Jimmy Roselli, an Italian-American singer whose recording of signature tune “Mala Femmina” was featured twice in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” died on Thursday, June 30, from heart complications. He was 85.
Roselli lived in the shadow of Frank Sinatra. The two singers were raised five houses apart in Hoboken, N.J., and each got his break while in his teens on radio show “Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour.” David Evanier, who penned the 1998 Roselli biography “Making the Wiseguys Weep,” declared in the book’s opening line, “Jimmy Roselli is Hoboken’s other great singer.”
The Roselli fans who authored the Wikipedia entry on him assert his superiority to Sinatra with this sentence: “Unlike Sinatra, who rarely recorded in Italian and could not speak his mother tongue, Roselli sings in perfect Neapolitan dialect.”
Roselli and Sinatra shared a lifelong enmity — mentioned even in the press release announcing Roselli’s death — which Roselli partisans assert is one reason he never became more successful than he was. The other reason, they say: He, unlike Sinatra, refused to play ball with the mob.
As the New York Times’ Vincent Patrick noted in his review of Evanier’s bio, however, Roselli had a certain perverse streak that made it difficult for him to get along with anybody: “He turned down the role of Peppino, the Neapolitan singer in ‘The Godfather Part II,’ as well as appearances on Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’ and ‘Regis and Kathie Lee,’ because none of them would pay what he thought he was worth.”
Roselli appeared three times on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but walked off after a perceived slight. Sullivan said, “It’s exposure, Jimmy,” to which Roselli responded, “I got so much exposure, I’m gonna catch pneumonia.”
He was nevertheless a talented singer with a natural tenor voice — he never took lessons — who found a certain level of success.
Michael John Roselli started singing at the age of 9 in local saloons and restaurants. He had his break on the radio at age 14, too young to tour, and he didn’t really resume his career until after his military service ended in 1945.
Roselli sang American standards but specialized in the old songs of Naples. In Paolo Santoni’s 2002 Italian documentary “Neapolitan Heart,” about this cherished regional form on Italian music, the prominently featured Roselli exclaims, “To sing Neapolitan songs, first of all, you need heart. Then a brain, then a voice and — balls.”
The crooner cultivated not only Italian-American fans but, through his appearances in the Catskills, Jewish ones as well.
Roselli signed with United Artist Records in the early 1960s. His recording of the classic Neapolitan song “Mala Femmina” (Bad Woman) was the only non-English song to make the charts when it was released nationwide in 1965. He then followed with such hits as “Aneme’ Core” and “Old Wedding Ring.” He had a hit single in the U.K., “There Must Be a Way.” Roselli, his agent claimed, was the first to sell out two shows on a Monday night at Carnegie Hall in 1966. He also sold out shows at New York’s Palace Theater and Copacabana, the Sands in Las Vegas, and London’s Palladium and Royal Albert Hall.
The singer recorded a theme for the 1966 movie “Africa Addio” with the Rome Symphony, conducted by Riz Ortolani, composer of “More.” He also recorded the title song for the film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” starring Gina Lollabrigida.
Ultimately, Roselli had a lucrative career, commanding “top pay of anywhere from $65,000 to $120,000 per night based on the venue,” according to his agent.
Perhaps Roselli’s inclusion in his act of the song “My Way” best summed up his career. The tune, with its famous lyrics by Paul Anka, has been used by many — including Sid Vicious — to establish a singer’s individualistic, even contrarian attitude. And yet it was also the signature song of Frank Sinatra.
Roselli’s opening acts included comedians Rodney Dangerfield, Pat Henry, Myron Cohen, Lou Carey, Jackie Mason and Ray Romano.
Jimmy Roselli retired in 2004. He leaves behind his wife, Donna; a daughter; and a grandson.
A funeral mass will be held Tuesday, July 5, at 10 a.m. at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Hoboken, N.J. (201-659-1114)
Donations may be made to the American Heart Assn.