Behind the Hits: Lou Monte’s ‘Lazy Mary’ Part Two

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Lou Monte album cover.

Lou Monte album cover.

Welcome to part two of four of my Behind the Hits story of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Lou Monte[/lastfm]‘s “Lazy Mary” in honor of the San Gennaro Festival.

If you haven’t read la prima parte, you can go HERE. If you have, let’s continue…

Get set for a long and fascinating journey, starting with a Sicilian sailor named Paolo Citorello.

Paolo would pass the time on long voyages by playing and singing folk songs from his native land. Since he didn’t read music he strummed his guitar by ear, singing what he could remember and improvising the rest. After one memorable ocean trip, in the late 1920s, he returned with what he viewed as his own composition of one of those songs: “Luna Mezzo Mare.” The singing seaman from Sicily auditioned it for the Italian Book Company, who also made phonograph records. They arranged and copyrighted the song for him, although it’s not clear how much of the tune Citorello adapted and how much was from an older source. Did young Paolo ever frequent the opera house? Had he ever heard a certain work by composer Gioachino Rossini, famous for “The Barber of Seville” and “The William Tell Overture” (which we know as the Lone Ranger’s theme)?

As early as 1835, Rossini had written “La Danza”, a Neapolitan Tarantella with the opening line: Già la luna in mezzo al mare, mamma mia… But the bulk of Rossini’s lyrics were about the sensuousness of the dance, not about the right type of man to marry. The much naughtier folk lyrics weren’t written down, reportedly, until 1871. In any case, the tune underwent a revival due to Paolo’s new interpretation, so much so that a very similar song was quickly copyrighted. It was called “Mamma Mia M’ha Maritari” which is the line in the lyrics after C’e la luna mezzo mare. A lawsuit soon followed and Citorello’s side won. The court ruled that the other song was copied from the copyrighted “Luna,” not from the original folk song.

Soon after the initial copyright, recordings of various versions of the tune began to be made and released in the United States. Spelling his last name “Citarella,” Brunswick records put out Paolo’s rendition as “Luna Mezzomare” in September of 1927. As was common at the time, other versions were recorded for other companies. Two more Citarella releases of the same song, but with titles taken from different lines in it, appeared a few years later: “Mamma a cu Maddari” on Okeh in 1929 and “Mi Vulissi Maritari” on Odeon in 1930. The lyrics were moving between Italian regional dialects, creating many different spellings of the title and its variations, including Paolo Dones recording for Columbia “A Luna ‘Mmenzu ‘u Mari”; as “Mi Vogghiu Maritari” by Rosina (Trubia) Gioiosa was another Brunswick release, with Gioiosa credited as the writer. Joining the crowd were Silvia Coruzzolo on Victor with “A Luna Mezzo o’ Mare” and still another Columbia release, an instrumental “La Luna in Mezzo al Mare (A Luna Mmezzu ‘u Mari)” by I Diavoli with the Rossi Orchestra.

All of this was part of a flourishing of Italian music from approximately 1894 to 1942. In their book Italian-American Folklore (1992, August House Inc., Little Rock), Frances M. Malpezzi and William M. Clements point out that some 473 individuals and ensembles made Italian-American records in that time-frame, more than any other non-English-speaking group in the United States. The authors include the song they call “E la Luna Mezzu Mari” and write:

A text of this almost infinitely expandable song was collected from Sicilians in Tampa, Florida, in the late 1930s… (It) begins with a daughter’s questioning her mother about possible marital prospects. In successive stanzas the mother runs through the list of potential husbands: the fisherman, the meatcutter, the fruitseller, and the bookkeeper. She bawdily emphasizes the phallic nature of the objects (fish, sausage, banana, and pencil) associated with their occupations that they will always have with them. The song can continue indefinitely as the mother thinks of more eligible bachelors to list.

But “Luna Mezzo Mare” might have had its day in the sun as only a favorite recording of Italian immigrants in the United States if it weren’t for a singer who rose to fame in the early ’20s at Yale University and began his career singing through a megaphone at the Heigh Ho Club in New York City:[lastfm link_type="artist_info"] Rudy Vallee[/lastfm].

Come back tomorrow for part three!


More Behind the Hits with Bob Shannon >

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