One of my favorite posts is a piece from 2007 titled The Quintessential Italian Crooner, in which I put forth my nominee (Dean Martin) as the best of many Italian-American smoothies. That post also generated a lot of comments about a few singers I’d missed, but we all forgot a guy who certainly should have been included — Russ Colombo.
Of course, Ruggerio Eugenio di Rudolpho Columbo was a special case in many ways. For one thing, he died way back in 1934 at just age 26, so it’s understandable that his is not the first name that comes to mind. But he still has a surprisingly active fan base, and a few of them don’t stop at declaring him the top Italian-American balladeer — they feel he should be ranked ahead of Bing Crosby as the first modern crooner, period.
Born in New Jersey, Columbo spent his early childhood in Philadelphia, where he began to bloom as a violin prodigy. His talent and potential spurred his family to move to California when he was just eight, and within a year he was appearing professionally on stage. As he grew into adulthood during the early jazz age of the 1920s, he continued to play violin in a number of bands and also began to find work in the ever-growing movie industry, which was then beginning to convert to ‘talkies’. Columbo found a lot of chances to play violin in films, but he also began to sing in many of them, often dubbing for stars like Gary Cooper.
Russ Columbo was ideal for the movies — suave, handsome, and always sharply dressed — and by 1929 he was in front of the camera, not only singing but also acting. Unfortunately the Depression was just getting started, and for the next couple of years Columbo bounced from small movie parts to occasional work in clubs, sometimes performing his own songs. But in the early 1930s things began to warm up for him. Combining his first record hit, “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)”, with a new radio show that billed him as the ‘Romeo of Radio’, Columbo began to challenge Bing Crosby as the preeminent crooner.
But Columbo was again faced with career momentum problems after he parted ways with the manager who had helped his rise. Eventually he managed to again get on an upswing, with a number of good records to his credit and several appearances in movies, only to face one final problem he could not overcome. While visiting a friend, he began playing with an antique pistol and accidentally shot himself to death, leaving fans to ponder what might have been.