The Lives They Lived 2018

The Lives They Lived 2018

If, in the post-World War II era, the years before “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” you wanted to make it as a pop singer, you appeared on radio shows like “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” If you did well enough, bookings followed, at small clubs, and, in time, recording contracts. If you were a stunningly handsome young baritone like Vito Farinola, you might be asked to change your name to something with more of an up-tempo swing to it — “Vic Damone,” in his case. But that was as much Americanization as was required. Thanks to the postwar ascent of a number of popular Italian-American singers — Sinatra, Bennett, Dean Martin, Perry Como — pop music had taken on a distinctly Neapolitan flavor. The songs Damone was handed at Mercury Records in the late ’40s, chart-toppers like “I Have But One Heart” and “You’re Breaking My Heart,” were reboots (with English lyrics added) of the Italian songs Damone’s immigrant father had played around the house. At the beginning, it must have seemed as if it was all going to be smooth sailing.

But there was another, more complicated way that Southern Italy maintained a grip on the postwar music industry. As soon as he established himself on the pop charts, Damone moved on to bigger nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York, the Flamingo in Las Vegas, the Beachcomber in Miami Beach — “classy” joints whose proprietorship was never in doubt. “If you were an entertainer in those days, you automatically performed at Mob-owned places,” Damone wrote in his autobiography. “There weren’t that many other clubs for you to go to.” And from those favored by the Mob, much was expected. When, as a very young man, Damone broke his engagement to a mobster’s daughter (for a very good reason: She balked at accepting his mother’s recipe for manicotti), he found himself dangling headfirst out a 14th-floor window, his feet held by the girl’s enraged father. His life was spared when the New York Mob’s “Prime Minister,” Frank Costello, gave him the classic thumbs-up at a meeting set to decide the issue. But the threat didn’t go away. More than a decade later, Robert Kennedy approached Damone at Peter Lawford’s house to get information on his jilted fiancée’s father. The singer offered nothing. How could he? These guys were omnipresent. Frank Sinatra, at his own career peak, responded to Damone’s plea for business advice by passing the phone to his houseguest, Sam Giancana: Vic, talk to Sam. And so it went.

Anthony Giardina is a writer whose most recent play, “Dan Cody’s Yacht,” had its premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club last spring.

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