Steve Rossi, Singer Who Found Fame in Comedy Duo, Dies at 82
Steve Rossi, a suave crooner who rose to fame as the straight man to Marty Allen in one of the most successful comedy teams of the 1960s, died on Sunday at a hospice near his home in Las Vegas. He was 82.
A Las Vegas resident since 1990, and guest performer many times before, Rossi was well known in the local entertainment community for his charity, collaborations and humor.
The cause of death was cancer, a friend, Michael Flores, said.
Mr. Rossi was working as a singer in Las Vegas when, at the suggestion of Nat King Cole, he joined forces in the late 1950s with the bug-eyed Mr. Allen, who had recently broken up with his longtime comedy partner.
With Mr. Rossi as the good-looking one who sang and Mr. Allen as the zany, childlike one who got the laughs, Allen and Rossi were reminiscent of the hottest comedy team of the 1950s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But whereas Martin and Lewis specialized in broad physical comedy, Allen and Rossi’s humor was mostly verbal.
Most of their routines took the form of interviews, with Mr. Allen (whose goofy but memorable catchphrase was “Hello dere!”) portraying a variety of sweetly befuddled characters — a boxer, an astronaut, even political figures like Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater — and Mr. Rossi asking the questions. The jokes were proudly old-fashioned, simple and often silly, as in this exchange.
Mr. Rossi to Mr. Allen, as a sex therapist: Is it true you have the answer to birth control?
Mr. Allen: Yes.
Mr. Rossi: What is it?
Mr. Allen: No.
But the duo sold the jokes with gusto, and Mr. Rossi’s good-natured charm was a big part of their appeal.
By the early 1960s they had become regular guests on television’s top variety shows and were working at major nightclubs. They shared the bill with the Beatles twice on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, working hard to capture the attention of an audience dominated by teenage girls. They succeeded, especially in their second appearance, when Mr. Rossi serenaded the audience with new lyrics to the Beatles’ hit “She Loves You” (“We love you, and we think that you are grand/Yes, we love you, and we wanna hold your hand”).
Steve Rossi was born Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella on May 25, 1932, in the Bronx, one of three children of Santi Tafarella, a cornet player, and the former Catherine Bianco. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1943 and attended Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount University) there.
In 1953, while with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, he was hired by the 1930s movie star turned nightclub entertainer Mae West as a singer and her straight man. It was Ms. West, he said, who gave him his stage name, explaining that his real one took up too much space on the marquee. (The first name was taken from Steve Cochrane, an actor Ms. West was dating at the time; the last name was a variation on that of her manager, Bernie Ross.)
In 1966, after almost a decade together, Allen and Rossi hit a career peak when they signed with Paramount Pictures and made their big-screen debut in the spy spoof “The Last of the Secret Agents?” But the movie, a slapdash affair, met with critical derision and public indifference. With their dreams of movie stardom dashed, they soldiered on but broke up — amicably, they insisted — in 1968.
Mr. Rossi then teamed with the veteran comedian Joe E. Ross, best known for his co-starring role on the sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” That partnership was short-lived, and Mr. Rossi briefly worked on his own before trying something daring in 1969: He and the African-American comedian Slappy White formed one of the world’s first interracial comedy teams.
After a few years together, during which they released an album called “I Found Me a White Man, You Find Yourself One!” and appeared in the obscure low-budget movie “The Man From O.R.G.Y.,” Mr. Rossi and Mr. White went their separate ways. Mr. Rossi then worked for a while with the comedian Bernie Allen, the duo legitimately if misleadingly billing themselves as Allen and Rossi.
Mr. Rossi is survived by his wife, Karma; a son, Dean; a daughter, Gina; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Rossi and Marty Allen reunited in the 1980s and worked together on and off until 1994. After that Mr. Rossi worked mostly without a partner; singing and telling jokes, he was in effect a one-man comedy team.
He also became a frequent guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, where he jokingly referred to himself as “the legend” and genially endured Mr. Stern’s questions about his personal life. Being interrogated by Howard Stern was presumably no challenge for a performer who had learned the value of a thick skin early in his career.
“In the early ’60s,” he recalled in a 2011 interview with the show-business chronicler Kliph Nesteroff, “Marty and I opened for Sinatra. I went to his dressing room. I said, ‘Frank. We’re very nervous. Can you give us some advice?’ He said, ‘Yeah, kid. First: Do the best you can. Second: Give ’em all you got. Third and most important: Remember, they didn’t come to see you in the first place.’ ”