Frankie Laine Interview
He was one of the biggest singing sensations of the 1950's; 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 60's T.V. show "Rawhide" starring Clint Eastwood, that's Frankie
Laine singing the "Rawhide" theme song.
Frankie Laine was so popular in Great Britian 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" (Pathfinder Publishing of California, Tele: 1
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
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
note I want. Then, if I get the melody note 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
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 $20.00 a head, or
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. O.K. 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 '50's, 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 gig was a master at what
A. They were absolutely great. Now, everybody thinks The Beatles were
a great outfit and they were. But, they were better composers than they
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
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 3 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
Q. At one point, having left the stage, he came over to your table. What
did you guys talk about?
A. Col. 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 4 weeks at one time. Once I played 7 weeks at the Dunes. Once I
played 3 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
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
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 hairpiece would make me sing better,
I'd wear it. (Laughs).
© Gary James All Rights Reserved