Do Italian-American Artists Make Italian-American Music?

Benny Profane (September 28, 2009)
It’s a weighty question, one that Anthony Tamburri or Bob Viscusi could answer with much greater knowledge and awareness than this humble reporter. We will then have to limit our discussion by taking a look at some of these artists while reflecting on their respective musical influences….

Dear readers, today we’ll talk about Frank Zappa, Laura Nyro (Laura Nigro), Tony Bennett (Anthony Dominick Benedetto), Frank Sinatra, Lennie Tristano, Joe Lovano, Nick La Rocca, Madonna (Madonna Louise Ciccone), Maria Muldaur (Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D’Amato), Terry Bozzio, Eddie Brigati, Angelo Badalamenti, Felix Cavaliere, Jon Bon Jovi (John Francis Bongiovi, Jr.), Charlie Calello, Bruce Springsteen (mothers’ maiden name: Adele Ann Zerilli), Vinnie Colaiuta, Felix Pappalardi, Johnny Rivers (John Henry Ramistella), Dion Di Mucci, Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti), Jeff Porcaro, John Frusciante, Ronnie James Dio, and many others.  

What do these individuals have in common? I would say very little except that all are completely or partially of Italian descent. Some of them have changed their last names and sometimes even their first names, while others have “Anglicized” their first names and kept their last names. 

At this point the question instinctively arises: do these Italian-American artists make Italian-American music? Or have they been influenced to some extent by Italian music? It’s a weighty question, one that Bob Viscusi or Anthony Tamburri could answer with much greater knowledge and awareness than this humble reporter. We will then have to limit our discussion by taking a look at some of these artists while reflecting on their respective musical influences…. 

Let’s take a closer look at one, perhaps my favorite in this group: Laura Nyro. For me, Laura was the greatest American songwriter, even better than my beloved Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Laura was born in the Bronx, New York and her father was an Italian musician. Since she was a child, Laura played the piano and wrote poetry. Very early on she started listening to the albums she found at home: Debussy, Ravel, Billie Holiday, and then she discovered the great ‘45s by Phil Spector, the soul of Motown and Stax, and rock 'n’ roll. Caruso?

Zilch. Domenico Modugno? Niet! In terms of Italian musical influences, as far as we know, there’s nothing to report. Laura began composing songs (successfully recorded by rock bands since the late ‘60s) and finally debuted as a solo artist, distinguished by a song always about to break and a series of magical compositions poised between soul, pop, jazz and rock 'n’ roll. A bit in the style of Carole King, but with so much more emotion and class! Well, listen to anything by Laura and tell me if you can feel even a trace of anything Italian. I may have ears lined with prosciutto, but it’s rare to find an artist more influenced by the stylistic features of American music than my beloved Laura (RIP). In truth, her only Italian musical connection was through the arrangement of some of her best albums by the great Charlie Calello. 

Cut to Frank Zappa, born to Italian parents. Zappa was a voracious listener of the most diverse musical genres. Without a formal music education, Zappa boldly mixed rock 'n’ roll and Stravinsky, doo wop and Edgar Varese, free jazz and the teen pop of the early '60s, rhythm ‘n’ blues and psychedelia in his very first musical experiments. He was a true sponge capable of absorbing the most disparate influences to produce, at his best, the masterful synthesis of pure American music. Is there some Italian influence, albeit negligible, I ask softly?

Niet! Actually, now that I think about it, there is something Italian in his music but it would be better if there wasn’t. In what sense? Let me explain. On the album Uncle Meat, one of his best notwithstanding, the song Tengo Na Minchia Tanta appears. Yes, you read that right. This is a trivial hard rock song sung in "Italian" (the voice is not Frank’s, who I don’t think spoke Italian) in which the protagonist, a caricature of a macho Latin, is proud of his sexual attribute. It was later recorded with a lot more class by the legendary Squallor (you have to hear it to believe it). Except for this funny sketch of "Italian pride" and for the next album dedicated to the eighteenth-century composer Francesco Zappa (no relation) I don’t think there is much more “Italian” in his music. I could be wrong because the guy has released over 60 albums and I haven’t heard them all (don’t gripe! Zappa CDs are full-price and I can’t go broke just to write my articles, right??.....) but I would be happy to be contradicted by the numerous Zappa fans on the web. Sure, we could talk at length about his genius and his legendary irreverence, like when he angered the Anti-Defamation League with the song Jewish Princess and then Catholic organizations with the piece Catholic Girls...but we are veering off topic, so let’s move on to other artists. 

Nick La Rocca, born in New Orleans in 1889 to Sicilian parents. Who was he? Well, according Renzo Arbore he was the first jazz musician in history. Incredible, right? An Italian-American invented jazz and swing. Would you have ever thought so? Not me, but if Arbore said so.... In truth, the issue is still fiercely debated by jazz historians, but I find it astonishing nevertheless that an Italian would be considered by some as the originator of one of the most extraordinary American music genres. Getting back to our topic, I ask again, softly, is there even a little bit of Italian in his music? No way.

Moving on to Tony Bennett. (I saw him on TV the other night, still in great shape, attending the U.S. Tennis Open with his wife/girlfriend who is his about 35-40 years his junior). Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens to Calabrian parents. Benedetto said that as a child, he listened to Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong. What is the great crooner’s most famous song? “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Get it? He left his heart in San Francisco, not Caltanissetta, Ragusa, Potenza, Reggio Calabria or Cava dei Tirreni! No, in Frisco, home of the early psychedelic sound and legendary bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana. As far as I know, the guy never dreamed of covering songs by Italian singers, but he signs his paintings (meanwhile he has also taken up painting) with the name Benedetto (strange, no?).  

We’ll stay with jazz and talk about Lennie Tristano, a blind master of the piano, among the most influential musicians of his generation. Born in New York to parents from Aversa, blinded by the Spanish influenza, and after flunking out of several schools his passion for music emerges. He was an innovated artist who was greatly esteemed by his colleagues, the most famous among them Lee Konitz, Charlie Mingus, and Bill Evans. Italian influences? Nowhere to be found. Think that one of his pieces is called Turkish Mambo. Not Mambo Italiano!  

And what about Angelo Badalamenti, composer of the wonderful Twin Peaks soundtrack? During his career he collaborated with David Lynch, Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, Marianne Faithfull, and many other artists. But none of them are Italian. His sometimes oppressive melodic lines, at times dreamy, are as far removed from the luminosity that characterizes the Bel Paese stereotype.

Well, we could go on for pages but then Letizia would shut down my column...and so I will stop the dissertation here and pose the question again: Why doesn’t Italian-American music exist, which has its own specificity with respect to the Italian model? Why doesn’t it seem that Italian music has minimally influenced the artists I mentioned above? The situation is all the more puzzling when one considers the impact that Italian and Italian-American culture and traditions have had on the work of great Italian-American directors like Coppola and Scorsese. Same goes for the Italian-American literature which today is recognized and appreciated in its own rite. And the music? I will repeat that Tamburri and Viscusi are needed to give the final, conclusive word. I would advise the few readers who have continued to end of this article to get some albums by some of the artists mentioned above.  
Frank Zappa: I prefer Zappa the jazz musician but I don’t like Zappa’s pop-rock songs and those with endless guitar solos. So I would get Hot Rats (with the masterpiece Peaches en Regalia), Kink Kong (released under the name of Jean Luc Ponty, but in fact written, produced and arranged by Frank), Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Grand Wazoo and Uncle Meat  

Laura Nyro: Eli and the 13th Confession, Gonna Take a Miracle  

Lennie Tristano: The New Tristano  

Happy listening.

 (Translated by Giulia Prestia)





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Italian-Americans in rock

Complimenti, colleghi miei. You're right about about the absence of clear Italian elements, in these performers you cite. But I feel I must add that, at least for Italian-Americans in rock, one of their defining elements is a remarkable affinity for African-American performers and musical forms. In the early form of rock called doo-wop, the greatest work may be by African-Americans, but the Italian city neighborhoods produced their only rivals. To name just three: Dion (DiMucci), Bobby Darin (Robert Cassotto), and of course Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. See JERSEY BOYS for a fuller development of this point. All three of those artists eventually left doo-wop per se, moving into what most of us would call rock. In that movement, they were joined by The Young Rascals, lead by Felix Cavalieri, their primary singer and songwriter, skilled on several instruments. The Rascals also featured Eddie Brigatti on vocals and Dino Danelli on drums, and their first hit was of course a 1966 cover of the R&B hit "Good Lovin'." From then on, their distinctive sound always shared in the drive and intensity of African-American soul. In '68, they made the cover of Rolling Stone under the headline: "The Greatest White Soul Band in America." The magnificent Laura Nyro, too, owes a clear debt to the African-American singing styles and song forms. Her album "Gonna Take a Miracle" (possibly her greatest, as you note) has one cover after another of great early Motown and soul songs. And as late as the 1980s, when Madonna (Ciccione) had her first hits, early listeners often assumed she was black. The point seemed worth mentioning, and may in an indirect way lead back to Italy. Most urban, East Coast immigrant families came from the South, of course, and we all remember the old ethnic slur -- "tutto sud di Roma e Africa."
on Anonymous (not verified) wrote

I attended a

I attended a wonderful AIHA ( American Italian Historical Assoc. )conference in Los Angeles several years ago at UCLA which offered amazing insights into Italian folk music from southern Italy. This included the Tarantella's true roots and Africa links which indeed could be heard. The soul roots of Louis Prima was palpable. Luisa Delguidice forgive me if I do recall her name exactly had also written an amazing book on spirit dancers of southern Italy. Another scholar presented on rituals to the black madonnas of Sicily. So our roots go a lot deeper than many of us may know but hopefully we will eventually have such books, sounds and stories made available to the general public which demonstrate the connections between southern Italians and Italian American musicians and singers and some of their ties to Africa as well.

Frank Zappa & doowop

I guess I can also comment on my own comment by adding that Zappa was a lifelong *tifoso* of doowop, & included various doowop pieces on all the Mothers albums, then in 1973 delivered a full doo-wop album, a dozen original songs or more, under the alias "Ruben & the Jets." Some great stuff there, & he was still performing one of the songs, "Love of My Life," live w/ his big band, a couple of years before his death.
on Dr.Funkenstein (not verified) wrote

Frank Vincent Zappa

Frank´s the Best,Baby.. R.I.P.
on peter (not verified) wrote

Nyro's best

Gonna Take a Miracle was a wonderful album and underscored Laura's affinity for soul music, unique among the white singer songwriters of her generation. Her taste in soul music was impeccable, e.g. the great Curtis Mayfield. But her own composition have something special and transcendent that goes even beyond the beloved soul hits she covered. For those you want The First Songs, or Eli, or one of the greatest hits compilations. Stoned Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, Blowing Away, Save the Country, Stoney End, Time and Love, Blackpatch, Captain Saint Lucifer, to name some favorites, are all touching and brilliant melodies, even better in my opinion than the best of her wonderful cover versions.
on Peter Mennella (not verified) wrote

Italian-American Genre

An old edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock had an entire chapter devoted to Italian-American Rock and Roll. It consentrated on the performers from South Philadelphia and asserted that there was a distinctly Italian-American rock form. But I would agree with you that it is not really influenced by anything particularly Italian. I also love Laura Nyro, but I wouldn't include her in the category of Italian-American musicians. I believe her father was half-Italian/half Russian-Jewish. Her mother was Russian-Jewish. So Laura's 1/4 Italian. But don't despair. The greatest of them all, Elvis, while not having any Italian blood, was influenced by Italian music. "Surrender" and "It's Now or Never" are the best-known examples. I think "Believe Me" is also another. Elvis's parents had either Caruso 78s or Mario Lanza records (can't remember which)in the home and he grew up listening to this--as well as African-American gospel.
on peter (not verified) wrote

Laura Nyro - Italian American?

As a devoted fan of the late Laura, I disagree that she shouldn't be counted as Italian American. She was 1/4 Italian, so why shouldn't that count for something? Moreover, her father was raised Catholic even if he was half Jewish. Laura received a Catholic upbringing for a time, and Christian symbols (Jesus and the Devil) occur in her music where they lend it a very distinctive character. While Laura abandoned the Catholicism of her childhood and drifted from Zen to Wicca, as was common for her generation, I'd say the combination of 1/4 Italian and 1/2 Catholic ought to suffice for inclusion under Italian American. As for what is musically Italian about Laura, I would say her passion, the explosions of emotion, wearing her heart on her sleeve could be viewed as Italian. In any case the Italian Jewish mixture would be hard to top for an aspiring writer of pop tunes in 1960s/70s America. Finally, the contribution of producer Charlie Calello, who had also produced that quintessentially Italian American icon, the Four Seasons. I am always amused when I recall a line from 'Goodfellas' where a man says, "Who does he think he is? Frankie Valli?"
on destefano (not verified) wrote

the great italian american jazz musicians

I agree that the music of Italian Americans rarely reflects any specific Italian elements or aesthetics. A few pop singers, like Jimmy Roselli, Jerry Vale, and Connie Francis, have recorded Italian songs. And Neapolitan songs have influenced American pop, with Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never," which re-makes "O Sole Mio," one of the best-known examples. But what is truly significant is the Italian and Italian American influence on jazz. Nick La Rocca wasn't the first jazz musician, but his band was the first to be recorded. Also, Italian music teachers, in New Orleans and elsewhere, taught solfeggio to American musicians. Since then, there have been many notable Italian American jazz artists -- Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Louie Bellson, Flip Phillips, Vido Musso, Jimmy Giuffre, Louis Prima (his early work), Lenny Tristano, Pat Martino, Jack Costanza, George Wallington (Gacinto Figlia), Chick Corea (often mistaken for Latino), Joe Pass, Charlie Ventura, and of course Joe Lovano, a contemporary titan whose album "Viva Caruso" can definitely be called Italian jazz. There are many I've left out, of course, and I expect other posters here will add some of the names I've omitted.
on Bill Dal Cerro (not verified) wrote

Italian Americans in Jazz

10-06-09 We'd like to thank Mr. DeStefano for pointing out the Italian/Italian American influence on jazz. In writing our book, "From New Orleans to the New Century: The History of Italian Americans in Jazz" (, my co-author, Dave Witter, and I uncovered a veritable treasure-trove of information which validates that thesis And many scholars finally do agree: "the Italian influence on jazz has yet to be credited" (the late Richard Sudhalter). Thanks, Bill Dal Cerro Author, "The History of Italian Americans in Jazz" Chicago

Italian-American musicians

I am an Italian-American musician and I am trying to singlehandledly rejunvinate the Italian-American muscal genre of the early '60s with my original songs that may be found at my website:
on Bud Tristano (not verified) wrote

Lennie Tristano

Regarding Lennie Tristano, he was actually born in Chicago, and his family came from the province of Basilicata, a good three hour drive southwest from Aversa. Aversa has a jazz club named after him (and a street - bless their hearts) so they like to claim his family was from there. Lennie also did quite well in school! Regarding the track Turkish mambo, it was named after Nesuhi Ertegun (of Turkish descent), the producer of his albums for Atlantic Records.