You Have Set My Heart On Fire

I have had several friends that were Italian and I have always liked Italian food.  I always wanted to go to Rome and see all the different architectural styles like Roman, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical.  I watched all three of the Godfather movies and I understand that family life is very important to Italians.  I am not that big on opera, but there are a lot of Italian singers that I admire like Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Liza Minnelli, Frankie Valli, Jim Croce, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Annette Funicello, Cyndi Lauper, Don McLean, Madonna and Laura Nyro.  Wait, I forgot Louis Prima a trumpet player and singer who made prominent use of Italian music and language in his songs, blending elements of his Italian identity with jazz and swing music.

After World War II, Louis Prima scored a number of hits that played up his Italian heritage, especially with the humorous song ‘Angelina’, from his 1973 album of Italian novelty songs and it might be a coincidence, but his beloved mother had the same name.  Prima was born on December 7, 1910 and he came from a musical Italian American family in New Orleans. His father, Anthony Prima, was the son of a Sicilian immigrant, while his mother, Angelina Caravella had immigrated from Ustica as a baby. ‘Angelina’ contains similarities to ‘Che La Luna Mezzo Mare, which is popularly known as ‘The Butcher Boy Song’, but probably better known as the wedding song played in Godfather I, plus ‘Felicia No Capicia’ which has a line it about a girl spending “the weekend eating chicken cacciatore” and ‘Please No Squeeza Da Banana’, an Italian folk song that can make anyone laugh.  Prima has a special way of utilizing the double entendre that only a guy with his boundless, boyish good humor and charm could pull off.

Louis Prima swung his way to icon status thanks to an irresistible, infectious sound whose appeal translated across generations. Prima spent his formative years soaking in the jazz of New Orleans that boiled up around him.  By the 1930s he had made a name for himself as a hot-handed young trumpeter in his own right.  Prima set out for the bright lights of a bigger city to seek his fortune.  In 1934, he moved to New York, at the urging of star bandleader Guy Lombardo, who had been impressed with Prima’s trumpet playing, where he and his combo helped transform 52nd Street into the fabled “Swing Street”.  When an offer came for him to headline his own club, the Famous Door, in Los Angeles, he accepted and moved west.  As a bandleader, he thrived on the dynamics of call-and-response.  He’d lock in with one of his musicians, holding his trumpet to his lips with his left hand, spurring on the other player with his right, matching him lick for lick.

His act drew big crowds.  Women lined up for his autograph.  Life was good, as he dated Jean Harlow and other Hollywood starlets.  When the big band sound overwhelmed the small, New Orleans-style combos, Prima made the transition smoothly.  In the 1940s he recorded for heavyweight RCA Records.  He took his big band on the road, filling lavish theaters around the country.  He would orchestrate an entire show with his hands, down to the smallest detail, and throw himself into the show.  In the late 1940s, after three divorces, he met a young singer named Keely Smith.  He added Smith to his band, and eventually married her.  His greatest period of popularity coincided with his marriage to singer Keely Smith, whose coolly sophisticated vocals and detached stage manner made a perfect counterpoint to Prima’s boisterous presence, his clowning, and cavorting around the stage with the boundless enthusiasm of a hyperactive boy.  Prima parlayed her initial shyness into a stage routine where he attempted to break down her icily reserved façade.  The contrast in their styles made for immediate chemistry, and Smith’s boyish haircut only added to the duo’s distinctive stage presence.

As big bands fell out of vogue, he assembled a smaller unit in Las Vegas.  In 1954, he recruited tenor saxophonist Sam Butera from brother Leon Prima’s 500 Club on Bourbon Street, and the combo, the Witnesses, caught fire.  Sam Butera and the Witnesses was the swing and jazz band that played mostly as the backup band for Louis Prima during those heyday years in Las Vegas.  Forces much larger than Louis Prima forever altered popular culture in the early 1960s, as by the end of the war, swing started giving way to less danceable music, such as bebop.  Many of the great swing bands broke up, as the times and tastes had changed.  The British Invasion rendered the likes of Prima, Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett yesterday’s news.  The major record labels stopped returning his calls.

In 1962, Prima formed his own label, hiring a new female vocalist, Gia Maione, who became his fifth wife in 1963 and they lived outside Vegas in an area called Paradise Valley, on the old highway to Los Angeles.  He installed an office and recording studio on their 70-acre spread on Warm Springs Road and launched Prima Magnagroove Records in 1963.  He, Butera and the Witnesses recorded the song ‘Angelina’, among others there.  He spent the last three years of his life in a coma, after undergoing an operation for the removal of a brain tumor in 1975, from which he never regained consciousness.  The nightmare finally ended when Prima succumbed to pneumonia on Aug. 24, 1978.

‘Angelina’ was written by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts.  ‘Angelina’ is a typical old school Italian-American song that combines English, Italian, and bastardized Italian words in such a delicious and irresistible way!  The narrator is in love with Angelina, who works as a waitress at a pizzeria and he mentions that he eats antipasta there, because Angelina is so nice. Antipasto means literally “before the meal”, a time where salads are typically served.  It is an Italian platter of cured meats, various cheeses and marinated vegetables served as a first course before the entrée.  The word antipasta that is used in this song, is an erroneous colloquialism for antipasto, a mistranslation of “before the pasta”.  Unlike hors d’oeuvres or appetizers, antipasti is served before traditional Italian meals to stimulate the appetite.

He states that he has given “up soup and minestrone Just to be with her alone”.  There are some pseudo Italian lyrics like “Ti vol-glio be-ne”, which basically means I love you and it is often used as an affirmation of affection or deep caring, non romantic, to a friend, a lover, or a family member.  “E vol-glio be-ne” does not seem to have a translation, but the Italian word “bene” means well.  I was also not able to get anything from “E un pas-sio-ne”.  In English, he says that he adores Angelina, he lives for her and she sets his heart on fire.  He must sing while he is in this pizzeria, because he seems disappointed that Angelina never listens to his song.  He hopes that she’ll be his My Car-ra mi-a, which means beloved and ‘Cara Mia’ was a song that was made popular by Jay and the Americans in 1965.  I am more of a tortoni (ice cream made with eggs and cream, typically served in a small cup and topped with chopped almonds or crumbled macaroons) guy, but perhaps he eats spumoni (molded gelato made with layers of different colors and flavors, usually containing candied fruits and nuts), because it rhymes with matrimony.

I eat antipasta twice
Just because she is so nice, Angelina
Angelina, the waitress at the pizzeria

I give up soup and minestrone
Just to be with her alone, Angelina
Angelina, the waitress at the pizzeria

Ti vol-glio be-ne
Angelina I adore you
E vol-glio be-ne
Angelina I live for you

E un pas-sio-ne
You have set my heart on fire
But Angelina
Never listens to my song

I eat antipasta twice
Just because she is so nice, Angelina
Angelina, waitress at the pizzeria

If she’ll be a my My Car-ra mi-a
Then I’ll join in matrimony
With a girl who serves spumoni
And Angelina will be mine!

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