More than the guy who was fired on air

Remembering Julius LaRosa

3 minute read
Julius LaRosa (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Julius LaRosa (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Singer Julius LaRosa, who just passed away at the age of 86 and had close ties to Philadelphia via his many appearances with The Philly Pops and in the Atlantic City casinos, will forever be remembered as the guy who, in 1953, was fired by television/radio icon Arthur Godfrey on the air.

That’s unfortunate, as LaRosa was not only one of the most literate entertainers in the industry — he would have been a great writer if he hadn’t been a singer — but spoke eloquently about the art of singing and how difficult it was to be an Italian/American vocalist and not sound like Frank Sinatra.

It was a challenge, but he did it and did it well, and ultimately became an original, jazz-oriented stylist, whose choice of material was singular and eclectic, way before names like Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, and the rest came to the forefront. And though he sang some Sinatra songs, he sounded nothing like Mr. Sinatra. Pianist/conductor Peter Nero, the deposed Philly Pops Maestro, loved LaRosa’s work and booked him often. One of LaRosa’s final Pops appearances also included jazz guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli on the bill, and these guys swung their individual and collective cans off.

However, he knew that whatever or wherever the gig was, interviewers were going to ask him about the Godfrey brouhaha from decades ago.

The way it went down

It is important to remember that in the early 1950s, Arthur Godfrey was the biggest entertainer in the country, with several top-rated television and radio shows, and an estimated 12 percent of the CBS network’s advertising revenue. “The old redhead,” as he was called, was noted for his folksy, natural and supposedly honest approach to broadcasting — if he didn’t like a sponsor’s product, he said so — and was fond of saying that the many singers and entertainers in his television cast were “family.” The truth was that Godfrey was a jealous, arrogant, petty, and vindictive boss, and an anti-Semite to boot, who would not tolerate any member of his beloved “family” who got more attention than he did.

Godfrey first heard LaRosa when LaRosa was in the Navy. Impressed, he hired him for both his television and radio program upon his discharge, and ultimately, the singer became the star of Godfrey’s programs from 1951 to 1953. After a hit record or two, LaRosa’s popularity grew, and the singer did the unthinkable. He hired his own agent.

This didn’t sit well with Godfrey. On October 19, 1953, La Rosa was due to begin the TV portion of Godfrey's show but was kept waiting backstage until the final minutes of the radio-only part of the program. As he finished singing “Manhattan," La Rosa and the audience heard Godfrey precede his sign-off by saying, "That was Julie's swan song with us." A few days later, Godfrey said he fired his vocalist because he lacked "humility" and because he had hired an agent.

In the aftermath, LaRosa’s celebrity grew, while Arthur Godfrey’s career was never the same.

LaRosa after Godfrey

The singer continued appearing on television and in live stage shows, but things eventually died down. He became a successful disc jockey on a major New York radio station, and performed live in New York City, Las Vegas, and other cities.

When I had the good fortune of getting to know him, he had made peace with the Godfrey nonsense. “Of course that’s what interviewers are going to ask me,” he said, and he knew exactly where he stood within the music business. In our final conversation, we discussed the business climate for artists like him, Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Frank Sinatra Jr., Steve Lawrence, and other superior Great American Songbook interpreters. “It used to be that all of us were thrilled if we filled a 450-seat house,” he said. “Today, if you can’t fill a 20,000-seat stadium, you won’t even be considered.”

Julius LaRosa should be considered. He was one of those very, very few in the industry about whom you never heard a bad word. He was a fine singer and a fine man.

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