collection:
I can still close my eyes and visualize its blue and purple label. It was a Bessie Smith recording of 'The Bleeding Hearted Blues,' with 'Midnight Blues' on the other side. The first time I laid the needle down on that record I felt cold chills and an indescribable excitement. It was my first exposure to jazz and the blues, although I had no idea at the time what to call those magical sounds. I just knew I had to hear more of them! — Frankie Laine
Another singer who influenced him at this time was falsetto crooner, Gene Austin. Laine worked after school at a drugstore that was situated across the street from a record store that continually played hit records by Gene Austin over their loud speakers. He would swab down the windows in time to Austin's songs. Many years later, Laine related the story to Austin when both were guests on the popular television variety show Shower of Stars. He would also co-star in a film, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, with Austin's daughter, Charlotte.
Shortly after graduating high school, Laine signed on as a member of The Merry Garden's marathon dance company and toured with them, working dance marathons during theGreat Depression (setting the world record of 3,501 hours with partner Ruthie Smith at Atlantic City's Million Dollar Pier in 1932). Still billed as Frank LoVecchio, he would entertain the spectators during the fifteen-minute breaks the dancers were given each hour. During his marathon days, he worked with several up-and-coming entertainers, including Rose Marie, Red Skelton, and a 14-year-old Anita O'Day, for whom he served as a mentor (as noted by Laine in a 1998 interview by David Miller).
Other artists whose styles began to influence Laine at this time were Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong (as a trumpet player), Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and, later, Nat "King" Cole. Laine befriended Cole in Los Angeles, when the latter's career was just beginning to gain momentum. Cole recorded a song, "It Only Happens Once", that fledgling songwriter Laine had composed. They remained close friends throughout the remainder of Cole's life, and Laine was one of the pall bearers at Cole's funeral.
His next big break came when he replaced Perry Como in the Freddy Carlone band in Cleveland in 1937; Como made a call to Carlone about Laine. Como was another lifelong friend of Laine's, who once lent Laine the money to travel to a possible gig. Laine's rhythmic style was ill-suited to the sweet sounds of the Carlone band, and the two soon parted company. Success continued to elude Laine, and he spent the next 10 years "scuffling"; alternating between singing at small jazz clubs on both coasts and a series of jobs, including those of a bouncer, dance instructor, used car salesman, agent, synthetic leather factory worker, and machinist at a defense plant. It was while working at the defense plant during the Second World War that he first began writing songs ("It Only Happens Once" was written at the plant). Often homeless during his "scuffling" phases, he hit the lowest point of his career, when he was sleeping on a bench in Central Park.
I would sneak into hotel rooms and sleep on floor. In fact, I was bodily thrown out of 11 different New York hotels. I stayed in YMCAs and with anyone who would let me flop. Eventually I was down to my last four cents, and my bed became a roughened wooden bench in Central Park. I used my four pennies to buy four tiny Baby Ruth candy bars and rationed myself to one a day. — Frankie Laine
He changed his professional name to Frankie Laine in 1938, upon receiving a job singing for the New York City radio station WINS. The program director, Jack Coombs, thought that "LoVecchio" was "too foreign sounding, and too much of a mouthful for the studio announcers," so he Americanized it to "Lane." Frankie added the "i" to avoid confusion with a girl singer at the station who went by the name of Frances Lane. It was at this time that Laine got unknown songbird Helen O'Connell her job with the Jimmy Dorsey band. WINS, deciding that they no longer needed a jazz singer, dropped him. With the help of bandleader Jean Goldkette, he got a job with a sustainer (nonsponsored) radio show at NBC. As he was about to start, Germany attacked Poland and all sustainer broadcasts were pulled off the air in deference to the needs of the military.
Laine next found employment in a munitions plant, at a salary of $150.00 a week. He quit singing for what was perhaps the fifth or sixth time of his already long career. While working at the plant, he met a trio of girl singers, and became engaged to the lead singer. The group had been noticed by Johnny Mercer's Capitol Records, and convinced Laine to head out to Hollywood with them as their agent.
In 1943 he moved to California where he sang in the background of several films, including The Harvey Girls, and dubbed the singing voice for an actor in the Danny Kaye comedyThe Kid from Brooklyn. It was in Los Angeles in 1944 that he met and befriended disc jockey Al Jarvis and composer/pianist Carl T. Fischer, the latter of whom was to be his songwriting partner, musical director, and piano accompanist until his death in 1954. Their songwriting collaborations included "I'd Give My Life," "Baby, Just For Me," "What Could Be Sweeter?," "Forever More," and the jazz standard "We'll Be Together Again."
The engagement fell through, with the songstresses breaking up with the loyal singer-manager when success for them seemed just around the corner. When Jarvis discovered how the girl group had mistreated Laine, he pulled their records from his show, in effect breaking their career.
When the war ended, Laine soon found himself "scuffling" again, and was eventually given a place to stay by Jarvis. Jarvis also did his best to help promote the struggling singer's career, and Laine soon had a small, regional following. In the meantime, Laine would make the rounds of the bigger jazz clubs, hoping that the featured band would call him up to perform a number with them. In late 1946, Hoagy Carmichael heard him singing at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles, and this was when success finally arrived. Not knowing that Carmichael was in the audience, Laine sang the Carmichael-penned standard "Rockin' Chair" when Slim Gaillard called him up to the stage to sing. This eventually led to a contract with the newly established Mercury records. Laine and Carmichael would later collaborate on a song, "Put Yourself in My Place, Baby".
Film and television
Beginning in the late 1940s, Laine starred in over a half dozen backstage musicals, often playing himself; several of these were written and directed by a young Blake Edwards. The films were: Make Believe Ballroom – Columbia, 1949; When You’re Smiling – Columbia, 1950; Sunny Side Of The Street – Columbia, 1951; Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder – Columbia, 1952; Bring Your Smile Along – Columbia, 1955; He Laughed Last – Columbia, 1956; and Meet Me in Las Vegas – MGM, 1956. The latter, a big budget MGM musical starring Cyd Charisse, features Laine performing Hell Hath No Fury.
His films were very popular in the United Kingdom, but this success failed to establish him as a movie star in the United States.
On television, he hosted three variety shows: The Frankie Laine Hour in 1950, The Frankie Laine Show (with Connie Haines) 1954-5, and Frankie Laine Time in 1955-6. The latter was a summer replacement for The Arthur Godfrey Show that received a Primetime Emmy for Best Male Singer. Frankie Laine Time featured such guest stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Johnnie Ray, Georgia Gibbs, The Four Lads, Cab Calloway, Patti Page, Eddie Heywood, Duke Ellington, Boris Karloff, Patti Andrews, Joni James, Shirley MacLaine, Gene Krupa,Teresa Brewer, Jack Teagarden and Polly Bergen.
He had a different sound, you know and he had such emotion and heart. And of course you recognized Frankie, just like Sinatra had that sound that you'd always recognize. That's what made for hit records, as well as being a great singer. But you have to have a real special sound that never changes. He could do it all ... but again, you always knew that it was Frankie Laine. — Connie Haines
He was a frequent guest star on various other shows of the time, including Shower of Stars, The Steve Allen Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line?, This is Your Life,Bachelor Father, The Sinatra Show, The Walter Winchell Show, The Perry Como Show, The Garry Moore Show, Masquerade Party, The Mike Douglas Show, and American Bandstand. In 1959 he made a guest appearance on Perry Mason in the title role as comedian Danny Ross in "The Case of the Jaded Joker."
In the 1960s, he continued appearing on variety shows such as Laugh-In, but took on several serious guest-starring roles in shows like Rawhide, and Burke's Law. His theme song for Rawhide proved to be popular and helped make the show, which starred Eric Fleming and launched the career of Clint Eastwood, a hit. Other TV series for which Laine sang the theme song included Gunslinger, and Rango. In 1976, Laine recorded The Beatles song, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" for the documentary All This and World War II.
Laine performed at three Academy Awards ceremonies: 1950 (Mule Train), 1960 (The Hanging Tree), and 1975 (Blazing Saddles). Only last two of these ceremonies were televised. In 1981, he performed a medley of his hits on American Bandstand's 30th Anniversary Special", where he received a standing ovation. Later appearances includeNashville Now, 1989 and My Music, 2006.
Laine settled in a hilltop spread in the Point Loma neighborhood of San Diego, where he was a supporter of local events and charities. In 2000 the San Diego Chamber of Commerce dubbed him "The Prince of Point Loma".
His career slowed down a little in the 1980s due to triple and quadruple heart bypass surgeries, but he continued cutting albums, including Wheels Of A Dream (1998), Old Man Jazz (2002) and The Nashville Connection (2004).
In 1986, he recorded an album, Round Up with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, which made it to the classical charts. Laine was reportedly pleased and amused having also placed songs on the country, rhythm and blues, and popular charts in his time.
He recorded his last song, "Taps/My Buddy", shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack on America. The song was dedicated to the New York City firefighters, and Laine stipulated that profits from the song were to be donated, in perpetuity, to FDNY.
On June 12, 1996, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 27th Annual Songwriters’ Hall of Fame awards ceremony at the New York Sheraton. On his 80th birthday, the United States Congress declared him to be a national treasure. Then, a decade later on March 30, 2003, Frankie celebrated his 90th birthday, and several of his old pals, Herb Jeffries, Patti Page and Kay Starr were welcomed to his birthday bash in San Diego, as each of them gave him a helping hand in blowing out the candles.
Laine married actress Nan Grey (June 1950 – July 1993) and adopted her daughters from a previous marriage, Pam and Jan. Their 43-year marriage lasted until her death. Laine and Nan guest-starred on a November 18, 1960, episode of Rawhide: "Incident on the Road to Yesterday." They played long-lost lovers. Following a three-year engagement to Anita Craighead, the 86-year-old singer married Marcia Ann Kline in June 1999. This marriage lasted for the remainder of his life.
In 2005, he appeared on the PBS My Music special despite a recent stroke, performing "That's My Desire", and received a standing ovation. It proved to be his swan song to the world of popular music.
Laine died of heart failure on February 6, 2007, at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. In a prepared statement, Laine's family said, "He will be forever remembered for the beautiful music he brought into this world, his wit and sense of humor, along with the love he shared with so many." A memorial mass for the late singer was held February 12, at the Immaculata parish church on the campus of the University of San Diego. The following day, his ashes, along with those of his late wife, Nan Grey, were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.