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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Frankie Laine’s Amazing 70-Year Career

Movie title songs helped ‘Mr. Rhythm’ hit it big

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Question: Which vocal artist—male or female—has the most movie title songs to his or her credit? Answer: The late, great Frankie Laine. And not only did he sings the most, but his evocative, storytelling songs were also the best and most memorable.

With a distinctive style derived from black singers, Laine was one of the most popular male vocalists of the 1950s. He recorded hit after hit during that decade. But it was his movie title songs that still live on. To wit: “Blowing Wild” (1953); “Strange Lady in Town” and “Man Without a Star” (both 1955); “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “3:10 to Yuma” (both 1957); “Triple Cross” (1966), and “Blazing Saddles” (1974). Each was singularly descriptive of the film.

The legendary Laine also hit it big with “Rawhide” and “Bullwhip” from ’60s TV series, as well as “High Noon” from the classic 1952 movie (though Tex Ritter—father of late TV star John Ritter—sang the latter’s Academy Award-winning theme in the film).

What always distinguished Laine’s movie title vocals was their ability to set the mood. In his case, the songs usually were heard over the opening credits, during the film and at the end. They left a lasting impression.

Laine’s Ascent

Prolific songwriter Hoagy Carmichael “discovered” Laine singing Carmichael’s “Old Rocking Chair” in a Los Angeles nightclub in the 1940s. The singer began his ascent in 1947 with “That’s My Desire” on the Mercury label, a song that rose to No. 4 on the pop charts.

Laine patterned his style on tunes such as “Shine” (1949) after great black vocalists like Billy Eckstine, Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing. As a result, the big-voiced, former supper club jazz and pops belter was the first to be dubbed a “blue-eyed soul singer.”

Becoming known as “Mr. Rhythm,” Laine charted three No. 1 hits in America: “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Mule Train” (both 1949) and “Cry of the Wild Goose” (1950). In 1953, he had three chart-toppers in the United Kingdom: “I Believe” (which was No. 1 for 18 weeks), “Answer Me” and “Hey, Joe.”

In 1951, after joining Columbia Records, Laine had a two-sided, top-five hit with “Jezebel” backed by “Rose, Rose, I Love You.” During the balance of the ’50s, his top-10 hits included “Tell Me a Story,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Cool Water,” “Jealousy,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “High Noon,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Moonlight Gambler,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Granada” and “Love Is a Golden Ring.”

Owing to his soaring popularity, Laine hosted three of his own television shows in the mid-1950s. In addition to his title songs in seven films, he also appeared in seven movies: Make Believe Ballroom (1949), When You’re Smiling (1950), Sunny Side of the Street (1951), Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder (1952), Bring Your Smile Along (1955), He Laughed Last (1956) and Meet Me in Las Vegas (also 1956).

Laine remains a key figure in popular music and, for my money, was A-number-one, top of the heap in movie vocals. As an almost insatiable fan of vintage films, I never tire of watching videodiscs, VCR tapes and DVDs of the memorable flicks to which he lent his unique voice and song stylings.

During his 70-year career, Laine made countless single records. Incredibly, his many albums, including retrospectives of his music, were released on 47 different labels. On his 80th birthday in 1993, the U.S. Congress declared Laine a “national treasure.”

Laine’s final recording, “Taps/My Buddy,” was released shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and dedicated to New York City firefighters. Despite a stroke, he made his last appearance in “My Music” in 2005 on PBS. Laine passed away Feb. 6, 2007, in San Diego at the age of 93.