Julie's Story

"Brooklyn -- that's where it all started. We didn't have to contend with rock and roll back then, and when it came, I still didn't contend with it."

 

Julius La Rosa is a Brooklyn boy, and don't forget it. He was born on January 2, 1930, and grew up with his sister in a world that was vastly different from today. La Rosa remembers even in the relatively tough Brooklyn world, you didn't worry about making sure the door was closed. You didn't worry about vandalism, much less the more violent crimes so prevalent today. He grew up to be a congenial, straight-speaking man with a keen sense of music and a good sense of humor.

He grew up listening to Frank Sinatra on "the old, wax, red label Columbia records."

"I had them all. Sinatra was able to turn a 32-bar song into a three-act play...I like all kinds of music. I grew up with Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller. That was music. It has a certain gentleness, you had a rhythmic response to it. Rock and roll seemed very unmusical. But there's always been room for the traditional singer."

For Julius La Rosa, his career is singing, even though he's proven to be a successful disc jockey and actor. He no longer lives in Brooklyn, having moved years ago to Westchester County, New York. He and his wife raised a son and daughter there. Neither are professional musicians, although La Rosa says his son plays guitar and has a good ear, great musical instincts, sense of rhythm. La Rosa remembers first moving to Westchester.

"Being born and raised in Brooklyn, I was always walking on concrete. When I walked on grass, it  was like I moved to the country, which is what I wanted to do. Now with all the building (in the area), I call it 'Times Square North.'"

La Rosa began his singing career during a melodic time. The career that would later include the finest rooms in the country -- Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia's Academy of Music, cabarets like Rainbow and Stars, and jazz rooms like Michael's Pub, as well as summer fairs, school auditoriums and ballparks -- that career began in a new medium, television. LaRosa had no idea what was coming.

La Rosa had finished high school and joined the Navy. In the last nine months he sang with the United States Navy Band in Washington D.C. and was "discovered" by Arthur Godfrey, a leading television entertainer of the day, who said, "Young man, when you get out, come see me. You've got a job."

"I didn't know that was just 'show business.' He said I had a job, so when I got out of the Navy I went up to see him. I was discharged on a Friday and on Monday I went up. And a week later I was on the show. That's exactly how the whole thing started."

From November 19, 1951 to October 19, 1953 -- 23 months to the day, Julius La Rosa was a member of the immensely popular CBS TV series Arthur Godfrey and his Friends. It was a variety hour centered around Godfrey and his "friends" including Frank Parker, Tony Marvin, Julius LaRosa, Haleloke, Marion Marlowe, the McGuire Sisters and bandleader Archie Bleyer. La Rosa's early audiences thought of him as shy.

"I wasn't ever shy. I was just scared to death. I had never been a professional singer, except when I was in the Navy. That was my first professional singing. Six months later I'm on the radio, I'm on television. Don't know what the hell I'm doing. Just scared to death. But that fear just manifested itself as shyness."

La Rosa worked during the week on Godfrey's various shows and later worked other engagements on the weekends. He also began taking some voice lessons with Carlo Menotti, disregarding dire warnings by some that lessons would ruin the natural quality of his voice. The lessons came about when La Rosa heard a young singer on Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show with a pleasing natural voice and he asked who the singer's teacher was. When he found out, he started regular voice lessons which continued for about ten years. After that, he just took occasional lessons to clear up problems or work out approaches to a particular song.

La Rosa also started recording. In fact, Godfrey's orchestra leader, Archie Bleyer, formed Cadence Records in late 1952, primarily to record La Rosa. Bleyer's orchestra would back him on record as well as on television performances. Julius LaRosa's first recording, and Cadence Records first single release, was "Anywhere I Wander." It shot immediately into the national top-30. La Rosa followed this with "My Lady Loves To Dance," which was a moderate success.

The third release was a golden charm. In 1953, he recorded "Eh, Cumpari." This novelty song was a run-away hit, reaching number two. Julius La Rosa won an award for best new male vocalist for 1953. He had done well for Cadence Records. In fact, he was their only singer that first year. The label of the 45 rpm label had a drawing of his likeness across the top .

And then one night in fall 1953, after Julius LaRosa finished singing, "Manhattan," on Arthur Godfrey and his Friends, Godfrey fired him on the air. The public was in an uproar.

"Thank God for the press's awareness and the public's awareness! They knew that the big guy should never hurt the little guy. And Arthur Godfrey was the big guy, trying to hurt this kid, and that's why they turned on him. And the public turned on him really bad.

"The man literally is the father of my career and I'll always be grateful to him. But it turned out he wasn't a very nice man."

La Rosa thanked Godfrey for giving him his great break and left the show.

He learned Godfrey could not overlook the fact that La Rosa had hired a manager after his first hit records.  No one of Godfrey's "friends" could have an outside manager.  In addition, La Rosa (like the other men on the show) had refused to go to dance classes ordered by Godfrey.  Perhaps coincidentally, Godfrey repudedly had a soft spot for Dorothy McGuire, who was involved with La Rosa.  However, the stated reason for the firing was, said Godfrey, "a lack of humility." For years, LaRosa wondered what that meant, and today he believes:

"Fundamentally, humility is not a quality that exists in people. It is something only between a person and his God. What people consider 'humble' is actually good manners. Good manners is the bottom line."

Arthur Godfrey, a man whose public image was a down-to-earth, plain-speaking Mr. Nice Guy, was actually tyrannical and judgmental. "And he was a guy who couldn't afford to be judged!"

Unfortunately for Godfrey, this happened just before "Eh Cumpari" went on to be a top pop single in 1953, followed by "Domani," another hit song for La Rosa and Cadence Records. Arthur Godfrey's shows, and his career, went into a decline and never recovered.

La Rosa moved to RCA Records, hoping to get a bit of the rock audience, but basically, after the split with Godfrey, La Rosa says:

"I went out and learned my job. And it took 15 years to really get comfortable doing it...I learned my job in public --  how to walk onstage, how to control an audience, what materials to use, what taste was."

La Rosa has a full and ready laugh and a generous nature. He's a performer who gets along easily with people in and out of the business, even when circumstances become difficult. He's learned from the past.

"No matter what the circumstances, if you work for a man, you're working in his place, he's your 'boss.' You do what your boss asks you to do. If it's totally against what you want to do, you don't work for the man. It's that simple. It's a business...

"I've been using this same act for ten years, with some changes, and it's still fresh. It still works... Nobody knows better than I, what song is good for me...

"Big or small, I like the audience right in front of me. Even when I work in nightclubs, I keep the lights on, because I want to see your face too. That's the way I work at my best. All I have to do is make one eye contact and I'm in contact with everybody else. I don't assume another character, I'm always me, Julius La Rosa. Here it is."

Here he is --

--Elizabeth Ahlfors

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*photo from New Library Collection of University of Maryland
 
 
 

  ahlfors@citycabaret

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