Everybody always asks Damon Lanza if he can sing. When we met for coffee recently at a nearby Denny's, I asked him, too.
"I could hire myself out to clear out parties!" he said, laughing. "Just put me up there. I'll start singing, and everybody will leave. I knew from an early age that I couldn't sing. When people ask me if I sing, I say, yes, I do---very badly."
The reason people keep asking Damon this question is his last name. It was given to him by fellow named Mario, who was his father. Mario Lanza, as you might remember, could carry a tune. Well, that's a bit of an understatement. In my unpublished novel, I described the voice of the late tenor as "the northern lights in a throat." I don't know if that's good writing, but I do believe it to be accurate description.
I first encountered the strange power of Mario Lanza's voice, during the summer of 1967 in Isla Vista, California. The "Summer of Love," as the media has canned it. I was visiting my older brother there in the isolated little cliffside college town, a place teeming with hairy heads full of daisies, and two-fingered peace signs. "Sgt. Pepper" played constantly in apartments; it was an unbroken soundtrack of the moment, rarely out of earshot.
Unbroken, that is, except when my brother cranked up Mario.
My brother, you see, preferred Lanza to the Beatles. Periodically, he would rent a copy of Lanza's movie, "The Great Caruso," and project it in the living room of his rustic, rambling beach house. It was during one of these screenings, one warm summer night, that I first suspected there was something unearthly coming from Lanza's larynx. The front door had been left open, as it often was, and Mario's passionate tones spilled out into the street. As he sang the wrenching notes of the Leoncavallo aria, "Vesti La Giubba," a number of what were then known as "freaks" (a flattering term at the time) wandered in off the street, some in questionable states of consciousness. They entered the room quietly, irresistably, sat spellbound, then left quietly when the movie ended. Probably in even more questionable states of consciousness. It was a remarkable thing. The Voice had beckoned them.
Ever since that night, I've been a sucker for Mario Lanza. Like Mario, I much prefer his operatic recordings---his "Che Gelida Manina" (the 1949 version) makes my hair look like Don King's---but I have to say that even some of the schmaltz gets to me. I admit to watery eyes while hearing him sing "Golden Days" from "The Student Prince."
All of which means I have a lot in common with three guys who are putting on a little recital at Dodger Stadium: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. (Hint: it isn't a love of soccer.)
"The 'Three Tenors' have been asked, 'why did you get into singing,'" Damon Lanza told me, "and they all said well, we got into singing because we watched Mario Lanza movies."
It's true. The Three Tenors have long acknowledged the influence of Lanza. Domingo paid tribute to Mario by narrating the definitive documentary on his life, "The American Caruso," in the early 80s. Carreras just released a hit CD tribute to Mario (which reportedly faced stiff competition in Europe from Lanza's own CDs), and Pavarotti has openly sung the praises of Mario in interviews. As one-time amateur tenor Bob Dolfi, a longtime friend of the Lanza family, put it:
"When the Three Tenors sing, there's not three up there, there's four. That's what I honestly believe."
Dolfi and another longtime Lanza family friend, Henry Garcia, joined Damon and me for coffee. The excuse? For them, it was a matter of love, and duty---they're dedicated to preserving Mario's memory. For me, it was a matter of news. Although Lanza died under mysterious cir- cumstances in 1959 in Italy at age 38, two brand new CDs---the first release of entirely new Lanza recordings since his death(!)---have appeared in the past couple months: a 1958 concert, "Mario Lanza Live From London" (BMG Classics); and "Where It All Began," a collector's edition package of rare recordings from 1945 and '51 marketed through Garcia's "Gems of the Past" label (accompanied by a piece of sheet music once owned by Mario, and authenticated by Damon.) What's more, it appears that a long-rumored movie about Mario's life is finally in the "serious negotiation" stage.
The voice does not die. Why?
"I think my father's singing came from his heart and his soul---from deep within," said Damon, a 41-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur in partnership with Dolfi. "Some singers sing mechanically, according to how they've been taught, and they do it wonderfully. But my dad once made a statement that every time he sings, he dies a little. Because he's giving so much of himself, so much from the heart, the soul. I think that's what people really love to hear. It's like a gift from God."
Many others have suggested that the Fourth Tenor's vocal gifts were practically supernatural. Lanza himself suspected he was possessed by the ghost of Caruso (he was born in 1921, the year Caruso died.) True, critics have pointed out a lack of refinement common to more studied singers, but Lanza's voice was so naturally beautiful and breathtakingly powerful that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini pronounced it "the greatest voice of the 20th century." That pretty well makes the case.
And I'll take heart over technical perfection anytime.
"Whenever I get in conversations with people, and they ask, what makes Lanza so great?" said Dolfi, "my answer to that would be if you sing an aria, and it calls for a high C, and every tenor hits that high C, what distinguishes who is better at that point? And my answer would be feeling. Mario sang with tremendous feeling."
The Voice first beckoned Dolfi at age eleven.
"Didn't know anything about music," he said. "One day, my mother and father sent me to my room, for punishment. I turned on the radio, looking for loud music. And Mario had just started to sing 'Be My Love' on the Coca Cola (radio) show in 1951. And as he sang, I got goose pimples, I mean, at 11 years old! And I got tears. I said, what's wrong with me? And I couldn't understand."
When Dolfi eventually found he wasn't gifted enough to be "another Lanza," he devoted himself to the man's memory. In the early 60s, Dolfi, Lanza's parents, and Lanza's close friend and biographer Terry Robinson toured the country to pay tribute to the late tenor, showing excerpts from his films and introducing people to the voice. "Come in and listen to Mario, we said," remembered Dolfi. "Half-way through the shows, I'd look out at people and say, 'how'd you like it?' I would see tears."
Damon nodded. He remembers such moments, and he also remembers his father---despite having lost him at age six. Chiefly, he recalls Papa coming in to tell bedtime stories, sing "Guardian Angels," then kiss his brother and sisters---Marc, Elissa, Colleen---goodnight. Tragically, most of Damon's acquaintance with his father has come the way it does to anyone else---through movies and records. And perhaps he spoke for his late brother, Marc, (who passed away two years ago), and his sisters, when he told me:
"I always tell people, I'm blessed with one thing," Damon said, a noticeable touch of his fathers' diction in his speaking voice. "I lost both my parents (Lanza's wife, Betty, died heartbroken shortly after her husband) but as far as my father is concerned, I still can listen to his voice. If I want, I can put on one of his movies, or the appearance he and my mother made on TV. So I think people that have lost their parents don't have things that I have. When I want to see them sometimes, I have the videotape and the recordings. It is a big part of my life. I listen to my father a lot. It's kind of like visiting with him. It's spiritual."
Had Lanza lived (he died in a hospital in Italy, officially of a heart attack, but family members have long suspected a mob hit), he would be 73 years old today. Would he have a ticket to see the Three Tenors? "Oh, you bet!" said Dolfi.
Most tickets for the Three Tenors go for about a year's average salary in the better parts of China. If you can't afford one, you might consider doing what I'm going to do. I'm renting "The Great Caruso," with Mario Lanza, and I'm hooking the movie up to my stereo system. Then I'm going to open my front door, and let the voice spill out into the night.
And if you go to the concert, you might take a moment to remember the Fourth Tenor. Think of him as singing high harmony. Very high harmony. I'm sure the Three Tenors do.