Sooner or later, it happens to every big pop star: The hits stop coming, your record company no longer wants you, and you find yourself tagged as a has-been.
Between 1962 and 1972, Bobby Vinton had 28 Top 40 hits, including “Roses Are Red (My Love),” “Blue on Blue,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Mr. Lonely.” Then, he was unceremoniously dumped by his record company.
Except for a brief comeback in 1974 with “My Melody of Love,” he hasn’t had a hit since. And, like so many has-beens, he’s been relegated to playing Las Vegas and Atlantic City lounges.
But now, the 49-year-old pop crooner, who will appear New Year’s Eve at the Hotel del Coronado’s Grand Ballroom, is gearing up for a second run. He has a new recording contract, with Curb Records, and recently “Blue Velvet” returned to the British pop charts after the song was featured in a television commercial for Nivea cold cream.
Having a hit again, after so many years, was an unexpected surprise that’s done wonders for his self-confidence, Vinton said.
“Any recording artist will tell you, there’s nothing like a hit record,” Vinton said. “You try so hard--everybody lives for it and tries for it, and here I am, I didn’t even know I had it. They called me in Malibu and said, ‘Do you know you have the No. 1 record in England?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure I do, who is this, what is this, some kind of a joke?’ But then I found out it wasn’t a joke, it was true, and I was very excited.”
Shortly before “Blue Velvet” was rereleased in England, Vinton was signed to Curb Records after a chance encounter with label president Mike Curb on a plane. Vinton’s first project for Curb was a greatest-hits package in which he rerecorded many of his old hits, followed by an album of Christmas songs. His next project, and the one he’s the most excited about, is an album of new songs.
“I really want to make a new album and come out with new material, because what happens is you quit believing in yourself,” Vinton said. “You start to wonder, how can the world be wrong; my music must not be what’s happening anymore. But, in light of what happened in England, well, maybe it’s time I got going again.”
Vinton was born in Canonsburg, Pa., also the hometown of Perry Como. He played clarinet and saxophone in his high school band. After a stint in the Army, he moved to Pittsburgh and became a bandleader.
“We backed everybody from Sammy Davis Jr. to Chubby Checker, Fabian, Sam Cooke--you name it,” Vinton said. “I was the conductor, musician and arranger.”
In 1961, Vinton signed with Epic Records and cut two Big Band albums, but neither was a success.
“They thought I was going to be the next teen-age Glenn Miller, but nobody wanted Big Bands; they were dying out, and my record company was dropping me,” Vinton recalled. “But then I looked at my contract and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, my contract calls for me to cut 14 sides, and we only did 12, so you owe me two more sides.’
“So I had them, and I figured that, since I had made enough records as a bandleader, I should cut something as a singer. While we were in the office, I listened to a few songs on this reject pile, and one of them was “Roses Are Red.” I thought to myself, ‘Gee, that sounds like one of the songs I hear on the radio,’ and I told them, that’s the song I want to do.”
So he did it. But, although “Roses Are Red” ended up spending four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles charts, it didn’t happen overnight.
“Initially, it was a struggle, trying to get people to play it, and the record company gave up on it,” Vinton recalled. “So I went and bought a thousand records out of a distributor in Pittsburgh, and the next thing I knew, they called me up and said, ‘Hey, we think you’ve got a hit.’
“So now I have a thousand records, and I got in my car and put them in every record store in the Pittsburgh area. But still, nobody would play it. So I came up with this idea of putting the record inside a dozen roses and giving this bouquet to the disc jockeys.
“The first radio station I went to, there was the disc jockey, behind his glass window, and I was smiling at him, and he was smiling at me, and I felt really awkward, handing this guy a dozen roses. Just then this good-looking girl comes walking down the street, and I told her, ‘I can’t help but notice how good you look, and would you do me a favor? I’ve got all my life invested in these records here, and would you walk in with these flowers and hand them to that disc jockey?’
“She said, ‘You’re crazy, but I’ll do it.’ And then she walked in, and I could see the disc jockey behind the glass, smiling and looking at her legs, and then he’s putting on my record. When she came back out, I told her, ‘Look, I’ve got a couple more records and a couple more radio stations,’ and we ended up going to six or seven other stations, and they were all playing my record at once.
“I checked the stores a week later, and my records were all gone.”
“Roses Are Red” first topped the Billboard charts in July of 1962. By the end of the year, two other songs had charted. Vinton’s hit streak would continue for nearly 10 years.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.
“My record company, Epic Records, dropped me,” Vinton recalled. “They said, ‘You’ve had it. You’ve sold 50, 60 million records, how many more can you sell? The times are changing, people don’t want your music anymore, and we’re going to have to let you go.’
“I said, ‘Hey, that’s no trouble, I can get a deal anywhere.’ But I couldn’t. All the other record companies were saying, ‘Hey, if Epic doesn’t want you, why should we want you?”’
Eventually, Vinton did succeed in finding a new record deal, with ABC Records. In 1974, he returned to the pop charts with “My Melody of Love.” Sung partially in Polish, the song was embraced by Polish-Americans and Vinton, of Polish descent, soon became known as the “Polish Prince.”
“It was really more than a record, it was a happening,” Vinton said. “In cities like Chicago and Detroit, where there is a big Polish ethnic group, I didn’t have fans, I had armies. It was like I was going to free Poland with this song.”
Indeed. Shortly after the release of “My Melody of Love,” Vinton hosted a Chicago telethon that raised millions of dollars for Poland’s then-fledgling Solidarity movement. He also traveled to Poland to speak and perform.
In the wake of the hoopla surrounding “My Melody Of Love,” Vinton was given his own syndicated television series, “The Bobby Vinton Show,” which lasted three years. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t come up with another hit record, and when ABC Records folded in 1977, Vinton said, “I was on the street again.”
For the next 12 years, Vinton didn’t do any recording at all. “I was just playing Vegas and Atlantic City, making millions of dollars a year. I was working about 30 weeks a year, and I was probably in Las Vegas as much as Wayne Newton, just raking it in.’
But money isn’t everything, Vinton said, and he’s grateful that Curb is giving him the chance to record again, and that “Blue Velvet” put him back on the charts.
“Like I said, there’s nothing like a hit record,” he said. “That’s what this business is all about.”