He was one of the biggest singing sensations of the 1950s, the first of the so called blue-eyed soul singers. He's sold more than 127 million records with at least 21 Gold Records to his credit. Songs like "Jezebel", "I Believe", "Mule Train" and "Moonlight Gambler" helped make Frankie Laine a household name. And, if you remember the '60s TV show Rawhide starring Clint Eastwood, that's Frankie Laine singing the theme song.
Frankie Laine was so popular in Great Britain that his 1953 recording of "I Believe" still holds the record for the most consecutive weeks (make that 18), at the top of the British charts, something that even The Beatles never matched. It was Frankie Laine who paved the way for Johnny Ray, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and so many others. In 1993, Frankie Laine wrote his autobiography titled That Lucky Old Son.
We talked with Frankie Laine, a.k.a. "Mr. Rhythm" about a career that's remarkable to say the least.
Q - Mr. Laine, what do you remember about Syracuse and your performance at Three Rivers Inn?
A - Well, the first time we played Syracuse was in a place called Andres. It was wonderful. It opened up the whole eastern coast you might say, 'cause it was one of the first places we played in the New York area.
Q - How about Three Rivers Inn?
A - Well, that came later. Dominick (Bruno - Three Rivers Inn owner) was one of the greatest guys I ever met. I played there many times.
Q - Where else did you perform in Syracuse?
A - There's a big hall there.
Q - The War Memorial?
A - That's it. That's the one. I played there twice.
Q - Since you've titled your autobiography That Lucky Old Son, do you feel lucky? Isn't your story more about hard work?
A - The first 17 years was all hard luck and bad luck. I think it was Jo Stafford who said to me, "You find out after you're in this business long enough that you last just about as long as it took you to get there." (Laughs). Well, it took me 17 years to get there, and I should've lasted 17 years, and I've lasted almost 50.
Q - I believe you've said that 17 years was a little too long to wait for success, that it should have been half of that.
A - I would hope so, you know. But, there's only one person that I know of that it took longer and that was Roberta Sherwood. It took her 26 years. But, she had a good excuse. She got married and raised a family. (Laughs).
Q - So, why did it take you 17 years to be discovered? Were you not seen by the right people in the right places?
A - Who the hell knows, Gary. I did all the usual things. I think I did everything that everybody else does. I did auditions. I went to see people. I went to see the right people in some instances, the wrong people in others. The wrong time in others. The right time in others. Nothing seemed to make any difference. I quit 5 times! I always went back to try again when circumstances came around to it.
Q - Do you still perform today?
A - Oh yeah.
Q - Where do you perform?
A - I do mostly one night concerts because the doctors don't want me to travel too much. They don't want me to tour night after night. So when the right place comes along at the right time with the right money and I have a great conductor and I got a good book, we take it. We're doing a big Italian Festival in New Port Richey, Florida. I'm doing a benefit in Scripps Park which is near La Jolla for I guess it's a hospital, I don't even know. It's outdoors and it's in the afternoon. We should be playing Carnegie Hall in the spring.
Q - How are you able to write songs? Do you play an instrument?
A - I fool around with guitar and I can fool around on piano. I don't really play either instrument although I can play a couple of songs on guitar. You don't really need to be able to play to compose. There are many composers and arrangers who work out of their heads.
Q - What do they do, sing it into a tape recorder?
A - I know people who do that. But I can usually go to the piano and I can't always get the structural chords, but I can always pick out the melody notes I want. Then, if I get the melody notes I want for 32 bars, I'll call in my conductor or my arranger and I'll sit down with them and they start trying to figure out the right chords. If they play something that doesn't sound right, I'll say no, and they'll try something else. Finally, we find it. Sometimes it comes quickly, and sometimes it doesn't. But if it's a good idea and you believe in it, you keep at it, it finally works.
Q - How did you travel in the early days, was it by bus?
A - No. Well, we did a few tours by bus. In Australia they had limousines. The band would go by bus and the headliners would go by limo, or we'd fly.
Q - You hear so many Rock stars today complaining about how tough the road is as they jet around in their private planes.
A - Yeah. (Laughs).
Q - And you and Perry Como and Tony Bennett didn't have the luxury of a private plane and probably didn't stay in a $400 a night hotel room.
A - That's true. Well, we didn't play ballparks either. You didn't play to 40,000 people most of the time, or 50,000, or 100,000. You can do that when you're playing to that kind of group and charging $20 a head, or more.
Q - Many Rock stars will use the excuse of the pressures of the road to explain away their drug addiction.
A - That's a bunch of b.s.
Q - Was there less pressure on you and Perry Como and Tony Bennett?
A - The pressure most of the time is what you make it. If you're gonna go play The White House for the President as compared to playing Paduka, Kentucky, where's the most pressure?
Q - It's gotta be The White House.
A - Okay. That's as simple of an explanation as I can give you. The more important the job is, the greater the pressure on the performer, but not the actual touring from town to town, there's no real pressure there in the sense of a performance. You're doing what you're doing every day. Now, if you're gonna play Paduka, Kentucky and you understand the President is gonna be in the audience, that makes a big difference. (Laughs).
Q - The grind of touring...
A - That part of it is unavoidable. It goes with the territory.
Q - When Rock 'n' Roll became popular in the mid '50s, did you like it or hate it?
A - I liked parts of it. In every kind of business, in every kind of song, in every section of music, there is always a good song or a bad song. Some songs are crap and some songs aren't.
Q - Did you like the material that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were doing?
A - I didn't listen too much in the beginning. I was too busy. I thought "Rock Around The Clock" was a hell of a piece of material for Bill Haley. But there was a lot of crap that came after that. Most of the guys in the early days of Rock could not play the instruments well enough, so everything was at a moderate tempo. There was nobody that played anything that was really up-tempo, or really fast. They couldn't play that fast. Later on when they got better and more expert at it and the better musicians came along who could execute well on the instruments, the songs got better. There was never a better song written than "Bridge Over Troubled Waters".
Q - What a great quartet Led Zeppelin was. Each member was a master at what he did.
A - They were absolutely great. Now, everybody thinks The Beatles were a great outfit and they were. But they were better composers than they were singers.
Q - I'd challenge you on that one.
A - The Bee Gees were much better singers.
Q - The Beatles had their own sound. The Bee Gees had their own sound.
A - I'm not talking about sound. I'm talking about quality of voice.
Q - In The Beatles you had four singers. Every song sounded different then the one before it.
A - I'll agree with that.
Q - With The Bee Gees, you can always tell it's The Bee Gees. Their songs sound alike. You can always tell it's them singing. With The Beatles, you were never quite sure, at least in the beginning anyway, who was singing lead.
A - Yeah. You didn't know who was singing. I agree with you. But that doesn't necessarily make the quality of the sound great to me. As far as Paul is concerned, he's a nice left-handed guitar player. He sings pretty well. Can you name three singers who sang better than Paul?
Q - I've always liked John Lennon's voice, but there's no way you're gonna have me pit John against Paul.
A - Well there you go. Even within their own group, one guy had a better voice than the other guy.
Q - And together it was a knock-out.
A - Yeah. I think the best of the three was George Harrison. Musically. Quality sound. He was over-shadowed by the composing ability of the other two guys.
Q - You saw Elvis in Las Vegas at the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. You said his act didn't go over very well then. Others have written Elvis bombed big time back then. What was his act like?
A - I think they took him to Vegas too soon. He did his act as he always did it. Had that been teenage audience, it would've been a smash. But in those days you didn't get those kids, and they couldn't go in those gambling casinos. So he had to play to the audience he had and his act was not geared to an adult audience. His act was geared to his teenage admirers.
Q - At one point, having left the stage, he came over to your table. What did you guys talk about?
A - Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis' Mgr.) was a friend of mine. He went and got Elvis and brought him to the table. He didn't just come to the table. He sat down with us, me and my wife, and the Colonel. I complimented him on what I saw and what I heard because I could appreciate it. You know, I wasn't 60 or 70 years old at that point. I was 40, 41 years old. I could see his magnetism, his movements. I like a guy that moves. I could see how he tried to communicate with the audience. His vocal quality was never comparable to Perry Como or Tony Bennett. I think there were better Rock singers than Elvis but they didn't have all the other things he had. What he said to me was in the nature of a compliment. I said, "Elvis, this really isn't your audience. You shouldn't feel bad about it, what the response was." He said, "Well, if I get to do half as good as you've done Mr. Laine, I'll be very happy." To me that was a great compliment.
Q - It certainly was. Did you like working in Vegas?
A - Oh yeah. In those days, Vegas was really a great spot. You could be sure of four weeks at one time. Once I played seven weeks at the Dunes. Once I played three months at the Hilton.
Q - How many nights a week?
A - Six. When you play the lounge area, you get a night off, which was a blessing.
Q - Two shows a night?
A - Three on weekends. Two shows a night during the week. (Laughs). Your throat really goes haywire. That's why they call it Vegas throat. When that ended I swore I would never do that again. But that got me the theme song from Blazing Saddles because I was playing Vegas.
Q - What do you think about today's singers, people like Madonna, Michael Jackson?
A - I like some things. In the early days I liked him (Michael Jackson) better. I think now there's a lot of affectation. It's always better in the beginning when somebody's breaking through. They're hungry, and they're putting out their best. Later on it gets to be more run of the mill. It gets to be old hat in a lot of instances. I don't know, maybe that's why American audiences are as fickle as they are. In England, once they take you to their hearts, its forever. Over here, the next new guy that comes along is the guy.
Q - You've got a photo in the book of you and Billie Holiday. What do you remember about her?
A - Oh, well she was my doll. (Laughs). She was my inspiration from about 1937 or '38 when I went to New York finally. I went to see her at a place on Fifty-First Street. You'll never guess who was playing back-up for her, The Nat King Cole Trio. I didn't get to meet Nat that night, but I met her. I complimented her and told her how much a fan I was and so forth. Then later on, I had a chance to meet her somewhere else and we had a picture taken together. That's one of my pride and joys.
Q - Your father used to cut Al Capone's hair. Were you ever there when Al Capone walked in the barbershop?
A - He never walked in. Pa used to have to go to his hotel.
Q - What did your father tell you about that experience?
A - Nothing. (Laughs). He kept his mouth shut. He had a horse room in the back of his barbershop, which I never knew was there until long afterwards. We used to go down there. Ma used to take us downtown, four boys, and we all used to get our haircuts. Then we'd go home. We never knew anything was going on. But a lot of guys used to walk in and disappear in the back. I didn't know what the hell they were doing. (Laughs). We were small kids.
Q - Don't you wish he had told you?
A - Yeah. Pa was pretty close-mouthed. All he ever told me was he had to go to the hotel whenever Mr. Capone called. (Laughs).
Q - It almost seems like performers today need a gimmick to become famous or they have to engage in some shocking behavior. Could a Frankie Laine type singer be successful today?
A - I have no idea. I really don't know. I will say this; I have seen guys come along with gimmicks and I would say the gimmick is worthwhile if it makes you sing better, or play better. But if it's just to get attention, then it's doomed to failure in the end, even though it brings you out to the public's attention. If wearing a green hair piece would make me sing better, I'd wear it. (Laughs).