The Life and Music of Don Cornell

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Introduction

Don Cornell (born Luigi Varlaro in 1919 – died in 2004) was an American singer who reached the peak of prominence in the 1940s and the 1950s. His big but smooth and hearty voice brought hits from his singles “I’ll Walk Alone,” “I’m Yours,” “I,” “Hold My Hand” and “The Bible Tells Me So,” among other Top 40 hits. “I” has been one of the shortest-titled songs in music history. Cornell had been one of the in-demand nightclub performers then, having appeared at venues across the country and on Ruth Lyons’ noon time TV show. He would also pinch-hit whenever Lyons was absent. Cornell died in Florida in 2004, aged 84.

Early Years

Luigi Francisco Varlaro, professionally known as Don Cornell, was born in Bronx, New York on April 21, 1919. Being the youngest in the family, Varlaro lived on hand-me-downs. However, an uncle gave him his first guitar. His tailor father, a mandolin player, gave his son instructions on how to play the guitar. In his adolescent years, Varlaro worked as a singer and waiter at the Embassy Club. He was later discovered but not as a singer — but as a boxer. A boxing promoter caught him at the club fighting someone over a racist remark; he was impressed by Varlaro’s intuitive skill. Soon Varlaro began fighting professionally. He won twenty fights but eventually stopped boxing when he was asked to put up a fight for the purposes of gambling.

The Birth of “Don Cornell”

18-year old Varlaro became a guitarist in trumpeter Red Nichols’ band but he later focused more on singing. Sammy Kaye, who was the bandleader of Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye, spotted Varlaro. Kaye later offered him to fill in for his band’s former singer and guitarist Tommy Ryan. Initially, Varlaro’s post in Kaye’s band was temporary, but he quickly became a regular member. Kaye found the name “Luigi Francisco Varlaro” too cumbersome to pronounce so he changed it into Don Cornell, basing that name on his ex-trumpetist Dale Cornell.  Sammy and his Orchestra gained popularity when they released “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen” which was sung by Cornell. The single peaked at #3 on the US chart.

Cornell left Kaye and the band to enter the US Air Force but then he returned and sang on some tracks which became hits; “That’s My Desire” (#3 on the US chart and stayed for five months in 1947), “An Apple Blossom Wedding,” “Serenade of the Bells,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” Careless Hands,” “Room Full of Roses” and Cornell’s biggest hit with Kaye “It Isn’t Fair” which went up to #2 in the US chart in 1950.

After having successful hits with Kaye, Cornell subsequently went solo in 1950. He was signed to RCA where he had two singles “Ask Me No Questions” (with Mindy Carson) and “I Need You So” which went up to #25 on the US chart. He later moved to Coral in 1952 and issued “I’ll Walk Alone.” The single reached #5 on the US chart but unfortunately it did not have a UK outlet for the release. Because of this Eddie Fisher had a hit with Cornell’s American success “I’ll Walk Alone” in the UK.

The following years were filled with musical successes. Cornell released numerous singles which became chart hits. They include “I’m Yours” (#3 US, 1952), “I” (#7 US, 1952), “Heart of my Heart” (#10 US, 1953), “Hold My Hand” (#2 in the US and #1 in the UK in 1954, which was his most successful record) and “The Bible Tells Me So” (#7, 1954) among others.

After the peak years

After the hits, Cornell began to encounter marginal successes. During this period he appeared in well-known stage productions such as The Panama Game and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name a few. In 1963, he was one of the first stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in California. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, he occupied himself by performing at night clubs and doing  occasional guest appearances which included some parts in the television series Miami Vice.

Cornell spent his semi-retirement years playing golf with his old friend Perry Como. In 1994, he was encouraged by his wife Iris to get back into singing which resulted with two albums If I Never Sing Another Song (1994) and Don Cornell Now (1995) on Iris Records.

On February 23, 2004, 84-year old Cornell passed away due to emphysema and diabetes in Aventura, Florida.

Facts about Don Cornell

  • At 6138 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, he received a Star for Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Cornell was awarded as Italian Foundation Entertainer of the Year in 1994.
  • Also, Cornell received a Civilian Medal of Honor from the United States Army in 1996.
  • He was compared to a younger, more contemporary version of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.
  • He performed until he was 80 years old in clubs in Lake Tahoe, Lake Tahoe, and Atlantic City. In February 2003, he gave his final performance.
  • Hold My Hand, a 1953 popular song by Don Cornell, was included in the 1954 movie Susan Slept Here and was nominated for the 1954 Academy Award for Best Song.
  • At Stewart Field, close to West Point, New York, Cornell joined for the United States Army Air Corps in 1942 and underwent pilot training. Later, he was given the responsibility of flying B-17 bombers over Europe from England.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to Cornell in the 1950s while Cornell was performing in England, complaining that the lyrics to “Hold My Hand” were inappropriate and requesting that they be modified. This led to Cornell becoming embroiled in a well-publicized conflict with the Anglican clergy.
  • In addition to his wife, Cornell has five grandchildren and two stepchildren from a prior marriage.

Conclusion

Don Cornell was one of the last surviving singers of the traditional big band era, and he has developed and sustained an active career spanning more than five decades. Cornell’s start in the early 1940s did not portend a career that would persist, despite having the longevity that most performers can only hope for.

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