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Russ Columbo and the Crooner Mystique Paperback – November 1, 2002

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What If? by Randall Munroe
From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, find hilarious and informative answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask. Learn more

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Feral House; First Printing edition (November 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0922915806
  • ISBN-13: 978-0922915804
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #910,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A dashing Hollywood figure rather resembling Rudolph Valentino, crooner Russ Columbo once rivaled Bing Crosby. But he was killed by a tragic, accidental shooting--wasn't he? Lanza and Penna ask that and more in this lushly illustrated book about a filmland sensation of his time. Columbo got started in Hollywood as a violin prodigy, providing mood music for actors performing in silent films, but achieved the height of success as a slick, mustachioed singer. His fatal gunshot wounds were inflicted by Lansing Brown, with whom Columbo--get ready for this--"shared a camaraderie more profound than any euphemisms at the time could describe and far deeper than shallow customs of 'male bonding' usually encourage." All that, and healthy doses of Carole Lombard, Pola Negri, and other larger-than-life stars, too! Lanza and Penna's rather ethereal style seems fully appropriate for evoking the old Hollywood setting of their story, which fans of semiforgotten movie lore and death in questionable circumstances should absolutely love. Mike Tribby
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


A humdinger of a book that zings along ... like a crooner ballad on wheels. A hell of a good read. -- Ian Whitcomb, author, crooner, composer

An inspiration to ... wonderful singers like Perry Como. He had a much prettier face than Crosby and a prettier sound. -- Frankie Avalon

Exceptionally vivid, colorful, appreciative ... one of the best books about a singer that I have ever read ... very attractive ... well-written. -- Classic Images Magazine, February 2003

Lushly illustrated ... evoking the old Hollywood setting of [the authors'] story, which fans ... should absolutely love. -- Mike Tribby, Booklist

The wonderful flow of the writing combined with ... *new* facts and photos make this... A first class book! -- Vince Giordano: leader, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks / BMG Archivist

This is the most comprehensive and deeply researched biography of the "Vocal Valentino" or "Romeo of Radio" ever written. -- Bob Deal, Memory Lane, Spring 2003

More About the Author

Joseph Lanza, who writes mostly about film and popular music, is perhaps best known for his pioneering and critically acclaimed book ELEVATOR MUSIC: A SURREAL HISTORY OF MUZAK, EASY-LISTENING, AND OTHER MOODSONG. "Snobby musicologists ignore this fascinating topic," composer Wendy Carlos said, "but I learned a lot while being well entertained by Lanza's delightful book." He later savored the mystical delights of vanilla milkshakes and the dulcet pop songs they connote with VANILLA POP: SWEET SOUNDS FROM FRANKIE AVALON TO ABBA. Blender, an indie-rock magazine, noted that Lanza writes about such recording artists as The Lettermen, Claudine Longet, and The Carpenters with "contagious enthusiasm." His latest book is the biographical thriller PHALLIC FRENZY: KEN RUSSELL AND HIS FILMS. Ken Russell himself lauded it in the London Times, observing that "Lanza has managed to disguise his masterful research as a near-neo novel with gothic and surreal overtones. I applaud the man, having done the same with my own biographies on composers."

Recently, Mr. Lanza told the following to Contemporary Authors: "On the surface, my subjects might seem quite eclectic, but all of my books are about a secular search for a creative spirit, whether it be through sweet music, rollercoasters, or obsessive cinema."

Check out JOSEPH LANZA'S NERVE CENTER: http://josephlanza.blogspot.com/

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Paul Lindemeyer on August 9, 2004
Format: Paperback
Don't think that you'll figure out the paradox that was Russ Columbo when you've finished this book. What you will take from it, though, is a revealing though not always flattering portrait, done (at times overdone) in art-moderne light and shadow, of a singular singer and the show business that made him. It's all the more engrossing because it takes place in an era whose popular and musical culture have faded from living memory, yet haven't quite made it into the collective unconscious.

You kind of can't blame them, given the likely readership for a book about a long-forgotten tragic pop idol, but the authors do rather overindulge their homoerotic musings in detailing Russ' closeness with Lansing Brown, the friend who caused the freak accident that took Russ' life. More to the heart of the man, I think, are the head-over-heels, heart-on-sleeve yearnings for legendary sex symbols Pola Negri and Carole Lombard. One wonders if it was Russ' destiny to worship goddesses, inevitably to be dropped like a mere mortal. He never sang songs about the "girl next door," anyway...

Columbo was no Sinatra, let alone an Einstein, but his very opaqueness and vanity is fascinating in its own right. As musician, Italian-American, media craze, or hopeless romantic, Russ Columbo rewards your getting to know him.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Arroyo on March 9, 2003
Format: Paperback
A wonderful portrait of the dashing, romantic Columbo. Virtually forgotten for the last half-century, Columbo was as popular as Bing Crosby in the early 1930s and considered a heart-throb on a par with actor Rudolph Valentino. But at age 26, he was shot and killed by his best friend in a freak accident, ending one of the most promising careers in music and film. Columbo was the archetypal 1930s "crooner," who gave "an impression of emotional restraint, of power in reserve." Despite the co-author credit, the book was in fact written by Lanza, a master wordsmith (and author of Elevator Music, The Cocktail, and Gravity). Penna supplied the copious archival photographs, letters and news clippings that beautifully augment the text. Lanza, who calls Columbo "an enigma wrapped inside a press release," treats his subject with respect, yet with a proper historical detachment that avoids hagiography. Columbo was as talented and charismatic as he was troubled, flawed, ambivalent, and stubborn, and Lanza makes no excuses for him. At the same time, the chronology is authoritative, and there's abundant humor, even when considering Columbo's inner torment (referring to Columbo's pet name for his adored Carole Lombard, Lanza refers to the singer's despair at not getting enough "quality Pookie time"). Lanza describing Columbo emerging from a swimming pool: "...a sight no less mythical than Venus rising from her half-shell. His dark eyes sparkled as the refracted sunlight grafted a halo around his wet hair, the water pouring like pearls of amniotic effluvia from a chlorinated incubator." Such vivid images tantalize on every page, but the book never bogs down in literary preciousness; it represents solid, well-researched journalism. Columbo's love letters to Lombard are revealing in their pathetic desperation, demonstrating that the adoration of a million wistful female fans cannot allay unrequited passion. An excellent read, and the cast of characters are richly drawn.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By CroonerDude on March 30, 2005
Format: Paperback
Of the four books written about the singer, Russ Columbo, in the past 4 years (with yet one more scheduled for release in 2005), this scrupulously-researched, well-written book by Joseph Lanza and Dennis Penna remains at the head of the pack as far as giving us a window into this very enigmatic, short-lived romantic figure, Russ Columbo. Not only is it packed with previously unknown facts about a performer about whom very little was actually documented, the writers were able to piece together the chronology of Columbo's brief life, especially his seemingly torturous romances with Pola Negri, Hannah Williams, Dorothy Dell and Carole Lombard, having access to some of the meager personal effects left by Columbo upon his death in 1934 at age 26 (letters, telegrams, etc.). The book goes a long way toward helping to properly place Russ Columbo as much more than a "Bing-impersonator"--a place he has been undeservedly relegated to by the few who remember him at all. As a reference work, the indexes and annotations at the end of the book are excellent, and serve as a most reliable "source material" regarding Columbo's films, radio work and recordings. Some of the photos in the book (including the stunning cover photo) are jaw-droppingly rare and amazing. All-in-all, the book paints an accurate, appealing and ultimately, wistfully sad portrait of a "beautiful dreamer" who was tragically lost far too soon. I very highly recommend this book, though one is inevitably left with a real sense of loss, and the biggest question of all: "What might have been?" We'll never know---but Lanza and Penna's top-drawer biography is as close as we'll get in unravelling the now-mythical figure that was Russ Columbo.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Kim Deitch on February 21, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Definitely brings this neglected singer and mysterious show biz legend into the third dimension. It not only tells more than I ever hoped to know about the man but also takes it to another creative level which could have been a disaster, but in fact works very well. The graphics and overall design of the book are also superior. Its an amazing yarn and a wonderful introduction to this underated musician. Highly recommended
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