Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Flags Of Our Fathers, is getting a lot of attention lately, and it got me to thinking about the first time I became aware of Clint, and sort of had dinner with him. It goes back before his directing fame, before his solid movie career as a leading man, before his memorable Dirty Harry movies, and even before his popular spaghetti westerns. My memory goes back over 45 years, to a black and white TV show that was such a favorite of mine that I had my dinner in front of the TV every week while watching it, so I guess you could say I had dinner with Clint dozens of times. (OK, not really…but you knew I was kidding, right?)
Rawhide was Clint’s first solid role, although he’d had some forgettable parts in movies and TV by that time, and even though he shared the lead with Eric Fleming, it started him on the road to stardom. (I actually liked Fleming’s character – solid, respected trail boss Gil Favor – better than Clint’s callow Rowdy Yates, but Fleming didn’t achieve the same stardom and came to a sad end when he died in an accidental drowning a few years later.)
The program also featured Sheb Wooley as one of the cowboys, and at that time he was better known as the singer of that immortal tune, “Purple People Eater”. However, the musical signature of the show had nothing to do with people eaters of any color. It was firmly established by Frankie Laine singing the unforgettable “Rawhide Theme”. The song was so indelibly imprinted on everyone from that moment on that it was instantly recognizable 20 years later, in a hilarious scene from The Blues Brothers as Belushi and Ackroyd start singing, “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…”
Frankie Laine, born Francesco Paolo LoVecchio in Chicago in 1913, was something a little different when he first began coming to the notice of the music world. From his beginnings as a singing waiter and band vocalist, he started to catch fire in the late forties as a transitional singer — someone difficult to classify, but definitely not a traditional crooner.
A strong, distinctive voice, coupled with emotional styling that borrowed from early blues singers, gave him a sound that was very recognizable. He was called “the first of the blue-eyed soul singers” and after his first hit, “That’s My Desire”, rose to number one on the R&B charts many listeners assumed he was black. His success, coupled with others such as Johnny Ray, was a harbinger of the coming rock and roll revolution.
From that point on, he was one of the most popular singers around and rang up hit after hit, eventually moving into different genres, especially country and western — with the emphasis on “western”. He sold millions of records filled with theme songs from TV and movies, including another big hit, “Do Not Forsake Me” from High Noon. Later he migrated into religious songs and did well again. Eventually he reached career sales of over 250 million records.
But to me, he’ll always be the musical accompaniment to my dinner with Clint.