Editor’s note: The 11 th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday, Oct. 12. Consult the Festival’s web site at www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org for authors, reading times and venues. The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival.
Mark Rotella is the author of "Amore: The Story of Italian American Song" and "Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria." His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Salon, Washington Post, Village Voice, Saveur and American Heritage, among others. A senior editor at Publishers Weekly, he lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife and their two children.
"Amore: The Story of Italian American Song"
By Mark Rotella
Mark Rotella’s memoir and tribute to the Italian American crooners of the last half of the 20th century begins with a chapter of rediscovery. How does a second generation Italian American connect to the music of his father’s generation? It takes two seminal but disparate events to reveal the path: his wife’s cancer diagnosis and the popular Italian-American movie of the 1990s, "Il Gran Notte" or "Big Night."
In Verses, the first chapter of "Amore," Rotella describes the need to transport himself through the music of the sonorous
Rotella writes, "When Martha’s cancer diagnosis came, I reached for these songs. I reached out to them. The rock music of the 1990s, which was coming out of Seattle, was cynical, internal and self-absorbed. I needed voices that not only spoke of pain but also could guide me out of darkness. I needed songs that would act as a tonic to my despair."
When doctors finally gave Martha a clean bill of health, he took her and his parents to Calabria in Italy, to celebrate.
"Amore" is Rotella’s story of rediscovery of his Italian roots and healing through the music of his father’s generation.
Most people can relate to the music in their lives that brings back to a moment in the past. A song, a lyric, something that takes them back to a time when they were young because it makes them feel good. In my case it was the singing of Carlo Buti, Claudio Villa and Jerry Vale, played on my parents’ high fidelity stereo system. My father who was born in Calabria and carried himself at 5’3" on his tip-toes, sang in the Buti falsetto, "Chitarra Romana" (Roman guitar.) And my wife Kathy’s father would wake her up in the morning with the lovely, haunting song, "Core ‘ngrato," whose lyrics begin, "Catari, Catari, Š."
Rotella takes the reader into the lives of these singers who dominated the music charts after World War II and before The Beatles took the world by storm. His stories reveal the personalities behind the voices. He also describes the social mobility of an immigrant class who gained respectability and success as they came out of the shadows of the early century into mainstream American society. Italian Americans would become corporate leaders, state governors, senators, diplomats, baseball commissioners, professional athletes, actors, directors, professors, and the list goes on.
As is common with all immigrant groups, attaining successful lives is not without a down side. Stereotypes persist. Ask anyone today about his or her favorite Italian American-themed movie or TV series, and the answer will probably not be a romantic comedy like "Moonstruck," but "The Godfather" or "The Sopranos," which were great complex artistic works that deserve the widespread acclaim they achieved. But, unfortunately, they also reinforced negative attitudes toward Italian-Americans.
Rotella’s book is divided into three parts: the old country; the Italian decade, 1950s; and Las Vegas. Each part has short chapters that total to 40, which discuss the singers of the day. Rotella starts with an interesting anecdote about Frank Sinatra, who, upon playing cards one evening with friends, heard the song he made famous -- Cole Porter’s "Night and Day" -- sung by Vic Damone on the radio. Sinatra immediately called the radio station and speaking to Damone, who idolized Sinatra, told him to stop singing "his song." Rotella is told this story by Damone himself, who agreed to be interviewed by Rotella for "Amore."
Other chapters include some reminiscing by Rotella, who at the age of 10 heard his father singing "O sole mio." When he asked his father what the song meant, Mr. Rotella responded, "Oh, sun of mine." Rotella thought his father was singing about him! He asked for more lyrics and his father sang them: "che bella cosa jurnata e sole ("what a beautiful thing this day and sun," "N’aria serena doppo na tempest: (the air is serene after the storm.) When Rotella asked, "What does that have to do with me?" his father replied, "You, it has nothing to do with you, but with the sun outside."
Other chapters cover singing greats Enrico Caruso, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Mario Lanza and Jerry Vale. He also introduces the reader to lesser known but important early singers such as Russ Columbo, Tito Schipa and Matteo Salvatore.
The best way to read "Amore" is while sipping a glass of Chianti with a pot of marinara sauce and meatballs simmering on the stove, and Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior on "The Sopranos," singing, "Core ‘ngrato," Ungrateful Heart.
Mark Rotella will be reading from his book "Amore: The Story of Italian American Song," along with Thomas Santopietro, "The Godfather Effect," at Brooks Memorial Library, on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2:30 p.m. A review of "The Godfather Effect" will appear in this column in the next few weeks.
Jerry Carbone is Library Director of Brooks Memorial Library and a member of the Brattleboro Literary Festival Authors’ Committee.