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“The idea of a man going out and courting a girl is gone,” bemoans Vic Damone. “It’s like everybody goes out with the idea of just getting laid. We’re losing the romanticism.”
The 82-year-old crooner is out to correct that, returning to the stage for the first time in a decade. On Saturday, he’ll perform at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla., and pouring on the nostalgia. He’s opening with a George Gershwin medley and an arrangement that he believes will blow the audience away, and has Arthur Schwartz songs and Frank Sinatra’s favorites in the repertoire as well. Damone built his career on popular standards by the likes of Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn and Gershwin, and emerged as one of America’s greatest vocalists, or, as Sinatra once said, “the guy with the greatest pipes in the business.” Count “On the Street Where You Live,” from Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” and “An Affair to Remember,” by Harry Warren, among his biggest hits.
“Kids today don’t know anything about it. They call our music old, but just listen to it. Forget about when it was written. Listen to the lyrics, the melodies, the story,” Damone says. “At first I didn’t understand The Beatles, until Sinatra started coming out with their stuff and I listened more carefully. They wrote wonderful things. ‘Yesterday’ is a beautiful song. I started including Beatles songs in my show. The Beatles are different. I don’t like rap. I don’t understand it. I just don’t like guys scratching their crotch. You’ve got to give the audience respect. Show them you care.”
Damone, sitting poolside at his Palm Beach residence on a break from rehearsing, says his baritone voice is still strong and demonstrates by singing “Summertime, and the living is easy, hush little baby…” He’s getting the melodies down, and the lyrics, which are the most critical part, he says.
A last-minute decision for the upcoming show will be what to wear, though it’s a clear choice: either a bespoke peak-lapeled tuxedo made by Philadelphia tailor Raymond Partito or a Ralph Lauren blazer. Damone most often appeared in a tuxedo and bow tie, exuding a smooth, elegant aura on stage or on TV shows. But this is Florida, he observes, so the blazer might work best to set a relaxed tone. Or maybe the tuxedo, “just in case I feel like this is too important of a show.” He’s bringing both.
“All the years, I have always had custom-made clothes, but I really like Ralph Lauren. His blazers are great. I never met him, except three or four years ago, I was having lunch at Cipriani on Fifth Avenue, when in walks Ralph with his son.” They meet, and Lauren says, “Vic Damone — I remember seeing you walking down Fifth Avenue in a blazer. I saw that blazer on you. It was perfect. I’ll never forget that. I thought you looked great.”
“The first part of my career, I was always on one or two best-dressed lists. I was proud of what I wore. Being comfortable in your clothes, that’s the main thing,” Damone says. “There is this one designer, he wears stiff things around his neck — Lagerfeld. How can he breathe? How can he eat with that thing sticking in his throat? I’d tell him to get rid of it. I’m from Brooklyn, so I can say it the way I see it.”
Damone buys much of what he wears from the pro shop, like sleeveless sweaters for golf, and often opts for the Greg Norman brand. He admits that lately his style choices are kept in check by his wife, Rena Rowan, the designer and co-founder of Jones New York with Sidney Kimmel. “It’s the strangest thing — if I’m wearing something, I think it matches, but Rena has such a fine eye, she’ll tell me that my sweater doesn’t match, and I turn right around and I change what I’m wearing. With all my other wives, I argued.”
Damone met Rowan when she asked him to sing at a benefit she was organizing for the homeless in 1996. Not long after, Damone was having difficulties with his fourth wife, the actress Diahann Carroll, and feeling disillusioned. “I was thinking I can’t handle it anymore.” But one night at dinner, Damone recalls, Kimmel told him, “You know, you should marry Rena. She’s a great lady and she would make a great wife. If you marry her, I will pay for the wedding.”
“I said, ‘Sidney, Is this a joke? Are you playing games with me?’ He said no. He was serious. So I began looking at Rena in a whole different light because of her kindness, her wonderful personality. Her whole physicality and spirituality are beautiful,” Damone says. “Sidney lived with Rena but there was nothing there. I started courting her.”
Damone is not afraid to let his emotions take over. He once practically seduced Judy Garland on stage during her television show, completely unintentionally. “We were doing a medley from ‘West Side Story,’ and at the end of it, we were so wrapped up in the music and lyrics, I ended up kissing her,” he says. It wasn’t just a peck. Damone wrapped his arms around Garland and landed one that lingered. “I thought to myself, ‘Holy s–t! What did I just do?’ Then we were backstage and Judy was wiping the lipstick off me and we began laughing about it.”
After a 10-year hiatus, Damone acknowledges missing the spotlight. Sentiment is motivating the comeback. “I don’t need the money,” he insists. “But, you know, my six grandkids have never seen me on stage. It will be the first time. I will introduce them. It’s going to be exciting for me. Before I die, I want them to have heard me perform at least once.”