Mario Lanza Biography

Alfredo Arnold Cocozza, 31 January 1921, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 7 October 1959, Rome, Italy. An enormously popular star in film musicals and on records during the 50s, with a magnificent operatic tenor voice. The son of Italian immigrants, he took his stage name from the masculine version of his mother’s maiden name, Maria Lanza. From the age of 15, Lanza studied singing with several teachers, and was introduced into society circles with the object of gaining a patron. He was signed to Columbia Artistes Management as a concert singer, but their plans to send him on an introductory tour were quashed when Lanza was drafted into the US Army in 1943. He appeared in shows, billed as ‘the Service Caruso’, and sang in the chorus of the celebratory Forces show Winged Victory. After release, he lived in New York, gave concerts and worked on radio shows. One of the audition recordings that he made for RCA Records found its way to the MGM Film Studios, and when he deputized for another tenor at the Hollywood Bowl, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer was in the audience.

Soon afterwards Lanza was signed to a seven-year MGM contract by Hungarian producer Joe Pasternak, who was quoted as saying: ‘It was the most beautiful voice I had ever heard - but his bushy hair made him look like a caveman!’ Lanza’s contract allowed him to continue with his concert career, and in April 1948 he made his first, and last, appearance on the professional operatic stage, in two performances of Madame Butterfly, with the New Orleans Opera. In Lanza’s first film in 1949 for MGM, That Midnight Kiss, he co-starred with Kathryn Grayson and pianist José Iturbi; the musical contained a mixture of popular standards as diverse as ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ and ‘Down Among The Sheltering Palms’, and classical pieces, including ‘Celeste Aida’ (from Verdi’s Aida), which gave Lanza one of his first record hits. The film was a big box-office success, and was followed by The Toast Of New Orleans, also with Grayson, which, along with the operatic excerpts, contained some songs by Sammy Cahn and Nicholas Brodszky, including one of Lanza’s all-time smash hits, the million-seller, ‘Be My Love’. Lanza starred in the biopic The Great Caruso (1951), performing several arias associated with his idol. He also introduced ‘The Loveliest Night Of The Year’, a song adapted by Irving Aaronson from ‘Over the Waves’, by Juventino Rosas, with a new lyric by Paul Francis Webster; it gave Lanza his second million-selling record.

By this point, he was one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, and as his career blossomed, so did his waistline. There were rumours of breakfasts comprising four steaks and six eggs, washed down with a gallon of milk, which caused his weight to soar to 20 stone. He claimed that ‘nervousness’ made him eat. In 1951, Lanza embarked on a country wide tour of 22 cities, and also appeared on his own CBS radio series. Back in Hollywood, he initially rejected MGM’s next project, Because You’re Mine, because of its ‘singer-becomes-a-GI’ storyline. After some difficulties, the film was eventually completed, and was chosen for the 1952 Royal Film Premiere in the UK. The title song, by Cahn and Brodszky, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1952, and became Lanza’s third, and last, million-selling single. He had already recorded the songs for his next MGM project, The Student Prince, when he walked out on the studio following a disagreement with the director. He avoided damaging breach of contract lawsuits by allowing MGM to retain the rights to his recordings for the film. British actor Edmund Purdom took his place, miming to Lanza’s singing voice.

Ironically, Lanza’s vocal performances for the film were considered to be among his best, and Songs From The Student Prince And Other Great Musical Comedies (containing ‘The Drinking Song’), was number 1 in the USA for several weeks. Beset by problems with alcohol, food, tranquillizers and the US tax authorities, Lanza became a virtual recluse, not performing for over a year, before appearing on CBS Television with Betty Grable and Harry James. He was criticized in the press for miming to his old recordings on the show, but proved the voice was still intact by resuming his recording career soon afterwards. In 1956, Lanza returned to filming, this time for Warner Brothers. Serenade, adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, in which Lanza co-starred with Joan Fontaine, was considered by the critics to be one of his best movies. Once again, the operatic excerpts were interspersed with some romantic songs by Cahn and Brodszky, including ‘Serenade’ and ‘My Destiny’. In 1957, tired of all the crash diets, and disillusioned by life in the USA, Lanza moved to Italy, and settled in Rome. He made one film there, The Seven Hills Of Rome (1958). Apart from the sight of Lanza playing an American entertainer doing impersonations of Dean Martin, Frankie Laine and Louis Armstrong, the film is probably best remembered for the inclusion of the 1955 hit song ‘Arrivederci, Roma’, written by Renato Rascel (Ranucci) and Carl Sigman, impressively sung in the film by Lanza, and which has become the accompaniment to many a backward glance by tourists ever since.

In 1958, Lanza visited the UK, making his first stage appearances for six years, in concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall and on the Royal Variety Show. From there, he embarked on a European tour. While on the Continent, he made For The First Time (1959), which was the last time he was seen on film. He appeared relatively slim, and was still in excellent voice. In the autumn of 1959 he went into a Rome clinic; a week later, he died of a heart attack. Much later it was alleged that he was murdered by the Mafia because he refused to appear at a concert organized by mobster Lucky Luciano. The city of Philadelphia officially proclaimed 7 October as ‘Mario Lanza Day’, and subsequently established a museum that still preserves his memory in the 90s. Opinions of his voice, and its potential, vary. José Carreras is quoted as saying that he was ‘turned on’ to opera at the age of 16 by seeing Lanza in The Great Caruso, and he emphasized the singer’s influence by presenting his Homage To Mario Lanza concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in March 1994. Arturo Toscanini allegedly described it as the greatest voice of the twentieth century. On the other hand, one critic, perhaps representing the majority, said: ‘He just concentrated on the big ‘lollipops’ of the opera repertoire, he had a poor musical memory, and would never have been an opera star.’ Ironically, it was one of the world’s leading contemporary opera singers, Placido Domingo, who narrated the 1981 television biographyMario Lanza-The American Caruso.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

Filter Results