Sixty years ago, the ballad singer Vic Damone topped the UK charts with On the Street Where You Live. It was an unlikely achievement in the middle of the rock’n’roll era, but it was a perfect song perfectly sung. Damone, who has died aged 89, was regarded as a singer’s singer. Frank Sinatra applauded his technique, saying that he had “the best pair of pipes in the business”.
For all the straightforward faultlessness of his romantic singing, Damone led a complicated life, involving tax evasion, gambling debts and links to the mafia. On one occasion, when he broke off his engagement to a mobster’s daughter, he recalled, he was dangled from a hotel window. Not without irony, he titled his autobiography Singing Was the Easy Part (2009).
Although Damone was offered the role of the singer Johnny Fontane, whose career is helped by the mafia, in the film The Godfather (1972), Sinatra persuaded him to turn it down, feeling that the film revealed too much about the mob’s practices. Al Martino took the role instead, and he sang Damone’s hit I Have But One Heart in the film.
He was born Vito Rocco Farinola in Brooklyn, New York, one of five children, and the only son, of Mamie (nee Damone) and Rocco Farinola, who lived in Bensonhurst, a predominantly Italian neighbourhood. When Mamie was hospitalised with pneumonia in 1931, Rocco taught his son to sing You’re Driving Me Crazy at her bedside. Although Rocco expected Vito to follow him in becoming an electrician, the young boy was more interested in his mother’s skills as a pianist.
Vito attended Lafayette high school in Brooklyn and also worked delivering groceries from the age of 12. On leaving school, he became an usher at the Paramount theatre in New York. When the up-and-coming Perry Como performed at the Paramount, Vito stopped the lift between floors and asked Como to hear his voice. Como told him to stick with it, so he took his mother’s maiden name to attempt a singing career as Vic Damone. With lessons, he expanded his range and became adept at singing the fashionable ballads of the day: “Sure, I copied Sinatra – who didn’t?”
In 1946 Damone had success on a radio talent show hosted by Arthur Godfrey – the music magazine Metronome described him as a “brown-eyed, curly-topped 18-year-old, who even at this young age is a poised performer, a polished singer of popular songs and a name to be reckoned with”. He had his first US hit the following year, with I Have But One Heart, which he sang in Italian and English, and he followed it with Say Something Sweet to Your Sweetheart, a duet with Patti Page.
It was thought that Vera Lynn would repeat the success of her 1949 British single Again in the US, but it was Damone’s version that became the hit and his first million-seller. He followed it later that year with another, You’re Breaking My Heart, based on the aria Mattinata by Ruggero Leoncavallo.
In 1951, Damone appeared in the film musicals Rich, Young and Pretty with Jane Powell and The Strip with Mickey Rooney and Louis Armstrong. He served for two years in the US army during the Korean war, entertaining the troops in Germany and appearing on the forces’ station AFN. In 1955 Damone co-starred in the lavish Hollywood musicals Hit the Deck and Kismet - in the latter he and Ann Blyth sang Stranger in Paradise.
The next year he recorded On the Street Where You Live, a song from the new Broadway success, My Fair Lady. His beautifully controlled vocal resulted in a US Top 10 hit and he also released a successful album, That Towering Feeling!, inspired by the song. Because of copyright restrictions, the record could not be released in the UK until 1958, when My Fair Lady was staged in London. It was a UK No 1, beating off competition from a version by the British singer David Whitfield, and he followed it with a novelty song, The Only Man on the Island, his version of which was outsold by Tommy Steele’s.
Damone’s career was affected by changing tastes: he did not have the charisma to ride over them like Sinatra and nor did he want to sing rock’n’roll. He concentrated on albums, but had only occasional success – You Were Only Fooling (1965) was a US Top 30 hit. His label, Warner Brothers, persuaded him to record Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual, but his heart was not in it.
The Radio 2 presenter David Jacobs staunchly promoted his work in the UK, which led to chart placings for the albums Now (1981) and Vic Damone Sings the Great Songs (1983). Jacobs regarded The Pleasure of Her Company as Damone’s definitive performance.
Damone had a stroke in 2000 but recovered sufficiently to undertake a farewell tour which included Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. He retired to Miami and his final performance was at West Palm Beach in 2011.
He was divorced four times. His fifth wife, Rena Rowan, whom he married in 1998, died in 2016. His son, Perry (named after Como), from his first marriage, to the Italian actress Pier Angeli, died in 2014. Damone is survived by the three daughters, Victoria, Andrea and Daniella, from his second marriage, to Judy Rawlins.
• Vic Damone (Vito Rocco Farinola), singer, born 12 June 1928; died 11 February 2018