In early December, 1999, as I listened to an avalanche of Christmas songs on the radio, I heard “Little Altar Boy” for the first time. The perennial Christmas favorite bears the emotions of a man coming to grips with who he is and his need for forgiveness. The voice behind the lyrics conveyed a pleading vulnerability. The voice was that of Vic Dana. I paused, remaining motionless for the duration. In the years following, I heard other versions by artists such as The Carpenters, Andy Williams, and Glen Campbell. They were not the same. I was from then on a Vic Dana fan.
The bulk of Vic’s recording career included at least fifteen albums released mostly in the 1960s. He’d performed varying musical styles, but most of his work fit within the vocal, adult contemporary genre. He’d scored the biggest hit with the song “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” in 1965, outperforming other artists such as Andy Williams and Wayne Newton. He cracked the Billboard charts sixteen times during the decade, and in 1970 charted with Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” scoring a hit with the song 14 years before UB40. Vic’s voice was warm and authentic, effortlessly carrying the emotion of any lyrics he sang. Sixteen years after hearing “Little Altar Boy” for the first time, I was told that Vic Dana lived in Paducah. I was taken aback. I didn’t know much about Vic outside of his recordings, but I knew he was from Buffalo, NY, and had spent most of his career in LA. I couldn’t just ignore what I’d been told. With very little research, I discovered it was true. Before long, I was sitting across from Vic at Mike Smith Toyota where he works .
I found Vic to be very modest. The tone of his soft voice was unmistakable as he described the beginnings of his career. “I was nine years old and had just started tap dancing,” he says. “My parents asked me if I wanted to take dancing lessons. I said I didn’t because I thought it was just for girls. I wound up taking some lessons and did some local shows. I went to the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, which, in those days, was like American Idol. They had variety acts, and people wrote in from all over the country and picked the winners. And I won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.”
When he was eleven, his parents took him to see another dancer who had a similar style. “Sammy Davis Jr. came to Buffalo,” he says. “They knew I loved the way he danced. He was 27 at the time and was just making it. He didn’t even have top billing at the time. My mother talked to the master of ceremonies and told him a local boy in the crowd had just won the Ted Mack show. So he called me up and asked if I’d dance. I said no because I didn’t have my dancing shoes. My mother said, ‘Yes you do!’ and pulled them out of her purse. So I danced. Apparently Sammy was watching from the wings. When he came out, he asked me to dance with him. We did this little tap challenge. It went over so well, that he asked my parents if I could travel with him. That began a relationship with Sammy that I’ll remember forever.”
Vic traveled with Sammy from city to city, doing the tap challenge as part of the act. Sammy suggested the family move to Los Angeles, which they did. His father, a barber, set up shop in Glendale. “I was just a little kid,” Vic says as he recalls some of the moments he witnessed. Sammy wanted to be a fast-draw gunslinger like in the westerns of the day. “I remember he and Mel Torme in his living room, with their guns on, trying to fast-draw against one another. I was just a kid sitting here watching all that.”
With the decline of musicals and the need for dancers, Vic turned his attention to other areas of performing. “My mom got me started singing,” says Vic. “I listened to Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Johnny Mathis. Those were the people I wanted to emulate. We used to sing with various groups like The Letterman, The Beach Boys, and Jan & Dean. They all used to hang around at Ocean Park before they had hits. I got a call from Tony Butala of The Letterman. He had auditioned for a singing group who’d lost their lead singer to the military and thought my voice was right for it.”
The group turned out to be The Fleetwoods who were hot at the time. It was 1959, and they had two hits with “Mr. Blue” and “Come Softly To Me.” Vic got the job, replacing Gary Troxel on the road while he was away. If all went well, he’d get a recording session of his own. The first song Vic chose to record was “Little Altar Boy.”
“We were looking everywhere for a hit, and we certainly were not looking for a song like that!” laughs Vic. “But everything went right with that song. It was written by a blind, black piano player. We found it in a little publishing house in Hollywood. We did it in one take. The record company didn’t want to go with it, but my producer and I felt like it was good. So we went on the road with it to every radio station between LA and New York. We finally got an order out of Detroit for 10,000 copies. Four days later, they ordered 10,000 again. So we knew we had a hit. To this day, I think it’s be best performance I ever did on record.”
Vic was then able to shop around for songs and begin his recording career. “Everybody would go to the publishing houses and hear people like Gerry Goffin and Carole King. They’d sit there and play songs for you and sing them. Artists would record the hits. Now it’s a whole different process. Most artists today write their own stuff.”
“Little Altar Boy” launched a string of albums and charting singles for Vic. He traveled with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars and appeared on various TV programs such as The Red Skelton Show, The Dean Martin Show, Shindig!, and The Tonight Show. He also acted in shows such as Combat! and Burke’s Law. In 1962, he joined Chubby Checker in the movie Don’t Knock the Twist. His musical success took him around the world. “At one time, I had the biggest fan club in the Netherlands,” he says. “I don’t know why! To this day, I get letters.”
Vic developed many friendships within the industry, and while he can drop a list of names a mile long, he doesn’t unless you ask. He remained close to Sammy and still gets a bit emotional when he thinks of the difficulty Sammy encountered during his automobile accident in 1954. One of Vic’s best friends was Bobby Darin, and Vic will only casually mention some of the artists he worked with such as Glen Campbell. “I would always use Glen whenever he was available,” says Vic. “When he went on The Tonight Show for the first time, I had to help him with arrangements.”
Throughout the constant schedule of appearances, acting opportunities, and touring, Vic’s first love remained vocal performance. “I loved recording. I loved walking into the studio with a big band and watching them light up. It didn’t matter how many takes we did. I’d always say, ‘Let’s do it again!'”
Show business was heavy work, however, and a constant grind. “I don’t have a showbiz personality. I never had the drive and focus that said I had to make it. I got married and had kids, and that life is tough on a marriage. My two boys grew up early without me, and the marriage ended. Later on, I had another son. I decided that when he got to be five years old, I was getting off the road and staying in one place. I had a friend, Joe Connor, who lived in Paducah. He owned Stacy’s. Previously he’d owned some clubs in Ohio, and I had worked those clubs. I remember one phone call, and he said, ‘I’m in Paducah, KY.’ I said, ‘Paducah, KY? What are you doing there?’ He was managing the Country Club. He said, ‘If you don’t know what you’re going to do, why don’t you come here and settle down. You can sing at the club on the weekends.’ And I liked it here.”
Vic received invitations to go back out on the road, but he declined them all. “I really wanted to be here until my youngest was through high school. I could have stayed out there. But my wife and I talked about it, and we wanted to stay settled down.”
Vic remains very humble about his successes and past as an internationally known singer. Many who encounter him day to day have no idea, and he doesn’t speak of it often. But his influence is still there and needs no words. He once received a clipping of an interview of Michael Buble from a friend. “It was the best musical compliment I’ve received. Michael talked about how his grandfather brought a Vic Dana album home, and he said that he used to sing along with it. That was part of the start for him. That’s the greatest compliment I’ve been paid.”
Vic seems content at whatever he does. He enjoyed singing and traveling the world, and he just as much enjoys his life now away from the spotlight. And he’s been very content to call Paducah home.
If you want to explore Vic’s music, The Complete Hits of Vic Dana catalogs all of his charting songs. I recommend, however, delving into the original albums, some of which you’ll have to find on vinyl. Then, as Vic sang in his 1969 song “Half and Half”, you’ll learn that “half a song is melody, and half a song is words; half a song is not a half a song unless it’s heard. I can sing the words if you will hum the melody. Together we will sing a song, and that’s how it should be.”