Vic Damone, a frequent performer in Atlantic City showrooms whose mellow baritone once earned praise from Frank Sinatra as “the best pipes in the business,” died Sunday in Florida at age 89, his daughter said.
Victoria Damone told the Associated Press in a phone interview Monday her father died at a Miami Beach hospital from complications of a respiratory illness.
Damone’s easy-listening romantic ballads brought him million-selling records and sustained a half-century career in recordings, movies, nightclubs, concerts and television appearances. He retired from performing in 2000 after suffering a stroke.
Damone’s style as a lounge singer remained constant through the years: straightforward, concentrated on melody and lyrics without resorting to vocal gimmicks.
Damone was one of the rare entertainers whose performances in Atlantic City spanned from Steel Pier to the now-defunct 500 Club and into the showrooms of the casino era.
Damone, who owned a summer home on Thurlow Avenue in Margate, appeared many times on “The Grady and Hurst Show,” a groundbreaking Philadelphia television show that was one of the first to feature teens dancing to popular music, said longtime broadcaster Ed Hurst, who also lives in Margate.
When Hurst was doing a radio show on WPEN-AM 950 called the 950 Club, he ran a contest to come up with a nickname for Damone when he released his first hit record, “I Have But One Heart,” in 1947.
“We called him, ‘Mr. Heartthrob,’” said Hurst, who added he thought Damone had a better voice than Sinatra or Tony Bennett, but he didn’t achieve their level of fame.
Damone should have been a superstar, Hurst said. He made a few movies, but he was forgettable in the roles, except when he sang, Hurst said.
Damone was in movies in the 1950s that included “Rich, Young and Pretty,” “The Strip,” “Athena,” “Hit the Deck” and Kismet.”
Damone was competitive with his contemporaries, Hurst said.
“He hated Tony Bennett. He was going to punch him in the mouth. I said to him, ‘For Chrissakes, what the heck is the matter with you,’” Hurst said.
Hurst said his wife introduced Damone to his fifth and final wife, Rena Rowan-Damone, and they stayed during the 1990s at Damone’s home in Palm Beach, Florida.
David Spatz, who covered the casino entertainment scene for The Press of Atlantic City from 1976 through the 1990s, produced and hosted a benefit concert for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society in 1980 at Bally’s Atlantic City with Damone and a full orchestra and string section.
“I remember the night we did that benefit concert like it was yesterday. It was just a nice crowd. Everybody was dressed up,” Spatz said Monday. “Vic was an interesting guy and a tremendous singer. It just came so easy to him.”
Damone and his fourth wife, actress and singer Diahann Carroll, got married Jan. 3, 1987, at Steve Wynn’s Golden Nugget in Atlantic City.
“If I’m not mistaken, it was former (Atlantic City Mayor) Jim Usry who performed the ceremony,” Spatz said.
Spatz was not at the wedding, but he was at their show that night.
“They had performed together before, so there was nothing unusual about that, but they talked about their wedding. ... They had little pieces of cake for everyone in the audience. The room (known as the Opera House) only sat 500 people,” Spatz said.
Stephanie Nielson, the vice president of entertainment for Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort from 1991 to 2000, booked Damone for a private, big casino player event in the Taj’s ballroom.
“That’s the only time I remember booking him. He was a wonderful talent,” Nielson said.
Damone and singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka attended Nielson’s surprise 50th birthday, she said.
Grammy Award-winning record producer Joseph A. Donofrio, of Brigantine, had booked jazz and popular music singer Keely Smith and tenor saxophonist Sam Butera during the 1990s at the Taj Mahal.
“Keely, at one time, I guess had a big crush on Damone,” Donofrio said. “She calls me up and says, ‘I want to go see Vic Damone. I want you to get me a ticket, and I want to sit in the very first row.’”
Donofrio got first-row tickets to Damone’s show at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. Donofrio, his wife, Smith and her daughter attended the concert.
Damone came up off the stage, handed the microphone to Smith, so she could sing a little, and the whole group met him backstage after the concert, Donofrio said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.