- Influences On A Legend
- Mario Lanza
- by Nigel Patterson Australia
- "I had records by Mario Lanza when
I was seventeen, eighteen years old, I would listen to the Metropolitan
Opera. I just loved music. Music period.
- Elvis Presley,
- Mario Lanza was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza
in New York on 31 January, 1921 to Italian immigrant parents. As an adult
we would derive the name Mario Lanza from his mother,s maiden name, Maria
Lanza. Idolising the late Enrico Caruso, Lanza, also a tenor, was to become
what many referred to as the American Caruso,.
- Elvis's intense liking of Mario Lanza
records is well documented in the world of Elvis literature.
- Peter Guralnick in Down At the End of
Lonely Street, observes:
- Incredible as it might seem, his favourite
was Mario Lanza. Elvis played the sound-track album from MGM,s The Singing
Prince so often that he wore out the grooves. Lanza,s delivery of such
songs as "Golden Days, "I,ll Walk with God, and "Serenade
had such an impact on Presley that he went on to mimic the style in his
own impending songs, including the ballad "Can,t Help Falling In Love
and the operatic "It,s Now or Never. The latter, Elvis Presley,s first
post-Army hit, was an American redo of the Mario Lanza standard "O
Sole Mio recorded in 1949., (Authors note: Stuck On You, was actually Elvis,s
first post-Army hit).
- Similarly, Marty Lacker, in Alanna Nash,s
book Elvis Aaron Presley Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, said:
- "Elvis loved opera, and he especially
liked Mario Lanza. He would watch The Student Prince which was set in Heidelberg,
over and over again. He loved the power of the big voices. And he loved
big orchestras. He liked real dramatic things.
- When asked what kinds of music Elvis
liked, Kathy Westmoreland responded that he listened to gospel as well
as opera singers Leontyne Price, Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. The fact
that Lanza was also a movie star would have reinforced Elvis,s liking for
him and his music.
- Jerry Hopkins in his Elvis - The Final
Years, even suggests that Elvis is reported to have told the directors
of Elvis On Tour, Pierre Adidge and Bob Abel, that more than anyone else
Mario Lanza influenced his singing,.
- Lanza,s voice was a marvel - versatile,
powerful, expressive. Derek Mannering in his liner notes for Mario Lanza
The Ultimate Collection, observed:
- "Just listen to the consummate ease
with which he moves from an expressive "Ave Maria the one moment,
to a joyous "Valencia the next. And did any tenor ever put as much
passion and excitement into "Granada.
- Mannering goes on to say: "Lanza
clearly had one of the great romantic tenor voices of all time, something
that went beyond mere training or vocal finesse. This last sentiment is
one many Elvis fans will readily identify with.
- And as Assistant Professor Patsy Hammontree
observes in her excellent book Elvis Presley A Bio-Bibliography, Lanza
with his classically trained voice, gave a classical sound to popular music,.
Conversely, his interpretation of classical and operatic music often gave
it a popular sound - "La Donna E Mobile from Rigoletto,, "Drink,
Drink, Drink and "The Donkey Serenade being cases in point.
- As a youth, Lanza and his family moved
to South Philadelphia where he was raised in one of the tough neighbourhoods
characterised by gangsters and musicians. Living next door to the Lanza,s
were the Giannini family including singer Dusolma Giannini. Lanza attended
the South Philadelphia High School where he was the acknowledged "Boss.
With a powerful build, he played on the backline of the football team and
for a time became a semi-pro as well as dabbling in amateur boxing. As
a member of the South Philadelphia Boys Weightlifting Club he could lift
200 pounds. But his real passion was his love of music although given where
he was growing up he kept this secret.
- Like Elvis, Lanza enjoyed a stint as
a truck driver although this did not lead to his big break as is sometimes
reported. Lanza,s first big break came when he was studying at the Philadelphia
Academy of Music, where its concert manager, William Kuff, arranged an
audition for him with Serge Koussevitzky who ran the famous Tanglewood
School of Music in Massachusetts. Lanza would subsequently receive a scholarship
to train at Tanglewood.
- As happened in the Elvis story, the US
Government then stepped in. Lanza was drafted and served three years in
the army, most of his stint spent touring with the Army Air Forces, all-soldier
musical revue On The Beam, and as a member of the Winged Victory, company.
Prior to army life in 1942 Lanza had auditioned for Arthur Judson, President
of Columbia Concerts, who was so impressed that he promised him a job as
soon as he returned to civilian life.
- As an aspiring opera star Lanza studied
at several music schools including Tanglewood where he was in the company
of another musical identity, Leonard Bernstein. It was Bernstein who would
later comment that Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force of the
20th century,. Lanza was originally signed as an artist on the rooster
of Columbia Concerts and later RCA (now BMG) saw his potential and signed
him even though he had yet to make his professional career on the opera
stage. Lanza would go on to record more than 400 songs for RCA Victor over
a ten year period.
- In the mid 1940s Lanza was a standin
for noted tenor Jan Peerce on ABCs Celanese Hour radio show and was also
selected for a series of radio shows "Great Moments in Music. A year
long tour of the US, Canada, Newfoundland and Mexico with soprano Francis
Yeend and baritone George London resulted in a final concert at the Hollywood
Bowl in August 1947. In the audience that night was Louis B. Mayer, head
of the powerful movie house MGM. A screen test followed, resulting in Lanza
being offered a seven year contract which would largely signal the end
of his rising career as a stage opera star.
- In fact before going to Hollywood, Lanza
had only twice appeared on an opera stage, the first time being in 1948
as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. It was Lanza,s lack of stage exposure
which led to persistent (but unfounded) rumours that his voice was more
the result of hi-fi recording production than a naturally powerful voice.
- Lanza,s first movie was The Midnight
Kiss, in 1949 and this was followed by The Toast of New Orleans, and the
movie which firmly established him as the successor to Caruso,s crown,
ironically The Great Caruso,. Before The Great Caruso,, Lanza was topping
charts around the world with Be My Love, a song which Elvis would certainly
have heard on the radio. It was full of drama and emotion - two qualities
common to many Elvis recordings. Other million selling singles were to
follow, notably "The Loveliest Night of the Year and "Because
- Lanza,s battle with his weight took its
toll on his fourth movie Because You,re Mine, and the problem was made
worse when Lanza,s demand for better scripts was virtually ignored. The
tenor,s ongoing battle with the studios reached breaking point during the
making of The Student Prince, with Lanza, who would be replaced by actor
Edmund Purdon in the movie, walking off the set. He would however provide
the singing voice for Purdom. Despite the drama Lanza,s recordings for
The Student Prince, are generally regarded as his greatest session in the
studio. The uneasy relationship between Lanza and Hollywood continued during
the filming of his next movie, Serenade,.
- In 1957 Lanza moved his family to Rome
hoping for a fresh start. In Italy he would make two more movies (The Seven
Hills of Rome, and For the First Time,), appear at a Royal Command Performance
and complete a successful tour of Europe only marred by several cancellations
due to Lanza,s ill health.
- In the midst of rumours of Lanza returning
to the stage tragedy struck. On October 7, 1959 while undergoing treatment
in a Rome clinic, Lanza suffered a massive heart attack and died at the
young age of 38. The world had lost yet another star who had brought great
joy to millions.
- The Lanza influence on Elvis is readily
apparent in "It,s Now Or Never (O Sole Mio) and "Surrender (Torna
A Sorrento). Of "It,s Now Or Never, Henry Pleasants in his book The
Great American Singers, noted that:
- "In his famous Neapolitan air (originally
"O Sole Mio) he suddenly sounds for all the world like a Neapolitan
- Pleasants also stated that Elvis possessed
the vocal range of an operatic baritone or tenor and observed:
- "He [Elvis] had not been confined
to one type of vocal production. In ballads and country songs he belts
out full-voiced high Gs and As that an opera baritone might envy.
- Had Elvis ever read these comments I
suspect he would have been particularly happy.
- Elvis and Mario also both recorded "Danny
Boy, You,ll Never Walk Alone and "Santa Lucia.
- To gain an appreciation of the talent
of Mario Lanza that so impressed and influenced Elvis and indeed the world
I recommend the album Mario Lanza The Ultimate Collection, from BMG. A
comprehensive and excellent biography also appears on The Australian Mario
Lanza Society Website at: <http://www.pnc.com.au/~marlan/lanza-2.htm>.
- In the next part of this series I will
examine how country music influenced Elvis and his recordings.
- Down At The End Of Lonely Street The
Life and Death of Elvis Presley,
- Peter Guralnick
- Elvis Aron Presley Revelations From the
Memphis Mafia, Alanna Nash
- Elvis Presley A Bio-Bibliography, Patsy
- Last Train To Memphis The Rise of Elvis
Presley, Peter Guralnick
- Mario Lanza A Biography, Derek Mannering
- Mario Lanza The Ultimate Collection,
BMG Music, 1994 (includes liner
- notes by Derek Mannering)
- The Australian Mario Lanza Society Website,
- The Great American Singers, Henry Pleasants
- The Story of Mario Lanza, Clyde Smith,
Mario Lanza Archives