The New York Times Book Review
Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Storyby Evanier
The fascinating story of Italian-American icon Jimmy Roselli Hoboken's "other" great singer, and a contemporary of Sinatra's Making the Wiseguys Weep is also a colorful portrait of Italian-American culture in modern times.
The New York Times Book Review
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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- 6.24(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.94(d)
Read an Excerpt
JIMMY ROSELLI IS HOBOKEN'S OTHER GREAT SINGER. And to a greater degree than Frank Sinatra, who quickly entered the American mainstream, Roselli has maintained his ties to his old neighborhood and its people indeed, made a career of those ties. He's a link to their cultural heritage and to Italy, since he continues to sing a good half of his repertoire in Italian.
Roselli comes out of the tradition of the wandering Italian balladeer, via the street singers and the troubadours he saw at the Italian vaudeville houses of his youth in Hoboken. The tradition did not begin in America. "It was the same thing in Sicily and Italy," noted historian Ben Morreale. "Men working would always be singing, singing in the fields. I remember as a kid in Sicily singing: `I'm a lost chicken; I go crow, crowing all day long, but nobody calls ...' My father used to sing a lot of opera; he loved it. And then on the railroads in America the Italian workers would sing: `Where do you worka, John?' `On the Delaware Lack-a-wan.' Jimmy Roselli is a beneficiary and a proud representative of that tradition."
I first heard Roselli's voice in 1985 on the jukeboxes of the Limehouse, the last Italian bar in New York's Chinatown, and at Lanza's on First Avenue the Limehouse has now vanished as well as at Arturo's bistro on Thompson Street. The elderly waiter at Lanza's came over to my table at dinner when I played Roselli's "Just Say I Love Her" ("Dicitencello Vuie") on the jukebox to let me know I was listening to both the most beautiful Italian love song and the greatest Italian singer of all time. Then I started noticing Roselli's picture everywhere in Little Italy. (According to an unascribed survey cited in a 1991 profile of Roselli in The Wall Street Journal, his photograph was the most commonly displayed celebrity head shot on the walls of Little Italy restaurants.)
I could not get Roselli out of my head, so I started buying his albums, thirty-two of which are in print. His voice captivated me: its reach, passion, power, and warmth make it one of the great experiences in American popular music. Wildly theatrical, it was also heartfelt, with unabashed feeling and raw torrents of emotion. It was the most intimate sound I'd ever heard from a singer. Roselli sang with unparalleled versatility: Neapolitan songs, American ballads, saloon songs, and standards. He had an entire palette of colors in front of him, and he chose them artfully. But like the troubadours or the great Hebraic cantors who preceded him, he also wasn't afraid to lay it on really thick. And it worked. This was a man baring his soul.
In his Neapolitan songs, Roselli had the quality of a street singer, coupled with a very legitimate, proper, and formal background in classical singing. Yet there was a second, equally potent side of Roselli: that of the American saloon and ballad singer. And here he utilized an entirely different mode of singing: sometimes very off-the-cuff and reminiscent of the music hall balladeer. There was something for everyone in that style.
Referring to Roselli's Neapolitan songs, vocal coach Scott Harlan commented: "There's no other pop singer I can think of that can sing that legitimately in such a pure, romantic style certainly not Sinatra or Tony Bennett and also have the capability of doing the pop stuff too. It's just not something they [Bennett and Sinatra] cultivated doing. This guy could sing bel canto at Carnegie Hall as well as at a little corner bistro.
"He has incredible control. Because he knows how and when to let it go. When he does, it's so focused and legitimately placed that you could be listening to a Metropolitan Opera singer. There's an authority and masculinity in Roselli's sound that's not put on. It's authentic and it has great appeal. There's no posing, pretension. You get the feeling you wouldn't want to meet this guy in an alley. I wouldn't want to be around him when he loses his temper."
After falling in love with Roselli's sound, I encountered him in person at the Westbury Music Fair in 1987: a simple, plain-looking, unsophisticated man whose performance was one of the most moving experiences I had ever had since seeing Judy Garland at the Palace, or Sinatra or Ray Charles in concert. When Roselli appears onstage, the audience responds with an onrush of cheers and sighs. He has a powerful, authentic, commanding presence, a profound simplicity. From the moment of his appearance onstage, with his huge orchestra of forty to fifty musicians almost spilling off the wings, the effect is thrilling. The bigness of it, the dramatic orchestrations, are overwhelming. The Neapolitan songs require it: in "Senza Mamma e Innamorata" ("Without a Mother, Without a Lover"), the narrator sees himself in the rear of a church while the woman he loves comes marching down the aisle to be married to another man. Just hours before, in the same church, he had buried his mother and he'd been kneeling in the same pew, mourning for her. Then they wound up the funeral mass and moved into the wedding. Hokey, but even great opera librettos sound that way when you analyze them. Roselli told it passionately, and the audience wept.
But Roselli likes to balance maudlin or romantic songs with playful ones. At Westbury, he moved on to "Guaglione," a lighthearted song in which a mature woman sings to a boy that he's just a little sprite: "Get out of here." She tells him he doesn't know what love is. "Go home to your mommy." He then turned to the American saloon songs he sings hauntingly, the "3 a.m. songs" ("For All We Know," "But Not for Me," "Maybe," "You'll Never Know," "I Should Care"); the ballads, a host of little-known or long-forgotten songs to which he's given his own indelible stamp ("When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New," "I Lost All My Love for You," "A Million Dreams Ago," "The Greatest Mistake of My Life"); and finally the torchy, tragic Italian songs, most of which are considered by his Italian fans to be his sacred property: "Mala Femmena," "Innamorata," "Anema e Core," and "Passione." Roselli will sing for an hour and a half; he never shorts an audience. He once told me: "I'll fall down to give all that's in my body. Because they came, they paid for that and they deserve it. They should get the best that's in me."
There is no way of exaggerating Roselli's importance to the Italian-American community. Essentially an orphan himself, Roselli symbolizes family and home to several generations of Italians. Again and again I encountered Italian men and women whose memories of childhood, of their grandparents and parents, of landmark occasions like births and deaths, were linked to Roselli's music. The young playwright and actor Carl Capotorto told me: "When he sang `Guaglione' [`Little Boy'], my grandmother would get very excited, actually stop what she was doing in the kitchen, sing along and do a little dance, her little `Guaglione dance' ... I start to get vivid images of the apartment I grew up in, and both my grandmothers, and just what childhood life was like. It starts to bring back everything, very personal, very specific."
For Philip Capotorto, Carl's father and a contractor in the Bronx who died in March 1998, Roselli was the embodiment of an entire culture: "He sings Neapolitan the way it should be sung," Capotorto said. "The way he does it in his recording of `Mala Femmena' [`A Bad Woman']. The word is passion. Extreme passion. Exaggerated passion. I mean, passionate passion. Killing: a passion that drives you to kill."
What Capotorto feared was the loss of the Neapolitan dialect that only Roselli retains in his music, "because there's no such thing in Italy anymore. The dialect was given up and replaced by Italian. That became the spoken language," he said. "The dialect was shunned, although some people retain it somehow. When you speak that dialect, there's a passion involved. Even a little word they say, Ey! there's so much that's said by that. Just a little nothing, the sound, but it speaks volumes. That doesn't exist any longer, anyplace. Even here."
Like Philip Capotorto, many of the Italian-American children of his generation knew no English. They had to learn the hard way, at school and by going to work. In the Italian enclaves where they lived, dialect was all they heard when they came home from school or work and on the weekends. Consequently, Capotorto said, "comes a guy like Roselli and he makes all the noises these people heard when they were kids. And there's a blood association, a consciousness of their whole past. To lose the dialect is to surrender the culture, down deep inside, the cultural memory. It's home.
"Pavarotti is the best, I love that voice. It moves me and it's the best there is. However, Roselli is where my heart is. Pavarotti sings about it, but Roselli, this guy is it. There's a whole history and culture that will close when he does. I don't know if he himself understands this."
"There are people who can get up and act out a song and break your heart, but it's not about singing," said Carol Lees, a composer, songwriter, and vocal coach. "It's not about singing, and it's not about the song. It's about their act. A person without a great voice can get up and perform a song and never hit a note right but put it over. There are people who can do that, and it's a lot of what actors have to do. There's Walter Huston's `September Song'; Durante's `I'll See You in My Dreams.' Sinatra did it in the later years. That's all about style and interpretation and how they play with the song. Roselli doesn't do any of that. He honors the music as it was written and the meaning of the words as they were written, and he allows it to come through his beautiful voice in a really pure way. And you can't learn that: it's just totally biological and natural. That takes a great deal of self-restraint, confidence, and intelligence: to know the power of what is real in music. His art is one of communication, pure and simple.
"You're taking a sound that exists in nature and running it through muscle and your brain and out comes this beauty," Lees explained. "It's different than being a great violinist, where if you don't have the great instrument, or the instrument's out of whack that day, you're in trouble. This is self-contained. Put him on an island and he can sing like that. He doesn't need anything. He's an artist, but not because he took his talent and worked at it, went to school and studied with Leonard Bernstein. He's not that kind of artist, but a kind of inborn artist of the people. It's not an academic, intellectual thing. He's an artist of the Italian people, of the culture."
Roselli's audience is large and diverse. The wheelchairs that line the back of the hall tell part of the story: elderly men and women from Italian enclaves around the country who would go to see no other singer. The buses that have brought them from New York, New Jersey, South Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco wait outside the hall. Roselli is their voice. And their man. Ask them about him, and you're apt to hear the same phrases: he's a stand-up guy, he's defied the wiseguys (but he won't rat against them either), he does things his way.
In its front-page profile of Roselli in 1991, The Wall Street Journal's Timothy K. Smith wrote:
Maybe if his ears had been bigger, Jimmy Roselli's singing career would have been different, and it would have been he, not Frank Sinatra, who ascended to the show-business pantheon. ... Or maybe if their nicknames had been reversed, and Mr. Roselli had been billed as "The Swooner" while Mr. Sinatra labored as "The Dynamic Belter of Song," things would have turned out differently. ...
As it happened, though, Mr. Sinatra became the most famous Italian-American balladeer born the only son of a prizefighter on Monroe Street in Hoboken, N.J., and Mr. Roselli the least famous. Not too surprisingly, Mr. Roselli has little use for Mr. Sinatra. "He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open," Mr. Roselli says, alluding to Mr. Sinatra's ears.
Readers involved in loan-sharking may have heard Mr. Roselli's music (his rendition of "Little Pal," not Mr. Sinatra's "My Way," is the authentic wise-guy anthem, according to law enforcement officials) but many more may not have. Mr. Roselli, a 65-year-old whose high tenor voice is still intact, has for the past 22 years been packing aficionados into sold-out dates while being completely ignored by the public at large. ...
They say Mr. Sinatra is the mob's entertainer of choice. But it was Mr. Roselli who sang last year at the Helmsley Palace wedding reception of John A. Gotti, son of the reputed crime boss. Mr. Roselli says he has never done any business with organized criminals, but he is resigned to the association between the Mafia and his music. "Every time they write a book, by the time you get to the fourth page there's a dead guy in a car with my tapes beside him on the front seat," he sighs. ...
By now Mr. Roselli is trailed by myths of his own, spun by fans to explain how a man can fill the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City with screaming, stomping fans one week and retreat into perfect obscurity the next. Some say he is afraid of flying (he isn't). Others say he got into a tangle over a mob-financed Carnegie Hall concert (never happened, he says). And they all say there is a sinister Sinatra influence at work. Mr. Sinatra declined to be interviewed. ...
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