PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 30, 2004

"Mr. Lonely" Comes to Town

by Jim Newsom

From the time I was eight or nine years old, I would lie in bed awake with the lights off long after my bedtime, listening to my six-transistor radio with an earplug stuffed into my ear, digging the latest sounds of early ‘60s rock’n’roll.

One of the guys whose music I heard a lot in those days was Bobby Vinton. From his first #1 hit, “Roses Are Red (My Love)” in the late summer and fall of 1962 through a string of singles that lasted into the middle of the decade, he was one of the most popular singers in the world. His lush love songs appealed to youngsters and their parents, and he even withstood the onslaught of the British invasion, at least for a while.

Bobby Vinton is making his first trip to Norfolk this weekend to headline a Virginia Symphony Pops holiday concert at Chrysler Hall. I spoke with him recently by phone from his home on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

“This’ll be the first time I’m in the area,” he told me. “For the past ten years, I’ve had my own theater in Branson, Missouri, and I didn’t really travel. Prior to that, I played Las Vegas and Atlantic City, just playing at the casinos.

“I’m looking forward to coming there because I believe everybody is going to be pleasantly surprised when they see my live show. I’ve got a strong, powerful act.”

He’s had a “strong, powerful act” since his days as a teenage bandleader in his hometown of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He was inspired to pursue music there by his father, a mechanic by day who was an accomplished musician by night. He also drew inspiration from one of the biggest stars of the time, a singer who had also come from Canonsburg.

“Perry Como was my idol,” he explained. “I was born across the street from Perry. It was a small town, in fact my father knew Perry. They played in a band together. Perry used to play, like, a baritone horn and my father played the saxophone. So as a kid growing up, I wanted to be Perry Como when everybody else wanted to be Frank Sinatra.

“When I knew that a great man, performer and singer had come from a little town in Pennsylvania, then I figured, hey, my chances are pretty good too. You don’t have to live in Hollywood or New York to be a star!”

But it was a man in Philadelphia---Dick Clark---who facilitated Vinton’s entrée into the big time.

“I had this band,” Vinton recalled, “and in the early ‘60s, Dick Clark heard about me because here I was, a kid with all kids in the band, and we could play music good. So he used my band to back up all of his shows. When Fabian and Brenda Lee and Connie Francis and all these other entertainers would go on tour, they’d use my band. So I got to know all the stars. I got to do all the number one records and [learn] what it took. I looked to see who moved the audience and who didn’t and why and where. It was like my school of entertainment.”

His singing debut reads like the script for A Star is Born:

“I played the saxophone and I led the band. What happened was, at one of these rock’n’ roll shows, at the New York Paramount Theater with Murray the K, Ray Charles was there and all of the great stars of the early ‘60s. I played saxophone and I opened up the show and all of the kids really wanted to hear singers. Just because I was forced into it, I sang a song on the opening of the show. It was like a big hit, like in the movies…All of the kids were screaming, ‘Why don’t you make records!?!’ Just like you would see in the movies!

“You had to warm up the audience so they’d settle down before they brought on the stars. I sang a song and…I was in the dressing room and I hear the fans outside hollering for Bobby. I didn’t know why they were all hollering for me because I was just a bandleader. The public called for me to put the saxophone down and sing and be a performer.”

Over the next few years, the hits poured out of Bobby Vinton---“Blue on Blue,” “Blue Velvet,” “There I’ve Said It Again,” “Mr. Lonely,” “Please Love Me Forever.” Although he was a rock’n’roll star, he wasn’t really a rock’n’roller. But that may have contributed to his longevity.

“In those days, all the radio stations played the same music,” he remembered. “So the adults were buying a million and the teenagers were buying a million. America used to be all one. When The Beatles came along, I lost the teenagers so I lost a million records there, but I was still selling a million records to the adults. So I was still selling a lot of records in the midst of the musical transition that happened.”

His manager, Allen Klein, became the manager of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones:

“If you can imagine, I went into his office one time and there’s The Beatles and there’s The Rolling Stones…and me. I remember Mick Jagger joking with me and saying, ‘How does it feel, us coming here and taking all the play from you?’ I says, ‘Well, in a way, you have eliminated all of my competition. There are no more male American singers on the charts but me!’”

Saturday night at Chrysler Hall, Bobby Vinton will finally get to sing his songs in person for his fans in Hampton Roads.

“In my show,” he said, “my daughter sings with me and my son sings with me. It’s kind of a family variety show. I do ‘Sing Sing’ on the clarinet like Benny Goodman and I jump to the Phantom of the Opera, and my daughter sings a country song and my son sings a contemporary song---we have a show that I think everybody can enjoy.

“The symphony will be doing all holiday music on the first half. On the second half, I’m gonna be doing ‘me,’ rather than ‘me holidays.’ I’ve waited forty years to come to do what I do.”

copyright © 2004 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.