Robert Davi makes the Great American Songbook soar

Robert Davi sees the world changing. He knows that music today is different than it was and that most new music won’t last. But he’s hopeful, because he believes in the Great American Songbook, in the power of the American spirit and in voices like his mentor’s soft, smooth tenor.

Davi identifies the “something different” about Sinatra’s voice as coming from his background in classical singing and his experience with Italian vocal traditions that emphasize tone and vowels sounds.

Davi had many of the same influences, and he believes in the ability of great music to transcend time and geography – that the classics still touch lives all over the world.

An actor, screenwriter, director and producer with a string of credits a mile long (most recently, his album “Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance”) and still more to come (the upcoming 2013 release of his star-studded film “The Iceman”), Davi has become a living tribute to the multitalented Sinatra and an artist to be emulated in his own right. But music is his first love.

He grew up in a musical family.

“Italian families are like that,” he said.

When a nun (a teacher at his high school) discovered him singing in the football locker room and asked him to join the glee club, his mother pushed him to try it out.

It wasn’t long before Davi was winning awards for his voice, and soon enough he was working as an actor and singer in New York.

He got his first big break when Sinatra hand-picked him for a role in “Contract on Cherry Street.”

Davi’s connection with that first film opportunity – and with Sinatra – is strong and personal. His mother passed away shortly after he got the role in “Contract on Cherry Street,” and he learned later that before her death, she had been watching Sinatra on TV and had said to the man on the screen, “Help my son.”

Davi tells the story in his period Italian-American accent:

“What happened was my agent said to me that it was all cast, and I didn’t know my mom said this … And I said to my agent on a whim, ‘Where’s the office?’ He said, ‘It’s on Fifth Avenue. Columbia Pictures.’ I says, ‘I’m gonna go up there.’ He says, ‘Whattaya have to lose?’ And I did. And the rest is what it is.”

Davi said he was not scared to read in front of Sinatra and explained that he had given more than 800 performances by the time he auditioned, so he was prepared.

“You do the work at hand,” Davi said.

Sinatra did more than help Davi break into film: he inspired in the young performer an admiration for the Great American Songbook that still lives in Davi’s performance.

Davi sees preserved in these songs a romance, an optimism and a strong American spirit – things that he thinks may be fading as society changes but that are supremely worth preserving. He explained that the American Songbook is a record of the lives of Black, Irish, Scotch and Jewish Americans – and all the people whose stories and struggles helped shape this country.

“While our country faced challenges, these songs helped it glow with promise and optimism,” he said. “It reminded them that our country was a place where dreams come true. And Frank Sinatra’s voice was the soundtrack for their lives.”

To Davi, the Songbook is “the Shakespeare of America.”

He doesn’t have a favorite song to sing. Instead, he says, “You bring your emotions with you” – meaning that every performance is different, and every song carries different meaning each time it’s sung.

He thinks that his experience as an actor helps him communicate emotion when he’s on stage singing, and he credits Sinatra for being an example of how the two arts complement each other.

“Every one of his songs was a story,” Davi said.

Davi will perform on April 13 – 14 at The Orleans with Don Rickles, who also got his big break from Frank Sinatra with help from his mother.

Davi and Rickles are friends, and Davi explained that Rickles’ mother befriended Sinatra’s and asked her to have her son visit one of Rickles’ shows in Florida. Sinatra did see Rickles perform, and the rest is history.

When Davi takes the stage, he’ll show that the songs of Sinatra are still very much alive. He thinks that distractions abound for today’s concertgoers but that the performer’s obligation to his audience is the same as ever.

“If something is engaging, it’s still going to be engaging,” he said.

And that’s what Davi’s performance is. Full of the sounds of what he calls the “golden age of American music,” his performance is more than a tribute to a time gone by. The songs he sings are living and real, and they’ll reach out and grab you by the heartstrings.