Friday, July 06, 2007

Whaddya Mean You've Never Heard of Russ Columbo?

Ruggiero Eugenio di Rudolpho Colombo was born on January 14, 1908 in Camden New Jersey, just over the river from Philadelphia. He was like Frank Sinatra the son of Italian immigrants, possibly from Naples. His is a story of what might have been. Columbo at 6 feet with deep brown eyes, black hair and weighing 170 lbs was the epitome of the tall, dark and handsome Italian. Although it's reported that he had some surgery on his chin and nose to improve his chances at movie stardom. It's also probable that he wore a hairpiece to augment his receding hairline.

His family moved to Los Angeles in 1924. Russ learned to play the violin and performed with several bands including Professor Moore's Orchestra at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Slim Martin's Orchestra at the Pantages Theater in downtown Los Angeles. As a violinist he joined Gus Amheim's band in 1927 and later Bing Crosby became the band’s singer and it was he that encouraged Columbo to sing. Russ took over Bing’s singing spot when he left. Columbo went to New York in 1931 with his own band and landed a recording contract with RCA and spots on the radio with NBC, from there it was a short step to stardom.

He became known as "The Romeo of Song," "The Singing Valentino," and "Radio's Revelation." And from 1931 until 1934 he rivalled Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee as the most popular crooner, reputedly earning $500,000 per year (over $20 million today). He recorded as a violinist and a vocalist and was branching out successfully into films at the time of his tragic death.

His best known recordings are ‘You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love’ (Columbo’s theme song) 1931, ‘Goodnight Sweatheart’ 1931 and ‘As you Desire’ 1932. His biggest films are ‘Broadway Through a Keyhole’ 1933, ‘Moulin Rouge’ 1934 and 'Wake Up And Dream.’ 1934

Columbo’s death has been the subject of much speculation. Was it suicide, murder, or tragic accident? The official verdict was tragic accident. Columbo’s friend Lansing Brown, a leading Hollywood photographer, was striking a match on an antique pistol that he believed to be unloaded. The gun went off and the bullet ricocheted off a desk and struck Columbo in the head. He was twenty six and for his funeral thousands turned up at the church where Bing Crosby was a pallbearer.

Romantically linked to the actress Carole Lombard with whom he had been to the premiere of his first starring film, ‘Wake Up and Dream’ on Friday August 31 1934, two days before his death. The conjecture concerns the singer’s sexuality. The Hollywood rumour machine decreed that Brown and Columbo were lovers and Columbo may have caused an irreparable breach when he announced that he and Lombard were to marry. The truth will never be known as all three took their story to their grave.

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