By: Judy Dick
Rocco Farinola and Mamie (nee Damone) were Italian immigrants from Bari who chose America to bring up their family. Vito Rocco Farinola, their first and only son was born to them in Brooklyn, New York on June 12, 1928.
Rocco Snr. was an electrician who also sang and played guitar and Vito's mother Mamie taught piano while his cousin Doretta Morrow was the actress and singer. Musically inspired, the young Vito emulated popular crooner, Frank Sinatra. His mother, who noticed his talent scrimped to attain $1 each week so she could pay for her son to attend singing lessons. That dollar would also pay Vito's subway fare from Brooklyn. Vito began singing at Sunday Mass at St. Finbar's Church in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, where he exercised his passion under the guidance of organist Anthony Amorello.
When Farinola was fourteen, his father was injured at work and the young lad dropped out of high school to support the family. He attended work as an usher and elevator operator in the Paramount Theater in Manhattan. He later recounted during an interview, "Perry Como was starring there one night and I was taking him back to his dressing room on the fifth floor. He had just finished a show. I said “I am a great fan of yours. Can I ask your advice?”
“What is it kid?” replied Como.
“My Mom thinks I can sing but we really can't afford $1 a week for a lesson. Would you listen and tell me if I have any talent?” I stopped the elevator between floors. The song I sang was “There Must Be A Way” and I sang four bars and stopped. Perry says, “Go ahead,” so I sang another four bars and stopped.
“Just finish the song,” he told me and I sang the rest. Then Perry says, “You've really got something kid. Don't stop singing.” I asked if I should continue voice lessons and with Como's encouragement he instructed “Keep singing” then referred me to a local bandleader.” Como would later become somewhat of a mentor.
Vito Farinola adopted his mother's maiden name and won first place on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show in 1947. It was his first directional break when he began regular professional gigs on the local radio. His paths were leading him toward a strong and promising future and when he met Milton Berle, he was directed to sing at a prominent nightclubs, La Martingue and The Aquarium. Damone was 19.
He released a debut single, “I Have But One Heart” and followed with, “You Do” and a duet with Patti Page, “Say Something Sweet to Your Sweetheart." All sold well but it wasn't until he began hosting his own radio show on Saturday Night Serenade that his career began to radiate across the airwaves.
It was 1949 when Damone hit the airwaves with “Again” and followed it with “You're Breaking My Heart”. Both singles sold over a million copies and Damone was riding the success wave at last. By the early fifties he was a successful recording star and when he recorded “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, Damone found super-star status. However, it was his version of “An Affair to Remember”, one of the last songs ever written by Harry Warren, that remains unparalleled by any other singer in history.
With several marriages under his wing, his longest union being with the late Rena Rowan-Damone who died in 2016, his singing career spanned over five decades and brought him more often to the TV screen where he became a personality and a variety-show guest.
55 years after the young Damone left school to support his family, he returned to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn to receive his high school diploma in 1997. It was 2002 when Damone gave his last concert performance at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Kravis Chairman, Alex Dreyfoos delivered a post-performance speech to a sold-out audience. “Vic Damone is the kind of performer who comes along once in lifetime,” he said. “Fortunately, he came along in our lifetime.” Damone, regarded as one of the most prolific crooners in our history suffered a stroke during that same year and retired.
Just shy of his 83rd birthday, he returned to the stage one last time wanting to introduce his six grandchildren the privilege of seeing him on stage for the very first time before he died. Vic Damone is 89 and lives quietly at home in Palm Beach, Florida having lost his beloved wife, Rowena who at 88 died on November 6 2016.