Frankie Laine, the big-voiced singer whose string of hits made him one of the most popular entertainers in the 1950s, died of heart failure Tuesday in San Diego, Calif. He was 93.
“He was one of the greatest singers around,” said Jimmy Marino, his producer of more than a dozen years, “He was one of the last Italian crooners type.”
With songs such as “That’s My Desire,” “Mule Train,” “Jezebel,” “I Believe,” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” Laine was a regular feature of the Top Ten in the years just before rock ‘n’ roll ushered in a new era of popular music. Somewhat younger listeners may remember him best for singing the theme to the television show “Rawhide,” which ran from 1959 to 1966, and the theme for the 1974 movie “Blazing Saddles.”
He sold more than 100 million records and earned more than 20 gold records.
Laine said his musical influences included Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and a goodly number of jazz artists, such as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday.
“When people nowadays say that Elvis was the first white guy to sound black, I have to shake my head; what can you do?,” he said in a 1987 interview. “At the time of ‘That’s My Desire,’ they were saying that I was the only white guy around who sounded black.”
He occasionally recorded songs by country singers, such as “Hey Good Looking” and “Your Cheating Heart” by Hank Williams. In 2004 he released an album called “Nashville Connection.”
Laine’s variety show “Frankie Laine Time” ran for two summers, 1955 and 1956, on CBS, and he also appeared in a number of films, including “When You’re Smiling,” and “Sunny Side of the Street.”
He had a top 25 hit on the Billboard charts in 1969 with “You Gave Me a Mountain,” a song written by Marty Robbins.
Laine was born Francesco Paolo LoVecchio in Chicago, the son of a barber who emigrated from Sicily. He struggled from his teens until well into his 30s — even having to earn a living as a marathon dancer — before hits began coming his way with “That’s My Desire” in 1947. His breakthrough came when Hoagy Carmichael heard him sing in a Los Angeles nightclub and praised his work.
In recent years, he remained active in touring and in charity fundraising. Punning on the title of one of his hits, he called his 1993 autobiography “That Lucky Old Son.”
He was married to Nan Grey, a leading lady in Hollywood films of the 1930s who died in 1993.
Laine is survived by his second wife Marcia; a brother; two daughters and two grandsons.