Like other art forms that aim to attract a mass audience (movies, television, Broadway shows), pop music has been and continues to be a melting pot that borrows and assimilates elements and ideas from a wide range of musical styles. Rock, r&b, country, disco, punk, Latin and hip hop are all specific genres of music that have influenced and been incorporated into pop music in various ways over the past 5 decades. Italian Americans have helped shape American popular music as composers and performers.
Louis Prima (1910-1978)
a trumpeter, composer and bandleader, who successfully crossed the line from jazz to swing, then to R&B and finally to rock n’ roll. Some of his famous compositions are “Brooklyn Boogie” and “Oh Babe.” His greatest achievement was his 1936 composition “Sing, Sing, Sing” which was later recorded by Benny Goodman and stands as the most powerful big band/ jazz hit of all time.
Prima was from a musical family in New Orleans. His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of Leonardo Di Prima, a Sicilian immigrant from Salaparuta, while his mother, Angelina Caravella, had immigrated from Ustica as a baby. Louis was the second child of Angelina Caravella and Anthony Prima. His older brother, Leon, was born in 1907. He had two younger sisters: Elizabeth and Marguerite. Louis’s mother, Angelina made sure that each child played an instrument. Louis was assigned the violin and started out playing at his church. He became interested in jazz when he heard the black musicians playing at Italian owned and operated clubs, such as Matranga’s, Joe Segretta’s, Tonti’s Social Club and Lala’s, where Blacks and Italians played together.
According to author, Garry Boulard, in his book, Louis Prima, Prima paid attention to the music coming from the clubs and watched his older brother, Leon, play the cornet. After dropping out of high school, Prima had a few unsuccessful gigs and he got a temporary job playing on the steamship, Capital, that docked on Canal Street. From 1931 to 1932 Louis occupied his time by performing in the Avalon Club owned by his brother Leon. His first break was when Lou Forbes hired him for daily afternoon and early evening shows at The Saenger.
New York was an attraction for hungry musicians during the Great Depression. Prima headed to New York City next to further his music career. While there he met Guy Lombardo, who was a positive influence on Prima’s career. In 1934, Prima was offered a contract with Brunswick label and recorded the songs: “That’s Where the South Begins,” “Long About Midnight,” “Jamaica Shout” and “Star Dust.” Prima generated positive responses from growing fans and critics alike with his records and formed his band called, The New Orleans Gang, which consisted of Frank Pinero on piano, Jack Ryan on bass, Garrett McAdams on guitar and Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. The band played gigs in and around New York and Prima’s stage presence became an attraction to the band’s live shows.
Prima’s style fused Dixieland and swing by the late 1930s. By 1935 Prima relocated to Los Angeles, where he found moderate success. Due to a knee injury, Proma was not drafted during WWII and continued to perform and build up a following. By the mid-1940s, Prima’s music was a huge success with the general public. When the war was over, the music industry had been affected and big bands were becoming a thing of the past as the 1950s emerge.
1954 saw Prima embark on the Vegas circuit with singer Keely Smith. The duo enlisted the legendary saxophonist, Sam Butera to perform with them. They also recorded “Old Black Magic,” which earned them a Grammy Award.
Harry Warren (1893-1981)
was born Salvatore Guaragna in Brooklyn and was the son of a Calabrian boot maker. One of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific composers during the 30s, 40s and 50s, he wrote “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “A Love Affair to Remember” and “That’s Amore,” among many other songs. Between 1935 and 1950, he wrote more hit songs than Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or George Gershwin, three of which earned him Academy Awards: “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’ll Never Know” and “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”
Warren was one of eleven children of Italian immigrants Antonio (a bootmaker) and Rachel De Luca Guaragn and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His father changed the family name to Warren when Harry was a child. Although his parents could not afford music lessons, Warren had an early interest in music and taught himself to play his father’s accordion. He also sang in the church choir and learned to play the drums. He played the drums professionally at age 14 and dropped out of high school at 16 to play with his godfather’s band in a traveling carnival. Soon he taught himself to play the piano and by 1915, he was working at the Vitagraph Motion Picture Studios, where he did a variety of administrative jobs, such as props man, played mood music on the piano for the actors, acted in bit parts and eventually was promoted to assistant director. He also played the piano in cafés and silent-movie houses.
Warren wrote over 800 songs between 1918 and 1981, publishing over 500 of them. They were written mainly for feature films. His songs eventually appeared in over 300 films and 112 of Warner Brothers, “Looney Tunes” cartoons. 42 of his songs were on the top ten list of the radio program “Your Hit Parade”, a measure of a song’s popularity. 21 of these reached #1 on “Your Hit Parade”. “You’ll Never Know” appeared 24 times. His song, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, is listed as one of the 25 most-performed songs of the 20th Century, as compiled by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Warren was the director of ASCAP from 1929 to 1932.
He collaborated on some of his most famous songs with lyricists Al Dubin, Billy Rose, Mack Gordon, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer. In 1942 the Gordon-Warren song, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, became the first gold record in history. It was No.1 for 9 weeks on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1941–1942, selling 1.2 million copies. Among his biggest hits were “There Will Never Be Another You”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Forty-Second Street”, “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money)”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Serenade In Blue”, “At Last”, “Jeepers Creepers”, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”, “That’s Amore” and “Young and Healthy”.
Guy Lombardo (1929-1977)
was born in London, Ontario, to Italian-Canadian immigrants, Gaetano Sr. and Lena Lombardo. His father, who had immigrated to Canada from Italy and worked as a tailor, was an amateur singer with a baritone voice and had four of his five sons learn to play instruments, so they could accompany him. Lombardo and his brothers formed their first orchestra while still in grammar school and rehearsed in the back of their father’s tailor shop. Lombardo first performed in public with his brother, Carmen, at a church lawn party in 1914. Forming “The Royal Canadians” in 1924 with his brothers Carmen, Lebert and Victor and other musicians from his hometown, Lombardo led the group to international success, billing themselves as creating “The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven.” The Lombardos are believed to have sold between 100 and 300 million phonograph records during their lifetimes.
In early 1932, the band signed with Brunswick records and continued their success through 1934, until they signed with Decca (1934–1935). They then signed with Victor in 1935 and stayed until mid 1938, when again they signed with Decca. In 1938, Lombardo became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Although Lombardo’s “sweet” big-band music was viewed by some in the jazz and big-band community of the day as “corny”, trumpeter Louis Armstrong famously enjoyed Lombardo’s music.
Guy Lombardo is best known for his New Year’s Eve big band performances, first on radio and then on television. Lombardo’s orchestra played at the “Roosevelt Grill” in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City from 1929 to 1959 on New Year’s Eve and continued at the Waldorf Astoria until 1976. Broadcasts (and later telecasts) of their performances were a major part of New Year’s celebrations across North America; millions of people watched the show with friends at house parties. Because of this popularity, Lombardo was calleed, “Mr. New Year’s Eve.”
On December 31, 1956, the Lombardo band did their first New Year’s TV special on CBS; the program (and Lombardo’s 20 subsequent New Year’s Eve TV shows) would include a live segment from Times Square (long the focal point of America’s New Year’s Eve celebrations) showcasing the arrival of the New Year. While CBS carried most of the Lombardo New Year’s specials, there were a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the special was syndicated live to individual TV stations instead of being broadcast on a network. By the middle 1970’s, the Lombardo TV show was facing competition, especially for younger viewers, from Dick Clark’s, “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”, but Lombardo remained popular among viewers, especially older ones. The Royal Canadians were noted for playing the traditional song, “Auld Lang Syne” as part of the celebrations. Their recording of the song still plays as the first song of the new year in Times Square.
Al Caiola (1920-)
was born Alexander Emil Caiola in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is a guitarist who plays jazz, country, rock, western and pop music. He has been both a studio musician and a stage performer. He has recorded over fifty albums and has worked with some of the biggest stars of the 20th century, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Percy Faith, Buddy Holly, Mitch Miller and Tony Bennett.
Caiola was an active studio musician in the 1950s centered in the New York City area. He released some minor records under his own name during that decade. In 1960 he became a recording star on the United Artists (UA) label for over least ten years. He had prominent pop hits in 1961 with “The Magnificent Seven” and “Bonanza”. His style was inspired by Duane Eddy’s twangy bass guitar sound. The arrangements were typically by Don Costa, using a large orchestral backing. Caiola continuously released singles and albums throughout the 1960s and beyond, though no others appeared on the charts except for an entry in 1964 with “From Russia with Love”. UA used him to make commercial recordings for many movie and television themes. His popular and sought-after album was 1961’s, “Hit Instrumentals From Western TV Themes”, which included “Wagon Train (Wagons Ho)”, “Paladin”, “The Rebel” and “Gunslinger”. Solid Gold Guitar, probably his most impressive album, contained the popular songs of “Jezebel”, “Two Guitars”, “Big Guitar”, “I Walk the Line” and “Guitar Boogie”.
The Magnificent Seven album, other than the title track, consisted of a variety of pop songs with a jazzy bent. Guitars Guitars Guitars was similar. There was a wide variety to his albums — soft pop, Italian, Hawaiian, country and jazz. In the early 1970s he continued with the Avalanche Records label, producing similar work including the album, Theme From the ‘Magnificent 7 Ride’ ’73. Later, on other labels, came some ethnic-themed instrumental albums, such as Spanish Mood in 1982 and other Italian instrumentals. In 1976, Al Caiola accompanied Sergio Franchi, Dana Valery and Wayne J. Kirby on a concert tour to Johannesburg, South Africa.
During World War II Caiola played with the United States Marine Corps 5th Marine Division Band and also served in the Battle of Iwo Jima as a stretcher bearer.
William “Bill” Conti (1942-)
is an American film music composer, who is frequently the conductor at the Academy Awards ceremony. Conti, an Italian American, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Lucetta and William Conti. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University and also studied at the Juilliard School of Music.
His big break into celebrity came in 1976, when he was hired to compose the music for a small United Artists film called, “Rocky”. The film became a phenomenon and Conti’s training song, “Gonna Fly Now” topped the Billboard singles chart in 1977. He also composed music for the sequels “Rocky II” (1979), “Rocky II”I (1982), “Rocky V” (1990) and “Rocky Balboa” (2006). Conti also worked on some other films and, eventually, for television. In 1981, he wrote the music for the James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only” and provided the score for playwright Jason Miller’s film version of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, “That Championship Season”, the following year.
In 1983, he composed the score for HBO’s first film, “The Terry Fox Story”. Conti composed music for the films “Bad Boys” and “Mass Appeal”. Then in 1984, he received an Academy Award for composing the score to 1983’s “The Right Stuff” followed by composing music for the TV series, “North and South” in 1985. He also composed the score for “The Karate Kid”, as well as, “Masters of the Universe”. Another Conti score was the 1987 film “Happy New Year”.
In 1991, he composed the score for” Necessary Roughness”, a college football movie starring Scott Bakula, Sinbad and Héctor Elizondo. In 1993, he composed and wrote the music for “The Adventures of Huck Finn” starring Elijah Wood. In 1999, he composed the score for “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake, starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo and, in the same year, he composed the original music of “Inferno”, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. He also composed the classic themes to television’s “Dynasty” as well as, writng the score for “The Cosby”s, “Falcon Crest”, “Cagney & Lacey” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. Conti also composed the theme song to the original version of “American Gladiators” and the themes for “Inside Edition” and “Primetime Live” for ABC News. Bill Conti was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Classic Italian American Recipes
Stuffed Calamari in Gravy
Serves 6 – 8
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tablespoon each chopped fresh oregano, basil, and marjoram
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 28-oz. can crushed tomato
- 1 6-oz. can tomato paste
- 1 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
- 1/3 cup mixture of parmesan cheese and romano cheese
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2–3 lbs. small squid bodies (3″–4″), cleaned
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy pot and cook the onions and 6 cloves garlic over medium heat until soft. Add oregano, basil, marjoram and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and 2 cups water. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding half the parsley when the sauce is cooked.
Combine bread crumbs, cheese mixture, remaining garlic, 1/3 cup parsley, eggs and salt and pepper to taste in a mixing bowl. Stuff squid with bread-crumb mixture and the secure tops with toothpicks.
Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet and sauté squid in small batches until browned on all sides, about 2–4 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Place the squid in the tomato sauce and cook for 15 minutes longer. Garnish with remaining parsley.
- 4 chicken cutlets, pounded thin
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup flour
- 3 eggs, beaten with a little water
- 1 1/2 cups dried Italian seasoned bread crumbs
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cups Marinara Sauce
- 4 slices provolone cheese (about 3-4 oz.)
- 6 tablespoons grated Parmesan
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat oven to broil and place a rack 10″ from the heating element. Season chicken cutlets lightly with salt and pepper.
Place flour, eggs and bread crumbs in separate shallow dishes. Working with one piece of chicken at a time, dredge in flour, eggs and bread crumbs and transfer to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 pieces of breaded chicken and cook, turning once with tongs, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to an
aluminum foil–lined baking sheet. Wipe out skillet and repeat with the remaining oil and chicken.
Top each piece of chicken with 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce, 1 slice provolone cheese and 1 1/2 tablespoons parmesan. Broil until cheese is golden and bubbly, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 cups Marinara Sauce
- 1 8-oz. box dried manicotti shells (about 14)
- 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 cups whole-milk ricotta
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 7 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 2 eggs, beaten
Coat a 9″ x 13″ baking pan with cooking spray and spread 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce across the bottom of the pan. Set aside.
Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the manicotti and cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Drain manicotti and set aside on kitchen towels.
Heat oven to 450°F. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer garlic to a medium bowl along with the ricotta, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 5 tablespoons chopped parsley, salt, pepper, nutmeg and eggs and stir to combine.
Spoon some of the filling into both openings of each manicotti shell. (Alternatively, transfer the ricotta mixture to a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag, snip off a bottom corner of the bag, and pipe filling into pasta.) Repeat with remaining manicotti shells.
Transfer stuffed manicotti to prepared baking dish, making 2 rows. Spread the remaining marinara sauce over the manicotti and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Bake until hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining parsley. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
- 1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cups dry white wine
- 1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Lightly dredge shrimp in flour and set aside on a plate.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, sauté shrimp until just pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel–lined plate to absorb excess oil. Repeat process until all shrimp have been sautéed.
Wipe excess oil from the skillet, then stir in wine, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, lemon juice and stock. Heat over high heat to boiling and whisk in butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lower heat to medium low and add shrimp to reheat, tossing to coat well with the sauce, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving. Serve with linguine, if you like.
- Italian American Culture – The Art Of Writing(jovinacooksitalian.com)
February 21, 2014 at 9:38 am
I always love when you post a history lesson. So Interesting!
February 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Thanks Mary Frances. A little variety doesn’t hurt, right.
February 22, 2014 at 2:26 pm
I’m amazed how much effort you put into each post, sharing multiple recipes with the same theme. Much appreciated. I love calamari. I seldom cook them nowadays but there was a time when my favorite thing to cook was stuffed calamari in sweet squid ink sauce.
February 22, 2014 at 4:19 pm
Thanks Dolly. I love writng about Italian culture and the history behind food. I really appreciate you taking time to read the posts and commenting.
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