Among the last of the classic big band singers, Don Cornell has built and maintained an active career that spans more that five decades. Though blessed with the longevity that most performers only aspire to, Cornell’s start in the early 1940s did not point to a lasting career. In 1942, when bandleader Sammy “Swing and Sway” Kaye introduced his lead singer Lou Varlaro to the audience, he was met with hisses and boos. Italian Premier Benito Mussolini had just signed a pact with Germany’s Adolph Hitler, and very quickly Italian-Americans had become the target of resentment, dislike, and distrust. Kaye told Varlaro that he was sorry but he had to change his name. In a later performance opening, as Varlaro stood in the wings of the stage, Kaye introduced him as “Don Cornell” without ever telling him of the new name. Cornell recounted to Contemporary Musicians, “I believe Sammy selected the name after the prestigious university of the same name.”
Cornell was born Luigi Francisco Varlaro on April 21, c. 1921, in the Bronx, New York. He was the youngest of five sons born to Michael Varlaro, a tailor from Calabria, Italy, and Mary Travacanti Varlaro, a soprano singer who sang in the church choir and had immigrated from Naples, Italy. Cornell began his musical career by learning to play the guitar an uncle had given him with instruction by his father, who also was proficient at the mandolin. He complemented his musical education by frequently singing and playing guitar at family gatherings and in a high school band. Through high school, Cornell earned money by carrying ice to homes for 50 cents a day and to the Copacabana nightclub, where years later he appeared as a head-liner. He won a vocal audition at the Edison Hotel in New York City and began working with the Bobby Hayes Band where he made his first recordings and became a boy band singer.
After he became involved in an altercation when an ethnic slur was made against him, Cornell ended up punching out the much larger antagonist. Friends encouraged him to join Stillmans’ gymnasium where he learned to fight as a sparring partner for five dollars a round in the middleweight division. This quickly led to a professional boxing career that produced 27 wins and left him undefeated with most of the fights being by knockout. However, at the strong urging of his mother, he abandoned boxing and returned to playing the guitar and singing in bands in and around the New York City area. After Cornell had deserted his boxing career, he joined the celebrated trumpeter Red Nichols Band and the Five Pennies and later joined the McFarland Twins Band, who had been protégés of Fred Waring, considered to have one of the premier orchestras and choral groups in the world.
In 1941, while Sammy Kaye was riding in a cab in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he heard Cornell singing on a remote broadcast from the Pelham Inn in the Bronx, New York City. That year Kaye had a stable of singers including George Brandon, Maury Cross, Marty McKenna, Tommy Ryan, Charlie Wilson, and Arthur Wright. Kaye was so impressed with the quality of Cornell’s voice, he contacted Cornell and two weeks later Cornell joined Kaye’s orchestra performing as not only a lead singer, but as a guitarist and as a member of the Kaydettes, Kaye’s choral group. Kaye and his band would perform as many as seven shows a day at movie theaters throughout the country including the Paramount Theater in New York and the Capitol Theater in Washington, D.C. In between stage appearances in the evenings, Cornell would sing at some of the top night clubs in the country, such as the Casino Royale in Washington, D.C.
In 1942, Cornell volunteered for the United States Army Air Corps and trained as a pilot at Stewart Field near West Point, New York. He was later assigned to England where he flew B-17 bombers over Europe. When the bemedaled pilot was discharged in 1946, he returned to Kaye’s orchestra, sang duets with Laura Leslie and remained there until 1950 when he went solo and signed with Coral Records, a division of Decca Records. He later sang duets with Teresa Brewer, Helen O’Connell, Johnny Desmond, Billy Eckstine, and Alan Dale.
In 1950 he went on a run of 12 gold records, one each year beginning with his first million dollar seller, “It Isn’t Fair” followed by such legendary standards as “Hold My Hand,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and “I’m Yours.” “It Isn’t
Born Luigi Francisco Varlaro on April 21, c. 1921, in the Bronx, NY; son of Michael Varlaro, a tailor, and Mary Travacanti, a church choir soprano; married Edith Upton; died in 1977; married Iris Hyman, 1979; two adopted children during first marriage: Louis and Donna.
Given a guitar by his uncle and taught to play by his father; became a boy big band singer and got his first break when he was heard over the radio by big band leader Sammy Kaye; also sang on the Chesterfield Supper Club radio program to the music of Glenn Miller; from 1950 until the present he has recorded on the Coral, ABC Paramount, Dot, Movietone, Signature, RCA, and Vocalion labels; beginning in 1950, he had a gold record each of the next 12 years; has sold more than 50 million records; has regularly performed three shows a night at the top night clubs in Las Vegas during the past ten years; went to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and entertained troops; was later recognized by the United States Department of the Army for his work.
Awards: Big Band Hall of Fame, 1993; Italian Foundation Entertainer of the Year Award, 1994; Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1995; Civilian Medal of Honor, United States Army, 1996.
Addresses: Business —Don Cornell, c/o Iris Cornell Productions, 100 Bayview Dr., Suite 1521, North Miami Beach, FL 33160.
Fair” was co-written by Richard Himber, a famous bandleader for Sophie Tucker and was chosen by Variety magazine for its “Fifty Year Hit Parade.” Two years later “I’m Yours” was also chosen by Variety. Over the last 50 years, Cornell has sold more than 50 million records and at one time had three hits in the top ten.
In the 1950s while performing in England, Cornell became involved in a well-publicized dispute with the Anglican clergy when the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to Cornell and complained that the lyrics to “Hold My Hand” were inappropriate and asked that they be changed. The archbishop requested that the lyric “This is the Kingdom of Heaven” be abandoned and substituted for another lyric as the “Kingdom” referred to Great Britain and was inappropriate to use in a popular song. Cornell refused to alter the lyric and sang to sold-out English audiences. The song reached the top of the charts in the United Kingdom. “Hold My Hand” was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1954 and remained on the United Kingdom best selling charts for 21 weeks. The following year the British Broadcasting Company imposed a similar ban on the religious ballad “The Bible Tells Me So” which was written by cowgirl Dale Evans. Evans later wrote to Cornell and in her letter said, “Thank you for putting it on the map.” Cornell continued performing before standing-room-only audiences in England, and the publicity from the incident increased his popularity and drew new fans.
Cornell has performed all over the world including Italy, England, Hong Kong, Russia, and Greece. He has been a regular entertainer at nightclubs in the United States at venues such as Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas.
Cornell’s television credits include frequent guest appearances on the Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Mike Douglas, Milton Berle and Johnny Carson television programs. Cornell also portrayed the role of Ryder in the B. L. Stryker television program and made an appearance in the Miami Vice television drama series. He also appeared in summer stock including parts in The Pajama Game, Redhead, Bells Are Ringing, and Say Darlin’. Cornell’s voice was used in the film This Earth is Mine in 1959.
The 1920s and 1930s signaled the advent of the big band. However, World War II led to the beginning of the break up of many bands as most men were being drafted into the armed forces. The vast majority of the big band singers never returned to performing after the war because of the demise of large orchestras and the birth of solo vocalists, small accompanist trios, and others. Cornell became one of the last of the performing big band singers when Perry Como announced his retirement in the spring of 2000. Como and Cornell, who are very close friends, frequently appear at celebrity benefit golf tournaments including events for the Children’s Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, providing philanthropic support to children’s hospitals and other charitable causes.
Something to Remember Me By, Iris/MCA.
From Italy with Love, Iris/MCA.
Don Cornell Now, Iris/MCA, 1993.
Morino, Marianne, The Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ten Speed Press 1987.
Murrells, Joseph, Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s, Arco Publishing Inc., 1984.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications, 1999.
Simon, George T., Big Bands, MacMillan Company, 1970.
Tyler, Don, Hit Parade, An Encyclopedia of the Top Songs of the Jazz, Depression, Swing and Sing Eras, William Morrow & Co., 1985.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 19, 1997.
Springfield Republican, June 3, 1990.
“Don Cornell,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 2000).
Don Cornell website, http://www.doncornell.com (August 2000).
Internet Movie Database, http://www.us.imdb.com (August 2000).
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Don Cornell on April 20, 2000.
—Francis D. McKinley
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