Book Review: Italian-American singers dominated pop in mid-20th century

"Amore: The Story of Italian American Song," by Mark Rotella. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.

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In the years roughly between 1947-64 -- from the end of big bands to the rise of Beatles -- Italian-American singers dominated American pop music. That's the argument Mark Rotella, a proud Italian-American himself, makes in this chatty, unscholarly history of that era.

He does it through cameos of the major figures, many of whom he interviewed in person or by phone over the past decade.

The Italians who immigrated during the first decades of the 20th century brought with them a love for music rooted in opera and the Neapolitan song. Caruso came to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903 and became a star immediately. He had recorded the well-known aria from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" -- "Vesti la giubba" -- the year before, and recorded it again in 1904.

By 1907 his "Vesti la giubba" had become the first record to sell a million copies. Not far behind were Neapolitan songs like "O sole mio."

Caruso changed New Yorkers' operatic tastes from German to Italian, and made Italian music popular in the United States. Symbiotically, the immigrants helped make him a success.

But there was widespread prejudice against Italian Americans, amplified by Italy's siding with Germany in World War II. Dark-skinned Italian-Americans were treated only slightly better than African-Americas in an era when prejudice and segregation were the norm.

When Italian singers became mainstream, many of them anglicized their foreign-sounding names. Early on, Domenic Nicholas Lucanese became Nick Lucas. In the 1950s Vito Farinola became Vic Damone; Franceso LoVecchio became Frankie Laine; Anthony Benedetto became Tony Bennett; Dino Crocetti morphed into Dean Martin.

Central to the rise of Italian singers in American pop music was Frank Sinatra, who refused to Americanize his name and did not become a major star until after a seven-year slump in his career that ended when his first LP album, "Songs for Young Lovers," came out in 1954.

Mr. Rotella devotes seven chapters to various stages of Sinatra's career. According to the author, "[Sinatra's] was the voice of the Italian singers reaching their dreams in America." Sinatra defined his own style as the Italian bel canto:

"You don't have to sing loud and raucously and belt them over the head all the time."

Not mentioned in the book is Sinatra's foray into actual opera, singing a duet from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" with Kathryn Grayson in the 1947 movie, "It Happened in Brooklyn."

Some of the singers discussed in this book were in this tradition. While Mario Lanza's style was pure opera and Jerry Vale's Neapolitan, Perry Como was a crooner, Laine was influenced by black music, Bennett by jazz. Julius La Rosa took the lyrics for his springboard.

Mr. Rotella is frank about the role of the Mafia in promoting -- or punishing -- its performers. In one example, a stranger threw singer Alan Dale down a steep staircase. He disfigured his hands when he broke his fall by putting them through a plate-glass display case.

"Insiders mumbled ... the more likely reason: 'the mob.' "

And he tells us that "Bennett is careful not to speak with anyone who might try to tarnish his reputation ... by connecting him with the Mafia."

The author can be too informal, referring to opera arias and duets as "songs," or cloying in his memories of his father and grandfather.

But this book is clearly a labor of love: love for the author's Italian heritage, for his fellow Italian-American, for the performers and their music.

Quoting the song "Fly me to the Moon," Mr. Rotella says: "Fill my heart with song. Let me sing for ever more."

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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