January 4th, 2008

carole lombard 05
  • vp19

It's Columbo's centennial, too

The year 2008 marks not only the centennial of Carole Lombard's birth, but that of someone who was a major part of her life -- and might have stayed that way had fate not intervened. We're referring to Russ Columbo, one of pop music's big stars in the early 1930s, who was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 17, 1908.

Columbo isn't as well-remembered as some of his contemporaries, particularly two other singers he was often categorized with -- Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. If they were rivals, it was of a friendly sort, particularly where Columbo and Crosby were concerned. Moreover, Russ and Bing were not peas in the same pod. Crosby was heavily influenced by jazz and people like Louis Armstrong, while Columbo, whose instrumental skills were stronger than Crosby's, had only a bit of a jazz sound about him; he was more influenced by Italian and European music. As a result, Columbo might sound a bit stiff and dramatic to modern ears than the more relaxed, bluesy Crosby.

Columbo moved to the West Coast in the late 1920s and found work with several dance bands; he even did some dubbing for singers in very early talkies. Columbo was cast in a small role as a guitar-playing Mexican prisoner in Cecil B. De Mille's 1929 film "Dynamite," one in which Lombard briefly had the female lead but was fired (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/11206.html). If Columbo and Carole came in contact with each other there, not much of an impression was made.

Columbo persevered, and by 1931 he had his first big successes, including the song he's best remembered for, "Prisoner Of Love":

The song, co-written by Columbo, has become a standard, recorded by Billy Eckstine (who remade several Columbo songs) and Frank Sinatra. It became a hit for Perry Como in 1945, his biggest of the forties, and in 1963, James Brown hit the charts with a soulful version, in an arrangement that sounded comparable to Jackie Wilson's hits of that era.

Columbo continued having hits: "Paradise," "You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love," "As You Desire Me." He became a radio regular, and his records sold well.

In September 1933, Lombard, who was about to portray a club singer in the Paramount film "White Woman," saw Columbo perform in Los Angeles and became infatuated with him. She arranged for him to give her vocal lessons, but ironically, she ended up being dubbed in the movie (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/11870.html).

Nevertheless, the affair continued, occasionally having its ups and downs, until Sept. 2, 1934, when Columbo was killed in a freak accident with a Civil War-era gun at the home of his good friend, Lansing Brown. Only two days earlier, Columbo had made what would be his last recording, "I See Two Lovers."

Lombard was devastated, and did all she could to comfort Brown, who never emotionally recovered from the incident.

Over the years, some wonder whether Columbo would have married Carole. They loved each other, to be sure, but Lombard sometimes sensed Russ lacked some maturity and depended upon her to mother him. A few love letters between the two show the affair didn't always run smoothly. In 1992, there was talk of a movie about the Lombard-Columbo romance that would have starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Tom Cruise as the '30s legends (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/48480.html), but it never came to fruition.

If you're a fan of Columbo's music, this may be of interest to you: A week from tonight, Jan. 11, a birthday tribute will be held from 9 to 11:30 p.m. at Charley O's in New York City. Gregory Moore and the Cosmopolitan Orchestra will perform Columbo songs, and there will be several special guests, including two New York broadcast legends: nostalgia maven Joe Franklin and WFUV radio's Rich Conaty, whose "Big Broadcast" program, celebrating 1920s and '30s music, just celebrated its 35th anniversary. (Conaty's program airs each Sunday from 8 p.m. to midnight ET, and is wonderfully done. Hear it at http://www.wfuv.org.) For reservations, call 212-977-0025.