‘I’m as good an entertainer as there is,’ Vinton says
When I think of what the government in Warsaw is doing, I’m ready. I think: ‘I’ll leave my family, my career, my house. I’ll buy some machine guns and get some people together. I’ll become the Castro of Poland.’ ” The emotion may be honest, but the plan, of course, isn’t practical.
American pop singer Bobby Vinton, 47, prefers his million-dollar mansion near L.A. to a foxhole. He’s earned the plush spread, once owned by Cary Grant and before him Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with a string of hit records that includes such nonmartial music as Roses Are Red, Blue Velvet, Mr. Lonely and I Love How You Love Me. Also included, however, is My Melody of Love, the 1974 hit with lyrics half in English, half in Polish, that earned Vinton the nickname he now takes more seriously: the Polish Prince.
Instead of leading a guerrilla force up the Vistula River, he is attempting to fight the Jaruzelski regime that has stifled the growing movement for political freedom in Poland the best way he can: by sending music behind the Vinyl Curtain. He has recorded another English-Polish song, She Will Survive, whose refrain is “Jeszcze Polska nie zginela,” or “Poland will never perish.” He wrote the words to the tune by two Italians, Antoinette Desimone and Edilio Capotasti. Vinton himself is three-quarters Polish. His bandleader father, half Lithuanian, was born here. (Yes, Bobby changed his name, but, no, it wasn’t the Vinton part; he changed it from Stanley Vinton Jr.)
Last August in Chicago Vinton hosted a local TV station’s telethon for the Polish American Congress relief fund; the show brought more than $1 million in four hours. And he is still trying—without success, he says with bitterness—to enlist other Polish-American entertainers in benefits.
Vinton was indignant that neither he nor other Poles were invited to appear on Let Poland Be Poland, the 90-minute public TV special organized by the International Communications Agency under President Reagan’s aegis in January. The program included Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas, not known for their affinity for Poland, and Frank Sinatra sang the folk tune Ever Homeward in Polish. “I mean, Frank is great,” says Vinton, “but I’m the Polish Prince.”
Martin Pasetta, who produced Let Poland Be Poland, says “it was no oversight” that Vinton wasn’t asked to perform. “No question about it, Bobby Vinton is the premier Polish performer in the country. [He’s sold more than 30 million records.] If we had been doing a variety show, we would have used him. But our show was more of a documentary, not Hollywood razzmatazz and not political.” But as Vinton’s friend Roman Pucinski, a former Chicago Congressman who now heads the Polish American Congress, puts it: “Bobby should have been offended.”
Vinton has been further frustrated by his inability to find a major label to back She Will Survive—he has been distributing it himself. Furthermore, many radio stations have refused to play it. “They tell me it’s too political,” he says. (One line says, “The time now has come to make a change.”) Vinton pledged royalties from the record to the Polish relief fund, but so far it has not earned back production costs.
Another suggestion has been that the record is an attempt to revive a flagging career. “I haven’t had a hit in a while,” Vinton admits. (His last was in 1974.) “But I’m as good an entertainer as there is for putting on a show for people. In the last year and a half I played 20 weeks in Las Vegas at five different hotels as a headliner, and I don’t know anyone else who did that.”
Vinton formed his first band, at 16, in his hometown, Canonsburg, Pa. Later, while studying music education at Duquesne University, he joined a comedian and a singer in a trio called the Hi-Lites.
Then, after Army service, most of it at Fort Dix, N.J., he and his band landed an Epic contract and backed up such touring singers as Fabian and Chubby Checker. He turned solo vocalist himself, and after his first hit, Roses Are Red, reached No. 1 in 1962, Vinton stayed on pop charts for most of the next 10 years before a brief dry spell that was broken by My Melody of Love. It sold two million copies and brought a whole new audience to Vinton. Now his home office is lined with testimonials from such sources as Ed and Joan’s Polka Parties of Muskegon, Mich., the Polish Falcons of America, Nest 141 in Cleveland and the Friends of Polish Art in Detroit.
Vinton has always maintained an extraordinary visibility. He performed at Richard Nixon’s first inaugural, appeared in a John Wayne Western, Big Jake, and made a goodwill tour of Poland in 1980. His name shows up so often in the column of Hollywood Reporter writer Hank Grant that one reader complained to the editor. Grant later explained he likes celebrities who “send me personal letters or give me long-distance calls.” Vinton does.
Bobby and wife Dolly, who have three daughters and two sons, ages 7 to 16, live in Pacific Palisades, Calif. They recently turned down a $4 million offer for the four-acre estate.
“Singing Roses Are Red is nice,” he says, “but I want to give people a sense of pride and spirit.” And clearly, as a performer with a sizable ego who is facing an audience crisis in the pop music market, he wouldn’t mind if they gave him back a hit record one of these days.