Although not very well known today, Russ Columbo became a household name in the early 1930's, propelled by a smooth baritone singing voice, extraordinary good looks, and a charming screen presence. His mysterious death in 1934 suddenly ended a promising career.
He was born in Camden, NJ in 1908, christened Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo, the 12th child of Italian immigrants. His musical talent blossomed early, and while still in his teens he became a professional violinist. He eventually joined the Gus Arnheim Orchestra, playing violin and singing in a vocal trio made up of members from the band. A 1929 Vitaphone short film of the Arnheim prominently features Columbo as a singer and band member, but not as a star vocalist. That spot belonged to Bing Crosby, who joined the Arnheim orchestra in 1930 and sang with the band until he left for New York City to pursue a career as a radio entertainer. Upon Crosby's departure, Columbo was offered the solo vocalist spot, and he began to attract national attention.
Here is the 1929 Arnheim short. Columbo can be seen playing hot violin and singing at the center of the vocal trio, still holding his violin. (embedding has been disabled for this video)
The Gus Arnheim orchestra's home turf was Hollywood, and Columbo's talents did not go unnoticed by the movie industry. He worked in minor roles in several films in 1929 and 1930, but was unhappy with the small roles (sometimes unbilled) that he was offered. In 1931 Columbo met songwriter Con Conrad, who felt that he could make Columbo into a radio star. Conrad became Columbo's manager and soon managed to get him contracts with NBC radio and RCA Victor records.
Here is one of Columbo's lesser-known recordings, "As You Desire Me", recorded for Victor on August 3, 1932:
Columbo developed a devoted following as a romantic crooner, rivaling Bing Crosby for popularity as a radio star. Although Columbo disliked the "crooner" label, his singing style was the inspiration for a popular 1932 song by Al Dubin that inspired a Merrie Melodies cartoon, Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.
By 1933, Columbo's meteoric rise to fame meant that Hollywood was ready to give him starring roles in pictures. Beginning with Broadway Through A Keyhole and culminating with Wake Up And Dream, Columbo established himself as a box office draw. He further enhanced his musical abilities by studying opera, in a determined effort to distance himself from the image of a lightweight pop music star. He also co-wrote three of the songs from Wake Up And Dream.
Here is Russ Columbo performing "Too Beautiful For Words" from Wake Up And Dream (1934)
Here is Russ Columbo's Brunswick studio recording of "Too Beautiful for Words", waxed on August 31, 1934 -- just two days before Columbo's untimely death:
On Sunday Sept. 2, 1934, Russ Columbo visited his old friend, photographer Lansing Brown, at Brown's home in Santa Barbara. Columbo was eager to hear Brown's opinion of his new motion picture Wake Up And Dream, and to clear things up after a disagreement that the two men had a month before. Here is what happened during that fateful meeting:
Lansing Brown kept a pair of antique dueling pistols on his desk. According to statements given at the inquest, Brown was toying with one of the pistols and holding an unlighted match in his left hand. The "trick" was that the hammer would ignite the match, although Brown would later testify that he did not know why he had the match and the gun, other than a sort of odd "habit." Unfortunately, the old relic had both gunpowder and a vintage mini ball. Somehow, the match and the hammer triggered the gun powder, and the bullet was discharged. Detectives later determined that the bullet must have ricocheted off the mahogany desk between the two men, striking Russ Columbo in the left eye, lodging at the back of his brain. He slumped in the chair and immediately lost consciousness. It was 1:45 PM.
... When the coroner's ambulance arrived to pick up the body, it was discovered that Russ was unconscious, but still alive. He was taken first to Hollywood Receiving Hospital, then transferred to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Doctors attempted to save his life by surgery, but it was too late.
Russ Columbo was only 26 years old when he died. And in one of the most unusual circumstances following a celebrity's death, Columbo's mother Julia was never told of the accident. In order to preserve her fragile health, the family (along with the cooperation of actress Carole Lombard, a close friend of Columbo) convinced his mother that Columbo had embarked on an extended tour of Europe, then wed Lombard and settled in Europe. News of Lombard's own sensational 1939 wedding to Clark Gable was kept from Julia, and she died in 1944 never knowing that her favorite son preceded her in death by nearly a decade.
Although Russ Columbo is not well remembered today, his music lives on. Many of Columbo's early hits -- "All Of Me," "Paradise," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)," "Sweet And Lovely" -- have become American standards. In 1946, interest in Columbo was strengthened by Perry Como's revival of a 1931 hit for Columbo, "Prisoner of Love." And in 1994, for what would be his last recording project, eccentric cabaret entertainer Tiny Tim recorded an entire album of Columbo songs.
Could Columbo really have eclipsed Bing Crosby in popularity? Crosby's strong background as a jazz singer greatly enhanced his ability to continue as a top entertainer through the Swing Era. Columbo had jazz talent, but seemed to want to distance himself from pop music. Unfortunately his career was too short to have established a definitive identity for himself.