RUSS COLUMBO

 

Russ Columbo's career reads as a metaphor of unfulfilled promise; for what might have been. By the time of his tragic death at the age of twenty-six, he was generally conceded to reside at the pinnacle of the crooning genre, the chief rival to the hegemony enjoyed by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. Like these stars, his popularity cut across fan publications, sound recordings, radio, and the cinema. Yet Columbo's legacy - a body of recorded work intermittently spread over a mere five years - provides slim evidence in support of such a lofty assessment. As a result, he has received only passing mention from the vast majority of sources concerned with chronicling the popular music of that era.

Born January 14, 1908, Ruggerio de Rodolfo Columbo came from a large Catholic family. His parents, Nicholas and Julia Columbo (died, May 1942 and August 1944, respectively), gave birth to numerous children, including Albert (d. August 1946), Anthony (d. February 1965), John (d. August 1967), Alonzo (death date unknown), Fiore (d. 1929), Florence Columbo LoDuca (d. 1919), Anna Columbo (d. September 1940), and Carmela Columbo Tempest (d. January 1986), and an unidentified number who died as infants.

Evidence differs as to whether the place of birth was in San Francisco or Camden, New Jersey; at any rate, he seems to have spent portions of his early childhood in both locations. As his Italian-born father was a theater musician, Russ grew up in an atmosphere permeated by music. He was provided guitar and violin lessons beginning as a young boy.

While a teenager, his family moved from the Napa Valley, California town of Calistoga to Los Angeles. There, Russ joined his high school's orchestra as a violinist. In addition, he was able to secure additional experience playing "mood music" in small combos on silent movie sets. Film companies of that day utilized musicians as a means of helping actors achieve the proper frame of mind for interpreting their respective roles. One of these gigs resulted in actress Pola Negri taking an interest in Columbo. Negri, one of the leading film stars of the 1920s, had been romantically involved with the famed Rudolph Valentino. Noting a physical resemblance between the two, she assisted Russ in landing small roles in a number of late 1920s movies.

At the same, Columbo regularly found work as a violinist in hotel and theater orchestras around Los Angeles. When a band singer became ill immediately prior to a CBS radio program being broadcast from the Hollywood Roosevelt, Russ was quickly recruited to go on as his replacement. As a result, he able to secure a position with Gus Arnheim and His Cocoanut Grove Orchestra. The Arnheim association elevated Columbo to the big leagues. Arnheim - a widely known pianist, composer, and bandleader who'd played with Abe Lyman during 1921-1923 - toured the U.S. and Europe heading his own ensemble in the mid-1920s. Notable musicians under his baton over the years would include Jimmie Grier, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Stan Kenton, Bing Crosby, Shirley Ross, and actor Fred MacMurray. He began recording in 1928 (his first release was "I Can't Do Without You"; Okeh 41057) and his 1931 release, "Sweet and Lovely," would be one of the biggest hit recordings of all-time. Russ would be regularly featured on records as his lead vocalist between 1929-1931 prior to making it big on his own.

While officially signed as a violinist, Arnheim considered Columbo a standby vocalist because his featured singer, Bing Crosby, had exhibited erratic behavior brought on largely by bouts of heavy drinking. When Grove's manager, Abe Frank, attempted to levy a fine on Crosby for missing a show, the talented singer left for good. Tabbed to fill the void, Columbo immediately flourished as Arnhaim's featured vocalist. Building on the bit movie parts filmed during the day to supplement his band work by night, Russ attracted considerable public attention for his scenes with the Arnheim band in the 1929 musical, Street Girl.

After touring the East Coast with Arnheim, Columbo attempted to strike out on his own, forming a band and opening a nightclub with two of his brothers in Los Angeles. The Depression-era economy, however, greatly limited his success on both fronts. But his fortunes resumed an upward trajectory when Con Conrad - best known as the composer of "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" and the first song to win an Academy Award, "The Continental" - offered to manage him. Allegedly aggressive to a fault, Conrad used all of his persuasive powers to convince Columbo that he was, in the words of Crosby biographer Barry Ulanov, "the great singer of the time and would have no trouble with his career." Conrad took Russ out of his nightclub and band, in which he had been playing violin and guitar and singing a little in the Crosby style, bought him a top hat and resplendent dress suit, and had him photographed to best advantage. These efforts enabled Columbo land a contract for an NBC radio program airing weekdays at 11 p.m..

When Bing Crosby was signed to head a comparable program for CBS in the same time slot, network executives saw the potential for a publicity bonanza. The rivalry - which was further fueled by Crosby's defection from RCA to record for Brunswick, followed by RCA's signing of Columbo - was billed as the "Battle of the Baritones" and some of the resulting coverage strained the boundaries of good taste. Ulanov notes,

Columnists, taking advantage of a good story, began to quote the two men

about each other in a manner and a parlance that neither of them would

employ about anybody, much less about his chief rival. And then one very

amusing story started going the rounds. "A lot of people seem to think

Russ Columbo is Bing Crosby under another name," wrote one critic.

Another asked, "Are Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo one and the same

person?"

 

The rivalry seemed convincing in that their renditions of many songs—e.g., "Stardust," "Goodnight Sweetheart," "Sweet and Lovely," "Street of Dreams," "Paradise"—were only days apart. Columbo actually recorded Crosby’s signature tune, "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)," five days before Crosby did. Furthermore, Bob Weitman, manager of Paramount Theatres, booked Columbo into the Brooklyn Paramount and then Crosby into the Manhattan Paramount, just a few miles away.

In reality, the singers remained on friendly terms. Crosby, in a newspaper column that appeared over his signature, praised a Columbo record. He also had played a part in the composition of Russ's theme song, "You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love," which was, nevertheless, paraphrased by wags as "You Call It Crosby, But I Call It Russ."

Columbo, undoubtedly sensitive to claims that he was a Crosby clone, attempted to focus on the differences between their vocal deliveries. The NEA Service carried the following self-appraisal in 1931:

I'm not a crooner - or a blues singer or a straight baritone. I've tried to make

my phrasing different, and I take a lot of liberty with the music. One of the

things [audiences] seem to like best is the voice obbligato on repeat choruses -

very much as I used to do them on the violin.

 

The contrasting qualities of their voices was even more pronounced than this comment would suggest. Despite, certain stylistic similarities, the timbres differed to a striking degree. Columbo possessed soft, sweet, creamy voice which had a tendency to border on blandness. Crosby, on the other hand, had a rougher, stronger, more vigorous instrument, typically informed by jazz phrasing. Even his ballads were vehicles for the expression of greater rhythmic bite and a richer palette of tonal coloring. Hemming and Hajdu have noted further differences between two singers:

[Columbo] almost always sounded deadly serious, sometimes even pretentious,

about the romantic lyrics he sang - in contrast to Crosby's way of distancing

himself from them with a degree of self-irony and occasional kidding. Yet

there is no denying the gently nonthreatening appeal of Columbo's voice and

approach - and the soothing effect his voice had on millions of listeners in the

depths of the Depression. It's a style that also clearly influenced the most

romantic of the big-band singers of the mid-1930s, such as Art Jarrett and

Jack Leonard.

 

In the meantime, extramusical qualities were a key ingredient in Columbo's success. His striking good looks - black hair, dark eyes, a smooth olive complexion, and athletic physique - graced a multitude of posters, sheet music covers, fan magazines, and trade publications. NBC billed him as "The Romeo of the Airwaves," while his amorous image was augmented by a series of well-publicized romances, including singer Dorothy Dell, actress Sally Blane (Loretta Young's sister), and Hannah Williams.

Columbo's considerable songwriting skills helped further his career as well. A number of his hit recordings were self-penned, including "Prisoner of Love," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)," and "My Love." Professing to enjoy composing almost as much as performing, he told one interviewer, "I write late at night mostly - and get some of my best ideas after I've gone to bed" (a statement likely to have had additional layers of meaning to his legion of female fans).

Columbo's popularity on the radio made it possible to surround himself with first-rate talent. In the spring of 1932, for instance, a rapidly maturing Benny Goodman was hired to front his dance band. The offer proved sufficiently attractive to inspire Goodman to fill his ensemble with excellent jazz musicians like Gene Krupa, Babe Russin, and Joe Sullivan. He functioned as musical director when the band was booked for the summer into the Woodmansten Inn, a roadhouse located close to Manhattan, enabling Columbo to mix with customers when he wasn't singing. Reviews of the engagement appear to have been decidedly favorable - the Variety review of the May 5 opening called the band's music "dance inspiring" - but Con Conrad was not happy with the results. According to Goodman,

It was a good little band, but Conrad wound up getting me at me because

whenever we played for dancing people seemed to really like it. I mean,

we'd play "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" or some song like

that, and all of a sudden the joint was rocking. He'd say, "Hey, wait a

minute - you guys aren't supposed to be the attraction here," and he meant

it.

 

As a result, Goodman - temporarily stymied in his efforts at leading his own band - was left no recourse but to retreat to the anonymity of radio studios, while Columbo would be mated with a succession of sweet orchestras which served merely to accentuate the romantic qualities of his crooning style.

By 1933, during a lull in his recording activities, Columbo became more actively involved in film acting. He was signed to his first starring role that year in a two-reeler titled That Goes Double, which had him playing a dual role - as himself and as a look-alike office worker - in addition to singing three songs, "Prisoner of Love," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)," and "My Love." Although his acting in this short was widely considered to be more self-conscious and less "natural" than Crosby's comparable efforts from the same period with Paramount, Columbo's rising celebrity - combined with his suave good looks and robust masculinity - assured him of further opportunities in Hollywood productions.

Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933) provided Columbo his first romantic lead in a feature-length film. One of Darryle F. Zanuck's earliest productions for his recently formed Twentieth Century Pictures, it also starred Constance Cummings and included spot appearances by a host of Broadway and vaudeville veterans, most notably Blossom Seeley, Frances Williams, Texas Guinan, Eddie Foy, Jr., and Abe Lyman and His Band. While Columbo received mixed reviews as an actor - he appeared wooden in contrast with the vitality displayed by many of the bit players - one of the songs he introduced in the picture, "You're My Past, Present, and Future," became a major hit. The film's box office performance was also helped by a windfall of unexpected publicity; Al Jolson, convinced that the Walter Winchell-based script depicted a situation in his romance with Ruby Keeler too faithfully for his liking, instigated a public altercation by punching the gossip columnist.

Perhaps due to his less-than-rave notices for his work in Broadway Thru a Keyhole, Columbo was reduced to a cameo role in his next film, Moulin Rouge (Twentieth Century Pictures). Even during his brief segment onscreen, he was forced to share the spotlight with the Boswell Sisters and headliner Constance Bennett, performing the Harry Warren and Al Dubin-penned standard, "Coffee in the Morning and Kisses at Night."

While Columbo's fledging movie career temporarily stalled, new opportunities arose in other venues. He was offered a new NBC prime-time radio series early in 1934. Emanating "deep in the heart of Hollywood," in the words of presenter Cecil Underwood, the program aired every Sunday night. Introduced as "the Romeo of songs, here with songs to delight your ears and heart," Columbo would open with the greeting "Good evening, my friends," followed by his theme, "You Call It Madness," which would also return as his closing number. His song selection featured a blend of hit recordings and plugs for material from current films, including "With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming" from Shoot the Works, "I’ve Had My Moments" from Hollywood Party, and "Rolling In Love" from The Old Fashioned Way.

At the same time, Columbo signed a new recording contract with Brunswick (once again filling the void left by the departure of Crosby to another label, in this case, Decca). Despite the absence of precise sales figures, his releases from that period reputedly sold exceedingly well. According to Robert Deal, he was reportedly earning more than $500,000 a year from all sources—a vast sum at the time.

These developments appear to have spurred Universal Pictures to select him for a major part (as Gaylord Ravenal) in the heavily-publicized film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, Showboat. When that project was temporarily put on hold due to production problems, Columbo was assigned an interim lead in Wake Up and Dream, a low-budget, standard backstage musical also starring June Knight, Wini Shaw, and Roger Pryor.

Titled Castles in the Air in Great Britain and initially referred to in press releases as The Love Life of a Crooner, this film - which would be released a month after Columbo's untimely death - might well have proved a springboard to better roles in the future. Despite the inherent banalities of a run-of-the-mill script, his part seemed designed to reveal a darker side and wider acting range than that demonstrated by chief rival Crosby up until then. In contrast to the "good guy" roles characterizing Crosby's output at Paramount, Columbo played an egotistical singer who attempted to steal away his best friend's girl. The movie also showed his singing in good light, as exemplified by the posthumously released hit, "When You're In Love" (Brunswick 6972), with an accompaniment by Jimmie Grier & His Orchestra.

Universal's announcement in press releases while Columbo was still alive that his next film role would be as a toreador in Men Without Fear, gives some credence to the scenario that he was on the verge of challenging Crosby's hegemony as the leading crooner of the 1930s. Furthermore, he was rumored to be in line for choice roles in two other motion picture projects, Universal's Glamour (which would have reunited him with former co-star Constance Cummings who, in personal correspondence in the late 1990s, fondly recalled her professional relationship with Columbo) and Sweet Music, which eventually was released in 1935 by Warner Bros. starring Rudy Vallee. The latter film included the song, "I See Two Lovers," which initially appeared in Wake Up and Dream.

Public interest in Columbo was further hyped by his romance with actress Carole Lombard. In the fall of 1933, a short time after her divorce from actor William Powell, Lombard fell in love with the singer. For his part, Columbo responded favorably to her zany behavior as well as accepting her salty language, something which had offended a number of her male friends in the past. Although marriage seemed a distinct possibility, Lombard’s close associates doubted that the affair would come to that. According to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, "the couple’s relationship was based on many things – but not sex." Hopper cited a number of traits which caused her question Columbo’s masculinity, including the considerable trouble he spent on his hair and sun-tanning treatments as well as his habit of carrying around a pocket-mirror produced on occasion to gaze at himself in public. It is indisputable, however, that Lombard was devoted to him and made every effort to help further his film career. She invited Columbo onto film sets to observe the filmmaking process and to pick up pointers on acting. He repaid this favor by coaching her in the two songs she was designated to sing in the movie White Woman.

By September 1934 it was clear that Crosby’s career had thus far been more successful than his own. Columbo had appeared in only four films during 1933-1934, two of which he did not star in. Crosby on the other hand had starred in six features during the same time span. Furthermore, the material he had been given to sing in films trailed far behind that provided Crosby with regard to both quality and sheer quantity. While Crosby’s film music played a significant role in propelling him to stardom, Columbo’s song hits were for-the-most-part limited to recordings and radio broadcasts. Deal states "he had the greater romantic appeal but very little chance to demonstrate any versatility and it seems likely that there were more sides of him to be seen on film than his presenters had up to that time revealed to the cinema audiences."

Columbo and Lombard continued to date up to his death; they could be seen dining and dancing at the Cocoanut Grove most Wednesday nights. His last recording session took place on August 31, 1934; he concluded with the Allie Wrubel and Mort Dixon composition, "I See Two Lovers."

On September 2, just hours before his regular Sunday evening radio program, Columbo stopped by to see his life-long friend, Lansing V. Brown, Jr., who lived with his parents at 584 Lillian Way in Beverly Hills. He was going to have some publicity shots taken by Brown, who was highly respected as still camera man and much in demand as a portrait photographer. After the photos has been taken, they talked about a common interest, antique pistol collecting. Brown then produced a pair of duelling pistols which dated from the Civil War, part of his own collection of curios. He placed the head of a match under the rusty hammer of one of the pistols with a flourish, then pulled the trigger to ignite the match in order to light a cigarette. The pistol, which evidently hadn’t been used for over sixty-five years, still housed a charge of powder and an old bullet. The chick of the hammer caused the charge to explode and the corroded bullet struck the top of a table located between the two friends, ricocheted, striking Columbo in the left eye, then entering his brain.

 

Rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital, it was discovered that the bullet, after piercing the center of the brain, had fractured the rear wall of the skull. A brain specialist summoned to the scene, Dr. George Paterson, counseled against the delicate operation being considered unless Columbo’s rapidly waning strength could be restored. The singer lingered in agony for six hours before dying; the doctors were amazed that he hadn’t been killed instantly. Bedside mourners included members of his family and former girlfriend, Sally Blane. Those outside in the hospital corridor included Lombard, who had heard of the tragedy by telephone at Lake Arrowhead where Columbo was to have joined her to vacation the following week, film producer Carl Laemmle, and other film celebrities.

Brown would collapsed following police interrogation; their suspicions had been aroused by a statement from a servant who alleged that he’d heard Columbo and the photographer arguing violently in the den. However, Brown was released following a court inquest. The verdict: "This jury finds that Russ Columbo came to his death by a gun wound accidentally inflicted by Lansing Brown. Brown is absolved of all blame…." The singer’s relatives and friends agreed with this ruling. A number of professional "dirt" diggers, an inevitable consequence of the Hollywood scene, spread stories of suicide due to an unrequited romance. Brown would grieve until his own passing decades later.

A crowd of 3000 persons attended funeral services at the Sunset Boulevard Catholic Church in Hollywood. The pallbearers were Bing Crosby, Gilbert Roland, Walter Lang, Stuart Peters, Lowell Sherman, and Sheldon Keate Callaway.

Columbo’s seven surviving brothers and sisters conspired to keep news about the death from their mother. Having suffered a heart attack two days prior to Columbo’s accident, they were concerned that the shock of hearing about his death would kill her. A story was concocted about Columbo agreeing to a five-year tour abroad. While money from his life insurance policy was used to support her, the deception was maintained for a decade until she died. The family employed a variety of strategems during this period including sending letters, allegedly written by the singer, which contained newsy accounts, tender sentiments, and reports of his many successes. Warren Hall noted, in the October 8, 1944 issue of The American Weekly (a Sunday supplement distributed in the Hearst syndicated newspapers), that they took the further precaution of imprinting each envelope with a rubber stamp to simulate a London postmark. The same stamp was conspicuous on the wrappings of the Christmas and birthday gifts which arrived "from your loving son."

The family also played records in order to simulate his radio program. The only radio shows actually heard in the Columbo household were those that made no mention of bandleaders. Even though his mother was almost totally blind, all newspapers coming into the house were carefully censored. Lombard assisted by corresponding with Mrs. Columbo, explaining that her son was unable to visit because he was performing in the major cities of Europe. All visitors were warned to speak as though Russ were still alive and more popular than ever. According to Hall, when Mrs. Columbo died in 1944 at the age of 78, her last words were: "Tell Russ…I am so proud…and happy."

Many music historians have openly questioned whether the "Battle of the Baritones" would have turned out differently if Columbo’s life hadn’t been tragically ended. According to Deal,

Rudy Vallee was one man in the business who thought so, on account of

Crosby’s drinking habits in the early thirties, believing that Bing many

have lost some popularity if Columbo’s career had continued. Johnny

Mercer disagreed for he took the view that Columbo did not possess

Crosby’s original talent and did not have the type of personality that gave

Crosby such a universal appeal. By 1934, if not before, Russ Columbo

was the finest singer of love songs in the United States and the one who

had the greatest attraction for women, although the timbre of his voice

also appealed to men – as did Bing Crosby’s and Al Bowlly’s. Columbo

phrased rather like Crosby, in a voice more silkily textured than that of

his "rival" but it is doubtful if he could have handled the more rhythmic

sort of number which Crosby excelled at or, indeed, the country and

western type of song, such as "Home On The Range," "The Last Round-

Up" or "Empty Saddles" that Bing featured so successfully. Russ Columbo

did represent the most serious challenge to Crosby and at only twenty-six

years of age – he was five years younger than Bing – it is reasonable to

assume that his best years were still to come. It says something for the talent

and popularity of the man that it was to be almost six years before another

serious challenger – in the person of Frank Sinatra – forced his way into the

reckoning.

 

Despite the relatively limited number of recordings made by Columbo during his lifetime, Crosby is probably the only crooner predating the Sinatra era to had been honored by more reissues. Over the years there have been a notable number of tribute albums to Columbo, including those of Paul Bruno, Gordon Lewis, Steve Mason, and Jerry Vale. Although not yet a reality, many singers—including Perry Como, Don Cornell, Johnny Desmond, and Tony Martin—have been considered for the leading role in a film biography of Columbo. In the 1950s a television drama featuring Tony Curtis as the crooner got as far as the planning stage.

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