Though his career never achieved the same degree of superlatives afforded to peers like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, crooner Jerry Vale still enjoyed a five-decade career as a tasteful interpreter of American and international pop standards. After scoring chart hits with Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me" and the Steve Allen-penned "Pretend You Don't See Her," Vale's best-loved material became his renditions of Italian-themed and Italian-language songs like "Innamorata" and his signature song, "Al di là," which endeared him to generations of Italian-American listeners. The latter tune, released in 1963, represented the peak of his tenure on the Billboard Hot 100, though Vale remained a fixture of both the adult contemporary charts and the nightclub circuit for the next four decades until his retirement in 2002. Vale's lovely high tenor voice and polished delivery preserved his status as one of traditional pop's most admired performers. Jerry Vale died at the age of 83 on May 18, 2014.
Born Genaro Louis Vitaliano on July 8, 1932 in the Bronx borough of New York City, Jerry Vale was the son of engineer Louis Vitaliano and his wife, Philamina. He gained his first exposure to public singing at weekly family gatherings at his grandmother's house, where he also heard and learned many of the traditional Italian-American songs that became part of his concert repertoire. Vale's path to a professional career in music came in a roundabout fashion; while working as a shoeshine boy at a barber shop in Mount Vernon, he would entertain customers with renditions of popular songs. The shop's owner recognized Vale's raw talent and introduced him to a vocal coach, who was equally impressed. She invited him to participate in a showcase held at the Bronx Wintergarden, where he won over the crowd with a song titled "Shoe Shine Boy." The warm reception he received for his performance convinced Vale that he should pursue a singing career.
By his teenaged years, Vale was performing at supper clubs in and around New York while supporting himself and his family through manufacturing and engineering jobs. A friendship with New York Mirror columnist Nick Kenny helped him transition to the servicemen's club circuit throughout New York, which in turn led to a long-standing engagement at the Enchanted Room in Yonkers. There, he met songwriter Paul Insetta, who also served as road manager for singer Guy Mitchell. Insetta was so impressed by Vale's voice that he signed him to a management contract before arranging for an audition with Columbia Records. After adopting his Anglicized stage name, Vale signed with Columbia, which released his first single, "Never Give Back My Heart," backed by Percy Faith and his Orchestra, in 1952. He would record ballads and pop songs for the next two years, though with only minor success, until landing his first major hit with a cover of Eddy Arnold's country number "You Don't Know Me." After convincing Columbia's A&R chief, Mitch Miller, to let him record the song, Vale's rendition became his first million-selling single in 1955.
That same year, Vale recorded his first Italian-language song, "Innamorata," which appeared on the soundtrack to the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy "Artists and Models." However, he would not delve deeply into the music of his heritage until the early 1960s, due in part to Miller's reticence about material outside of the traditional pop music of the day. Instead, Vale recorded a pair of tribute albums to other singers, which at the time was a revolutionary idea in the music industry. His first effort, I Remember Buddy (1958), which honored Columbia labelmate Buddy Clark, became the first in a string of top-selling albums for the label. In 1962, Vale finally persuaded Miller to allow him to record his long-gestating album of Italian songs after fielding requests for such material at every concert date. I Have But One Heart (1962) proved to be one of his best-selling releases, and prompted a follow-up, Arrivederci, Roma, which charted even higher on the strength of the single "Al di là," which became his signature song despite competing versions by Connie Francis, Al Martino and Emilio Pericoili.
Vale scored his last Top 40 hit with "Have You Looked into Your Heart" (1964), which sold over 40,000 copies the day after he performed it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971). However, he remained a consistent presence in the Top 40 on the adult contemporary charts for the next decade, scoring Top 10 hits with "Dommage, Dommage (Too Bad, Too Bad)" in 1966 and "In the Back of My Heart" the following year. After earning his final adult contemporary hit in 1971 with "My Little Girl (Angel All A-Glow)," Vale settled into a comfortable routine of sporadic records and constant appearances on the nightclub and casino circuits, as well as international dates in Canada, South America and Australia. His music also remained in the public eye thanks to its inclusion on numerous soundtracks, mostly for features concerning both sides of the moral fence in the Italian-American experience, from the broad Rodney Dangerfield comedy "Easy Money" (1983) to Martin Scorsese's acclaimed "Goodfellas" (1993) and "Casino" (1995), which featured cameos by Vale as himself. In the late 1990s, he flirted briefly with acting, playing a lounge singer in the independent comedy "A Wake in Providence" (1999). In 1998, Vale received a Golden Palm Star on the Walk of Fame in Palm Springs, CA which he had called home for several decades. An autobiography, A Singer's Life, was published in 2000, shortly before Vale suffered a minor stroke in 2002. Though he recovered quickly, he brought his five-decade performing career to a close and invested his time in various charitable events. Jerry Vale died at his home in Palm Desert, California, on May 18, 2014.
By Paul Gaita