When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the MGM movie The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza played the title role, the tenor Enrico Caruso. Despite my age, I became absorbed in both singers. At first I nagged my mother to buy vinyl for me, but eventually I was old enough to do it on my own. All that vinyl is down in the living room right now, along with hundreds of other 33 rpm disks that include doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, swing, easy listening, opera, and classics.

At any rate, we recently tried to find The Great Caruso on Amazon and Netflix and came up empty, so we settled for Lanza’s last film, the 1959 romantic comedy For the First Time. This film was popular in its time, it got some good reviews, and it was a financial success. This was strictly entertainment, not to be taken seriously, largely an excuse for Lanza to sing — which was a good thing, because opportunities to hear him were much more limited in those pre-iPod, pre-internet days than they would be today. He sings operatic arias and in operatic ensembles, and he sings Italian folk music and popular songs. It’s all good except, from my point of view, “Pineapple Picker,” a song that had no business being in the same room with Mario Lanza.



Lanza plays Tony Conti, a world-renowned if unreliable tenor. In the flamboyance he exhibits at the beginning of the story, Conti resembles Lanza. After an embarrassing episode in which Conti’s drinking and tardiness cause a Vienna concert to be cancelled with the audience already in the seats, Conti’s agent spirits him off to Capri to lay low until the bad publicity runs its course. There, Conti meets a young German woman, Christa, played by an irresistible actress named Johanna von Koczian, and they are mutually smitten. Johanna, of course, is deaf. (Get it? He’s a famous tenor; she can’t hear him sing.) At the point in the movie at which Tony and Christa meet, I said to my wife, Pat, “In the last scene, she’ll be sitting in an opera house listening to him hit those high notes.” Meeting Christa jolts Conti to the point that he stops drinking and womanizing and becomes responsible about his career. He is practically broke as a result of his shenanigans up to this point, but he takes on a series of performances in various cities of Europe and plans to visit — you guessed it! — the best ear specialist at each stop. No doubt, you can figure out how such a plot turned out in 1959.

MARIO LANZA sings "Vesti la Giubba" in a scene from "For the First Time"

MARIO LANZA sings “Vesti la Giubba” in a scene from “For the First Time”

Mario Lanza, who was 38, died a few months after this film was released. He looked well and vigorous in the film, his voice — dubbed, of course — was full of the power and earthy passion that had made it famous and he projected the boyish charm that endeared him to the public. This was the sort of movie theme — a romance on the Continent – in which audiences of that era would expect to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they weren’t disappointed. Zsa Zsa played a countess who had a sporadic affair with Tony, as she did with lots of other prominent men. She was 42 and at the height of her beauty when this film was made and her performance had none of the grating personality she adopted for late-night television shows when her looks would no longer carry her. Kurt Kasznar is comical as Tony’s beleaguered manager and protector, and I particularly liked Hans Söhnker’s sympathetic and believable performance as Christa’s uncle.

Due in large part to his personal habits, Lanza’s career was much shorter than it should have been, but he left behind a wonderful legacy of recorded music. Although he appeared in complete operas only a few times, he played an important cultural role by being one of the first singers to make operatic music popular among a mass audience. Prominent tenors even now often acknowledge their debt to him.

The film closes with Conti, as Rhadames, singing in the ensemble that closes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.




And all that jazz

November 28, 2009



One of my Facebook friends — and a former newspaper colleague — remarked today that she likes to start sentences with “and” and “but,” an indulgence we share. In fact, I make a point of telling my students that while they shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence while they are in the stifling atmosphere of academia, they should have at it once they’re writing on their own.

This got me to thinking about song lyrics that begin with “and,” only because four popped into my head immediately.

The first was “My Way,” which begins: “And now the end is near, and I must face the final curtain.” Paul Anka wrote that lyric, and according to him, it was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s announcement that he was going to quit show business.


The melody was written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux for a French song. “Comme d’habitude,” which means something like “As is my habit.” Anka’s lyrics, I understand, have no relationship to the originals but were meant to go along with Sinatra’s mood at the time.

There have been notable covers of the song by Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Dorothy Squires.

Another lyric in this category was written by Johnny Mercer for a popular version of “The Song of the Indian Guest” from the opera “Sadko” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I mentioned this here recently in connection with Mercer’s centennial. Mercer’s version is known as “Song of India,” and it begins: “And still the snowy Himalayas rise in ancient majesty before our eyes ….”


Mario Lanza made a fine recording of that song, and Lanza also made a wonderful recording of “They’ll Never Believe Me,” which was written by Herbert Reynolds and Jerome Kern to help rescue an imported British musical, “The Girl From Utah,” in 1914. The refrain, which usually begins the song, starts: “And when I tell them how beautiful you are, they’ll never believe me ….”

The last song that occurred to me was “And I love her so,” which was written by Don McLean but is most widely associated with Perry Como.

And like that.






Capitol Records

Yesterday was the centennial of Johnny Mercer, and I was too busy to take much notice of it. But it was on my mind, because Mercer is one of my favorite lyricists. I wrote here a couple of months ago about one of his lesser-known songs, “The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid,” which is sophisticated and funny.

But Mercer was a poet. When his songs get stuck in my head, I don’t mind. It’s hard for me to talk about favorites, because I’m crazy about so many of his songs — such as “The Angels Sing,” which he wrote in 1939:

We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing.
Or am I breathing music into every word?
Suddenly, the setting is strange.
I can see water and Moonlight beaming.
Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore
Suddenly, I see it all change.
Long winter nights with the candles gleaming.
Through it all your face that I adore.
You smile, and the angels sing.
And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start.
We kiss, and the angels sing.
And leave their music ringing in my heart.


I first heard that lyric when I was in my teens, and I was fascinated by the quality of Mercer’s writing.

I’m especially fond of the lyric he wrote to a classic melody, “Song of India.” I have an old RCA Victor Red Seal recording of that sung by Mario Lanza. It’s one of those cases in which I’d rather not hear anyone else sing it, so I hope the vinyl lasts as long as I do — which is becoming less of a challenge every day.

And still the snowy Himalayas rise / In ancient majesty before our eyes / Beyond the plains, above the pines / While through the ever, never changing land / As silently as any native band / That moves at night, the Ganges Shines  / Then I hear the song that only India can sing / Softer than the plumage on a black raven’s wing / High upon a minaret I stand and gazed upon an old enchanted land/ There’s the Maharajah’s caravan, Unfolding like a painted fan / How small the little race of Man! / See them all parade across the ages / Armies, Kings and slaves from hist’ry’s pages / Played on one of nature’s vastest stages. / The turbaned Sikhs and fakirs line the streets /  While holy men in shadowed calm retreats / Pray through the night and watch the stars. / A lonely plane flies off to meet the dawn / While down below the busy life goes on / And women crowd the old bazaars. /All are in the song that only India can sing. / India, the jewel of the East.

There’s lots about Johnny Mercer at this link and at this one.