If the Renaissance happened again in our times, in America the performing arts would be the premiere medium. Particularly the art of music is a constant companion to the greatest audience. To seek the great names of America’s New Renaissance music would lead us to genius performers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin just to name a very few. It would not be a finished search, though, until we found Robert Davi
“Robert Davi?” You ask? Who doesn’t know the amazing actor from his television and big screen appearances? His is a broad repertoire of talent from which to draw. Robert Davi has walked the Silver screen and raised a golden voice for the performing arts. To hear his voice is to slip through the fingers of time and find oneself in the golden age of crooners. In Davi’s album “The Road to Romance” he sings those remarkable songs popularized by Frank Sinatra. The impeccable production of this work, by Phil Ramone, renders it top shelf art of the Americas.
Robert Davi isn’t just sounding out the melodies from history. He lives the American Songbook. His knowledge of the music is an art in and of itself. In this gallery of great thoughts we peruse the ideas and experiences of the great Robert Davi. Long live the arts!
~ Introduction by Daniel Buckner & Paul Leslie ~
Most stories are best from the beginning. I want you to take us into your house when you were growing up. If we were to be not seen, but we could hear, what would we hear?
Well, you’d hear me on the lap of my grandmother, Michellina Rullo, my mother’s mother, who used to sing at the San Carlo Opera in Naples, singing the Italian canzoni popolari. You’d hear the sounds from my basement on a wind-up record player on 78 shellac records: Caruso, Gigli, Sinatra… you’d hear those. You’d hear a record player being played with the great American songbook playing in the background as well as the opera. You’d hear the sounds of music, both the Italian and the great American songbook which I call the ‘Shakespeare of America’ now and the voice, of course, of Sinatra. You heard Dean Martin. You heard Perry Como. You heard Jerry Vale. You heard Jimmy Roselli. You heard all these great singers. But primarily, the one who affected me the most was Sinatra. In an Italian household, I’d say, Paul, there were two figures……the Pope and Sinatra, and not necessarily in that order.
Now if you had told your parents when you were very, very young, “I want to be a singer professionally.” Was that something that was respected?
Well, like I said, my grandmother had a thing where she sang. It was respected immensely, but it was a fear. My dad had flirted with wanting to be a singer for a little while. He even came out to Hollywood after he was in the Navy during World War II. He came out to California. He was a volunteer fireman and he was trying to break into the business in some way from what I gather. He never spoke about it a lot, but he was a guy that was a hard working guy…worked two jobs… a blue collar man, a Sicilian, a quiet guy. His birthday is the same day as Sinatra’s and I think he was much like Marty Sinatra… quiet, Sicilian and who had a mother that was a much more forceful figure in the family. So the dream of wanting to be a singer or an actor was….I think they were frightened for me trying that. While it was encouraged by teachers in school and awards that I’d won, but there was a fear for me.
Can you remember a favorite track from Sinatra from when you were just young?
You know, there were so many favorites. There were so many wonderful tracks. There were so many…it was a cacophony of sounds. I don’t have one that I can say, “this is the definitive.” I can say, perhaps, because it was also a movie that affected everybody so much I think, ‘Jokers Wild,’ a song, of course, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn that Sinatra had them write to that movie ‘All the Way’ which was my mom’s favorite song and my dad’s favorite song…one of their favorite songs… And so I think that song had an echoing youth because I remember watching television, the black and white. My bedroom was also the living room and we had a black and white TV set and my mom would be up late at night watching those films, and that’s where I learned about Bogart and all those characters. Lee Marvin and Edgar G. Robinson and Johnny Garfield and, of course, Sinatra and watching ‘The Joker’s Wild’ and being affected by the music and that story. I think ‘All the Way’ is one of the best. It has an echo. But they all do because they were played so often.
Can you recall your first public performance? How did that make you feel?
Mmm… That had to have happened in high school. The first time was probably in high school. They found out I had a voice in eighth grade and then I became obsessed with wanting to sing and I was listening to a lot of the Mario Lanza stuff. And in high school there was something… I was shy about speaking and singing in public actually, and I used to sing for myself basically, but then I had to do performances and I got first place in the New York State School Music Association solo competition in high school and there was a complete feeling in terms of being able to sing. I sang Vincent Youman’s ‘Without a Song’ and won the award on that. That’s the first recollection I have of that and then in church of course on different things, the Panis Angelicus or Ave Maria. Those are the early, early recollections. Later on when I started to study there were many different things going on. I had a terrifying experience when I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera on the air. Terrifying experience, hysterical… It would have been a funny scene in a movie!
Was it the adulation? Was it the recognition that you got that made you get over that fear?
No. That had continued on over the years with the singing … It’s only recently now, since I did the album. I had a deep need to express. I was doing that through the acting to a minor level. The singing was a much, much stronger aspect to myself and I held back. I held back. I don’t know why. I don’t know what psychological issue I may have had. I had some kind of issue that I held back. It wasn’t until I directed this film called ‘The Dukes’ where I sang a song in it, and I started to formulate the need right now to have to sing and I need to tell a story through song. I need to express myself through song. It may have been because, in a strange way, Sinatra was, you know, alive. There was no need for me to kind of like throw my hat in the ring at that time. In the opera world, I was put off by the “stiltedness” of the acting of the opera world cause I liked film, so I didn’t want to become one of those stiff singers… you know what I mean? So I stayed away from that. I didn’t like the Broadway kind of falsetto tone. There’s a certain kind of Broadway sound that I did not like at all. It’s enjoyable, but it’s not for me. It was something I didn’t want to do. So it was a complexity of different things and then finally, with Frank Sinatra being gone, since 1998, I felt there was really no experience that he had…that he gave…I didn’t think there was…I thought the field was a bit open, partly because he had such a big film career and there were no singers out there who had a big film career. Also he was a singer…he was a guy that said, “If I say I’m going to break your leg, you should believe it”. So if I say that, you’ll believe it too. And that dichotomy is kind of fun.
Did you ever dream you would one day meet Frank Sinatra?
Well, that was always a dream as a kid. When you’re growing up, you want to sing and you want to act. There’s a lot of talk in the news today and in politics about the immigrant population. Well, all immigrants who came to America assimilated, and the Italian immigrants. When my grandparents came – my father’s father from Sicily and my mother’s father from Naples – when they came, they assimilated. They spoke English. There was no “Press 2 for Sicilian or Italian.” They were told to learn English and they did. And you had to speak English in the house. So there was an assimilation of the psyche, of the national consciousness that the Italian American did. And that music… Sinatra represented the Italian. Italian Americans were low on the totem pole. At the turn of the century, there were more lynchings of Sicilians in New Orleans in one day than any other race. They were Sicilian Catholics and they were murdered after they were acquitted from being accused of killing the Chief of Police. And this is in 1891. And the New York Times even at the time said that “the Sicilians or the Italians were lower than the Negro.” This is a quote from the New York Times back at the turn of the century. I’m telling you this because this is the foment. Sinatra being born in 1915 that was with the Italians and prior to Sinatra becoming a star, it was very hard for Italians to kind of break through into entertainment. You had Rudolph Valentino and then you had some guys who were terrific: Frank Capra, of course, as a director. He started to help that cause. But Sinatra was the first big artist to come out against antisemitism and racial bigotry of any kind and he gave the immigrant population a respect and identity. And not just Italians. That’s why I say there was the Pope and Sinatra in most families… in your household.
On a more surface kind of level, what do you like about the musical stylings of Sinatra?
Well besides his contribution, yeah…My mentor was a woman named Stella Adler in the actors studio. Now, Stella Adler taught all the people at MGM during the 40’s. She was the acting coach. She was the one in America, for people that don’t know, she went directly to Stanislavski. She taught Marlon Brando. Brando speaks eloquently of Stella Adler, but she also coached all the players at MGM at a certain time. When I studied with her in early 70’s, she gave a seminar just on Sinatra and singing. So I have to believe…knowing Sinatra had a hunger – even though he didn’t finish high school – he had a natural thirst and a hunger for knowledge of any kind. When he did ‘Anchors Aweigh,’ he worked with Gene Kelly every day to learn dancing, so I have to know he studied acting and what he did in his music, I consider him the first method singer. He was a singer that not only brought the bel canto technique to singing, cause he studied the bel canto with a guy, John Quinlan, who was from the Metropolitan Opera, and as I studied with Samuel Margolis, Daniel Ferro from Juilliard and then the last several years with Gary Catona who is the absolute amazing…he put it all together for me, Gary Catona…great, great voice builder. But…and understand that the technique, the sound that I wanted…what Sinatra did was bring the bel canto technique to popular music for the first time so you no longer became a crooner, which had in the top register become very light and thin. Also, the life experience that he brought to the lyric and that was also helped by Boris Karloff oddly enough.
Sinatra met Boris Karloff in the 50’s at, I think, Chaser’s. They were passing each other on the way to the bathroom and realized they lived next to each other. Sinatra was a big fan of those horror films, as a lot of us are. He liked Boris Karloff and they got together, and Boris Karloff worked with him on the lyric and on his script. They worked very diligently together. So it was Sinatra’s depth of lyric besides his phrasing which created the phrasing, you see, he wasn’t just a guy singing a song, making pretty sounds. He was a guy that was living his pain, his loneliness, his joy, his elation, and you felt that communicated more than anybody in that music and that’s why it continues to last. I played yesterday, Paul, for a couple guys… I was having a quick lunch and they recognized me and we started to talk. Nice guys. I played them one of these songs, a song of Sinatra’s, ‘Drinking Again.’ The guys, they had never heard that song, and he said, “Man, that’s just truth.” He says, “That’s just truth.” And that’s the aspect of what you’re getting when you listen to him. There’s something that resonates so deeply and for me as an artist, that’s what I responded to. Besides the music and the lyric, was the ability to move the human soul. And when I saw him live in 1977, when I did that movie with him, ‘Contract of Cherry Street’… would I ever think I would work with him? No, I didn’t. I would love to have. And then when it happened in 1977 that was an amazing experience.Semnat de Paul Leslie