"AMORE: The Story of Italian American Song"
By Mark RotellaFarrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pages, $26.00
1947 was a splendid year for Italian Americans. For decades, Italian immigrants, especially those from the poorer southern regions, were feared, discriminated against, even lynched on occasion. Then suddenly the whole country was going nuts for a bunch of boxers whose forebears came from Italy’s bootheel: Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, and the only undefeated heavyweight champion ever, Rocky Marciano.
That same year marked the death of the beloved Fiorella LaGuardia, New York mayor from 1934 to 1945; forty thousand mourners filed past his coffin at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And in September, Joe DiMaggio, a Sicilian fisherman’s son, played in the first televised World Series as the Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers; the Yanks won, and Joltin’ Joe earned his third American League MVP award.
What was good for Italian Americans was good for American culture, which was now richer, warmer, and just plain more fun—and I haven’t even gotten to the music yet. Mark Rotella’s book covers its subject exhaustively yet with brio; think of it as an encylopedia with a beating heart. He writes about what he calls the Italian decade in music, which is actually ten years and change: from 1947 to 1964,or roughly from the end of the big band era to the arrival of the Beatles on these shores. Rotella points out that other writers have given this period other names: the years between the Korean and Vietnam wars, from the A-bomb to JFK’s assassination, the Eisenhower years. These labels are all accurate, but no matter what the era is called, it’s scored by a soundtrack dominated by Italian American artists, a jukebox full of hits shaped primarily by that smooth, airy delivery opera singers call bel canto.
The transition of Italian Americans from pariahs to heros wasn’t easy, of course. A decade earlier, stereotypes abounded that seem jaw-droppingly crude today. A grinning DiMaggio appeared on the cover of “Life” in 1939, but the magazine’s writer described him this way: “Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”
No wonder almost all of Rotella’s crooners “Americanized” their names. Pierino Coma changed his first name to Perry, and Vito Farinola became Vic Damone. . Ten year-old Anthony Dominick Benedetto appears with Mayor LaGuardia in a photo marking the opening of the Triborough Bridge, but the musical tyke became Tony Bennett when he started in show biz.
Giovanna Carmela Babbo (Joni James), Dino Crocetti (Dean Martin), Francesco Paolo LoVecchio (Frankie Laine), Concetta Maria Franconero (Connie Francis), Alfredo Arnold Cocozza (Mario Lanza), Alfred Cini (Al Martino): one by one, they either took on less ethnic-sounding names or, in the case of Cocozza/Lanza, at least sacrificed syllables. Some of the stories behind the name changes are hilarious, the more so for not being entirely credible: Walden Robert Cassotto probably got “Bobby Darin” out of the phone book, but it’s more fun to think of him walking past a Chinese restaurant, as one story has it, and noticing that the first three letters had burned out on the neon sign that advertised Mandarin-style cooking.
Each of these singers has a different story, but in addition to Italian ancestry, certain common factors crop up so often that it’s safe to say that three key figures stood behind almost every one of Rotella’s subjects: a bill-paying blue collar dad who kept the family together; a mother who insisted on music lessons for a promising little songbird; and Enrico Caruso. In 1904, the young tenor from Naples recorded “Vesti la giubba” from “Pagliacci” for the Victor Talking Machine Company; by 1907, the aria had become the first record in history to sell a million copies. The singers Rotella interviews for this book mention Caruso again and again; his songs were both a source of pride and a connection to the Old Country, and it seems that every family, no matter how poor, had a Victor phonograph and, if no other records, at least a couple of heavy shellac 78 rpm discs with Caruso’s voice on them.
The greatest of them all, of course, didn’t change his name; if he had, “It Was a Very Good Year” and “My Way” would have been sung by a guy named Frankie Satin. “Are you kidding?” said Sinatra when bandleader Harry James proposed the change. “That name is all I got.” Actually, a liquid voice, a delivery so intimate that it sounds as though it’s coming from a guy on the next barstool, and the bluest eyes in show biz till Paul Newman strolled into the joint probably had something to do with Sinatra’s rise as well.
"Amore: The Story of Italian American Song" not only adds to what we know of a bygone era but is also deeply relevant to our own lives. As we grapple today with issues of immigration and ethnicity, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that, everything else being equal, the winds of history tend to scatter prejudice and discrimination like the leaves swirling around a singer’s feet as he toddles down an empty sidewalk after a long night and before a new day dawns.
David Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times