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Valente: A Vocal Superstar In Any Language

June 26, 1987|JACK HAWN

More than 20 years ago, Ed Sullivan introduced her on his national TV show as the "Malaguena Girl," and in Las Vegas critics raved about the extraordinary talent of the young European vocalist who could sing in 12 languages.

In Los Angeles, she soon found the spotlight at the Cocoanut Grove and Hollywood Palace, and Dean Martin was so impressed he invited her on his TV show at least a dozen times. Danny Kaye and Perry Como often featured her as well, along with other TV hosts.

She appeared with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, had arrangements written by Sy Oliver and traveled extensively throughout the States with Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich.

To her, jazz was No. 1 but seldom, if ever, did critics neglect to mention the word versatility when reviewing her work.

Nonetheless, it seems Caterina Valente almost needs to be re-introduced here--particularly to younger fans--despite a show-biz career that spans half a century and her enduring fame on the international circuit.

Although she performs regularly in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, South America and Japan, it's been six years since she has appeared in America, more than a decade in Los Angeles.

But Valente has finally breezed into Los Angeles for tonight's Hollywood Bowl concert--her Bowl debut, in fact--before zipping off Saturday back to Lugano, Switzerland, where she has lived for the past 28 years. Having divorced two husbands, she shares her home with two sons, 28 and 13, and, she added, "three dogs."

"I love Los Angeles," she said during a brief interview Tuesday, one day after arriving from Europe. "It's my favorite American city. But I have to get back. I have a radio show to do Monday."

Tonight's concert, produced by Karl Jobig of West Germany, is an ambitious venture involving at least 50 people from West Berlin, here for a single performance.

The show is titled "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" ("I Am a Berliner"), a phrase made famous by President John F. Kennedy during his memorable 1963 visit to West Berlin. A part of his speech will be re-created through audio/visual technology.

"We don't expect to make money," Jobig said. "The city of Berlin contributed roughly $45,000 and our whole budget is almost $250,000. It's a good-will gesture--a thank you--to Los Angeles, our sister city. Tickets are only $5 to $35, and all military personnel get 50% off, so we aren't doing it to make money."

The concert also is part of the current celebration commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin.

Billed with Valente are Horst Jankowski and his RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) band, guest singer Jack Jones, actor Eric Braeden, the host, and many others.

Although the theme will spotlight Berlin-born music, such familiar "Americanized" hits as "Strangers in the Night," "Spanish Eyes" and "Mack the Knife" should help enliven the program.

"Malaguena," a pretty ballad about a little girl in Malaga, Spain, is--as always--a must for Valente, who said that more than 6 million of her recordings of that song have been sold over the years. "The Breeze and I" is another she was closely identified with.

"Audiences still demand them," she said. "They are so well written (by Cuban composer Ernesto LeCuona) they go on forever."

At 56, Valente--a seventh generation of a show-business family that had its roots in the circus--is, in Jobig's words, "among the best women singers in Europe and No. 1 in Germany. She just finished a very successful tour through Germany."

Last year, Valente celebrated her 50th year as an entertainer and was saluted by her peers in a nationally televised tribute titled "Bravo, Catrin."

"I work all year long," said Valente, who speaks six languages, including virtually flawless English. "I do concerts, one-night stands, my own TV series in Germany. . . . I do three or four 90-minute shows a year with no commercials."

The "specials" originate in different German cities, "mostly in huge halls, so we always have a brand new audience. I've been on TV since 1939."

She also has been recording for decades.

"I really don't know how many," she said. "I don't count as a performer; I just do them."

A recently completed album, "I Am . . . Caterina Valente," is due out in about a month, she said. Last year, she teamed on an album with the Count Basie Orchestra for an all-English version of such classics as "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Take the A Train," "Poinciana," "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "I Love Paris," among others. Not surprisingly, "Malaguena" and "Breeze" are included.

Oh, yes, she also acts, having appeared in 12 European movies, all musicals; dances (less exuberantly since undergoing a major hip operation last year); and is a virtuoso on the guitar, having strummed the instrument in an orchestra when only a teen-ager. She used to weave acrobatics into her modern-dancing routine but discontinued that years ago.

"My mother hated it," she recalled. "She got so angry with me but I loved it. It was very difficult.

"I enjoy performing," she continued. "It's very conceited, I know, but I get no greater pleasure than to entertain an audience for two hours. Maybe they forget their own problems; maybe they're happy. I prefer the stage--live audiences."

Born in Paris of Italian parents and once married to a German for 18 years (her second marriage lasted eight years and she has been single five years), Valente easily relates to fans wherever she performs, particularly in Europe.

"I'm Italian," she said with a smile, "but because I was born in Paris, (Frenchmen say) 'She must be French,' so to them, I'm French. And the Germans think I'm German."

She shrugged, smiled again and labeled herself simply "a European."

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