GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(Soundbite of song, "That's Amore")
Mr. DEAN MARTIN (Singer): (Singing) When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore...
RAZ: Apparently, Dean Martin didn't much like this song, but in 1953, it became one of his biggest hits, and a song that seems to capture a moment in pop history when nearly every hit was being performed by an Italian-American singer. The story of "That's Amore" and the songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and others is told in a new book.
It's called "Amore," and the author, Mark Rotella, joins me from New York.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. MARK ROTELLA (Author, "Amore"): Hey. Thank you so much for having me.
RAZ: What's the story behind this song?
Mr. ROTELLA: This song came from a movie called "The Caddy" with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis about an Italian man who had changed his name. And the song came from here when Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin went back to visit his family and they were welcomed by a large Italian dinner. And this is the song that they broke out into.
RAZ: And then when we hear it today, it almost sounds like a caricature, right, like a self-parody. But for a lot of Americans, this was like, this was their first introduction to anything really Italian, right?
Mr. ROTELLA: It was one of the more obvious ones. I think there were Italian singers before, but this is one of the more obvious songs which led to other kitschy songs, even Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano"...
RAZ: Right. Yeah.
Mr. ROTELLA: ...and so many other songs that came after that were kind of kitschy but really pop and really kind of fun.
RAZ: Mark Rotella, your book isn't just about Italian-American singers, or even the songs. I guess it's more about, kind of a turning point in the 20th century when all of these Italian entertainers started to be seen as American entertainers. And you write that it was a sort of a golden age that began around 1947. How did it happen?
Mr. ROTELLA: Well, this is when second and third generation Americans of Italian descent were coming of age. This is the postwar, it was a time of optimism. And so many voices, so many singers, were now seen on TV. They were good-looking, they had a certain sensibility to them, a certain attitude, which was open, charming, and I think a lot of it had come from their style of singing, which when I interviewed almost every single one, I have to say every person who I interviewed and talked to, they all named Enrico Caruso as their influence...
RAZ: As their sort of model.
Mr. ROTELLA: Exactly.
(Soundbite of song, "O Sole Mio")
Mr. ENRICO CARUSO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)
RAZ: You call him the first sort of pop star in America, really.
Mr. ROTELLA: Yes, exactly. And he was the first million-selling pop artist.
RAZ: And the song he became probably best known for was "O Sole Mio," right?
Mr. ROTELLA: Yes. And that was released in 1916.
(Soundbite of song, "O Sole Mio")
Mr. CARUSO: (Singing in foreign language)
Mr. ROTELLA: This was, I'd like to think, the "Danny Boy" of Italian-Americans. I mean, this is the song that where, you know, wherever you are, you know this song, non-Italians know this. And this was a song that was actually written in 1898. It was actually composed in Naples by Eduardo di Capua and a poet, Giovanni Capurro.
And this song was, this was really the first time that Americans of all nationalities were able to hear this song and it was distributed very widely.
RAZ: I should mention that a lot of this book is also personal. It's kind of, I guess, there's aspects of memoir in here, because you talk a lot about your own family growing up in Florida and listening to these, just listening to them on the radio or hearing these songs and your dad saying, oh, he's Italian, she's Italian, he's Italian, she's Italian. Is this sort of the soundtrack to your life?
Mr. ROTELLA: It is the soundtrack to an early life, and this is what formed me growing up. These songs were, in ways, along with food, the connection to my Italian heritage. I mean, my father would, out of the blue, just break out into an aria or an Italian folk song. Or we would go to one of two Italian delis in the St. Pete-Tampa area, and they're mixing, you know, mingling with the smells of salamis and cheeses where any number of Italian songs.
And it wasn't until I was in my 30's and my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer - we were young, and it was a really confusing time for us.
RAZ: I imagine.
Mr. ROTELLA: And it was a really trying time. I needed something optimistic. I needed something familiar to reach out to. And as I was exploring my own roots in Calabria, I started listening to some of this music. And it was so familiar to me. These songs were optimistic and they were pretty straightforward. And as it was getting difficult for my wife and me to go out due to chemotherapy or radiation, it was in the apartment that I started doing a lot more cooking with recipes passed down from my grandmother to my aunt to me and listening to this music. I was kind of maybe creating a little Italian household.
RAZ: And your wife is cancer-free today?
Mr. ROTELLA: Yes, she is. Yes.
RAZ: Must have been a pretty trying time. But in a sense, these songs sort of helped you guys through it.
Mr. ROTELLA: They really did. And then this led to exploration. I was listing all these singers - there are about 40, maybe 50 - and then I did a graph as to when they were born, when they had their hits, when they died. This is when I thought, wow, I don't know if anyone knows the influence that Italians had on pop music.
RAZ: Many of the singers you write about in the book, the ones who are alive, you were actually able to interview yourself. And one of them was Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts. What was his story?
Mr. ROTELLA: Dion grew up in the Bronx, an Italian part of the Bronx now known as Arthur Avenue. He belonged to a street gang known as the Fordham Baldies. And when he formed the band, each of the members belonged to one street gang or another.
RAZ: This is really like Jets and Sharks kind of stuff.
Mr. ROTELLA: Right, exactly. Exactly. And they brought to their music a kind of toughness to it, kind of a street smarts. And when their first big song came out, "I Wonder Why," this was 1958, and you hear this kind of nasally bass coming out of Carlo Mastrangelo. And it sounds like the revving of a car engine. I mean, I'm thinking like strips of drag racing on the streets. It's a very urban sound.
(Soundbite of song, "I Wonder Why")
DION AND THE BELMONTS: (Singing) Why I love you like I do, why I do. Don't know why I love you. Don't know why I care...
Mr. ROTELLA: When you hear the song now or see either footage or photo of The Belmonts, they don't look all that threatening to you. But at the time, here are these guys with these pompadours, they're ethnic-looking, and, as Dion said, we weren't one of these bands that danced. We just snapped our fingers. They were kind of tough.
RAZ: I guess it's fair to say that the king of Italian-American music, certainly the golden age of Italian-American pop was Frank Sinatra.
(Soundbite of song, "Fly Me to the Moon")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars...
RAZ: You write about one of his classic songs, "Fly Me to the Moon," which you say is almost a metaphor, I guess, for all of the breakthroughs that Italian-American singers achieved.
Mr. ROTELLA: When you hear the song, it's optimistic. It's kind of dreamy, forward-thinking, but it's tough. I mean, he's got an attitude that says, you know, he goes, you know, fly me to the moon, but it's almost as if he's there already. This song of reaching the moon, this seemed to be, to me, every immigrant's dream of assimilating. And their assimilation, at one point, generations before must have seemed as difficult as getting to the moon. And I think in ways this is how Italian-Americans must have felt.
RAZ: That's Mark Rotella. His new book is called "Amore: The Story of Italian-American Song."
Mark, thank you so much.
Mr. ROTELLA: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
(Soundbite of song, Fly Me to the Moon")
Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) In other words, I love you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.