Mark Rotella (Writer)

La musica, l'Italia e gli Stati Uniti: da Caruso a Lady Gaga

Nov 28, 2013 4332 ITA ENG

Music has always had a crucial importance for the Italians in America. As a sentiment of strong attachment to the mother land and its traditions, or as a channel to express their passion; as a vehicle for revenge due to the success of the opera and then to the affirmation of the Italian artistic talent, from the Italian crooners of the 40s and the 50s to the great success of the new generation of American singers of Italian origin: it is (also) through music that Italy has left an indelible mark in the American society and culture, and then in its show business world.

Mark Rotella analyzed very thoroughly this fundamental aspect of the relationship between Italy and the United States, with a book that is the definitive synthesis of the many things to tell about it: it is called "AMORE: The Story of Italian American Song". We rely on him to help us better understand this aspect of the connection that exists between the two countries, which is the thread that links each of our interviews.

When our fellow Italians arrived to the Little Italies of the United States, they held to their roots by a few important things of their previous life: music was definitely one of these. They kept on listening to Italian music, singing old Italians songs, some of them even started to write their own ballads describing their new experience. Enrico Caruso and a few other very gifted singers were their heroes. How would you describe the importance of music for the Italian Americans in the first half of last century?

In the first half of the century, when the Italians were living in the Little Italies throughout the country, they gathered a lot for music, for opera. Before Enrico Caruso arrived, the Metropolitan Opera was producing mostly German music. When he arrived, he brought a voice that was never heard before. That was the time when recording was first invented: it was either the Victor Victrola disk or the Edison cylinder. As Caruso's voice was beautiful on the Victrola, that was the factor that determined the success of it over the Edison cylinder: that's how much Caruso was important and successful. So he changed the music's history, and of course when he came to the US, all of a sudden the repertoire of the musical theatres became Italian and so Italians started to go there. They were poor, at the bottom of the food chain, so almost everyone would seat in the cheapest seats up in the balcony, listening to the opera and dreaming of their native land. They were discriminated, living in very poor situations, with a lot of prejudices towards them; they were darker, shorter, speaking a different language, following a different religion. So most of the Americans thought they were all thieves and criminals: and here you have the person who became the first mega selling record star, an Italian opera singer, coming exactly from their land. This made the Italian Americans to stand tall: Enrico Caruso was one of them, and so were other fantastic singers like Tito Schipa.

There's something about the Italian singers, a unifying quality: the fact that Italian is spoken with words that end in vowels. It's a specific and defining way of talking, and singing: and singing is part of the Italian culture. Songs were a way to express themselves: you could hear them through villages, when people were gathering together to celebrate something or to commemorate their saints, throughout the various feasts and processions. But you could also hear them when a local Italian vendor would come, and sing while selling his goods: even there you would find a certain quality.

Your book, "AMORE The Story of Italian American Song", defines how in the years after the second world war Italian American artists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and many more became some of the most successful singers in the United States. Please tell us something more about it

Every singer I talked to or read about, from Tony Bennett to Connie Francis and Dion from Dion and The Belmonts, there was always one musician that influenced them, according to what they said: Enrico Caruso. It was something typically Italian, making some difficult in singing seem effortless, a way of making music called "sprezzatura". And so you see that passing by from Enrico Caruso through Nick Lucas, from Rudolph Valentino to Russ Columbo. Columbo was called the Valentino of the airwaves: he was a dark hair, beautiful young Italian, born in New Jersey but grown up in California. The women loved him, and he fought the famous so called "battle of the baritones" on the radio stations asking who was the favorite of the audience, with Bing Crosby at the New York Paramount and Russ Columbo at the Brooklyn Paramount. So Russ Columbo was another who made the Italians proud of their heritage, not with opera but with pop music: he was one of the greatest singers in the world. And this happened again and again with other singers through the 30s and 40s, until other huge talented artists came, like Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone and others.

So you have all these singers, just when the second generations of Italians in the US grow and reach the record buying age, especially in the cities. You could turn on the radio and easily find Italian voices all over: this started before world war II but just became huge after the war. Even throughout the 50s, the rock'n'roll revolution, you have Italian Americans like Dion and The Belmonts, Bobby Darin and Connie Francis. In the 60s something changes: pop standards change, and people starts to listen to other kind of music, like the one brought buy the Beatles.

Would you be so kind to share with our readers a couple of things you discovered during your research for the book, some anecdotes important but still not well known among the general public?

Well, I interviewed a singer called Jerry Vale, who was hugely popular here in the 1950s, singing pop songs with a sort of Neapolitan fervor both in Italian and in English: Martin Scorsese used his music in many of his movies. I asked him what was it like back in these days for him, on stage, coming from a blue collar family and then having thousands of fans screaming his name ... and he surprised me, he said "You know, for me it was just a job. Just like my dad laid pavement, I happen to be a singer. Just a job, to bring food on the table for my family". So many of these singers expressed similar thoughts: of course they were gifted and talented, they were glad to be singing, but they approached it with the Italian work ethic, the same of the ones who came here for first accepting totally different kinds of jobs. Frank Sinatra expected his musician to be on time, professionals, and a lot of other Italian singers were very serious about it.

Another thing I like to mention is about Frankie Laine. He was from Chicago, one of the first singers to take on a "black" style of singing. Listening to him he sounds a lot like Elvis Presley: we know that Elvis grew up listening to opera on the radio, and that his hero was Dean Martin, and to seem like him Elvis dyed his hair black. When you listen to Elvis, you can clearly hear that his later performances are very operatic: at that time his idol was Mario Lanza, a great and very popular Italian opera singer from Philadelphia. So, Italian singers had a huge influence on Elvis: one of his biggest hit was "It's now or never" which was the English version of "O Sole mio". Well, Frankie Laine sounds a lot like Elvis Presley, except that his records went out a decade earlier. When I interviewed Frankie Laine in his house in San Diego, he was 92 years old, he said "Mark, before Elvis Presley, I was the first singer to sound black". And it's true, he really was the first of many, who had opera on one hand, and black music on the other.

How about the music written and produced in Italy? Did the Americans love the Italians singers, back at that time? And what about now?

The one singer that comes to mind is Domenico Modugno: Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu) was a huge hit here. I saw photos of him with the typical Italian moustache, getting out of an airplane, landed in JFK: he was full of life, and he stayed at the top of the American charts for months. A lot of Italian American singers later performed Volare. That was a very big influence: but other than that, I don't think of other that successful names, neither for that years nor for now. I mean, we do get the occasional pop song from Italy, but not as much. I was always a big fan of Paolo Conte, a wonderful singer, but his success was not very big here.

Now the three Italian kids from "Il Volo" are having success here: they are big, of course, but not even close to Domenico Modugno's success, or even to Madonna and Lady Gaga's. But there's no doubt that they have an appeal to Italian Americans of a certain age, because they sing music which doesn't relate the youngest generations.

After the golden age, Italian American authors kept on writing music and climbing the ladder of success, whether with vinyl and cds, and they keep on doing it now, in the mp3 era (mp3 which by the way was invented by an Italian). From Bruce Springsteen to Madonna, from Jon Bon Jovi to Lady Gaga, which impact they had on the new American society?

When the US lifted their quota on Italian immigration, in the mid60s, Italians started again to come to the US, and that certainly brought new Italian genes to America. But also the Italian Americans were at that time in a different social position than their predecessors: they were having success, marrying non Italians, becoming Americans of Italian descent. But you still had several singers who showed the same sense of "sprezzatura" shown by the first generation of Italian singers in the US, new authors who in some way grew up knowing and listening to some opera and traditional Italian music: Jim Croce, The Rascals in the later 60s and the 70s, and then Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Cindy Lauper, even Lady Gaga (whose father is a musician) has often mentioned some Italian singers as their idols. The introduction to music and the encouragement to play and perform made by their parents was based on Italian music, just like had happened before to Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Louis Prima. But now is cool, even if you don't have a family name which ends with a vowel, saying that you are of Italian descent and that Italian music and singers are part of your heritage and your formation.

Plus, if you look at Madonna and at Lady Gaga performances, there's a huge sense of staging their appearances – their look, their shows, their videos - in an operatic way; something like what Liberace, another brilliant performer of Italian descent, did for a very long time.

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