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'Amore': Italian-American Singers In The 20th Century08:18

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American singer and actor Frank Sinatra sits at the piano.closemore
American singer and actor Frank Sinatra sits at the piano.

Apparently, Dean Martin didn't much like the song "That's Amore," but in 1953 it became one of his biggest hits. It's a song that seems to capture a moment in pop history when nearly every hit was 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 called Amore. Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz recently spoke with the author, Mark Rotella, about Italian singers in 20th-century America.

"That's Amore" came from a movie called The Caddy, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; it's about an Italian man who plays a golf pro and is followed by a faithful caddy. In the movie, when the two return to Italy and are greeted by their Italian family, they break into this song. When we hear it today, it sounds like a caricature of Italian culture. But, Rotella says, it served as an introduction to Italian culture for many Americans.

"It was one of the more obvious ones," he says. "There were Italian singers before, but this led to other kitschy songs, like Rosemary Clooney's 'Mambo Italiano,' and so many other songs that came after that were kind of kitschy but were also really pop and kind of fun."

Rotella's book isn't just about Italian-American singers. It's also about a turning point in 20th-century America when Italian entertainers started to be seen as American entertainers. Rotella says that there was a Golden Age of entertainment that started around 1947.

"This is when second- and third-generation Americans of Italian decent were coming of age," he says. "This is post-war; it was a time of optimism. This era was basically the end of the big band and the beginning of the solo voice, and this lasted through the '50s, up until I'd say 1964, with The Beatles."

This was happening during a period when there was a great deal of discrimination against Italians in America. For example, this excerpt was taken from a profile on Joe DiMaggio from Life Magazine in 1939.

"Although he learned Italian first, Joe now speaks English without an accent. ... Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slicked with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti."

These kinds of comments were acceptable in mainstream dialogue, and yet a few years later, Italian singers would dominate the pop charts.

"This is the time when so many singers were now seen on TV," Rotella says. "They were good-looking. They had a certain sensibility, a certain attitude that was open and charming."

Rotella says that nearly every singer he interviewed named Enrico Caruso as an influence. Caruso was the first pop artist to sell a million copies of his music, offering his recordings on flat discs for the RCA Victor Vitrolas of the time. Rotella says that this shaped the way music was sold for years to come.

"They sold so much, this really defined how music was recorded and on what medium," Rotella says. "It was going to be Victor on the flat plastic records."

One of the singers Rotella includes in his book is none other than the king of the golden age of Italian-American music, Frank Sinatra. Rotella calls Sinatra's song "Fly Me to the Moon" a metaphor for all of the breakthroughs that Italian singers achieved.

"When you hear the song, it's optimistic," he says. "It's kind of dreamy, forward-thinking, but it's tough. He says, 'fly me to the moon,' but it's almost as if he's there already. This is coming at a time when music was going to change. It's the tail-end of the success of the Rat Pack. It was at this time that almost total assimilation of Italians had happened. In ways, I feel like after this [song], there were so many Italians that followed him. Not necessarily performing Italian music; we wouldn't necessarily know them as Italians today. This song of reaching the moon seemed to me to be every immigrant's dream of assimilating.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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