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. 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” 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.
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 this one: 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 did influence 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.
Hard to believe that the all-time best-selling Frankie Laine album, Frankie Laine’s Greatest Hits, does not have “Mule Train” on it. Assuming you have that recording somewhere in your collection, this album then does a nice job of summarizing Laine at the peak of his recording career with Columbia. It’s got “Jezebel,” “I Believe,” “Moonlight Gambler;” a dozen songs all total for a price of about six bucks. It also features two recordings that are not the originals: “That’s My Desire,” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” Usually we try to avoid re-recordings, but in this case, they’re true enough to the originals, and actually with much better sound quality. Why is it that when artists re-recorded songs in the 1950s and 1960s they sounded better than the originals, but when artists do so today, the results sound so cheesy?
Here are two of Laine’s best albums on one CD: Rockin’/Hell Bent for Leather!. 24 songs from the peak of his career, definitely the “western” flavor here…”Rawhide,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “High Noon,” and a bunch of others. Also “Wild Goose” and some non-Western stuff recorded right at the time rock and roll was on the rise, circa 1955. The version of “Mule Train” was recorded around the same time, and although it isn’t as raw or edgy as the original, the sound of the recording is better. This is another offering from Amazon.com; check it out by clicking here.