Russ Columbo was an American singer, violinist and actor, most famous for his signature tune, "You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love," his compositions "Prisoner of Love" and "Too Beautiful For Words", and the legend surrounding his early death.
Columbo was born in Camden, New Jersey, the twelfth child of Italian immigrant parents, Nicola and Giulia (Julia) Colombo. He started playing the violin while still very young, and debuted professionally at the age of 13. He left high school at 17 to travel with various bands around the country. He sang and played violin in numerous nightclubs.
Columbo did 7 vocals while with Arnheim as a member of the string section; 6 for OKeh and only 1 for Victor ("A Peach Of Pair" on June 18, 1930, a few months before Bing Crosby joined the band, along with Al Rinker and Harry Barris as "The Rhythm Boys").
Columbo tried to run a nightclub for a while, but the venture was unsuccessful. In 1931, he traveled to New York with his manager, songwriter Con Conrad. Conrad secured a late-night radio slot with NBC. This led to numerous engagements, a recording contract with RCA Victor records, and tremendous popularity with legions of mostly female fans. The type of singing that was popularized by the likes of Columbo, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby is called crooning. Columbo disliked the label, but it caught on with the general public. It gained popular credence, despite its initial use as a term of derision for the singers employing their low, soothing voices in romantic songs.
Russ Columbo composed the songs "Prisoner of Love", "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)" with Con Conrad, Gladys Du Bois, and Paul Gregory, "Too Beautiful For Words", recorded by the Teddy Joyce Orchestra in 1935, "When You're in Love", "My Love", "Let's Pretend There's a Moon", recorded by Fats Waller and Tab Hunter, and "Hello Sister". "Prisoner of Love" is a standard that has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Art Tatum, Perry Como, the Ink Spots, Mildred Bailey, Teddy Wilson with Lena Horne on vocals, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, and James Brown. Perry Como had a no.1 hit on Billboard with his recording. James Brown had a Top 20 pop hit and performed the song on the Ed Sullivan show and in the concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).
On September 2, 1934, Columbo was shot under peculiar circumstances by his longtime friend, photographer Lansing Brown. Columbo was visiting him at the studio one day. In lighting a cigarette, Brown lit the match by striking it against the wooden stock of an antique French dueling pistol. The flame set off a long-forgotten charge in the pistol chamber containing a lead ball. The ball ricocheted off a nearby table and hit Columbo in the left eye, killing him almost instantly. Columbo's death was ruled an accident, and Brown exonerated from blame. His funeral mass was attended by numerous Hollywood luminaries, including Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard.
However, the news was withheld from his mother by his brothers and sisters for ten years due to her previous heart condition; it was feared that the news would prove fatal to her (she died in 1944). They used all manner of subterfuges to give the impression that he was still alive, including faked letters from him and records used to simulate his radio program.
In 1958, singer Jerry Vale recorded a tribute album, I Remember Russ. In 1995, 61 years after Columbo's death, singer Tiny Tim released an album in tribute to Columbo, titled Prisoner Of Love (A Tribute to Russ Columbo), which he recorded with the group Clang.
Columbo is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Russ Columbo is one of the historical figures named in the Neil Diamond composition 'Done Too Soon'.