O Sole Mio

We’re delighted to present another live-performance edition of our Song of the Week, marking the death one hundred years ago of a composer whose name you may not know but whose best known composition you certainly will – even if you only know it in various pop iterations from Elvis and Dino and others. When actor-director-singer-author-sculptor-goodfella Paul Sorvino and his wife Dee Dee dropped by The Mark Steyn Show, I was surprised to discover that, of all the thousands of singers who’ve sung this song, Paul has a unique connection to it, as we’ll hear.

Eduardo di Capua was born in Naples in 1865 and died there exactly a century ago – October 3rd 1917. He was a Neapolitan who wrote Neapolitan songs, some of which traveled a long way from Napoli – “O Marie” was a hit for Louis Prima and others, and, retooled as “It’s Now or Never”, today’s song became a worldwide smash for Elvis Presley. But it took a long and tortuous path before it fell into the hands of the King in Graceland. “It’s Now Or Never” has its origins in …go on, take a wild guess.

Naples?

Close. The Ukraine.

According to one version of events, one bright morning in 1898, Eduardo di Capua was in Odessa on vacation and, as the sunlight streamed through his hotel room, it made him homesick for “his” sun – the sun of Naples. Back home in Italy, he got to work at the piano, with his faithful assistant Alfredo Mazzucchi (of whom more later) sitting alongside him. According to another version, di Capua and the poet Giovanni Capurro had a more precise inspiration for the song in a member of Paul Sorvino’s family. Click below to hear Paul tell me the story and sing the song – and afterwards I’ll explore what’s happened to it in the 119 years since:

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We’re not transcribing Paul’s performance into print, because we don’t think that would do it justice. But, if you’re in the mood for a block of text, here’s my take on what’s happened to the song in the years since the tune slipped beyond the Sorvinos’ kith and kin. Paul was singing Signor Capurro’s lyric:

Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole
N’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa
Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole

Ma n’atu sole
cchiù bello, oje ne’
O Sole Mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
O Sole, O Sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
sta ‘nfronte a te!

“O Sole Mio” isn’t “O My Sun”. The Neapolitan “O” translates to the Italian “Il”, so the phrase is closer to “My Own Sun”. A rough-and-ready translation would go something like:

A thing of beauty is a day of sunshine
The air’s serener now the storm is over
The air is so fresh it feels like fiesta
A thing of beauty is a day of sunshine

But another sun
That’s brighter still
It’s My Own Sun
That’s upon your face!
The sun, yes, My Own Sun
It’s upon your face!
It’s upon your face!

But, of course, whatever the literal meaning, the “O” of “O Sole Mio” is aurally very appealing. In 1921, William Booth Clibborn, grandson of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote the hymn “Down From His Glory” and set it to “O Sole Mio”. But notice how, in a text otherwise unconnected with the original, he retains that big “O”:

O how I love Him!
How I adore Him!
My breath, my sunshine
My all in all…

By then, “O Sole Mio” was the most famous Neapolitan song on the planet, and so explicitly linked with a particular place that you can’t help but wonder why Booth Clibborn thought he could simply annex the tune and abolish all its associations. Indeed, the previous year, at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, the Belgian band had been unable to find a copy of the Kingdom of Italy’s actual national anthem and played “O Sole Mio” to accompany an Italian medalist’s trip to the podium. Nobody minded. Everybody loved it.

Charles W Harrison recorded the first English-language version in 1915, but the anglophone lyric never really caught on. Half a century after Giovanni Capurro wrote the original text and several thousand miles west, three savvy Tin Pan Alleymen figured there might be a market for a real English lyric – not just a translation, but an authentic Anglo-American pop song. Al Hoffmann was a potent hit maker and king of the novelty song: His catalogue includes “Mairzy Doats (and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey)”, “Hot Diggety (dog ziggety boom! what you do to me)”, “Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen By The Sea”, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, “Papa Loves Mambo”, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”, “Black-Eyed Susan Brown”, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked A Cake (Howdja do? Howdja do? Howdja do?)”, etc, etc. But he also wrote that beautiful Sinatra ballad, “Close To You”. Leon Carr and Leo Corday are best remembered for their TV jingles, such as Dinah Shore’s longtime theme song, “See The USA In Your Chevrolet”. But in 1949 Hoffman, Carr and Corday came together to transform “O Sole Mio” into one of the first of an entire series of big arioso Italiano love songs that proved solid Hit Parade fodder through the Fifties. The big balladeer who cleaned up with the song was Tony Martin:

There’s No Tomorrow
When love is new
Now is forever
When love is true
So kiss me and hold me tight
There’s No Tomorow
There’s just tonight!

It was a solid hit – Number Two on the Billboard chart – and got picked up by a few other singers, including his fellow (but considerably more Italian) Martin, Dean.

Fast forward a decade. A young man called Elvis Presley is serving in the United States Army and has temporarily put his rockin’ an’ a-rollin’ on hold. And one day, on the base over in Germany, he chances to hear Tony Martin’s old hit record, and he likes it – so much that he makes a private recording of the song just for himself.

Not long after, Freddie Bienstock, his music publisher back in the States, flew over to see Elvis, and the young soldier told him that he really loved “There’s No Tomorrow”. He was looking ahead to getting discharged and back to the music business, and asked Bienstock to get somebody to write him some new lyrics for the tune. “Why don’t you just record the Tony Martin lyrics?” the publisher asked. Elvis said he didn’t like ’em. So Bienstock flew back to America and to the offices of Hill & Range Music. He might have run into some of the company’s other staffers, such as Ben Weisman, Ben Wise and Dolores Fuller, writers of “Rock-A-Hula Baby“. But, as it happens, the only guys who were around that day were Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder. Gold was a former sax player and member of the vocal quartet the Four Esquires who’d decided to try his hand at songwriting (he would go on to compose Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”). As for Aaron Schroeder, his career goes back to “At A Sidewalk Penny Arcade”, the song he wrote for the B-side of Rosemary Clooney’s first solo record. In the decades that followed, he discovered Gene Pitney and teamed him up with Bacharach & David for “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and he helped launch Barry White’s career after White, languishing in prison for stealing tires, heard an Aaron Schroeder song that he claimed changed his life. But, to be honest, if I had to name my own favorite Aaron Schroeder song it would be a goofy novelty number written with Guy Wood (composer of that luminous Sinatra ballad “My One And Only Love”) that got tricked out in a wild Nelson Riddle arrangement complete with swingin’ soundbites from “La Marseillaise” and transformed into a zany single for Frank in 1958:

If you turn me down once more I’ll join the French Foreign Legion
Bet you they would welcome me with open arms
First you love me, yes; then you love me, no
I don’t know where I stand
Do we march together down the aisle
Or do I march that desert sand?

Delightful as that is, it’s not a song to rest your royalties on. So today Aaron Schroeder’s reputation as a writer rests mainly on the five Number One hits he wrote for Elvis Presley – “A Big Hunk O’ Love”, “Good Luck Charm”, “I Got Stung”, “Stuck On You”, and the biggest of the lot:

It’s Now Or Never
Come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling
Be mine tonight…

It was Elvis’ biggest hit, selling some 25 million copies worldwide, Number One for five weeks in the US and for eight weeks in Britain. For the rest of his life it was Presley’s personal favorite out of all his records. And it was “It’s Now Or Never” that spurred Barry White’s Pauline prison conversion from a life of crime to a life of heavy-breathing luuuuuurv ballads.

“We were the only ones sitting in the office,” recalled Wally Gold of the day Freddie Bienstock commissioned the song. “We jumped in a cab to go back to Aaron’s studio. We got the title in the cab, the melody was already written, and in half an hour we knocked off the lyric.” Considering that the only reason they needed a new lyric was that Elvis didn’t like the old lyric, you can’t help noticing that the new text is basically the old text cranked up a notch, but starting with the same central idea. “There’s No Tomorrow”? In other words:

It’s Now Or Never
Come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling
Be mine tonight
Tomorrow will be too late
It’s Now Or Never
My love won’t wait!

But it’s not just the chorus. The verse of “It’s Now Or Never” even uses the same rhymes as the verse of “There’s No Tomorrow”. Here’s Tony Martin in 1950:

Love is a flower
That blooms so tender
Each kiss a dew drop
Of sweet surrender…

And here’s Elvis a decade later:

When I first saw you
With your smile so tender
My heart was captured
My soul surrendered…

But, if either Freddie Bienstock or Elvis Presley noticed the similarities, they didn’t care. Gold and Schroeder returned to the Hill & Range office that same day and sang their new version to Bienstock. “Terrific!” he said. “Go do a demo.” In March 1960, Elvis left the army. On April 3rd, he was in RCA’s Nashville studios for a marathon recording session for a post-military album called Elvis Is Back. Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins were the producers, and they knew they had a hit with “It’s Now Or Never”. It entered the Hot 100 in July and hit Number One in August.

By 1960, “O Sole Mio” was out of copyright in the United States so any Tom, Dick or Harry was free to write a new lyric to it. Under British Commonwealth and European law, however, the original was still protected by copyright, and a legal dispute held up the release of “Now Or Never” through the summer and early autumn. By the time the song was released in November, demand was so huge that it entered the British charts at Number One and stayed there for two months. It was the fastest-selling single ever, and on the first Saturday of its release some London record stores were so overwhelmed that they closed their doors to all customers except those wanting the Elvis record.

Which is pretty odd when you think about it. There’s not a whiff of pre-army Presley – of “Jailhouse Rock” or “Heartbreak Hotel” – in “It’s Now Or Never”. It’s a cha-cha-flavored ballad. But Elvis had always wanted to be Dean Martin, and it’s interesting that, in one of the few instances where he didn’t merely sing what was shoved in front of his nose, he insisted on a reworking of a Dino ballad. It worked so well he subsequently retooled another slab of Eduardo di Capua Neapolitana, “Torna A Surriento” – or, as it became, “(Oh, my darling, please) Surrender”.

For a while, it was without doubt the most successful adaptation ever of “O Sole Mio”. But in Britain it was eventually supplanted by a Wall’s Ice Cream commercial, sung by 1980s one-hit wonder Renato Pagliari:

Just One Cornetto
Give it to me
Delicious ice cream
From I-ta-leee…

In the ads, the song was usually warbled by a gondolier wending his way through the canals of Venice – which is a long way from Eduardo di Capua’s Naples, but close enough for broad pop culture allusions. On the other hand, Elvis’ “It’s Now Or Never” retrospectively made “O Sole Mio” a kind of honorary rock ballad for post-Presley popsters, until eventually the Neapolitan and the Elvis merged into one in the expert hands of Count Dooku himself, Christopher Lee, duetting with the Italian power metal band Rhapsody of Fire. That said, if I had to name a favorite “different” version of “O Sole Mio”, I’d go for Tony Bennett’s joyous little swinger with a terrific chart by the all-time greatest Canadian arranger, Robert Farnon. It’s a marvelous record of a kind I wish Bennett would make more of (the same album contains the equally spirited “End of a Love Affair”).

And, if you’re thinking that after “There’s No Tomorrow” and “It’s Now Or Never” you’d like to rattle off a third, even more urgent lyric – “You’ve Got Ten Minutes/My love won’t last/It’s boiling over/Let’s do it fast” – better think twice: the legal situation has gotten a little more complicated since Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold cleaned up. In 2004 a judge in Turin ruled that Alfredo Mazzucchi, previously regarded as mere amanuensis to Eduardo di Capua, had in fact contributed significantly to his compositions and ruled that henceforth he should be listed on the sheet music as co-author of “O Sole Mio” and another dozen-and-a-half di Capua works. As we’ve noted, Eduardo di Capua died exactly a century ago – October 3rd 1917. Giovanni Capurro, the poet who wrote the Italian lyric, outlived his composing partner by a couple of years, dying in 1920. But Signor Mazzucchi lived into his nineties and didn’t expire until 1972.

Which means that under British and European law “O Sole Mio” is now in copyright until 2042. Everybody else from Al Hoffmann to Aaron Schroeder has had a crack at “It’s My Own Sun” but at last, wherever he is right now, Alfredo Mazzucchi can do a full open-throated bellow:

It’s My Own Song!

From a Ukrainian hotel room to a German army base to a British ice-cream commercial, the many lives of the quintessential Neapolitan tune – and a valuable copyright until the middle of the 21st century, a hundred and fifty years after Paul Sorvino’s auntie inspired it.

~If you’re a member of The Mark Steyn Club, feel free to weigh in on Paul’s performance or Mark’s backstory in our comments section below. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here. And, if you enjoy Giovanni Capurro’s Neapolitan poetry, we hope you’ll join us for verse of a very different kind when our Sunday poem for Club members returns next weekend.

There’s more live music from Steyn’s Song of the Week:

#303: Carol Welsman sings and plays “The Glory of Love

#297: Robert Davi swings “At Long Last Love

#295: Cheryl Bentyne sings “The Meaning of the Blues

#294: Tal Bachman performs “I’ll Never Smile Again

#293: Carol Welsman sings and plays “As Time Goes By

#292: Don Black reminisces about “Born Free“, with Robert Davi

#291: Tim Rice recalls “A Winter’s Tale“, with Emma Kershaw

#290: Patsy Gallant sings “La Vie en rose

#289: The Klezmer Conservatory Band perform “Dance Me To The End Of Love

#288: Cheryl Bentyne sings “This Masquerade

#287: Maria Muldaur sings “Aba Daba Honeymoon

#286: Mark asks “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

#285: Anthony Kearns sings “The Wexford Carol