Gary James' Interview With
Bobby Vinton

Billboard magazine calls him "the all-time most successful love singer of the rock era." He's one of the few performers who headlines in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, in addition to performing around the world.

During the first ten years of the rock era, he had more hits than any other male vocalist, including Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. For three years he hosted his own weekly syndicated television series which aired in over 140 cities throughout the United States and Canada. He also hosted a highly rated network variety special for CBS television, which garnered higher ratings than Monday Night Football.

He also starred in two John Wayne movies, "Big Jake" and "The Train Robbers". His first single, "Roses Are Red" went all the way to number one and sold over 4 million copies. Other hits followed, including "Blue On Blue" (#3), "Blue Velvet" (#1), "Mr. Lonely" (#1), "There I've Said It Again" (#1), "Please Love Me Forever" (#6), "Tell Me Why" (#13), "Sealed With A Kiss" (#19), "Everyday Of My Life" (#24), "I Love How You Love Me" (#9) and of course, what became his signature song, "My Melody Of Love" (#3), which earned him the title The Polish Prince.

We are of course talking about the one and only Bobby Vinton.

Over the course of his career, Bobby Vinton has sold over 75 million records, receiving over a dozen gold records in the process. And, the Hollywood Chamber Of Commerce bestowed the ultimate honor about Bobby Vinton, a bronze star on the world famous Hollywood Walk Of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

We are pleased to present and interview with one of the "greats", Mr. Bobby Vinton.

Q - Do you still have that theater in Branson?

A - No, I don't. I sold the theater and I'm just doing special concerts here and there these days.

Q - That means one-nighters all over the country?

A - Yeah

Q - Is it true that at one time you had 150 people working for you?

A - When I owned the theater, I had the Glen Miller Orchestra. I had 20 girls singing and dancing. I had a cast of characters. It was a big group production, as well as ushers, ticket takers...I had 10 girls just booking buses. (laughs) I had a big troupe, a big army and it was a lot of fun. And, after 10 years of that, I just decided that I wanted to travel and do special dates. I go to Las Vegas these days...Atlantic City.

Q - You also played The Turning Stone Casino in Vernona, New York didn't you?

A - Yes. I'll be at The Turning Stone, I think in March.

Q - How did you know there would be an audience for your kind of material in Branson?

A - Well, I happen to be doing some one-nighters, 10 or so years ago and I had like, a Monday or Tuesday off. I was in New York, on my way to L.A. My agent said Monday and Tuesday is usually a day off for entertainers, but I have you booked in Branson on Monday and Tuesday. I said who goes to shows on Mondays and Tuesdays? So, he said, well they have these theaters in Branson. And I said well good, what time is the show? He said 2PM. I said who in the world goes to a show at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on Monday? When I got there, the place was sold out. I said this is unbelievable. I didn't even want to come to Branson 'cause I thought it was country and western. But, when I did my show, the Phantom Of The Opera music, the Glenn Miller Big Band music and I looked out into the audience, it was the audience I had been playing for, for the last 20 years. I asked people, where are you from? I'm from Pennsylvania. I'm from Ohio. I'm from Michigan. I'm from Wisconsin. They had come from all over the country to Branson to be entertained. I thought Bobby Vinton and wholesome family Big Band entertainment was over with! (laughs) In Branson it was alive and bigger and better than ever! That type of entertainment was still very much appreciated. So, I said this is it. I'm moving to Branson. I'm going to build a theater. I'm going to have the Glenn Miller Orchestra, if you like Big Bands. I'm going to have beautiful girls dancing, if you like beautiful girls dancing. And, we had our great run for all those years.

Q - You've said "I know my records aren't played on radio anymore." I think you're wrong. They're still being played in Syracuse.

A - Well, that's good to hear. I did have a big following in the upper New York area. I was at the New York State Fair a few times over the years. I have areas that I say are my areas. In San Francisco, disc jockeys wouldn't even take payola to play my records there. (laughs) What I was referring to was the Top 40 radio stations that the teenagers listen to that really create the sale of records. I had that once. Everybody goes through a stage where you have it. And, all of a sudden, you don't have it anymore. You get older and the audience gets younger.

Q - You also used to perform at Dom Bruno's Three Rivers Inn. Do you remember that place?

A - Oh, yeah. I was there. That had to be 30 some odd years ago. I was just a young kid when I played there. I was all excited. Here I am, I was gonna be playing where all the stars played. Sammy Davis Jr...all the great performers played there. When I was invited, I said Wow, I have made the big time! I have arrived.

Q - That type of venue, the supper club, just doesn't exist anymore for up and coming performers.

A - No. The whole format of entertainment that I did seems to be fading away. The music business of today is completely different when you see the videos and the music. Today, you're either very big or you're playing stadiums or you're not playing anymore. You're either popular where everybody will go to a 20,000 seat arena to see you or they won't go to see you at all. It's just different today. Nobody seems to last too long these days. I must tell you, to get started today must be very difficult 'cause whatever it takes today is very tough. They have to invest a million dollars in a video just to see if you have a hit record. So, before anybody invests all that money, they want to make sure they're gonna get it back. It's tough today. I wouldn't know how to get started today.

Q - You were actually encouraged to pursue a musical career because you came from a musical family, didn't you?

A - Well, my father was a bandleader. He had a Big Band in the Pittsburgh area. I'm from Canonsburg, Pa. We played around and by the time I'm 15, I had my own band in high school, playing for dances. My mother encouraged me. My father did. I was the only child. I didn't have a brother or sister. Music was kind of my brother, my sister. I loved music back then. I had a passion for it. To me, there was nothing greater than to play for an audience and to entertain people and that has stayed with me all these years.

Q - What kind of music did you play in that first band of yours?

QA - We played Big Band music...Glenn Miller, Billy May, Maynard Ferguson, all the great instrumentalists. I copied. I remember there was a show Saturday Prom out of New York, that was a live dance band show opposite Dick Clark. Dick Clark was playing records on NBC. I wanted to play 'live', so I used to go up there and lead the NBC staff band. The band that Doc Severensen got? I was leading them when I was a kid. I would back up all the singing stars of the early 60s. This is how I got started in show business. I knew all the entertainers from Frankie Avalon to Fabian to Chubby Checker to Connie Francis. All of them. I had a band, so I had the pleasure of accompanying them all. I studied all of them to see what there was about their music the audience liked and what they did as performers that they liked or didn't like. I have been able to use that over the years. That helped me in picking hit records because as a musician, if you play all the hit songs of the day, you kind of get a good feel of what the public wants. And then seeing all these people...Sammy Davis, I backed him up. I used to study him every night. I saw how great performers worked and was able to incorporate a little bit from the best. (laughs)

Q - I take it you're one of the few performers from the 1960s that was not ripped off by a manager or a record company.

A - Yes, that's true. I was just very aware of everything. I was smart, to tell you the truth. I'm not really bright, but I'm not stupid. (laughs) Unfortunately, a lot of people are stupid. They take drugs. They get drunk and do all the wrong things in life. I just played it straight. I just didn't do anything that I shouldn't have done. I watched my money real close. I never let anyone sign my checks. I was very fortunate that I had a manager, Allen Klein, who later managed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. When The Beatles came over, I was very popular and they figured who's Bobby Vinton's manager? We want to use him as our manager! And if you can imagine walking into the office one day, there's The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bobby Vinton. Those are his three acts. I remember Mick Jagger asking me 'hey, how do you guys feel about us coming over here and taking all the play from you guys?' I said 'Well, in a way, you have eliminated all my competition. There are no more male singers on the chart anymore, the Americans. They're all English and they're all groups.' But, I was able to stay on because in those days I was selling songs like "Blue Velvet" and "There I Said It Again". But they were kind of adult hits. In other words, I would sell 2 million records, a million went to teenagers and a million went to the adults. So, when The Beatles and rock 'n roll became so popular, I lost a million to the teenagers, but I was still selling a million to the adults. I was still able to be on the charts and sell records and continue in the business.

Q - Is it true that in January, 1964, your song "There I Said It Again" was number one until "I Want To Hold Your Hand" knocked it off the top spot?

A - Yeah. There was kind of a battle. I remember in Philadelphia there was one station that was claiming me as number one and The Beatles as number two. A disc jockey recalled getting threatening calls from this new Beatle cult that seemed to be taking over. They said hey look, The Beatles deserve to be number one, not Bobby Vinton. We're gonna cut your tires. Change that listing. They were dedicated at the time. Times were changing. Clothes were changing. Morals were changing. We went from romantic loves songs like I used to do to rock 'n roll. Now that has changed to rap. So, there's always a new generation with new music.

Q - According to Brown and Friedrich's Encyclopedia of Rock 'n Roll, your "bittersweet, dual tracked ballads are scorned by critics." Did critics in fact dislike your songs?

A - I didn't really have double-tracks. I think that means guys who sing with their voices. They didn't know what they were talking about. All my songs were solo voices. Just me singing. In fact, that was the gimmick. Just singing straight with not too much background. As far as critics...I'm not a hip guy. I was never on drugs. Nobody ever felt sorry for me 'cause I went straight or found God. I always had God. I've always like, played by the rules. There was a time when you weren't in unless you did these things. I don't know why. Hey, we've all been to high school We've seen the in-crowds. Most of us have been in the outer crowds, the people who weren't in. Although I was never in, I was selling records and was very happy.

Q - When I hear one of your records, let's say "Blue On Blue" for example, you sound so relaxed. Were you? Or was there a tension in the studio because you had pressure put on you by an engineer or a producer? I think they were three hour sessions then in the studio, weren't they?

A - Yeah. It was three hour sessions. Most of those takes were one take. I made those records in three minutes. So, I didn't have time to get nervous or scared the first time I sang it. It was all 'live' and I enjoyed it so much. To me, there is nothing better than me going into the studio with a live band and hearing those violins and that echo and that sound. I mean I loved it. I would go without food. You could do anything to me you want to if I could do that. It was the greatest thrill and pleasure. What you're hearing is all happiness coming through on those records.

Q - Did you write the songs you were singing?

A - Well, I wrote "Mr. Lonely". I wrote that song while I was in the army. Still today I think it relates to a lot of G.I.s. It'll be around for a long time. Then I wrote that song "Melody Of Love", the one with the Polish lyrics, because over the years I had gone to Italy, Germany, South America. In my show today I sing the song a little bit in everybody's language, because talking about the hits, I'm traveling around the world. My Mother was at one of the shows and she said 'Why don't you ever sing a Polish song?' I said 'I really don't know any Polish songs that they play on the radio, or any that anybody ever sang along to that a young rock 'n roll audience would know.' She said 'well, write a song and record it and you'll see you'll have a hit with it.' (laughs) So, to answer my Mother's request, I wrote this "Melody Of Love". I had no idea that that would be a number one record. As a result of it, I had my own television show, headlined in all the big places in Las Vegas. It's still kind of my theme song.

Q - That song really started a second career for you didn't it?

A - Yeah. When Bobby Vinton the teen-age-idol was fading away, all of a sudden it was Bobby Vinton, The Polish Prince. So, now I had three audiences. When I go do a show today, I still have three audiences. I have a third of the audience that maybe went to hear the oldies, "Roses Are Red", "Mr. Lonely" and "Blue Velvet". That's one third of the audience. The other third is my Polish following that bring their Italian relatives. So, I sing in Italian. I sing in Polish. It makes them happy. And then, the other third is the people who come to hear me as a musician, playing all the instruments and being the Sammy Davis entertainer of the day. Between those three ingredients of the show, it's a pretty powerful act.

Q - You wrote "Mr. Lonely"?

A - "Mr. Lonely" and "Melody Of Love" were the only two number one records that I wrote.

Q - How long did it take you to write "Mr. Lonely"?

A - As I said, I was in the army. I think I wrote it in one day. I was telling all the guys in my outfit that whenever I get out of the army, I want to continue to sing and be a performer. I sang and had a band my whole life. One of my friends said 'you ought to write a song about being lonely...Mr. Lonely. There's so many lonely guys in the army and always will be.' So, I started joking around a little...'Lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely'. I had no idea that I would ever record it, or that it would ever be a hit.

Q - There's two stories going 'round about how you got your break. One says that an A&R guy from Epic Records saw you perform on Guy Lombardo's TV Talent Scouts.

A - That's a phony story.

Q - And the other is a DJ name of Dick Lawrence, who took some demos to CBS.

A - Yeah. I saw an Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock, where he gets out of jail and makes his own records and takes them to the radio stations himself. And then, he puts records in the store. After seeing that movie, I went into the studio and I made records an put them in stores. I went to one radio station and the disc jockey liked the sound of it. It was an instrumental. I was playing saxophone. I said 'just play my instrumental of "Harlem Nocturns" and say The Bobby Vinton Band.' This way I can play for all the high school proms in the Pittsburgh area. He said, well, the other side you're singing on there. Let me take it to a record company and I bet I can get you a recording contract as a singer. I said I'm not a singer, I'm a musician. I'll tell you, once again God has blessed me. For some reason they signed me up and all these years later I'm still singing and recording.

Q - Dick Lawrence didn't insist that he become your manager?

A - No. He had someone else, a singer that he was promoting at the time that he was really excited about. I was like a second string quarterback. As long as I'm at it, let me throw your record in as well. Nobody really thought I was going to make it, because I was a musician. I really wasn't a singer. I played Big Band jazz music. I wasn't into rock and roll. I was just there because it was a living. I surprised everyone. I'm still surprising people. You know, all those critics. They've come and gone. (laughs) I'm still performing.

Q - That must really be satisfying for you.

A - It is. I love it.

Q - Of all the people you know and performed with in the early days, is there anyone who is no longer around that you really miss?

A - I had been on tour with people like Roy Orbison. I knew Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke. So many great performers. Elvis sent me flowers when I opened up in Las Vegas. I walked in my dressing room and if you can imagine, a six foot guitar made out of red roses and it says "To Bobby. Good luck tonight. From Elvis." I said God! Man, what a guy! What a guy! Everything they say about Elvis today is true. He was just one great guy. He wasn't jealous of anyone. I would say Elvis was really someone special when you add it all up.

Q - Having a college education, did that help you in your musical career?

A - Oh, definitely. I mean I was a schooled musician. When I made "Blue Velvet", I told everyone what to do. I was an arranger. I learned music in school I told the band to play this. I told the guitar to do that. When I did "Roses Are Red", I told the piano player to play this lick. I used to totally control the session. Here was a young kid, I go to New York and all these great studio musicians that made all the big hits for Tony Bennett and Perry Como...I'm telling them what to do. They kind of respected me because what I was talking about made sense. That all came from an education. Believe me, education does you more good. Maybe that's the reason I've been around so long. All around as a person, on right decisions, on holding your money, on doing your trade, a good education is a must. I don't think I would've done as good without an education.

Q - Your two sons, Chris and Rob, pretty much stay in the background do they?

A - Yeah. My one son Rob is the bass player in the band. He takes care of all the music and rehearsals. My other son Chris is kind of the manager. In fact, he was the manager of the theater in Branson and had that responsibility on him. So, my family has been close to me all these years and have certainly helped out.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

Bobby Vinton
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection