Incredibly, August 16th will be the 34th anniversary of the passing of music’s most well-loved icon, Elvis Presley. His global popularity continues across generations of fans regardless. Much is known and written about the King of Rock and Roll. Yet less is known of the Italian influence – including inspirations Mario Lanza, Caruso, Sinatra and Martin – behind some of his significant hits…
There’s ‘50s rocking Elvis, Army GI and Movie Star Elvis, Elvis from the’68 Special Comeback to ‘70s Vegas balladeer. There’s an Elvis for everyone, it appears. Maybe the universal interest in Elvis is due to two key factors: his eclectic heritage - of American Indian, Jewish, French and Scottish descent - and the melting-pot musical mix he favoured – including rhythm and blues, gospel, country and rockabilly. However, the Italianate influence of opera is the often forgotten X factor ingredient.
Strikingly original in sound and style, even Elvis had his own heroes he chose to closely imitate, at least in some of his signature ballads. Specifically, Elvis’ operatic vocal hero was Mario Lanza and indirectly, his predecessor, Enrico Caruso. Plus, he loved the evocative Neapolitan originated material they popularised. He also admired later prominent Italian American artists, Sinatra and Dean Martin. Beyond music, Elvis also held an interest in Italian style. He showed off his classical, almost latin good looks in Italian cut suits through the ‘60s as did the ‘King’s Men’ – his jokingly titled Memphis Mafia gang.
Elvis said of Lanza in 1972: ‘I had records by Mario Lanza when I was 17, 18 years old. I would listen to The Metropolitan Opera. I just loved this music.’ This early ‘50s time-frame was eventful for Elvis following his audition at the Sun Studios in Memphis, before finding major fame first with pure rockabilly, thanks to 1954 hit, ‘That’s Alright, Mama.’
Mario Lanza, meanwhile – real name Alfredo Arnold Cocozza, 1921-1959 – was a fantastically popular opera tenor and movie star. The first recording artist to sell 25 million copies of an album, Maria Callas called him the greatest tenor voice of the day. Arturo Toscanini called him the greatest voice of the 20th century.
Elvis reportedly met Lanza in LA and as author Adam Victor states in his seminal book, ‘The Elvis Encyclopaedia’, the two singers had a lot in common. Both were musical virtuosos in their field, signed to RCA. Both started out as truck drivers, each later drafted into the armed forces. Both had successful movie careers. Both struggled with weight problems (though Elvis preferred fast American food to pasta!). Sadly, both died prematurely – Lanza at 38, Presley at 42 in 1977. Elvis recorded a number of Lanza songs including ‘Santa Lucia’. Similarly, Lanza recorded ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – better known in versions by Elvis.
Turning his musical ability to film, Elvis starred in two Paramount movies, ‘Loving You’ and ‘King Creole’, with Lanza’s niece, Dolores Hart. In 1959, the year her uncle died, the actress turned nun, perceptively said of her co-star: ‘Elvis is a young man with an enormous capacity of love…but I don’t think he has found his happiness. I think he’s terribly lonely.’
The following year was a turning point for Elvis. Fresh out of the army, he needed to prove his grown-up vocalist credentials. His unique and inspired choice of authentic Italian ballads helped him gain acclaim. Elvis never visited Italy or for that matter much of Europe; in effect prevented from doing so by his manager, Colonel Parker and the matter of Parker’s lack of passport. However, as a regular US Army GI in Germany, Elvis immersed himself in European culture. Twice in 1960, he recorded authentic love songs turned legends…
It’s Now or Never - from ‘O Sole Mio’, the timeless Neapolitan classic. Written by Giovanni Capurro and Eduardo Di Capua in 1898, it was first recorded by Giuseppe Aselmi in 1907 and popularised by Mario Lanza. The first English translation - ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ - had previously been a hit in the US by Tony Martin – which Presley had apparently practised along to as a soldier. When discharged from the army – also in the wake of Lanza’s death and in memory of Caruso’s song, a childhood favourite - Elvis personally commissioned a brand new version. Songwriters Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder obliged – it was the biggest of 17 hits for Elvis that Schroeder penned. Presley’s joyful take showing off his baritone to tenor end range, made number 1 in the US and the UK. Arguably the best selling single of all time, it shifted 30 million copies worldwide. So impacting was it that on hearing it in 1960 while serving time in prison for stealing, Barry White had a conversion to become a famous singer – helped by Schroeder. In later years, to massive cheers, Elvis sometimes performed ‘It’s Now or Never’ in concert in combination with the original ‘O Sole Mio’.
Surrender – an up-tempo, anglicised version of 19th century Neapolitan number, ‘Torna a’ Surriento’, written by Ernesto and Giambattista de Curtis, first released in 1902. Claude Aveling wrote an English fan version, ‘Come Back to Sorrento.’ Elvis’ adapted and retitled version was the biggest of 25 songs written for him by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Topping the charts in the US and UK, it became a best-selling single. Used in Presley’s film, ‘Wild in the Country.’
Santa Lucia – This traditional 19th century melody was a favourite of operatic tenors before the days of Caruso. Transcribed by Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879) it was published by the Cottrau firm as a ‘barcarolla’ at Naples in 1849. The first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics, Cottrau translated it during the first stage of the Risorgimento. In it, Naples is celebrated as ‘holy soil, smiled upon by the Creator’; its Santa Lucia waterfront, the ‘empire of harmony.’ It was remodelled for 1964’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’ film, starring Elvis and Ann Margret. Its recording was later released as a track on compilation LPs.
In America, Neapolitan music was and still is, popular – from the streets of New York’s Italian neighbourhoods to Elvis’ home state of Tennessee.
‘Every region – whether Venice, Rome, Florence, Naples - has its own folk songs, with the Neapolitan dialect remaining the most popular in Italy,’ considers Emma Marigliano, a Naples native and librarian, now living in Manchester, England. ‘These are the ones most widely heard and spread across the world.’
Similarly, Elvis’ early backing group, The Jordanaires, featured harmonies sometimes reminiscent of the Italian American doo-wop trend.
Contemporary Italian American artists Elvis admired were Frank Sinatra – two decades his senior – and his Rat Pack buddy, Dean Martin. Unlike fellow crooner Jimmy Roselli, Sinatra’s songs hardly refer to his Italian heritage, while Dean Martin delighted in popular regional hits such as ‘That’s Amore’. Elvis declared Martin to be another favourite European singer – but post-army, instead of accepting Martin’s TV offer, Elvis guested on Sinatra’s 1960 ‘Welcome Home Elvis’ TV special. This was despite Sinatra’s hitherto withering remarks on rock and roll. Perhaps Elvis represented a threat as the next in line – Sinatra had been one of the first teen idols in the US, after all.
A highlight of the show was the cool, tuxedo-clad duo swapping harmonies and trading songs – Presley sang ‘Witchcraft’ and Sinatra sang ‘Love Me Tender.’ The two forged a mutual admiration and remained in touch by ‘phone. Sinatra even loaned Elvis his jet for his 1967 wedding to Priscilla in Vegas. Sinatra’s daughter Nancy befriended Elvis and appeared in his 1968 film, ‘Speedway.’ Elvis would go on to overtake Sinatra’s title as the biggest entertainer in Vegas. Some critics considered Elvis started to sound like Dean Martin towards the end of his career. Certainly he sounds Italian style operatic on anthems, ‘Hurt,’ ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and ‘You Gave Me a Mountain.’ In the late ‘70s, Sinatra said: ‘I shall miss him dearly as a friend. He was a warm, considerate and generous man.’ Many people across the world would agree. The man is missed but the magical music lives on.
In tandem with Elvis fan clubs worldwide, several friendly Elvis societies exist in Italy. They include: www.elvis-friends.it; Elvis Friends Fan Club of Milan; Elvis Friends Fan Club Italia; Elvis Presley Fan Club of Italy; Elvis Presley Rock Fan Club; Elvis Pen Friends; Grazie Elvis; International Elvis Presley Fan Club of Italy; Old Shep – Elvis Presley Fan Club; www.elvis-in-italy.it; www.elvis-italian-collector-club.it. See www.italiamerica.org for more on Neapolitan/Italian music; www.youtube.co.uk for wide-ranging Elvis song clips.