Written by Brian T. Olszewski, Catholic Herald Staff Thursday, 17 May 2012 08:59
By his own admission, Bobby Vinton is not fluent in Polish. He speaks a little and understands a little.
“In fact, when I went to Polish (St. Genevieve Catholic elementary) school, my mother wrote a note to the nuns, ‘Excuse him from Polish class; he’s having a tough time with English.’ So I got excused from Polish class. I’d read books while the rest of the class was talking in Polish. And I think that today I speak Polish better than anybody in my class,” he added with a laugh during a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald April 30.
Yet, it was a couple of Polish phrases set to music in 1974 – Moja droga, ja Cie kocham (“means that I love you so”) Kocham Ciebie calym sercem (“love you with all my heart”) – that introduced a generation to the native of Canonsburg, Pa., that record buyers of the 1960s knew for his love songs, e.g., “Roses Are Red,” “Blue Velvet,” “Mr. Lonely,” etc.
Canonsburg, Pa., home to Bobby Vinton, also produced another musical legend, Perry Como. Besides their Catholic roots, the two share papal roots.
"We had connections," Vinton said. "For a little town to have two singing sensations, with the same birthdays as two popes...when God was passing out something, he passed it out to Perry and me."
No Polish joke
The ‘70s were fertile ground for Polish jokes. Entertainers told them, as did people of various ethnicities, including some Poles.
“People would ask me, ‘Do you get upset (about the Polish jokes)?’ It’s difficult for me because I used to be on stage with Don Rickles. And he and I used to perform together,” he said. “It didn’t bother me as much, but when I got together with Chester (Grabowski, the late editor of the Polish newspaper, the Post Eagle, who explained the harm the jokes were doing to the young kids growing up). They were upset, coming to my shows, saying, ‘Why they making these jokes about us? What did we do?’”
That concern, coupled with his mother’s complaint, “You sing in every language but your own,” prompted him to invest $50,000 in “My Melody of Love.” He wrote it, recorded it, and then withstood the humiliation of being rejected by eight record companies, including Epic, the one that had recorded his hits. A friend of his took it to ABC Records, which released what became a number one song.
Getting along with God, Blessed Mother
Besides being raised in a musical household – he plays six instruments, the only child of Stanley Sr., a bandleader, and Dorothy was raised in a household where faith was present.
“I pray to God every day for all he’s given me,” he said. “I’m even closer to God and religion today than I was back then. Back then, I was interested in making hit records and traveling around and singing. These days, I’m mellowing down and I’ve had a great life, and there’s got to be a God out there that’s helped me along, because every time I got into a jam, I’d pray and most of the time things worked out for the best for me.”
He also has a good relationship with the mother of God.
“I pray to the Blessed Mother. If you want something done, talk to the mother, and the mother will talk to the son. Things will get done faster,” he said. “When people wanted me to do something, they’d talk to my mother and I couldn’t say no to my mother. That has been my secret when I wanted hit records, help, whatever, I speak to the Mother: ‘Please ask your son to be good to me and give me this.’ I still do it today.”
Devotion to ‘St. Espanola’
It’s a story, he said, “I don’t even talk about anymore because I sometimes wonder, ‘Did that really happen?’”
He had just recorded “Roses Are Red” in a New York City church that the record label used because of its excellent acoustics. Afterward, he walked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pray. He knelt before the statue of who he thought was “St. Espanola.”
“Believe me, the record was awful; I couldn’t sing, nobody liked it, but I prayed to this saint, ‘Please, when it’s played on the radio, make it sound so great that people will think it’s a number one record. I know I can’t sing, I know it’s a dumb song, but please, I’m asking you for a miracle.’ And sure enough, that thing went to number one. I went back with ‘Blue Velvet.’ ‘Can you make this number one? Make “Mr. Lonely” number one?’ For 10 years I went there, I’m telling you, I saw him.”
Years later, when he returned to St. Patrick’s and looked for the statue, not only was it not there, no one working there was aware of that saint or its statue.
“I was looking for St. Stanislaus because I figured if there was a saint I was going to pray to, it was my saint, Stanislaus,” he said of those visits during the ‘60s, noting his full name is Stanley Robert Vinton Jr. “I can’t remember why I didn’t go with him; all the candles could have been lit. There was nothing there (in front of St. Espanola). God, I feel just like that saint. Nobody lights my candles. You’re like me.”
Two years ago, Vinton was on a cruise when he stopped in Spain to see a soccer stadium.
“I had to go to the men’s room and there written on the wall real big, ‘St. Espanola was here,’” he said. “I don’t talk about it anymore because people laugh it away and then I think, ‘Maybe I didn’t see it.’ When something like that happens in your life, you start doubting it, but why would I say this? Why would I go to church and see it there? I saw it, believe me.” (Editor’s note: No Catholic resource on lives of the saints lists a “St. Espanola.”)
‘Polish Prince’ meets Polish pope
The rise of “the Polish Prince,” the moniker given Vinton following the success of “My Melody of Love,” made him a prominent figure in the Polish American community. As such, he met Pope John Paul II three times, the first when the pontiff returned to Poland on June 2, 1979.
“When the pope landed in Warsaw, I was there greeting him; I was the American representative. Quite a happening for me,” Vinton recalled.
When the pope visited Los Angeles on Sept. 15, 1987, and addressed members of the communications industry, Vinton welcomed him.
“That was another great moment for me because I represented the entertainment world. I don’t know how excited the entertainment world was, but I certainly was. They selected me to give the pope the gift at the stadium. He knew ‘My Melody of Love,’” he said.
He recalled asking the pope if he could bless his five children, because of the concern the singer had for them.
“The pope handed me his rosary when I asked him if he could say a prayer for my five children,” Vinton said. “I have that rosary locked up in a safe. I get chills thinking about that story.”
Vinton met with the pope again in 2002. He and his wife, Dolly, were on a cruise when they received a telegram inviting them to visit the pope at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo.
‘Closer to the Lord’
Because he is getting older, Vinton, 77, said his faith life has changed.
“I go to church and there’s all old people. There are no young people. At least the Masses I go to, I don’t see any young people. I don’t know their reasons,” said the grandfather of eight. “I know my reason is I’m getting closer to the Lord; I’m getting to the stage where I have 10 more years to live, I don’t know, but it’s not a great length of time and I certainly want to prepare myself. I want to be in good standing. I spend more time talking about it now than when I was young because young people don’t care….”
For all but seven of those years, he has known Dolly, his wife of nearly 50 years.
“I met her in the first grade; we went to Polish school. We had the same values. We went to the same priest. We went to the same confession. Same church,” he said. “When I played in my band, she used to come and pick me up at 11 o’clock every Sunday so we could be in church at 11:30. We used to go to a Mass that was from 11:30 to 12; we called it the ‘Szelong Express.’ Fr. Szelong was his name. He was a Polish priest. Everybody wanted to go to his Mass because it was a half hour. Every Mass should be a half an hour because the place was packed. When you go an hour and 10 minutes, everybody starts to get a little heavy and tired; I went to the ‘Szelong Express.’”
What is memorable about their wedding Mass is not that it was a nuptial high Mass celebrated eight days before Christmas, or that they were married on a Monday morning, but that the groom fainted three times.
“I didn’t eat the night before. I was under a lot of pressure,” he recalled. “I talked to God all the time; I looked up and am getting ready to be married, and I prayed, ‘Lord, am I doing the right thing? God, if I’m doing the wrong thing here, stop me now.’ I passed out.”
Vinton joked about what happened next: “My wife held me up and said to the priest, ‘He said, “He does.”’”
The entertainer attributes the success of their marriage to his wife.
“She’s the reason. She was smart. It’s like in any business – smart brains running it. In my case, she’s very smart, she knew how to run it (the family); she knew how to handle problems and deal with situations,” he said. “If you’re smart, you can deal with situations. It certainly is an advantage.”
Contending that older people are set in their ways, Vinton is reluctant to give advice. But added, “I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I’ll tell you what’s on my mind,” including something about his faith.
“The other night in my show, I said, ‘Everybody say a prayer tonight and maybe we’ll have some peace and get this country organized a little bit better. Pray for things to get better. Pray for our soldiers. Say a prayer. What’s it mean to you? Two minutes? It can’t hurt.”