On Feb. 2, for about 90 minutes, Dean Martin was singing again in Las Vegas.
“What I do isn’t really an impression,” said Frank LaSpina. “I sing in the style of the artist. I don’t sound exactly the way they did, but I give people an idea of what their performance was like live.”
LaSpina has performed around the country creating a series of multimedia musical biographies. He’s performing them as a series at the Italian American Club, 2333 E. Sahara Ave.
The performances feature LaSpina singing songs the entertainers were known for, interspersed with anecdotes and clips of interviews and performances of the original star. The screens show rare images and footage of the entertainer as LaSpina condenses a lifetime into minutes. He’s usually backed by some of his students. When he plays in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, his shows are always benefit concerts for the charity he co-founded, the Musical Arts Scholarship Program.
LaSpina has been a professional performer since his teens. He settled in Las Vegas when it was the place for a musician to shine and have a steady gig in the lounges or playing live music for one of the shows on the Strip. He had radio and television interview programs.
He began teaching music and voice to adults on the side, but it wasn’t until a local music store asked him if he could take over its children’s music classes that he discovered his real passion for teaching.
“I thought I was just going to help them out until they found someone permanent,” LaSpina said. “It turned out, I loved teaching the kids, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The only problem for LaSpina was when the economy slowed, he began losing students.
“I floated a lot of them for a while, but I needed to come up with a more permanent solution,” LaSpina said. That’s when I came up with the idea for the Musical Arts Scholarship Program.”
LaSpina recalled a fan of his radio program who told him if he ever needed backing for a project, to ask. So he did. Until recently, the program’s benefactor and co-founder shunned the spotlight, being known to the audience only by a line on the show’s programs, “We love you Kathy.”
“To my utter astonishment, after steadfastly remaining anonymous for these past eight years, my co-founder of the Musical Arts Scholarship Program has relented and agreed to publicly reveal her identity for the first time.” LaSpina said. “Her name is Katherine Ferguson. May I add, she richly deserves acknowledgement.”
With the initial funds kicking off the education program, LaSpina began putting together shows with his students that raised money to keep it going.
The first biographical show was done in part because LaSpina felt Perry Como, who had multiple hit records and a groundbreaking musical variety show on TV in 1950, was given short shrift when he died in 2001.
“I waited to hear what they’d say about him on CNN, and all they said was, ‘Singer Perry Como died today, and in other news … ’ I couldn’t believe it.” LaSpina said. “I stayed up all night and put together an hourlong radio biography of him.”
He used that as the starting point for his musical biography of Como. He has written eight musical biography shows so far. In addition to Martin and Como, he has done shows featuring Bobby Darin, Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Nat King Cole and Karen Carpenter.
Last month, Diana Horn and three of LaSpina’s students took on the roles of The Golddiggers, the group of female singers and dancers who got their start backing Martin on his TV program. Horn choreographed it.
“I used to be a competitive dancer, but I injured my leg, and it required several surgeries,” she said. “I can’t dance at a competitive level anymore, but I found Frank LaSpina’s show on TV when I was recuperating, and I liked it, so I went to meet him. Now I’m taking voice lessons with him.”
She listens to a lot of country and jazz these days, but when she can, she likes to sing the songs popularized by Doris Day.
“We have a lot in common,” said the UNLV junior, who is studying psychology and social work. “I was in my high school production of ‘The Pajama Game,’ which she starred in the movie of. We are both dancers who had leg injuries and became singers. She was a dancer in a troupe when she got hurt in a car accident.”
It was LaSpina who pointed out the similarities of Day’s story and hers to Horn.
“I’d never sung before, but I picked things up quickly, and he was willing to work with me,” she said. “There was no way I could have afforded music lessons without the Musical Arts Scholarship Program. I couldn’t work much because of my leg. It gave me an opportunity I would never have had otherwise.”
Horn is set to perform in LaSpina’s next stage biography when he brings his Perry Como show back at 4 p.m. March 2 to the Italian American Club, where it debuted in 2007.
“It’s a different kind of show from the Dean Martin one,” LaSpina said. “Como tried to lead an exemplary life. There’s not a lot of juicy stories about Perry. Dean, that was like the National Enquirer for an hour and a half.”
The Como piece focuses more on the singer’s accomplishments and includes some stories about the recording process.
“There were several instances where he didn’t want to record a song and it became a big hit,” he said. “He had 14 No. 1 hits and 42 top 10 hits.”
As always, the local performance will be a benefit for the Musical Arts Scholarship Program.
“When I go on the road, there are agents and venues involved, and they like to get paid,” LaSpina said.” When I play here, it’s for the kids.”
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.