Jerry Vale, one of the most popular of the many crooners who carved out a niche for themselves in the shadow of Frank Sinatra, has died at the age of 83. Born Genaro Louis Vitaliano, the young Vale had an early career trajectory that seemed straight out of an old movie: His talents were first detected when, at age 11, he got a job shining shoes at a barbershop in his New York neighborhood, where he entertained customers by singing while he worked. After his boss offered to spring for a voice coach, Vale started performing in supper clubs at the age of 15.
In 1950, a long-running gig at a Yonkers nightclub led to an audition for Mitch Miller, Columbia Records’ powerful A&R man and taste-making czar of pre-rock pop. Working according to Miller’s instincts and instructions, Vale recorded a string of singles and tribute albums to singers Buddy Clark and Russ Columbo. By 1961, he had done well enough on the charts for Columbia to issue his first Greatest Hits collection.
That phase of his career completed, Vale was finally able to persuade a skeptical Miller to allow him to record an album of the Italian songs he’d originally cut his teeth on. 1962’s I Have But One Heart—named for a song that would earn an immortal place in pop culture 10 years later, when Johnny Fontaine sang it to Connie Corleone at her wedding in The Godfather—was such a hit that Vale repeated the formula on his next album, Arrivederci, Roma.
Although Vale’s recording career began to wane as rock music took over the airwaves, he continued to appear on TV and pack ’em in at nightclubs well into the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. His voice was also a regular fixture at baseball games, thanks to a celebrated performance of the national anthem he recorded in 1963. Vale’s standing as an enduring symbol of success and the good life to his fellow Italian-American strivers was confirmed when he made cameo appearances as himself in two Martin Scorsese movies, GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), as well as on The Sopranos.
In 2000, he published Jerry Vale: A Singer’s Life, an autobiography written with Richard Grudens.