Crooners

Crooner is an epithet given to a male singer of a certain style of popular songs. The singer is normally backed by a full orchestra or big band. Crooning is a style that has its roots in the Bel Canto of Italian opera, but with the emphasis on subtle vocal nuances and phrasing found in jazz as opposed to elaborate drama and acoustic volume found in opera houses. Before the advent of the microphone, popular singers, like Al Jolson, had to project to the rear seats of a theater, which made for a very loud vocal style. The microphone made possible a more personal style. Crooning is not so much a style of music as it is a technique in which to sing.

Some crooners, most notably Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby incorporated other popular styles into their music, such as blues, dixieland and even Hawaiian music. Crooning became the dominant form of popular vocal music from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, coinciding with the advent of radio broadcasting and electrical recording.

After 1954 popular music became dominated by other styles, especially rock ‘n’ roll, while the music of latter-day crooners, such as Perry Como and Matt Monro, were categorized as “easy listening”. Crooners have remained popular among fans of traditional pop music, with contemporary performers such as Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, Michael Bublé and Engelbert Humperdinck keeping the form alive.

Frankie Laine

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Francesco Paolo LoVecchio (1913-2007) was born to Giovanni and Cresenzia LoVecchio (née Salerno) in Cook County, IL. His parents had emigrated from Monreale, Sicily, to Chicago’s Near West Side, in “Little Italy,” where his father worked as a barber. The eldest of eight children, Laine grew up in the Old Town neighborhood (first at 1446 N. North Park Avenue and later at 331 W. Schiller Street) and got his first taste of singing as a member of the choir in the Church of the Immaculate Conception’s elementary school across the street from his North Park Avenue home. He later attended Lane Technical High School, where he helped to develop his lung power and breath control by joining the track and field and basketball teams. He realized he wanted to be a singer when he went to see Al Jolson’s talking picture, The Singing Fool. Even in the 1920s, his vocal abilities were enough to get him noticed by a slightly older “in crowd” at his school, who invited him to parties and to local dance clubs. At 17, he sang before a crowd of 5,000 at The Merry Garden Ballroom to such applause that he ended up performing five encores on his first night.

Laine was giving dance lessons for a charity ball at the Merry Garden when he was called to the bandstand to sing: “Soon I found myself on the main bandstand before this enormous crowd”, Laine recalled. ”I was really nervous, but I started singing ‘Beside an Open Fireplace,’ a popular song of the day. It was a sentimental tune and the lyrics choked me up. When I got done, the tears were streaming down my cheeks and the ballroom became quiet. I was very nearsighted and couldn’t see the audience. I thought that the people didn’t like me.”

Laine was the first and largest of a new breed of singers who rose to prominence in the post–World War II era. This new, emotionally charged style seemed at the time to signal the end of the previous era’s singing styles and was a forerunner of the rock ‘n’ roll performers that were to come. As music historian, Jonny Whiteside, wrote: “In the Hollywood clubs, a new breed of performers laid down an array of new sounds … Most important of all these, though, was Frankie Laine, a big lad with ‘steel tonsils’ who belted out torch blues while stomping his size twelve-foot.”

Laine began recording for Columbia Records in 1951, where he immediately scored a double-sided hit with the single “Jezebel” /”Rose, Rose, I Love You”. Other Laine hits from this period include “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)”, “Jealousy”, “The Girl in the Wood”, “When You’re in Love”, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (with Jo Stafford), “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Granada and “Hey Joe!”.  Laine scored a total of 39 hit records on the charts while at Columbia.

Laine had become more popular in the United Kingdom than in the USA, as many of his hit records in the UK were only minor hits in the US. Songs like “The Gandy Dancer’s Ball”, “The Rock of Gibraltar” and “Answer Me, O Lord” were much bigger hits for him abroad. “Answer Me” would later provide the inspiration for Paul McCartney’s composition, “Yesterday”.  It was also there that he broke attendance records when appearing at the Palladium and where he launched his first successful television series with singer, Connie Haines.

He was a frequent guest star on various other television shows of the time, including Shower of Stars, The Steve Allen Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line?, This is Your Life, Bachelor Father, The Sinatra Show, The Walter Winchell Show, The Perry Como Show, The Garry Moore Show, Masquerade Party, The Mike Douglas Show and American Bandstand.

Along with opening the door for many R&B performers, Laine played a significant role in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s. When Nat King Cole’s television show was unable to get a sponsor, Laine crossed the color line, becoming the first white artist to appear as a guest (forgoing his usual salary of $10,000.00 as Cole’s show only paid scale). Many other top white singers followed suit, including Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. In the following decade, Laine joined several African-American artists, who gave a free concert for Martin Luther King’s supporters during their Selma to Montgomery marches. In 2005, he appeared on the PBS special, My Music, despite a recent stroke, performing “That’s My Desire”, and received a standing ovation. It proved to be his swan song to the world of popular music. Laine died of heart failure on February 6, 2007.

Tony Bennett

Anthony Dominick Benedetto (1926) was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City, to grocer, John Benedetto and seamstress, Anna Suraci. In 1906, John had emigrated from Podàrgoni, a rural eastern district of the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria. Anna had been born in the U.S., shortly after her parents also emigrated from the Calabria region in 1899. Tony has an older sister, Mary, and an older brother, John Jr. With a father who was ailing and unable to work, the children grew up in poverty. John Sr. instilled in his son a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering, but died when Tony was 10 years old.

Young Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, as well as jazz artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Joe Venuti. His Uncle Dick was a tap dancer in vaudeville, giving him an early window into show business. Drawing was another early passion of his and he became known as the class caricaturist at P.S. 141. He anticipated a career in commercial art. However, he began singing for money at age 13 and performing as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants around his native Queens.

He attended New York’s School of Industrial Art, where he studied painting and music and, would later, appreciate their emphasis on proper technique. To help support his family, he dropped out of school at age 16 and worked as a copy boy and runner for the Associated Press in Manhattan and in several other low-skilled, low-paying jobs. However, he set his sights on a professional singing career and returned to performing as a singing waiter, winning amateur nights all around the city and having a successful engagement at a Paramus, New Jersey, nightclub.

He fought in the final stages of World War II as an infantryman with the U.S. Army in Europe. Afterwards, he developed his singing technique, signed with Columbia Records and had his first number-one popular song with “Because of You” in 1951. Several top hits, such as “Rags to Riches” followed in the early 1950s. Bennett then further refined his approach to encompass jazz. He reached an artistic peak in the late 1950s with albums, such as The Beat of My Heart, Basie Swings and Bennett Sings. In 1962, Bennett recorded his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. His career suffered an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era.

Bennett staged a comeback in the late 1980s and 1990s, putting out gold record albums again and expanding his audience to the MTV Generation, while keeping his musical style intact. He remains a popular recording artist and concert performer in the 2010s. Bennett has won 17 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award presented in 2001), two Emmy Awards and has been named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree. He has sold over 50 million records worldwide. Bennett is also an accomplished painter, having created works—under the name Anthony Benedetto—that are on permanent public display in several art institutions.

Frank Sinatra

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Francis Albert Sinatra (1915 –1998) was born in Hoboken, New Jersey and was the only child of Italian immigrants, Natalina Garaventa and Antonino Martino Sinatra. Sinatra’s father was a lightweight boxer who fought under the name Marty O’Brien and served with the Hoboken Fire Department as a Captain. Sinatra left high school without graduating, having attended only 47 days before being expelled because of his rowdy conduct. In 1938 he worked as a delivery boy at the Jersey Observer newspaper and later as a riveter at the Tietjen and Lang shipyard, but music was Sinatra’s main interest and he listened carefully to big band jazz. He began singing for tips at the age of eight, standing on top of the bar at a local nightclub in Hoboken. Sinatra sang professionally as a teenager in the 1930s, although he never learned how to read music.

Sinatra got his first break in 1935 when his mother persuaded a local singing group, The Three Flashes, to let him join. With Sinatra the group became known as the Hoboken Four and they appeared on the show, Major Bowes Amateur Hour. They attracted 40,000 votes and won first prize – a six-month contract to perform on stage and radio across the United States.

After Sinatra left the Hoboken Four and returned home in late 1935, his mother helped him get a job as a singing waiter and MC at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for which he was paid $15 a week. The following June, Harry James hired Sinatra on a one-year contract of $75 a week. It was with the James band that Sinatra released his first commercial record, “From the Bottom of My Heart”, in July, 1939.

Sinatra found success as a solo artist from the early to mid-1940s, after being signed by Columbia Records in 1943. Being the idol of the “bobby soxers”, he released his first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra in 1946. His professional career stalled in the early 1950s, but it was reborn in 1953 after he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in From Here to Eternity. He signed with Capitol Records in 1953 and released several successful albums (such as In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, Come Fly with Me, Only the Lonely and Nice ‘n’ Easy). Sinatra left Capitol to found his own record label, Reprise Records in 1961.

From his youth, Sinatra displayed sympathy for African-Americans and worked both publicly and privately all his life to help them achieve equal rights. He played a major role in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and casinos in the 1960s. On January 27, 1961, Sinatra played a benefit show at Carnegie Hall for Martin Luther King, Jr. and led his fellow “Rat Pack” members (a group of entertainers led by Sinatra who worked together on a loose basis in films and casino shows featuring Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) and Reprise label colleagues in boycotting hotels and casinos that refused entry to black patrons and performers. He often spoke from the stage on desegregation and repeatedly played benefits on behalf of Dr. King and his movement.

On November 2, 1970 Sinatra recorded the last songs for Reprise Records before his self-imposed retirement. The final song recorded at the session was written by John Denver and titled “The Game is Over”. However, this song was not released officially until The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings suitcase box-set went on sale in 1995 to commemorate his 80th birthday. He was selected as one of the five recipients of the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors and President Reagan said, in honoring his old friend, that “art was the shadow of humanity” and that Sinatra had “spent his life casting a magnificent and powerful shadow”.

Perry Como

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Pierino Ronald Como (1912 – 2001) was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He was the seventh of 13 children of Pietro Como and Lucia Travaglini, who both emigrated to the US in 1910 from the Abruzzo town of Palena, Italy. Perry was the first of their children born in the United States. He did not speak English until he entered school, since the Comos only spoke Italian at home. His father, a mill hand and an amateur baritone, had all his children attend music lessons, even if he could barely afford them. In a rare 1957 interview, Como’s mother, Lucia, described how her young son took on other jobs to pay for more music lessons. Como learned to play many different instruments, but never had a voice lesson. Perry showed additional musical talent in his teenage years as a trombone player in the town’s Italian Brass Band, by playing guitar and singing at weddings and as an organist at church.

At the age of 10, Como helped his family by working before and after school in a barber shop for 50¢ a week. By age 13, he had graduated to having his own chair in the barber shop, although he stood on a box to tend to his customers. When Perry was 14, his father was unable to work because of a severe heart condition, so Como and his brothers supported the household.

In 1932, Como left Canonsburg, moving about 100 miles away to Meadville, Pennsylvania, where his uncle had a barber shop in the Hotel Conneaut that was about 80 miles from Cleveland. It was also the stop on the itinerary for dance bands who worked up and down the Ohio Valley. Como went to the Silver Slipper Ballroom where Freddy Carlone and his orchestra were playing one evening and Carlone invited anyone, who thought he might have singing talent, to come up and sing with his band. Young Como was terrified, but his friends urged him onto the stage. Carlone was so impressed with his performance that he offered him a job. Three years after joining the Carlone band, Como moved to Ted Weems’ Orchestra and his first recording dates. It was with Ted Weems as a mentor that the young Como acquired polish and his own unique style.

“Mr. C.”, as he was nicknamed, sold millions of records for Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and pioneered a weekly musical variety television show, which set the standards for the genre and proved to be one of the most successful in television history. Como was seen weekly on television from 1949 to 1963, then continued hosting the Kraft Music Hall variety program monthly until 1967. His television shows and seasonal specials were broadcast throughout the world. Also a popular recording artist, Perry Como produced numerous hit records and his combined success on television and popular recordings was not matched by any other artist of the time.

Como’s appeal spanned generations and he was widely respected for both his professional standards and the conduct of his personal life. In the official RCA Records Billboard magazine memorial, his life was summed up in these few words: “50 years of music and a life well lived. An example to all.” One of the many factors in his success was Como’s insistence on his principles of good taste; if he considered something to be in bad or poor taste, it was not in the broadcast. Another was his naturalness; the man viewers saw on the screen was the same person who could be encountered behind a supermarket shopping cart, at a bowling alley or in a kitchen making breakfast.

Como received the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance; five Emmys from 1955 to 1959; a Christopher Award (1956) and shared a Peabody Award with his good friend, Jackie Gleason in 1956. He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1990 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1987. Posthumously, Como received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006. Como has the distinction of having three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in radio, television and music.

Vic Damone

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Vito Rocco Farinola 1928) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Italian immigrants from Bari, Italy—Rocco and Mamie (Damone) Farinola. His father was an electrician and his mother taught piano. Inspired by his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra, Damone took voice lessons. He sang in the choir at St. Finbar’s Church in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. When his father was injured at work, Damone had to drop out of high school. He worked as an usher and elevator operator in the Paramount Theater in Manhattan where he met Perry Como. Vic stopped the elevator between floors, sang for him and asked his advice if he should continue voice lessons. Impressed, Como said, “Keep singing!” and referred him to a local bandleader. Vito Farinola decided to call himself Vic Damone, using his mother’s maiden name for his new-found career.

Damone entered the talent search on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and won in April 1947. This led to his becoming a regular on Godfrey’s show. He met Milton Berle at the studio and Berle got him work at two night clubs. By mid-1947, Damone had signed a contract with Mercury Records. His first release, “I Have But One Heart”, reached #7 on the Billboard chart. “You Do” reached the same peak. These were followed by a number of other hits, such as “You’re Breaking My Heart”, based on a turn-of-the-century ballad by Leoncavallo, the opera composer. Damone was also a sought after television guest performer. By the early fifties Vic was a successful recording star, however, it was his recording of “On the Street Where You Live” from the Broadway show, My Fair Lady, that put Damone into super-star status. His version of “An Affair to Remember”, one of the last songs written by Harry Warren, was a huge success.

Damone toured Las Vegas casinos as a performer and, although, he had to declare bankruptcy in the early 1970s, he earned enough as a casino performer to clear up his financial difficulties. He extended his geographical range, touring through the United States and the United Kingdom and, as a result of his popularity, decided to record albums again, releasing them on the RCA label. His final album was issued in 2002 with older albums being re-packaged and re-released. He recorded over 2,000 songs during his entire career. On June 12, 2009, Vic Damone released his autobiography titled, Singing Was the Easy Part, from St. Martin’s Press.

His final public performance was on January 19, 2002 at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Damone did however step out of retirement on January 22, 2011, when he once again performed at the Kravis Performing Arts Center in Palm Beach, Florida to a sold out crowd. Damone dedicated this performance to his six grandchildren who had never seen him perform. In December 2, 2011, at the age of 83, Damone launched an official Facebook profile dedicated to his fans. In addition to posting recent photos, Damone writes that “besides spending time with his family he spends his retirement enjoying golf and football”.

Italian American Cuisine

As Italian-Americans moved to various regions of the United States, their recipes encorporated regional flavors into the classic recipes they brought with them from Italy.

Northeast US

NY Pizza

New York Style Pizza

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2/3 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 ¼ cups marinara or pizza sauce
  • 1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Directions

Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the warm water in a large bowl. Let stand for 1 minute, then stir to dissolve. Mix in the flour, salt and olive oil. When the dough is too thick to stir, turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. Knead in a little more flour if the dough is too sticky. Place into an oiled bowl, cover, and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk. (You can also prepare the dough in an electric mixer or a food processor.)

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F (245 degrees C). If using a pizza stone, preheat it in the oven as well, setting it on the lowest shelf.

When the dough has risen, flatten it out on a lightly floured surface. Roll or stretch out into a 12 inch circle and place on a baking pan. If you are using a pizza stone, you may place it on a piece of parchment while preheating the stone in the oven.

Spread the tomato sauce evenly over the dough. Sprinkle with oregano, mozzarella cheese, basil, Romano cheese and red pepper flakes. Transfer the pizza to the baking stone.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until the bottom of the crust is browned when you lift up the edge a little, and the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Cool for about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Southeast US

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Herb-Roasted Pork Loin

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon loosely packed lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon finely crushed coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
  • 1 (2 1/2- to 3-lb.) boneless pork loin
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 2 whole garlic bulbs, cut in half

Directions

Combine first 10 ingredients in a small bowl. Rub over pork. Chill, uncovered, 8 to 12 hours.

Let pork stand at room temperature 30 minutes. (Bringing it to room temperature will help it cook faster and more evenly.)

Preheat oven to 400° F. Brown pork in hot oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side. Lightly grease a wire rack with cooking spray. Place pork on the rack in a roasting pan. Add the garlic halves.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest portion registers 135°F.

Remove from the oven and let stand 15 minutes before serving. Serve with the roasted garlic.

Northwest US

salmon burger

Salmon Rosemary Burgers

8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 pounds king salmon fillet, skinned and de-boned
  • 1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup minced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 8 onion rolls
  • Lettuce and sliced tomatoes

Directions

Prepare the salmon by cutting into strips, cutting the strips crosswise and chopping the fish until well minced. Be sure to remove any remaining bones.

In a large bowl, mix the minced salmon with the bread crumbs, red onion, Dijon mustard, horseradish and eggs. Season with rosemary, salt and pepper.

Chill at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high heat.

Form the salmon mixture into 8 burger patties. Lightly coat each patty with olive oil.

Place salmon patties on the grill and cook 4 or 5 minutes on each side. Serve in onion rolls with lettuce and tomato slices.

Southwest US

braised chicken

Italian-Style Braised Chicken and Artichoke Hearts

4 servings

  • 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed of excess fat
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • Generous pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 cinnamon stick, or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups chicken broth, homemade or 
store-bought
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup canned chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and mixed with a squirt of lemon juice and a pinch of salt
  • 1 pkg thawed frozen artichoke hearts, sliced
  • 1/2 cup pitted green olives
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or cilantro

Directions

Pat the chicken dry and season salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, working in batches if necessary, and cook until well browned on each side, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Decrease the heat to medium. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until soft and slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, red pepper flakes, cinnamon stick and bay leaf and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in 1/4 cup of the broth to deglaze the pot, stirring to loosen any bits stuck to the pot. Stir in a pinch of salt and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Stir in the remaining 1 3/4 cups of broth, the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the chicken, chickpeas, artichoke hearts and olives and stir gently to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of lemon juice. Garnish with the mint.

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