One of the Last Great Italian-American Crooners
I was saddened to read of the death of Jerry Vale. He passed away May 18, 2014 at the age of 83.
My grandmother absolutely adored Jerry Vale. In the '60s, she wore out the grooves on several of his records. (If you're under 40, go look up Jerry Vale. If you're under 20, go look up records and grooves.)
Born in the Bronx July 8, 1930, Genaro Louis (or Luigi) Vitaliano began his career as a singer in a Mt. Vernon barbershop at age 11. He worked there as a shoe-shine boy, frequently singing for customers as he plied his trade. The more he sang, the more tips he got. His boss noticed and arranged for some music lessons from a local Italian woman. Genaro spent some time as a teenager working as an oiler with his engineer father, but he kept on singing, eventually landing jobs in supper clubs like the Enchanted Room in Yonkers, where, in 1950, he met Guy Mitchell. Mitchell introduced him to Mitch Miller, who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, convinced him to change his name to Jerry Vale, and helped him launch a career that would carry him to the top of the pop charts. His 1953 breakthrough single “You Can Never Give Me Back My Heart” was the first of many hits recorded on more than fifty albums. The shoe-shine boy from the Bronx rose to play Carnegie Hall. Thanks to an early friendship with his idol, Frank Sinatra, Jerry worked the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas alongside the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and Jerry Lewis.
Jerry was a lifelong baseball fan. He once owned a minor-league team in Florida and in 1963 he recorded a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that included a 40-piece orchestra and backup singers as a gift to the New York Yankees. His version of the National Anthem was popular at sporting events for many years and ultimately earned a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY.
A crooner of romantic ballads and pop standards like “You Don't Know Me”, Jerry also loved Italian music and showcased his ability with the genre on tunes like “Arrivederci, Roma,” Al Di La,” “Innamorata,” and many others. One of my favorites was his rendition of “For Mama.” Even now, several years after my mother's passing, if want a good emotional breakdown, all I have to do is listen to Jerry's beautiful high tenor voice singing the words to that song.
I first became aware of that voice in the early-to-mid-'60s. Between the two of them, I think my mother and my grandmother owned copies of records by every popular Italian-American singer of the day. The house was always filled with music by Mario Lanza (Alfredo Arnold Cocozza), Perry Como (Pierino Ronald Como), Tony Bennett (Anthony Dominick Benedetto), Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti), Vic Damone (Vito Rocco Farinola), and,of course, Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra. Even many of the teen idols I was exposed to by my teen sister were Italian; Frankie Avalon (Francis Thomas Avallone), Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cassotto), Dion (Dion DiMucci), Fabian (Fabian Forte), James Darren (James William Ercolani), Frankie Valli (Francis Steven Casteluccio), and Bobby Rydell (Robert Louis Ridarelli). But, as I said before, I think Jerry Vale was the artist whose records spent the most time on the family turntable. I can still envision my petite grandmother sitting in her favorite rocker and quietly singing along with Jerry on songs from his “The Language of Love” album. “You Belong To My Heart,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Now,” and “Where Is Your Heart (The Song from “Moulin Rouge”) were her very favorites. I heard them over and over for many years. And I still enjoy them, having replaced Grandma's worn LPs with shiny new CDs.
Jerry continued performing on the club circuit up through the 1990s. He even did some “acting” of sorts, playing himself in the movies “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” and on the TV series “The Sopranos.” Poor health forced him to stop working in the early 2000s and he retired with his wife Rita, whom he married in 1959, to their home in Palm Desert, CA. It was there that he died, surrounded by family and friends.
With him goes an era. Most of the Italian-American singers I mentioned earlier, artists who had profound effects on American popular music, are gone now. And there are very few coming along to take their places. Okay, Madonna and Lady Gaga – but somehow it's not the same. The closest we have today is Michael Bublé, the product of Italian grandparents. He wears the crooner mantle well and follows competently in the footsteps of his musical forbears, but he is only one voice in a chorus that was once legion. Tony Bennett is still out there plugging and turning on new audiences to the “old” music. Maybe someday a new generation will rediscover Jerry Vale. He deserves to be remembered.