TONY ROMANO (1915 – 2005)

Tony Romano had an incredible career as a singer, guitarist, composer, arranger and actor. Beginning performing at the tender age of 9, in the late 1920’s his journey has led to a unique body of work with some of the greatest creative artists of the 20th Century.

Romano was born in 1915, the year of the San Francisco Exposition, to a musical family, one of 14 children. His parents emigrated from the small village of Maschito very near Naples in southern Italy (the same town gave birth to composer Harry Warren).  His father, a master shoemaker by trade, passed through Ellis island, and finally hung up his shingle in Fresno, California, a place of vineyards and sun, just like home. Romano’s father was also a semi/classical violinist and could craft violins as well as play them.  He taught all his children to play and sing and made sure they learned from 'the best' - Paganini, Puccini, Mascagni, and Rachmaninov.

Tony being the first boy was given the violin.  His father played guitar and took his son around to friends houses to show off his wonderful talent on a violin he had made.  Tony studied the violin for four years and was the leader of the High School Orchestra in Madera, California.  When not playing, he was made to wear white gloves so as to protect his fingers for the violin. His father was not at all happy about Tony picking up the guitar, and showed his displeasure by punishing his son severely, in a panic that it would ruin his hands for the violin.  However, he lost that battle and Tony switched from one instrument to the other often, sometimes mixing it up with a mandolin.  Like many families of the period, the evening’s entertainment involved musical performances, accompanied by piano (his brother Nick) guitar (Tony and his brother John) and violin (Tony and his father).  Everyone, including his mother, sang. Later Romano would often remark, 'In my family, if you didn't sing, you didn't eat.'

It was true.  The family was poor.  Romano began to perform as a child, singing and playing guitar to encourage people to buy the newspapers he was hawking in the street. The device worked.  People bought his papers just to hear him sing.  The little boy was delighted when, a passerby bought the whole stack of papers and asked him if he would like to enter a talent contest.  Little Romano easily took home first prize for his family:  $5.00! A fortune in those days! Romano went on to win every talent contest he entered: a little boy with sad eyes, singing big notes and accompanying himself on guitar with music he heard from the great classical composers he had been taught to absorb by his father. Romano wrote his first song in those days, which he was later to sing to cheers on the radio, a kind of organ grinder's song called, Nicolini.  By his early teens, Tony Romano had become a professional, honing his craft at countless parties and dances whether on his own or with other groups, he played and played and it was clearly becoming his life.

Early Career - San Franciso

When Romano was 15, his older brother John took him to San Francisco to introduce him to comedian Al Pierce who had a very popular radio show, The Al Pearce Happy Go Lucky Hour (a.k.a. Al Pearce and his Gang). Despite the fact that Romano had recently won two violin scholarships, one at the prestigious La Scala, Milan, he chose to accept Pearce's offer to join his Gang instead. Not only would the offer allow him to support his entire family, but the allure of playing and singing on one of the most popular variety shows on radio seemed like “more fun” than going to a 'foreign' country to study violin.

The teenager was entrusted to the care of 22 year old musician and comedian Morey Amsterdam, a family acquaintance who was a featured player on the show. The young Romano left family and friends behind to live with Amsterdam and his then wife, comedienne and singer, Mabel Todd. Amsterdam started life as a cello player, but posessed a quick wit and soon put down the cello in favour of comedy.  He achieved fame in later years playing the character Buddy on the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). But at this time, Romano, sheltered in the love of his family, left the security of his Fresno home to broaden his horizons in San Francisco as the 'adopted' son of the Amsterdam family. Amsterdam became his surrogate father.  Mabel sang every note he wrote.  There he could develop his art surrounded by talented people who encouraged him.

Romano sang and practiced so diligently that he evolved into a superb guitarist, ranking at the tender age of eighteen as one of the finest guitar players on the West Coast.  Accompanying himself and many other performers during the day, he also worked every night into the wee hours with singer/actress, Mabel Todd. Todd had an uncanny technical vocal ability, so he felt free to experiment with increasingly imaginative arrangements that might have frightened lesser singers.

Romano became the de facto musical director for the Pearce show. When ‘song pluggers’ came to sell their songs to the prestigious show, it was Romano, although the youngest member of the 'gang,' who would sift through and choose which songs would make the cut. Then he would perform them.  Often Romano would have considered so many new songs in a few hours that at broadcast time, he had forgotten the real melody. No matter, Romano’s genius for melody enabled him to look at the lyric sheet and make up a new tune! He often had to rearrange (or completely rewrite) songs in performances. He learned from these experiences, he would later say, that he had a natural talent for composing and arranging.  And he was soon to put it to work.

Romano performed with Amsterdam and Todd with Pearce, on Komedy Kingdom, the Laugh and Swing Club and the Blue Monday Jamboree where he met another lifelong friend, Meredith Wilson who would later become an overnight success, having struggled for nearly 12 years before he could get his play The Music Man taken seriously enough to get to the stage. Romano often performed his own compositions on these shows and his songbook was growing. One of his compositions, Love is King got him such great reviews that he also began to receive the most fan mail of any one of Pearce's performers.  They brought it to him in huge sacks.  One day, Hollywood was calling and the three troopers wasted no time in answering.

Hollywood

Once in Hollywood, Romano began studying guitar with Georgie Smith (guitarist of the Paramount Studio Orchestra). An article written during this period commented, “Tony is about the same on or off the stage: eager, ingenuous, friendly and willing. His heart is always, first, last and foremost in his music.”  He endeared himself to everyone he met, and worked in the music departments of Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox simultaneously.  Successful studio guitarists hired him for lessons.  He wrote arrangements, worked with vocalists both as vocal arranger and coach and played in studio orchestras - all with little or no screen credit. In 1934, only 19 years old and already a fixture in the music department at Warner Bros. studios, Romano got the chance to work with his idol, Bing Crosby.  He recorded Two Cigarettes in the Dark, and The Moon Was Yellow with Crosby.  In 1937 Dick Powell asked Romano to take a job as his vocal coach and arranger.  He worked with Powell for an upcoming film Cowboy From Brooklyn, and was Powell's musical director on a radio show sponsored by Lucky Strike called Your Hollywood Parade and from that early collaboration, they became lifetime friends. Hollywood Parade was a variety show - a rare early radio precursor of the Tonight Show. One of the guests on the show was a comedian by the name of Bob Hope.  

Romano became very friendly with Ray Heindorf, respected composer and orchestrator for Warner Bros. He would often get together with Romano for Italian food at his house - Romano would do the cooking! Afterwards, he would often play some of the songs or themes from the latest film he was working on and ask tony to play them 'the Romano way'. Heindorf would note down Romano's reharmonizations and countermelodies as he sang and played. Many of these ideas found their way into Heindorf's scores!

Romano had often played for Heindorf in the studio orchestra, but for one picture Heindorf had written a 10 minute orchestral piece featuring the guitar. Although Romano could read music, he was not a proficient 'sight reader'. Romano took a look at the acres of sheet music Heindorf presented him with and was extremely embarrassed. He suggested to Heindorf, "Why don't you just play the orchestral accompaniment to me and let's see what I can come up with?" What Romano 'came up with' earned him a standing ovation from the Warner Bros. orchestra. When the session was over, Romano said, "Ray, thanks for the gig, but if you EVER do that to me again, no more Italian dinners!"

World War II

Romano is perhaps best known for having travelled 6 million miles during WW2 entertaining literally millions of G.I.s as one of the original 4 members of Bob Hope’s USO show (with Hope, Jerry Colonna and Francis Langford). During this time he performed for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and, Eisenhower. Romano always spoke highly of Truman, for his modesty and his decency.  Just after inauguration, shaking Romano's hand, Truman whispered in his ear, "I really hope I do a good job."

At the age of 26, Romano gave up a lucrative career at Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox to tour with Hope during the war years to do what he could to give comfort to America’s troops. He had entertained in just about every camp and hospital in the USA with actress Ann Sheridan, before he went overseas with Hope. This was dangerous work at the best of times, but it also included flying in unpressurized combat aircraft. In later years, Romano's hearing was progressively and permanently damaged by the many trips in the Army air Corps transport planes.  Additionally, the troop was sometimes underfire. Once under attack by snipers, when a bullet whistled past his ear, he jumped offstage quipping, “There are critics everywhere!”

The Gypsies were really a small family travelling wherever there were men to entertain.  The comic patter was rampant in this particular family for obvious reasons.  Bob always called Tony 'boy' onstage, and it irked him.  During one of the shows he introduced Tony this way and was walking off.  Tony happened to say "Thank you Dad."  It got such a tremendous laugh from the GI's that as Bob was walking off stage he froze mid-walk, turned and sneered at him.  He didn't have an answer.  This went on for a couple of years. Every time Tony would read the line it got as big laugh as any in the show.  That Bob could not come up with a topper surprised even his 'son' but Tony got a lot of mileage out of the the moments.

 

Much later the Hope Gypsies were invited to play Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.  The audience numbered in the thousands.  Bing Crosby, introduced Bob.  Bob came out and did his overseas monologue.  He then introduced me.  "Our Orchestra, Tony Romano!"  When Tony reached the microphone, Bob was half way off the stage.  He delivered the line,  "Thank you Dad."  Bob froze at the tremendous laugh it got, then he slowly turned around.  He took his sweet time to waltz to the microphone. Here it comes. Tony braced himself for the gag line.  Bob said, "What did you call me?"  Tony repeated, 'I said, thank you, Dad.'  Which got another tremendous roar.  As the laughter subsided, Bob grabbed the microphone and said, "I forgot to tell you, boy,  I never married."

Hope had promised that Romano would become his bandleader after the war. Despite the fact that Hope gave the job to someone else, Romano always answered his calls to entertain the troops. In the ‘60s he toured Alaska, Korea, Viet Nam and The Dominican Republic and performed for Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He was honored by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan for his dedicated and selfless service.

Radio

Throughout WWII and afterwards, Romano performed on many radio series throughout the 1940s and '50s. Armed Forces Radio, Command Performance, Cavalcade of America: G I Valentine, The Lux Radio Theater: 'I Never Left Home,' introduced and presented by C.B. DeMille, The Jack Carson Show (1954), Bud’s Bandwagon (1955) and many performances on the Chase & Sanborn Program starring Francis Langford, Tony Romano and Spike Jones and the City Slickers. Romano also performed comedy sketches with performers such as Groucho Marx, and songs with Bing Crosby and Jack Carson.

Clubs

Much of Romano’s career was what musicians call ‘club dates’, singing and playing through the ‘Great American Songbook’ in small nightclubs from Las Vegas to Florida such asThe Chi Chi Club (Palm Springs), El Mirador, The Desert Inn, Ciro's, The Mocambo, Vic Damone’s Restaurant, Charlie Farrell’s Raquet Club, The Hotel Laguna and Frances Langford's Outrigger Resort.

At the President’s Lounge in Palm Springs his 1962 show was attended by Bob Hope at a ringside table. During the show, a house phone was brought to his table and he had a short conversation. Romano stopped the show and said, “Bob, who was that on the phone?” Hope replied, “It was President Kennedy. He’s in town and wanted to know if I’d like to join him for dinner.” Romano asked, “So what did you say?” Hope laughed, “I told him I was fine right here!”

Romano had a club act with his writing partner Johnny Bradford who had a talk show TV Washington D.C. (1948) (Bradford was the brother of Bob Wells, lyricist of “The Christmas Song”) The pair were then invited to do a midnight radio show for CBS in New York, which he and Bradford wrote.  Its plot was like an early Odd Couple about a couple of very incompatible guys, a songwriter and an actor rooming together. . Bradford had never written a song until he met Romano, but writing musical material for the show, began a lifetime collaboration between the two.

Romano worked the club circuit, working alone with his guitar or as the leader of a group of some of the top musicians in the business.  

He enjoyed doing duos and had a very successful act in the 1950s with actor Forest Tucker known as ‘Tuck & Tone’ with special material written by his pal, Bradford. Romano and Tucker were close friends who shared many a laugh on and offstage. Tucker became well known as the tall (6’4”) star of over 100 films and the TV series “F Troop”. He was also well known for a particularly sizeable physical attribute (!)

When they played in Las Vegas the waitresses and chambermaids were constantly asking Romano whether the stories they’d heard about 'Tuck' were true. They knew the two men were sharing a suite and asked if there was any way Romano might find a way to let them “see it”. Finally Romano agreed saying that Tucker slept in the nude and he would show it to them - at a fee of $5 per peek! That evening he ushered 15 girls into the room and pulled back the sheets. Afterwards, Romano and Tucker (who was in on the game) counted their money and went out for a fabulous meal!

On another occasion, they were playing at the Lakeside Golf Club with a number of very wealthy stars. As they got to the green on the 13th hole the talk turned to Tucker’s ‘attribute’. Romano assured them that not only was everything they had heard true, but that he would bet them each $100 that Tucker could sink his shot from 10 feet away using only his ‘attribute’! Tuck and Tone remembered it as their most lucrative gig!

When Tucker landed the lead in the road show of The Music Man, Romano returned to his love and did his own musical act all over the country. During the 1970s Romano spent many years as the resident entertainer at Francis Langford's Outrigger Restaurant.  He did not retire from performance permanently until two years before his death, with a musical tribute to Bob Hope's 100'th birthday.  Even after this 'retirement' he was still writing songs.

The Romano Nose

Visitors to this site will notice the change to the look of Romano's face between earlier and later pictures and video. Romano's wife and others had been telling him that he would have a better chance of success as a performer if he had a nose job. His friend Vic Damone had done it and had success. After initially rejecting the idea, Romano went to the best plastic surgeon in New York. But he told his wife that he was going to do a gig, because he wanted the nose job to be a surprise. Returning to Los Angeles by train his wife and little daughter Lisa were there to pick him up. He walked past both of them without being recognised until Lisa turned around and screamed, "Daddy!"

Television

In the early days of television he broadcast the first late night live show from Los Angeles called Tony Romano’s Musical Nightcap. In this innovative program, the camera found Romano in bed, wearing a nightcap. He got up and introduced his guests which included stars of film, radio and music.

He also performed on The Morey Amsterdam Show and was the orchestra leader on The Francis Langford and Don Ameche Show. Television appearances included The Dinah Shore Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Tonight Show and he gave of his time freely on many telethons for worthy causes.  He also worked as an actor, and was featured in episodes of Maverick, Wanted Dead or Alive, Gunsmoke andThe Lawman. He is featured in a Bob Hope documentary Entertaining the Troops.

As a composer, his co-writers have included JOHNNY MERCER, PEGGY LEE, MOREY AMSTERDAM, FRANKIE LAINE, PAUL FREES, JOHNNY BURKE, PAUL FRANCIS WEBSTER and JOHN BRADFORD. Romano’s songs have been recorded by JOHNNY MATHIS, PERRY COMO, VIC DAMONE, NANCY SINATRA, THE HI LO'S, LOUIS PRIMA, STAN KENTON & ANITA O’DAY.

As an arranger and composer for film, Broadway and popular music, his credits include Dubarry Was a Lady (1943 vocal arranger for COLE PORTER), Robber’s Roost (United Artists), Purple Heart Diary (Columbia Pictures), Two Guys From Texas (Warner Brothers Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson), Hollywood Hotel (Warner Brothers) and work with GEORGE GERSHWIN, IRVING BERLIN, HAROLD ARLEN, DAVID ROSE, WILLARD ROBISON, AND HOAGY CARMICHAEL. As a guitarist and vocal arranger he worked with film composers RAY HEINDORF, VICTOR YOUNG, ALFRED NEWMAN, ERIC WOLFGANG KORNGOLD and MAX STIENER.

Romano worked with many singers both as an accompanist and vocal arranger including FRANK SINATRA, BING CROSBY, JUDY GARLAND, BILLY HOLIDAY, RUSS COLUMBO, ROSEMARY CLOONEY, JACK JONES, JOHNNY MATHIS, DICK HAYMES, MARIO LANZA, EZIO PINZA , ETHEL MERMAN, JACK CARSON, JACKIE GLEASON, MARY MARTIN, MARTHA RAYE, PEGGY LEE, ANDY WILLIAMS, DICK POWELL, BETTY GRABLE, ANN SHERIDAN, DON AMECHE, THE ANDREWS SISTERS and VIC DAMONE,

His wealth of Jazz experience led to work with HARRY WARREN, BENNY GOODMAN STAN GETZ, DIZZY GILLESPIE, ARTIE SHAW, BENNY GOODMAN, TOMMY DORSEY, JIMMY DORSEY, PAUL WHITEMAN, BOBBY HACKETT.

John Cuzzins

Romano’s talented cousin John Romano was a jazz guitarist and comedian who took the name John Cuzzins (given to him by Romano’s daughter Lisa). As Johnny Romano, he was a member of The Three Suns, an instrumental pop group, joining in the '50s to take the place of outstanding guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.  He is featured on this site performing with Romano on the Francis Langford TV series.The cousins auditioned for the Broadway show Guys & Dolls at the 46th St. Theatre. Romano sang and director George S. Kaufman said, “Gee, Tony, you sing so great but that’s the trouble - we’ve got Robert Alda and Sam Levine in the cast and you’ll show them up!” Then John Cuzzins auditioned and reduced the theatre to hysterics. Kaufman said, “Johnny, you’re brilliant but we’ve already got Stubby Kaye in the cast and he won’t be happy sharing the stage with someone funnier than he is!” Cuzzins turned to Romano and yelled, “Hey, Tony! Let’s get outta this joint and go rehearse to be rotten!”

Joe Venuti

Of all his great musical collaborators, Romano was most passionate about his dear friend Joe Venuti. Romano had grown up listening to Venuti's classic recordings with guitarist Eddie Lang. Venuti was the first and, many would say, greatest jazz violinist. Eddie Lang was certainly the first virtuoso jazz guitarist and Romano's role model.

Romano and Venuti's duet recording  “Never Before- Never Again” was considered “music of the highest and purest order” by jazz critic Leonard Feather. A book of the same name was published by Mel Bay containing transcriptions of Venuiti’s solos. Guitar Player Magazine commented, “Romano’s skilled playing behind the legendary violinist is a textbook for acoustic jazz guitar accompaniment.” The album has been praised by contemporary jazz stars Pat Metheny, Martin Taylor and Bob James. Another unique feature of this album is that Romano is playing Eddie Lang's guitar.

Eddie Lang, considered the 'father of jazz guitar,' designed the L5 guitar for the Gibson company - a larger instrument with f-holes to give it the volume he needed to cut through a band without amplification. Lang's guitar, the very first L5 was willed to Venuti when Lang tragically died from a botched tonsilectomy. Venuti gave Romano the guitar saying, "You deserve this. You're the only guy I play with who lets me have the kind of fun I had with Eddie." Unfortunately the guitar was stolen out of the trunk of Romano's car when he attended a Hollywood party.

There are many well known stories about Venuti's practical jokes and crazy behaviour. Some are not so well known. He told Romano he had once hired a singer who had such a low hairline he had to shave his forehead and put thick pancake makeup over it to hide his stubble. Venuti directed the singer, "You sing so great, I wanna make sure the audience sees you, so stand right here at the front of the stage. But whatever you do, don't move and don't stop singin'!" Venuti instructed the stage manager to direct all the hot stage lights directly at the singers face. During the performance, the makeup melted all over his face as he sang romantic songs. Joe paid him for a week's work.

Although Joe and Tony usually played as a duo, Romano remembered one of their rare gigs playing with a bass player and drummer, “Joe hated drummers. One night we were doing a gig with a particularly loud drummer and Joe turned around and said, ‘What’re ya doin’ back there – building a HOUSE? Don’t play ‘til I tell ya!’ Finally Joe said to me, ‘Hey, kid, sing a song – I gotta go talk to the stage manager!’ When I took a breath for a change of key I heard a pounding! It was Joe nailing the drummer’s foot to the floor! He said, ‘When I tell ya not to play, you don’t play. Now you CAN’T play! Good!’”

Venuti told Romano's son, "All those stories you've heard about me are true. But that was in my drinkin' days! I don't do that kind of stuff anymore." Behind him, Red Norvo and Barney Kessel said, in perfect unison, "Oh yeah??? What about last week in Paris?"

Film

Romano performed in many films including KATHRYN HEPBURN (A Woman Rebels), IDA LUPINO (The Man I Love), DICK POWELL (Hollywood Hotel ), FRED WARING (The Varsity Show ), ANN SHERIDAN (Navy Blues ), JOEL MacCRAE (St. Louis Blues ) and his pal ERROL FLYNN (The Adventures Of Don Juan , Montana Warner Brothers).

Errol Flynn put his friend Romano on salary to play romantic guitar on the set during his love scenes, 'to put him in the mood' as he said. Romano performed with FRANCIS LANGFORD in Radio Stars On Parade, and Purple Heart Diary. He is featured singing and playing guitar in Robber’s Roost for which he wrote the theme song and incidental music.

He never cared about the music business or advancement of his career. It could be said that Romano was truly obsessed with what he called “my kind of music”. His only other interests were his family and Italian food, (especially hot peppers). He was loved by the many who appreciated his music and the good-time atmosphere he engendered wherever he went. Just as he was as a teenaged professional, Romano’s heart remained first, last and foremost in his music.


 
 

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