Talented Italian-American balladeer who never reached the heights of Sinatra after he fell out with the Mob
Published 10/07/2011 | 05:00
Jimmy Roselli, who died on June 30 aged 85, was an Italian-American balladeer known as "the other Sinatra"; many considered him to be the better of the two, but he never reached the heights of fame achieved by "Ole Blue Eyes" because he fell out with the Mob.
The composer Sammy Cahn said that Roselli had "a larger, richer voice than Frank. He's a miracle" -- and Roselli's fans saw him as a sort of Mozart to Sinatra's Salieri.
Unlike Sinatra, who could not even speak Italian, Roselli sang in perfect Neapolitan dialect. His Mala Femmina became a sort of Italian-American national anthem (later featured in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets) and it was his maudlin Little Pal ("Little Pal, if Daddy goes away/Promise you'll be good from day to day"), rather than Sinatra's My Way, that reduced the likes of Carmine "the Snake" Persico, Sam "Momo" Giancana or Carlo Gambino to tears. The mobster Larry Gallo was buried with one of his records, though the singer once complained: "Every time they write a book, by the time you get to the fourth page there's a dead guy in a car with my tapes beside him. . ."
During his heyday in the Sixties, when he was billed as "The Dynamic Belter of Song", Roselli played to sell-out audiences in the States. His There Must Be a Way became a hit in Britain and he performed at the London Palladium and Royal Albert Hall.
From 1969, however, Roselli all but disappeared. Bookings dried up. Radio stations stopped playing his songs and his records vanished from stores. According to Roselli, the sudden reversal came about when Sinatra's mother Dolly (the Sinatras were neighbours in Hoboken, New Jersey) sent around two sidekicks to ask him whether he would sing at a charity concert she was organising. Insulted that she did not come herself, Roselli replied: "Tell her I've got to get $25,000, and she's got to pay for the orchestra."
Roselli's claim that a furious Sinatra then arranged for his Mafia pals to torpedo his career was subsequently backed up by New York investigators. As a result, it was Sinatra who became the most famous Italian-American crooner from Hoboken.
Michael John Roselli was born at Hoboken on December 26, 1925, a block away from Frank Sinatra, his senior by 10 years. He grew up living with his grandfather, after his mother died and his father abandoned his family.
To help make ends meet, the young Jimmy obtained a shoeshine box which he lugged around local bars and began singing for change. Aged 13 he won an NBC radio singing competition, and by the time he returned from wartime service, he was a master of everything from saloon songs to jazz standards to traditional Neapolitan bel canto.
Aged 21, Roselli was given a booking in Boston, opening for Jimmy Durante, who was so impressed that he invited the young man to share his suite. Within a few years Roselli was performing on the radio and in clubs, at the weddings of Mafia dons and at Carnegie Hall. He recorded more than 35 bestselling albums for United Artists.
In his authorised biography of the singer, Making the Wiseguys Weep, David Evanier suggested that it was Roselli's self-destructive streak as much as the Mob that held back his career. He turned down a role in The Godfather Part II, as well as appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, because they would not pay what he thought he was worth. He walked out of a seven-show stint on The Ed Sullivan Show after only three appearances .
In the Nineties it appears that Roselli settled his differences with the Mob. He returned to the performing circuit, earning up to $100,000 a time.
Jimmy Roselli is survived by his second wife, Donna, and by a daughter.