PLANT CITY — In the early 1950s, a velvet-voiced baritone named Ray Barber thrilled audiences with love songs, serenading women, gazing into their eyes and holding their hands.
Mercury Records called Mr. Barber the "New Voice" of his generation.
He was billed in variety shows with entertainers like Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller and Sal Mineo and sang in movie snippets that ran between features in theaters.
In recent years he plied his craft at local karaoke bars, especially the Holiday Inn-South in Lakeland. His powerful voice into his eighties drew loyal followers. He wore a sport coat and a hat, drank only coffee, and sang with all the zest and romance of his earlier years.
Mr. Barber wore gold from his heyday, including an expensive watch given to him by mobster John Gotti, friends said. He drove a run-down Lincoln Town car and always tried to pick up the tab at restaurants, even though he lived on Social Security and a small pension.
Mr. Barber died Tuesday at South Florida Baptist Hospital. He was 86.
His real name was Michael Barbetta, and he grew up in the Bronx. After serving in the Army during World War II, he worked as a barber while singing in coffee houses. His first break came at around age 30 — later than most singers — when he won an Arthur Godfrey talent competition.
As Mr. Barber would tell his friends, he had just finished singing his latest release in 1950 when an enthralled friend, Antonio Bennedetto — better known as Tony Bennett — asked a favor.
It was a whopper. Though the song Because of You was barely out, Bennett wanted to record it himself.
"Tony was treading water," said Randy Dallman, producer of the Florida Opry and a friend of Mr. Barbetta's for eight years. "It was time to get a hit or find something else to do with his life."
Mr. Barbetta granted Bennett's request. Because of You stayed at No. 1 for 10 weeks in 1951.
"If he had done Because of You instead of Tony, then it would have been Ray Barber and there would have been no Tony," said Dallman, 53.
But Mr. Barber did not seem to mind letting Bennett's song — and fame — eclipse his own. "He said, 'That's show biz; you've got to get used to it,' " said Nick Plummer, a friend of Mr. Barber's.
Mr. Barber had several hit records from 1950 to 1952, including his version of Because of You and songs like When I Saw You and It's Over. He was best known for his brisk rendition of On Top of Old Smokey. He sang in resorts in the Poconos and the Catskills.
"He'd say, 'These people come in — gangsters, too. Frank Sinatra, all of them. They'd want a song, ' " said Plummer, 65.
Mr. Barber endured ups and downs in his personal life. His first wife left him, taking two children and disappearing. He found them 37 years later, friends say.
After his second wife of 37 years, Marie, died of cancer, Mr. Barber consoled himself by copying oil paintings and feeding a stray cat. He didn't sing much.
But several years ago people started noticing Mr. Barber again.
Kali Crum, Plummer's wife and a former backup singer to Billy "Crash" Craddock, heard Mr. Barber sing at the Florida Opry, a monthly event in Plant City.
"I said, 'Oh my god, what a voice,' " said Crum, 50. She took him to VFW halls, where they sang duets on songs like All of Me. Mr. Barber sold CDs Dallman had made for him and signed autographs.
In 2004, Mr. Barber applied for assistance from a Hillsborough County program that helps indigents pay medical bills. "I was on top of the world," he told the Ledger. "I made big money and spent everything I was making."
At 7 p.m. Thursday, friends and fans will remember Mr. Barber at La Dolce Vita Lounge in Lakeland.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.