The following blog post was published June 9, 2008. Jimmy Roselli died June 30, 2011.
Hoboken has music in its bones.
In the 1930’s there was a little Italian boy with a shoeshine box and a voice like an angel, and everybody in the neighborhood knew he was as good as they come. His mother had died when he was two days old; his father had no use for him;he was living in a crowded flat with his grandfather, four aunts and two uncles, dirt-poor but Italian-happy. He was destined to live a life in show business and on the edge of the mob.
Jimmy Roselli was a child with a broken heart. Raised by a stern elderly immigrant grandfather with a strong sense of right and wrong, he had a chip on his shoulder from the first. His aunts, teenaged girls with a domineering Italian father, indulged and nurtured him, but were not charged with real parental duties. Nobody was. Jimmy’s father, a former boxer, worked as a bartender but wanted nothing to do with him. When taken to visit his mother’s family, his grandmother would come at him with “How’s that rotten bastard, your father?” and treat the boy as if he was in some way responsible for the behavior of his old man.
Like a lot of boys in Hoboken, Roselli looked up to the tough guys, talked like one of them, and affected the swaggering, street-fighting style that was considered cool among his peers at the time.
Italian was spoken at home; Neapolitan dialect, to be exact. Jimmy was submerged in the culture and mores of the old country, but he was very much a street kid of Hoboken. He supplemented the meager family income by singing as he shined shoes, and getting pretty good tips. Jimmy learned to sing the old Italian songs and to give them his all – both his emotions and his natural born legato. His rendering of this music was and still is profoundly moving to the Italians who had heard their mothers and grandmothers sing it. And, with his honeyed voice melting into the song, you don’t have to be Italian to get it.
Frank Sinatra also was Italian from Hoboken, but he had not endured the hard knocks from birth that Jimmy had. Sinatra was beginning to make it big when Roselli was in his early teens. In Making the Wiseguys Weep/The Jimmy Roselli Story, by David Evanier, Roselli relates a tale of singing on the corner with his shine box when Sinatra drove by. “Sinatra got out of the car. He had ten years on me. He had one of those collars that stick out, and a sleeveless sweater. He stops, stands there, and he’s listening. He hands me one of his cards and says, ‘I want you to come to my house.’ I went home, cleaned up, shined, put a clean shirt on. When I got there, he sat down and played the piano with one finger and had me sing the scales. He was amazed at my two-octave range. He said, ‘Christ, listen to this kid,’ I never heard from him no more after that.”
There would be more Sinatra stories in Jimmy Roselli’s life, and many brushes with the wise guys, who came to represent family to Roselli. “Family” to Roselli was not simple; it meant deep ambivalance and conflict as well as what he came to regard as love. Unlike Sinatra, he could not leave Hoboken and its criminal element behind, nor could he have it both ways by endearing himself to wise guys and legit music businessmen, as well as a public of his own. His Hoboken ties and touchy personality kept him bound as a small town guy with a following of shady characters along with a huge audience of Italians from New Jersey and New York who just loved his singing.
Dolly Sinatra had him sing at her granddaughter Nancy’s 15th birthday party. Later, when she wanted him to sing for a benefit event, he was miffed she didn’t call him herself to ask. The misunderstanding between them, compounded by a number of similar dust-ups, was enough for Frank to write him off for good. According to Roselli, Sinatra was to block him from radio play at the influential New York radio station WNEW and was a constant thorn in his side in the business. The feud with the powerful star could not have helped him in any way, but, given the nature of the two men, it was inevitable.
The Hoboken library, which has a large CD collection and an impressive number of Sinatra’s, has only one Jimmy Roselli. It has no copy of the Evanier book. I checked out the CD and ordered the book, which I had them transfer from another library. I listened to the songs and read the book. I am intrigued by the man’s vocal instrument and by the behavior that thwarted success every time it came near. He couldn’t tolerate what he considered low pay -- not even when building his career, refusing jobs with such names as Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan -- making scenes and hurling insults because he was asked to work for scale.
His name is a household word in the Italian American community, but his life has been complicated by something of a love-hate relationship with organized crime,sometimes being buddies with some of its members but always mistrustful and often betrayed by them. He would work with the mob as he had to. He often behaved like one of them. Belligerent, confrontational and easily bruised, Roselli himself marvels that he wasn’t whacked at an early age, but unlike Sinatra, who played the game and won, Roselli was just as likely to ruin things for himself with the bosses by making demands – a 40-piece orchestra, payment up front – and turn their language back on them if he didn’t like the way he was treated.
“I’m gonna kill you someday, kid. I’ll take a bat – “
“Big fucking deal,” Roselli said. “What am I, a tough guy? You’ll put me out of my misery.”
He had talent and attitude, but not necessarily the feel for the big time that Sinatra did. He would invariably choose corny old songs, the kind his grandfather and he used to hear at the Rialto in Hoboken in the early 1930’s, or something from the sentimental Italian canon about lovers dying and mothers sacrificing. He loved songs like “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Little Pal,”“When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” (the latter two I haven’t yet heard). His songs, his delivery, and the passion in his voice, do make people cry. He can sell out a room of 20,000, and have them all in tears. They keep coming back.
The story is that the wise guys didn’t wipe him out because their wives and mothers wouldn’t let them. That was one reason there were guys in the audience crying too. A very big talent, a very complicated man, and a voice for the ages. His CD's are still out there, and he is too. See for yourself.