Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Every generation in America grows up with its own singer or singing group. Elvis is perhaps the most notable example. All sorts of men and women now in their early and middle sixties still vibrate to his hit songs of the late fifties and early sixties. For those who came a bit after, it was The Beatles and then the Rolling Stones, who Tom Wolfe once described as like the Beatles "but more lower-class deformed." Just before my time, especially for the girls known as bobbysoxers, it was Frank Sinatra. The singer of my own generation--kids who came of age during the late 1940s and early '50s--was a man named Frankie Laine, who died a couple of months ago at the age of 93.
As a singer, Frankie Laine was a dramatizer; his songs all told stories. Most of these stories took place out of doors, with geese and mules and devils and whips cracking all over the joint. Laine was a belter, always singing at the top of his voice. Nobody slept while he was on. He made way for other dramatizing belters, among them Johnnie Ray and Tom Jones. Not a brilliant tradition, let us agree.
"Cry of the Wild Goose" was the title of one of Laine's greatest hits, in which he sang, "I must go where the wild goose goes"--wherever that was. It is Frankie Laine who sings in the background of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles. He had twenty-one gold records, for such singles as "Jezebel," "I Believe," "Jealousy," "High Noon," and "That's My Desire," every one of them sung with the throttle out, the pedal all the way down.
Laine was born in 1913, né Francesco Paolo LoVecchio, the son of a barber. (The crooner Perry Como had himself been a barber before he caught on as a singer.) He chose the stage name Laine after Lane Technical High School, where he had gone in Chicago. He started out as a marathon dancer--not an easy way to make a living--and then turned to singing with jazz bands. But only when he turned the volume up and got out of doors did he strike the gong of success.
I first heard Frankie Laine in the early 1950s, when he was nearly 40. This was before the age of television, so in those days one frequently listened to singers without any notion of their looks, unless there had been articles about them in Life magazine. In Frankie Laine's case, given his songs, one always imagined him singing with mountains in the background, storm clouds above, horses cantering off in the distance. If John Wayne had sung, he would have sung like Frankie Laine. Asked to describe him before I saw him, I'd have said that he had rugged good looks.
When I did get to see Frankie Laine in the flesh--as I did onstage at the Chicago Theater when I was 15--he looked, far from a hero in a cowboy flick, more like the guy who ran the general store, or the bartender who ducked under the bar at the first hint of gunplay. He was a wide-body, heavyset; not fat, but not especially trim either. He wore a toupee, and had an impressive nose. The aura he gave off was completely urban: He was one of those Italians who could have been taken for Jewish, or the other way round: a Jewalian, an Italiew. He had briefly worked as a car salesman, and a car salesman is what he most resembled, at a Buick dealership, I'd say. He may possibly have eaten a wild goose, but the likelihood of his ever having seen one alive seemed remote.
In later years, Laine grew a beard and took to wearing cowboy hats, which at least brought him a bit more in sync with his hit songs. But what was there in this unsubtle singer, who roared away about the still wild west and women tormenting him, that caught the attention of so many city boys? (I don't think Laine was a big item with young women.) A few of his songs could be danced to, but most, as the old disc jockeys used to say, were "for our listening pleasure." In what, quite, I now wonder, did the pleasure reside?
Was there something in urban boys of that day that wanted to sight wild geese, crack whips over the heads of mule trains, and have our lives destroyed by Jezebels? Were these our secret desires? They were never mine. My own notion of roughing it, then as now, is poor room service; I prefer a woman who, far from tormenting me, is punctual. What the true attraction of Frankie Laine was will evidently have to remain a mystery, to be solved perhaps only after I learn where, exactly, those damn wild geese went.