Nightclub entertainer Sonny Gambino’s Frank Sinatra cool and Dean Martin suave fired up south Florida hotspots during the Rat Pack heyday of Miami’s mid-1950s and ’60s scene.
“Dad was very much, quite the crooner,” said his daughter Laura Gambino.
Born Salvatore Joseph Gambino on Aug. 15, 1926 in New York City, rivaled south Florida entertainers as the local “king of the hill, top of the heap” for nearly six decades.
Always dressed for the stage in a debonair tuxedo, he played his last paying gig four years ago in Boca Raton.
Gambino died of congestive heart failure June 25. He was 85.
Laura Gambino said her father became a singer fresh out of the U.S. Army during World War II when he served in the military police guarding German prisoners in the United States.
“He was honorably discharged at age 22, took a few singing lessons and that was that,” Laura Gambino said.
Sonny Gambino performed two seasons in the Catskill Mountains’ Borscht Belt summer resort circuit before heading to Miami in 1952. For awhile, he was a singer and bartender at the Seabrook Hotel on Miami Beach and the Thunderbird Hotel in Sunny Isles Beach.
Gambino, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, later became the toast of Hollywood as “The Singing Bartender” for the popular Top of the Town penthouse restaurant in the landmark Hollywood Bread building.
The place on Young Circle, now a thing of the past, was a Broward hangout for the rich and famous during the ’70s and ’80s. Boxing legend Angelo Dundee and Welsh sexy singer Tom Jones were among regulars.
Top of the Town owner Dick Cami said Gambino was the best bartender he ever employed.
“No, he was the best the bartender who ever lived. There was no one like him. I’ll always remember his voice and how he knew who to sing the right song to,” Cami said.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood resident raised his three children Laura, Lynn and Mike to appreciate music. Laura sings, and Lynn and Mike play guitar. Breaking into song at Gambino family gatherings is normal, they said. Cousins, grandkids and friends all chime in.
“It’s great that dad gave us music. We can always expect to sing rousing songs, like at Thanksgiving, to bring us all together,” Laura said.
In the ’90s Gambino entertained and kept drinks flowing at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and the Conca D’Oro in Hollywood. He enjoyed mixing martinis for Rat Pack fans and always remembered to put double cherries in little girls’ Shirley Temples.
Gino Paparella, owner Gino’s Italian Market in Hollywood, remembers Gambino commanding the room at the Conca D’Oro.
“Sonny had a shtick. He would be serving the bar then break into song. He was the kind of guy who never met a person he didn’t like. He was pure entertainment, pure Sonny,” Paparella said.
Gambino was also a fixture at Gino’s neighborhood market since it opened 38 years ago. Paparella said Gambino kept an old Italian tradition of never visiting anyone without taking something with him. Twice a week he’d pop into Gino’s for boxes of cannoli, éclairs and cream puffs.
“He was a character. Always kidding around. Always had a joke,” Paparella said.
A consummate showman and devoted father, Gambino’s two most beloved performances are posted on YouTube.
Recorded in March 2012, he sings “Come Fly With Me” with grandson Hayden Epstein and in 1986, at daughter Lynn Abbott’s wedding, he took over the stage for several songs: “You’re Nobody ’Till Somebody Love You,” “For Once in My Life’’ and “New York, New York.”
“I feel like I’m doing a wedding here, you know — which I am,” he told guests after acknowledging family and friends. ‘‘Thank you very much, you’re a beautiful audience.”
Services were held.