Frankie Laine

Frankie Laine at Columbia studios

Opera, gospel, country and western, pop, jazz, easy listening, rock and roll, movie themes, commercial jingles, TV themes...he did them all. After a career spanning some 70 years, "Old Man Jazz" should be remembered as the most versatile male vocalist in the history of American Popular Song. With hits covering the spectrum from "I Believe" to "Rawhide," recordings from the mid 1940s to 2004, and gold records from 1947 to 1970, a complete biography of Francesco Paolo LoVecchio belongs in a book. So for the purposes of this webpage, we'll limit it to the two most significant contributions Frankie Laine made to popular song.

Part crooner and part cowboy, Laine could sing it all. Some felt he should've opted for an operatic style -- the next Mario Lanza -- others thought Laine a natural jazz singer. Laine himself favored blues and jazz; he was cranking out a Hoagy Carmichael song called "Rocking Chair" in Hollywood in 1946 when Carmichael himself happened along and heard the big kid with the "steel tonsils." Laine worked notes differently from his contemporaries -- he twisted and turned, and stressed the downbeat -- quite a departure from the smooth crooners of the time. Despite his different style, the up and coming Laine was well liked by singers like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, who did their best to nurture the young talent. Many loaned Frankie money to keep him afloat. Carmichael took Laine to Mercury Records, where he dusted off an old song called "That's My Desire." The song became an overnight sensation, #1 on the R & B charts, #4 on the pop charts, and a million-seller to boot. The story goes that Laine immediately paid back his friends -- all except Como, who refused the money. Perry preferred teasing Frankie about the debt through the years. [Editor: Try and imagine today's chart-topping "gangsta rappers" doing that without some form of gunplay. We've sunk quite a bit over the past 60 years.] Although he had struggled for a couple years, Laine's instant success with his first Mercury recording was a sign of even bigger things to come.

He soon caught the interest of Mercury's resident whiz-kid, a producer named Mitch Miller. Miller, who worked in and was greatly influenced by Nashville area artists, thought that Laine could take "country" music to a new level. Together they would take it to level so new that it was unrecognizable as country music.

Miller worked with Laine on a recording of "Lucky Old Sun," a song originally thought to be better suited to a Gene Autry or Tex Ritter type of recording. Perhaps so, but Laine would do so well with it that he made a major part of his career out of western themed songs, a sort of "spaghetti western vocalist" if you will. In 1949 during what was to be Miller's swan song with Mercury, he turned convention on its ear with an incredible production of "Mule Train," complete with cracking whips and raucous "haw! haw!" vocals from Laine.

Mule Train

"Mule Train" was unlike anything the American public had ever heard from a white vocalist. It was so raw and edgy that it made Spike Jones sound downright safe. And like most top hits of the day, it was offered in competing versions on other labels by the likes of Bing Crosby and Vaughn Monroe, but their conventional stylings just didn't compare to Laine's.

Although similar works like "Lucky Old Sun" preceeded, and classics like "Jezebel" would follow, it was indeed "Mule Train" that would partially pave the way for two epic changes in the world of pop music.

The first, most profound influence was that Laine paved the way for a new type of "crooner." Rather than the smooth, dream-like vocals of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Clark or Perry Como, Laine seemed to sing like a black man improvising an old "negro" spiritual. By turning some notes around, modulating into unexpected keys and emphasizing the backbeat, Laine opened the door for a new wave of crooners like Tony Bennett, Eddie Fischer, and Johnnie Ray. Vocalists who adapted -- Sinatra, who perfected the style; Como, who mainly just took the tempo -- survived and thrived.

continues above, in column at right...

featured performance

Jezebel this is a live performance from the early 1970s; after two decades Laine has given the song a smoother, jazzier style. Despite this "softening" of the song, his vocal nuances and timing are unmistakably "Laine" and add new dimension to the song. Please note, you need to click on the little arrow button twice to get it to play. If the recording is still playing from when you entered this page, you need to click it off first, below left.

Frankie Laine, continued from column at left

Vocalists who couldn't adapt -- Clark, Dick Haymes, and Johnny Mercer -- faded from the charts. Crooners who followed -- Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, and even Elvis in many of his "easier" hits -- all followed more in the compulsive style of Laine. It is probably the most significant single style change in the history of pop male vocals.

Laine, Haley, or Presley?

The other significant impact made by "Mule Train" is harder to quantify. The question that gives music historians fits is, who made black music styles acceptable to the masses? The answer to that question is the person responsible for creating "rock and roll." The answers range from Bill Haley to Elvis to Pat Boone, yet more and more historians are pointing back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and artists like Laine and Ray. While black artists like Louis Jordan had crossed over to the popular charts prior to 1949, many believe that "Mule Train" was the first black-sounding song, recorded in an R & B style, by a mainstream, white pop artist.

The real answer is that a number of factors contributed to the advent of rock and roll through the years, it was a natural teen-oriented outgrowth of pop music that simply mounted over time. Certainly "Mule Train" played some sort of role...if not to influence rock and roll, it certainly was a huge influence on the artists and styles who influenced rock and roll.

The Big Contract

Following hits like "Mule Train" at Mercury, Mitch Miller was obviously a big fish in a tiny pond. He was lured to giant Columbia Records in 1950, and took a lot of production and arrangement techniques with him. He also took Frankie Laine, and signed him to the biggest recording contract in history. It would in fact stand until 1957, when Elvis set the bar higher with RCA. Laine continued to record hit after hit in the early and mid 1950s, but would fade a bit under the onslaught of rock and roll, the music he helped pave the way for.

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To revisit last month's feature artist, Vaughn Monroe, please click here.

Here are a couple more selections to sample...

When Sunny Gets Blue
From the Old Man Jazz album, 2002.

Lucky Old Sun
from 1949.