Al Alberts: Lead singer with the Fifties harmony group the Four Aces
Friday 22 January 2010
Led by Al Alberts, the Four Aces were an American harmony group who dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-1950s, most famously with the million-selling theme songs from the films Three Coins in the Fountain and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. A mainstay of the group from its inception in 1949, Alberts and his strong tenor also graced such evergreens as "Stranger in Paradise", "Mister Sandman" and "A Woman in Love". He left the group in 1956 but failed to establish himself as a solo artist and eventually turned to a career in broadcasting. From 1968, he hosted Al Alberts' Showcase, a Saturday afternoon television talent show featuring children singing and dancing, which aired in the Philadelphia area. The programme ran for 32 years and featured early appearances by Teddy Pendergrass, who died last week, and Sister Sledge.
He was born Al Albertini in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1922, and went to South Philadelphia High School, as did Mario Lanza. In his teens, he played piano and sang on the Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, a radio variety show. This made a big impression on him and planted the seed for the television programme he would later develop with his wife, Stella.
After studying for a degree in finance at Temple University, also in Philadelphia, he enlisted in the US Navy as a radio operator. He met Dave Mahoney, a tenor who also played the saxophone, and they began singing to while away the hours as their ship patrolled the Newfoundland area. They made a pact to form a vocal group and, on their return to civilian life, teamed up with Louis "Lou" Silvestri, who sang bass and drummed, and Rosario "Sod" Vaccaro, a baritone who also played the trumpet. They took the name of a roller-skating club, started performing at local colleges and met two songwriters, George Hoven and Chester Shull, the composers of a ballad called "(It's No) Sin" which soon became an audience favourite in the Four Aces' set.
The group decided to record the song, Alberts helping to finance the session at Philadelphia's Reco-Art Studios and the release of the track on their own Victoria label in 1951. Fortuitously, a local radio DJ was in love with Hoven's daughter, Vera, and gave "(It's No) Sin" regular spins. Other stations picked up on the single, and other acts covered the song. Eddy Howard's version eventually topped the US charts in 1952 while the Four Aces peaked at No 4 – a notable achievement for a small label.
Decca offered them a deal and the Four Aces started an incredible run of US hits with "Tell Me Why" and "Perfidia (Tonight)", two of their eight Top 30 singles in 1952, which also included "Should I" and a cover of "Heart and Soul", a 1938 chart-topper for bandleader Larry Clinton. They matched that feat in 1953 and broke through internationally the following year with "Three Coins in the Fountain", the Oscar-winning composition written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn for the film of the same name. Frank Sinatra's version topped the UK charts while the Four Aces made No 5 in Britain.
Vocally and visually, they were a slick act, their stage routines and TV appearances masterminded by the Hollywood choreographer Jon Gregory. Fittingly, their next big hit, the glorious "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing", was another movie title song, this time penned by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster for the doomed romance starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones and directed by Henry King in 1955. It also won the Academy Award for Best Song.
The Four Aces featuring Al Alberts, as they were billed on their Brunswick UK releases, toured Britain. They also met a young Paul Anka in Ottawa but turned down the opportunity to record the compositions he offered them. Despite the onslaught of rock'n'roll, the group managed to score nine US hits in 1956, but Alberts felt their time in the limelight was up. He left and was replaced by Fred Diodati.
The other founding members quit in the 1960s, and when Alberts, Mahoney, Silvestri and Vaccaro reconvened in 1975 they had to call themselves the Original Four Aces featuring Al Alberts, while a court ruled that Diodati's group could continue touring as the Four Aces. The Original Four Aces retired in 1987 and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001. The group's highly evocative songs such as "The Gang That Sang Heart of My Heart" have been used in films like Pleasantville, the 1998 morality tale about US suburbia starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon and directed by Gary Ross.
Al Alberts' Showcase made the most of his talent as a crooner, performing the likes of the Jersey Shore classic "On the Way to Cape May", and of his ability for putting at ease young performers dressed up to the nines by eager parents. With his white pompadour and gleaming smile, he was known as "Uncle Al" on the set. "I have never gotten to the point during an audition where I said, 'OK, kid, that's enough'," he said in 1985. "I let them have their three minutes in the sun."
After retiring to Florida in 2000, he wrote and self-published his autobiography, Al's Song. He still found time to record a one-hour radio show devoted to harmony groups which was syndicated throughout the US. He died of complications from kidney failure.
Al Albertini (Al Alberts), singer, television host: born Chester, Pennsylvania 10 August 1922; married Stella 1953 (two sons); died Arcadia, Florida 27 November 2009.
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