Music, faith can guide us, a singer believes
By PAT KINNEY
"I hear music when I look at you...
The voice is strong and melodic. The song, written in 1932 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is familiar to this mostly middle-age audience.
"Vic! Ya still got it!" a man shouts from somewhere in the cavernous Atlantic City showroom.
"Got what?" the performer replies, smoothly shifting into his next number, Kurt Weill's "September Song," without missing a beat.
The crowd laughs -- then applauds. This will not be a raspy-throated trip down memory lane. Vic Damone had his first hit record more than half a century ago, but clearly the years have been kind. True, the photo on the billboard outside the theater in the Atlantic City casino could be updated. The singer's hair is gray now, but under the rose-tinted stage lights a boyish charm remains.
But that evening last February the singer did disappoint the crowd, with an unexpected announcement: "I'm going to miss you," he told the audience. "I'm going to retire." A low groan filled the darkened theater.
"Yeah, that's it. Fifty-three years. May 2001 at Carnegie Hall -- that'll be it.
Though Damone was never quite a superstar like his mentor and idol Frank Sinatra, his longevity in show business is remarkable. His singing career began when he was still in his teens. Now, at 72, fans and music critics alike say he is in his prime.
Decades ago Sinatra said, "Vic Damone has the best pipes in the business." But it is in recent years that his joy in singing and pleasing an audience have added assurance and stage presence to his matchless vocal instrument.
"The Baha'i faith" had saved Damone's life, he told a group invited to his dressing room that evening after the show.
Unlike many performers, Damone does not impose his personal beliefs on his audience. But he revealed to the small knot of friends and admirers that he does take his faith on stage.
"You know, when I sing 'The overpowering feeling that any second you may suddenly appear ...'"
Everyone nodded, familiar with his 1950s hit, "On the Street Where You Live," from the Lerner and Loew musical "My Fair Lady."
"When I sing that, I think of Abdu'l-Baha," Damone said. He stretched out his hands, palms up. On the stage Damone is not alone because he brings Abdu'l-Baha, son of the founder of the Baha'i faith, on stage with him.
The singer revealed that when he strikes that pose in his songs it is not to draw applause from the audience, but to draw strength from his faith.
Damone embraced the Baha'i faith in the early 1960s. His career was hot in those days: Columbia Records gave him first dibs on the entire score from "My Fair Lady," movies at the legendary MGM studio in Hollywood, engagements at The Copacabana and The Empire Room of The Waldorf Astoria, concerts, and TV appearances.
His private life, in contrast, was falling apart. His marriage to actress Pier Angeli had ended in divorce. She left Hollywood for her native Italy, taking their son, Perry (named for Perry Como), with her.
Then, just when he was despondent enough to fritter away his life and his talent, Damone received a gift: a Baha'i prayer book. Prayer brought his life around.
Damone gained fortitude through his prayers and began to read Baha'i books: "Baha'u'llah and the New Era," "All Things Made New," and "The Hidden Words," given to him by the drummer in his band, who was a Baha'i.
Still, life is filled with tests, Baha'is are told. Tests strengthen and mold the soul.
Damone has had his share, both private and public, as evidenced by the title of the memoir he is writing, "Singing Was the Easy Part." He has maintained the balance in his life and nurtured his musical gift through the Baha'i faith, he said.
He marked his 50th anniversary in show business three years ago. Reflecting Baha'i precepts of the importance of education, he celebrated the milestone by getting his high school diploma. He had dropped out of school after his father, Rocco, an electrician, was injured in an accident. He said that although he had been invited to sing at the White House numerous times and traveled all over the world, he had an unfinished dream.
Officials at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn granted credits for life experience.
Asked to give the commencement address to the Class of '97, the bespectacled father of four and grandfather of five wore academic robes as he stood at the podium.
"Without education you're at a disadvantage," he began, reading from a prepared speech.
Then he spotted a couple of wise guys clowning around in the back row and spoke from his heart: "People without education, they're the losers," he advised. This was a public school, but he added, "Have spiritual guidance. Don't lose God. There is a God. Trust me."
Since then Damone has expressed his concerns for youth and education, stemming from his faith. Disturbed by the tragedy in Columbine, Colo., and increasing violence in this country, he has said that if we are concerned about speaking to the hearts and souls of young people, we have to consider the music they listen to.
"Music does more than entertain," he said. "It informs culture and changes people.
It can transform a person's entire body and soul," he said. Speaking from firsthand experience, Damone said, "I've seen it happen every time I do a concert. A torch song of lost love brings tears to the eyes. A great, jumping Cole Porter tune will have feet tapping and hands clapping."
"Our schools have expelled George Gershwin and his colleagues from the classroom," he said.
The singer said he believes we have turned our backs on one of this country's greatest treasures. While schools were once sanctuaries of learning, our school grounds and neighborhoods are poisoned with a more violent culture, he said.
"When a young person feels misguided, adrift, and unsure, we could point them in the direction of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' Dizzy Gillespie's 'Groovin' High,' or Elvis Presley singing the 'American Trilogy,' he recommended. "This music can expand narrow horizons and give listeners a depth they had not imagined existed."
"So many of our kids have turned to non-melodious, three-chord songs with monotonous drumbeats and often offensive lyrics," he said. "Let's show them there's more."
"Please, God -- let the light shine upon their music again," he said. "The great American standard song has transcended generations, and it can build a bridge over the vast valley of ignorance."
Pat Kinney is a representative of the Baha'i faith on the Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee.
©Copyright 2000, Bergen Record Corp.