Italo-American singer Sergio Franchi was much more than an entertainer; yet it was as an entertainer that he was known to the wide public, with a voice that was equal to Mario Lanza in beauty and phrasing. Amercian show business got hold of him, but Franchi had years of classical training behind him and did perform opera on stage before he was launched into stardom in the US.
He was born in Cremona, Italy, on 6 April 1926 and made his first concert at the age of ten at his school in Cremona. Upon his father’s wish he studied to become an electrical engineer, but he kept receiving private music lessons and after his graduation he focused on a professional career as a singer. When the family emigrated to South Africa (Johannesburg) in 1952, he found work as a part-time draftsman, but kept working on his vocal skills. He was soon invited to sing the leading tenor roles in a number of operettas, among them The Gypsy Baron, New Moon, The Vagabond King and Die Fledermaus. One night in 1954 he was overheard by South Africa’s foremost impressario, Alex Cernaiavsky, who obviously impressed with the singer immediately signed him to appear in La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Rigoletto and La Bohème, touring the major cities of South Africa.
Franchi shall have met Beniamino Gigli while on tour in South Africa.1 Enthusiastic about the young tenor’s voice, he encouraged him to further his vocal studies and Franchi eventually returned to Italy and Milano for studies with Rossi Massetti, a reputable singing pedagogue. Three months later he made his Italian debut as Cavaradossi in Tosca in his native Cremona.
Yet Sergio Franchi did not pursue an operatic career. Instead he toured the Continent giving concerts and it was during a British television program, Sunday Night at the Palladium, in March 1962, that his career would take a radical turn. Conductor Norman Luboff was so impressed with Franchi that he had him record two selections that were sent to RCA Victor in the US. He was immediately signed and recorded several Italian romantic songs under conductor Wally Scott for the RCA label, the first LP to be released in 1962 and Franchi was launched as “The Brilliant New Tenor From Italy.”2 Producer and presenter Solomon Huruk engaged him for a tour in the US in 1962-63. In 1963 he also recorded the only operatic recording in his career, the role of Alfred in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, in English, and with Anna Moffo, Risë Stevens, Richard Lewis and George London, at the Vienna State Opera.3 He also recorded the album The Dream Duet with Anna Moffo.
Sergio Franchi, practically unknown when he first came to the US, became an overnight sensation and throughout the 1960s he sang in prestigious clubs in the US, the most prominent of these being the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. A number of the most popular television shows were lining up to have him, among them The Ed Sullivan Show and The Red Skelton Show. In-between numerous sold-out concerts he also appeared at Broadway in 1965 in Rodger and Sondheim’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which was also recorded in studio the same year.
In 1969 he also crossed over to the movies and starred in Stanley Kramer’s comedy The Secret of Santa Vittoria, with Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani, and where Franchi played the role of the soldier Tufa. In 1969 he was also signed for a two year engagement at the popular Flamingo Room in Las Vegas.
Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s he mostly performed in the US, appearing in popular TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and giving a number of concerts. He became an American citizen in 1972.
He succumbed to cancer on 1 May 1990. After his death, his widow Eva has organized an annual vocal seminar and scholarship for young and aspiring singers, the Sergio Franchi Music Foundation, in function since 1993. Franchi himself was also an ardent supporter of the arts and various charitable organizations directed towards his Italian heritage, such as Boy’s Town4 in Italy, the National Italian American Foundation). For his efforts he received the highest award from Boy’s Town, the Michelangelo Award, and the title of Cavaliere (Stella al merito del lavoro) from the Government of Italy posthumously in 2001.