Amore: The Story of Italian American Song by Mark Rotella; Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 300 pages ($28). Let's admit right away that there is a small shortfall between the dazzle of this book's thesis and the writer's execution. And let's admit, just as quickly, that it just doesn't matter because Rotella was onto something from the beginning and never, as the saying goes, dropped the ball for a second.
The basic idea? That there was an "Italian decade" in mid-20th century America during which "Italian Americans entered mainstream culture roughly and generously from 1947 to 1964; musically from the end of the big bands to the Beatles, or more specifically, from Frank Sinatra's last No. 1 hit before his comeback to the heyday of the rat pack." And this, says Rotella -- who wrote "Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria" -- is "my Top 40 list of Italian American hits" from a prerock period where they were the very air American pop music breathed, whether we're talking about Dean Martin's "That's Amore," Louis Prima's shuffle-beat classic medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody," Lou Monte's "Italian Style" version of "The Darktown Strutters Ball" and all those remarkable Italian-American singers who followed Frank Sinatra onto hit parades and/or the aeries of musical show biz: Perry Como, Vic Damone, Frankie Laine, Al Martino, Tony Bennett, Joni James (Giovanna Carmela Baffo at birth), Connie Francis, Bobby Darin, etc.
There was once an army of them, giving us updates of 6/8 Tarantellas or the Italian notion of "sprezzatura" ("making hard work look easy") that helped give American life the cardinal notion of "cool." And Rotella is splendidly anecdotal and specific about it all throughout this treasure house. What it sometimes lacks in depth, it makes up five times over in personal charm. Who can resist a guy who spends a sweltering time in Las Vegas trying to set up an interview with the great and notably wary Sam Butera, the lounge maestro whose jump blues band the Witnesses gave second life to the greatest years of the sublime Louis Prima? Not me. I won't tell you Rotella's punch line to his Butera story, but it's a beauty.