The Dominance of Italian-American Singers in the Mid-20th Century

Rick Margin
12 min readJan 30, 2024

Before the birth of Rock & Roll in the mid-1950s, popular music was dominated by Big Bands from the 1930’s through the 1940s led by bandleaders like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and many others. They played jazz and swing music featuring vocalists like Dick Haymes, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and many others.

World War II stressed the availability of musicians and by the end of the war, swing bands slowly diminished in importance and their vocalists moved on to becoming soloists. They represented a cross section of American ethnic groups, but as they moved into the late 1940s and early 1950s, male Italian-American singers became by far the most dominant.

Why you ask? I’m speculating but I believe a few factors could be credited for their standout popularity. They all had great voices, delivery, classy showmanship and chose songs that were appropriate for their individual images. Most were heavily influenced by swooning vocal style of Bing Crosby (1903–1977) who proceeded them as America’s first multimedia star. They all began their career in the electronic media era beginning in radio and were very early TV performers. Some scored credible Hollywood movie acting roles and signature TV variety shows further hyping their public persona.

Here’s why that’s important. Unlike TV viewing today, one TV per household was the norm for most households until the 1970s. The three TV networks, which didn’t change until the early 1980s, provided programs that all ages could watch because the household watched together. So, young babyboomer’s were exposed to these older performers frequently. And record labels marketed all their pop music releases to AM stations until the early 1970s. All the Italian-American singers noted in this article had their songs played on the same radio stations and ranked on the same Billboard charts as acts like Elvis Presley and Beatles.

Francis “Frank” Albert Sinatra (1915–1998)

His mother immigrated from Northern Italy and his father from Sicily. He eventually was nicknamed the “Chairman of the Board” selling 150 million records and became a pioneer in multi-media stardom. His electronic media exposure began in the mid-1930’s with radio shows which eventually lead him to the Harry James Orchestra. By 1941 his popularity among teenage girls, known as “bobbysockers” soared and 2 years later “Sinatramania” officially arrived as he visited Los Angeles. He released his first solo album in 1946. Beginning in the early 1950s he began his film career and became a actor and stared in many successful movies and won the Academy Award for From Here To Eternity. During this same period, he had his own featured TV show The Frank Sinatra Show in the early years of this new media and was a frequent guest on many variety and late night shows from the 1950s through the 1970’s. As a recording artist his 1969 hit “My Way” spent an incredible 75 weeks in the Top 40. He scored several No1 hits including “Strangers in The Night” and “Something Stupid”. The latter he recorded it as a great duet with his daughter Nancy. It charted at No1 in 1967. His iconic movie-associated songs include “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” and “New York, New York”. He was included in Time magazine’s compilation of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people and received many other accolades.

Bing Crosby (left), Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in 1960s recording session.

Dino “Dean Martin” Paul Crocetti (1917–1995)

His mother was Italian-American, and his father immigrated from Italy. He was aptly nicknamed “The King of Cool” for his fun loving and relaxed on-stage personality. His professional entertainment career began in 1940 as a singer for a big band, whose leader suggested he change his name to Dean Martin. Fast forward to 1946 when he and comedian Jerry Lewis formed the Martin and Lewis music and comedy team. In 1949 they signed a contract for a series of movies, did TV and radio appearances, club dates but they grew apart and split in 1956 as a very financially successful team. He continued his acting and singing career with the release of the Italian pop song “Volare” in 1958. Meanwhile his acting career was ascending as he starred alongside Frank Sinatra in the same year and John Wayne a year later. He recorded 600 songs, but his signature tune was “Everybody Loves Somebody” which knocked the Beatles “A Hard Days Night” out of the No1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1964. In the next 6 years he placed 20 songs in the Top 10. In total. He sold 50 million records worldwide. My personal favorites are “Return To Me” and “Ain’t That A Kick in the Head”. His popular The Dean Martin Show ran from 1965–1974 and earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in 1966. In total he had 150 acting credits in movies ranging from spoofs, westerns, comedies and dramas. “Dino” was the real thing!

Perry Como (left) with Sinatra (right) in their early Big Band days.

Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como (1912–2001)

Like the previous singers, “Mr. C” was also an actor and sought after TV personality. His parents were both immigrants, so he was raised in Italian speaking household never learning English until he entered school. He was primarily a pop vocalist and sold a reported 100 million records worldwide. His singing career started in 1932 when he participated in what would be described as an ”open mic” performance, leading to him being hired professionally. In 1936 he joined a Chicago based band that had their own weekly radio program providing him national exposure. Ironically, in 1942 he was offered to be front man for a Sinatra imitation (i.e. tribute) band, but wisely said no, but he and Frank had already become friends. Both his solo recording and movie careers began in 1943, but the latter ended after only a few films due his disinterest in the roles he was given. His entry into TV began in 1949 when only 6 thousand households owned one but that swelled quickly to over half of American homes by 1955. A year later he landed his first signature program The Perry Como Chesterfield Show which was only a 15-minute variety show 3 nights a week followed by the evening news. From 1955–1959 he hosted The Perry Como Show, a very successful 1 hour variety show. He then changed sponsors for the Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall for the next 4 years. Eventually he became the highest paid performer in TV history in the 1960s. As a singer he had 14 No1 records between 1943 and 1957. He also had big hits with novelty songs like “Ko-Ko-Mo (I Love You So)” and “Papa Loves Mambo” and 1956’s rock n’ roll influenced “Juke Box Baby”. His last record to reach the Top 10, was his excellent 1970 cover version of “It’s Impossible”. Dean was properly labeled “Mr. Cool”, but in my opinion “Mr. C” could have been better described as “Mr. Casual”.

Fun Fact: Como had 12 brothers and sisters. One of his brothers was my High School Athletic Director and his son graduated with me. Perry and Dean grew up 25 miles apart in steel mill towns.

Tony and Lagy Gaga collaborated on a 2014 album.

Anthony “Tony” Dominick Benedetto “Bennett” (1926–2023)

His father was an Italian immigrant and his mother an Italian-American. Tony’s career was much less multimedia-based than the previous singers in that he didn’t do movies or have his own long duration TV variety show. As result, his star never rose to the heights of his older peers, but his late-life ability to remain relevant to younger audiences was unique. Upon his return from serving in WWII, he worked on vocal techniques which proved to be time well spent. They included bel canto, which kept his voice in good shape for many years and an approach of imitating the voices of different jazz artists playing their instrument. In 1949, Bob Hope saw him perform and decided to take him on the road where it was suggested shortening his name to Tony Bennett. He began his career as a crooner of pop songs and had his first No1 hit “Because of You” in 1951. In total he had 15 Top 20 hits, but commercially became less successful after 1963. His last 2 important hits included his signature song “I Left My Home in San Francisco” and [my favorite] “I Wanna Be Around” in that same year. It was during the 1950s that he began parallel career paths with pop and jazz. His TV career was comprised mostly of making guest appearances on other singers shows, but he did The Tony Bennet Show (1956), a summer replacement for The Perry Como Show. In 1959 he again filled in as the guest host for The Perry Como Show. In the 1970s he fell into depression and drugs, but bravely for him he reached out to his musician son for help in getting his life in order and their plan worked. It was simple — put Bennett and his traditional songs in front of younger audiences in an eclectic mix of media venues including Sesame Street, The Simpsons, MTV programs, alternative rock benefit concerts, Conan O’Brian, Unplugged to name a few. Oddly, he never released a No1 album until 2011 at the age of 85. He finished his recording career in 2021 with 5 Top 5 albums (all collaborative) stretching from 2006 to 2021. Bel Canto obviously worked.

Other Very Popular Italian-Americans in Popular Culture Who Were in Their Prime in The 1950s and 1960s.

Vic Damone (1928–2018) was a pop singer and actor with acting credits in both TV and film. As a singer he’s best known for his 1949 release of “You’re Breaking My Heart” which charted at No1. In the next 30 years he became a guest performer on every TV variety show. His acting career began with small roles in 1951, major roles in several mid-1950s movie musicals and dramatic role in 1960 with “Hell to Eternity”. In 1962 and 1963 he hosted the TV summer variety series The Lively Ones. He famously was offered the role of Johnny Fontaine in the Godfather but turned it down giving the role to Al Martino.

Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino) in the Godfather.

Al Martino (1927–2009) was a pop and jazz singer whose greatest success was between 1950 and 1975. He was a family friend of Mario Lanza who encouraged his early career. His 1952 release “Hear In My Heart” charted at No1. He built on his success with 3 more Top 40 but attracted the attention of the mafia causing him to move to Britain. After his return to the US in 1958 he had 5 Top 10 hit singles, a Top 10 album and sang the title song for 1964’s movie “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte”. His star power faded by the late 1960s.

Mario Lanza (1921–1959) was an opera singer and actor who at the time of his premature death at 39 was “the most famous tenor in the world”. His opera career began in 1942 and his Hollywood filming work began in 1947. His films were all romantic stories allowing him to feature his impressive vocal skills. His 1950 recording of “Be My Love” was the first 3 million-selling single.

Liberace (1919–1987) was a pianist, singer, and actor. His father was an Italian immigrant. At the height of his fame from the 1950s to the 1970s he was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world with concert residencies in Las Vegas and an frequent international touring schedule.

Rocky Marciano (1923–1969) held the world heavyweight title from 1952 to 1956 whose the only heavyweight champion to finish his career undefeated. His career knockout-to-win percentage of 88% remains one of the highest in heavyweight boxing history.

Marciano unloads on Jersey Joe Walcott, the current heavyweight champion in 1952.

Yogi Berra (1925–2015) was a professional baseball catcher and coach who played 19 seasons (1946–1963) and won 10 World Series Championships, more than any other player in major baseball league history.

Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999) was a professional baseball player for 13 years (1936–1951, he served in WWII for 3 years) and is considered one of the greatest of all time. He’s best known for setting the record for the longest hitting streak (56 games) in baseball, which still stands today. During his career he won 9 World Series Championships.

Yogi and Joe celebrating a win.

Willie Mosconi (1913–1993) was a 15-time World Billiard Champion nicknamed “Mr. Pocket Billiards”. Between 1941–1957, he won the World Straight Pool Championship 19 times. His name became synonymous with pool in North America.

Guy Lombardo (1902–1977) was the Big Band leader which annually played on New Year’s Eve at Times Square. Their shows were first carried on radio and later TV for nearly 50 years beginning in 1929. As a result of his popularity, by 1954 the band’s record sales exceeded 100 million. His New Year’s program was eventually overtaken by Dick Clark’s New Year’s program, which continues today.

Connie Francis (1937) was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero to an Italian-American family and sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide. She was the first female in history to reach No1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her pop recording career began in the mid-1950s scoring her first Top 5 hit “Who’s Sorry Now” which was followed by 13 other Top 10 songs. She also appeared in a few movies and was the singing voice only in others. Her career declined in the mid-1960s.

The Four Seasons (1960–1977) was an American pop rock and doo-wop band composed of 4 New Jersey Italian-Americans led by singer Frankie Valli. They were among the most successful American bands in the 1960s selling 100 million records. Their distinctive harmonies, Valli’s falsetto vocals and the originality of their songs, most written by band member Bob Gaudio, separated them from most other groups. They had 4 Top 10 albums from 1960–1964, 4 No1 singles beginning with “Sherry” and 13 Top 10 hits from 1962–1967. The documentary-style play Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in 2005 earning it a Tony Award for Best Musical and 7 other nominations in 2006. After 4,6542 performances, it closed in 2017.

Fun Fact: While filming the film Ocean’s 11 in Las Vegas in 1960 Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and 3 other movie cast members took over the Sands Hotel & Casino performing to an estimated 34,000 fans over a 4 week period. In 2023, 42 million tourists visited Las Vegas, many of them taking in shows such as The Rat Pack Is Back, a celebration of their 1960 shows.

Edit: Louie Prima (1910–1978) had Italian immigrants as parents and was a high-energy bandleader who used an eclectic variety of genres to set himself apart from other bands. I didn’t include him in the original article because he was not all that well know in the mainstream entertainment business. He had 2 Top 20 records and acted in a few minor movies. But I forgot that he was the songwriter for one of the most important songs in the Big Band era-”Sing, Sing, Sing”. Benny Goodman’s cover version and live jazz concert in Carnegie Hall in 1937 has been credited for awakening the animal spirits of a younger audience with this unusual African-influenced instrumental. The live version of the song lasted an unheard of 12 minutes and caused members of the audience to begin dancing extemporaneously in the aisles of the staid venue. I think he deserves acknowledgement.

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Rick Margin

A curious guy interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625