BY: Michael “Conforti” Connor
Italian-Americans have shaped and contributed to many aspects of American life. Our people historically have been a dominant force in the entertainment industry. From singers to musicians to actors, Italian-Americans have entertained and brought happiness to millions of people not only in America, but around the world.
It is interesting to look at the music industry as a whole. For more than 80 years, some of the most popular singers of every era shared a key commonality. They had full or partial Italian heritage. From legendary crooners like Frank Sinatra to some of the biggest pop stars of the 21st century like Ariana Grande, Italian-Americans are at the forefront of the music industry.
Even more remarkable is that there is a substantial Italian-American presence in every genre of music. Italians have influenced classic rock, pop, easy listening, jazz, heavy metal, bubble gum, and so many other genres.
As we take this journey, you may be surprised by just how many famous artists are Italian-Americans. It’s pretty incredible!
Let’s begin by exploring the 1940’s and 1950’s. Prior to the birth of rock n’ roll, crooning, jazz, and easy listening were the most popular genres of music. These genres were elegant, classy, and tasteful. They appealed to a wide audience both young and old and Italian-Americans had something special to contribute.
We are a passionate group of people, and we pour our souls into everything we do. The pioneering Italian-American singers took inspiration from traditional Italian music and created a whole new style of crooning. They emphasized emotion, feeling, and expression. The beauty of the greatest instrument in the world, the human voice, became center focus.
The Italian-American style of crooning not only soared in popularity, but became the golden standard. When one thinks of crooners today, a majority of the most recognizable names are Italian-Americans. Some of the greatest Italian-American crooners to ever grace the stage include Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Julius La Rosa, Vic Damone, Jimmy Roselli, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Buddy Greco, Jimmy Durante, Al Martino, Lou Monte, Frankie Laine, Vic Dana, and of course, Dean Martin.
Songs such as “Fly Me to the Moon”, “My Way”, “That’s Amore”, “And I Love You So”, and “On the Street Where You Live” are etched in the American songbook. Many of these crooners did not only sing incredible English ballads and love songs, but embraced classic Italian songs such as “Arrivederci Roma”, “Non Dementicar”, “Innamorata”, “Volare”, and “Oh Marie.” Their renditions of these Italian standards mainstreamed Italian music to an American audience.
As the mid 1950’s emerged, two new genres of music became prevalent: Rock n’ roll and street corner harmony (doo wop). Young Italian-American kids, who idolized the pioneering crooners, saw an opportunity to create incredible music with their friends and lead the way in these upcoming genres.
From New York to New Jersey to Philadelphia, vocal groups singing harmony on the street corners became an evening tradition. Every corner would have a group and these groups would compete to get noticed. A record contract was the grand prize.
A select few of these groups achieved fame beyond their wildest dreams. Italian teenagers became the voice of a generation. Bronx based group, Dion and the Belmonts, achieved nation wide fame with “A Teenager in Love” and “I Wonder Why”. Staten Island legends, The Elegants, had the number one song in the country in 1958 with “Little Star.”
The Mystics of Brooklyn hit national radio waves with their 1959 mega smash, “Hushabye.” Johnny Maestro and Crests had hits such as “16 Candles”, “The Angels Listened In”, and “Trouble in Paradise.” The Earls of the Bronx released the iconic “Remember Then” in 1962.
As Italian-Americans nurtured the doo wop genre with the African-American community, young Italian-Americans began to shape rock n’ roll as well. Teen idols such as Frankie Avalon (“Venus”), Bobby Rydell (“Volare”, “We Got Love”, “Wildwood Days”), Fabian Forte (“Tiger”), Bobby Darin (“Beyond the Sea”, “Splish Splash”), James Darren (“Goodbye Cruel World”), Annette Funicello (“How Will I Know My Love”), Connie Francis (“Where the Boys Are”, “Stupid Cupid”), and Little Peggy March (“I Will Follow Him”) were all of full or partial Italian descent.
One of the most popular rock n’ roll/pop Italian-American acts was Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons of Newark, New Jersey. They had more than 28 national hits including 1962’s ‘Sherry” and 1963’s “Walk Like A Man.” The Four Seasons hold the distinction of being one of the only groups to have nation wide hits before, during, and after the British Invasion. They were rightfully inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Additional Italian-American rock artists who achieved noticeable success in the 1960’s include Johnny Rivers (“The Poor Side of Town”) and Lou Christie (“Lightin’ Strikes”, “The Gypsy Cried”).
As the 1960’s ended and the 1970’s began, a whole new generation of Italian-Americans were ready to change the music industry forever. From legendary Jersey rock n’ roller Bruce Springsteen to heavy metal icon, Ronnie James Dio, Italian-Americans helped evolve rock n’ roll and take it in a variety of different directions.
Springsteen, who is perhaps one of the most successful names in rock n’ roll history, is the son of an Italian mother. Affectionately known as “The Boss”, he is responsible for hits such as “Born in the U.S.A”, “Jungleland”, “Born to Run”, “Thunder Road” and “Hungry Heart.”
Dio, who helped pioneer heavy metal, first achieved fame with his band, Elf. He eventually became a lead vocalist for Black Sabbath, after Ozzy Osbourne’s departure. Dio’s contributions are unprecedented in the heavy metal genre and his legacy continues to remain strong since his passing in 2010.
During the 1980’s, Springsteen and Dio were still very much at the top of their game. As they grew in popularity, some new young Italian-Americans began to receive national attention. On the rock front, Jon Bon Jovi (who is of partial Italian descent) led his band Bon Jovi to stardom. They recorded timeless hits such as “Livin’ On a Prayer”, “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and “You Give Love A Bad Name.”
One of the 1980’s biggest pop divas also happens to be an Italian-American as well. Of course, this is none other than Madonna, The Queen of Pop, herself! Madonna’s incredible catalog includes “Material Girl”, “Live to Tell”, “Vogue” and “Frozen.” She was born to an Italian father and a French-Canadian mother.
As the 21st century emerged, Italian-Americans continued to have a strong presence in the music industry.
Nickelodeon teen star, Ariana Grande, who stared on the network’s hit sitcom, Victorious, decided to leave acting and pursue a music career. Born to an Italian-American family in Florida, Grande reached incredible heights. Within a couple year span, the young actress became one of the most famous musical artists in history. Her catalog includes “Break Free”,”One Last Time”, “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings.” Grande is the one of most streamed female artists and has sold more than 85 million records.
Another 21st century pop icon who is beloved around the world can claim Italian heritage. Stefani Germanotta, known as Lady Gaga, was born to an Italian New York family. Her unique and entertaining stage presence propelled her to national attention early in the 2000’s. In 2008, she had her first major hit with “Poker Face.”
Gaga’s career blossomed with a string of hits including “Bad Romance” and “Born This Way.” As her popularity grew, she decided to pursue acting as well. Her performance in the motion picture, “A Star is Born”, alongside Bradley Cooper (who has Italian heritage through his mother), has been celebrated by critics and fans.
While Gaga’s initial musical style was quite contemporary, her passion for standards has become more prevalent in recent years. She shares a dear friendship with crooning legend, Tony Bennett, and has recorded two albums with him. Gaga has reintroduced standards to a modern audience and has prided herself on keeping the classic Italian-American music traditions alive and well.
As we reflect on this journey starting with the 1940’s, it is clear that Italian-Americans have had a remarkable impact in music globally. Some of the most iconic entertainers of every decade had Italian roots. Even to this day!
Though we have a long and cherished history in the music industry, as Sinatra famously crooned, the best is yet to come. The future looks incredibly bright and it will be thrilling to meet the next generation of Italian-American artists.
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