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The King, Elvis Presley is Awarded an "O"
Elvis on RCA Italiana
Luigi Bengini in 2010
by Bill Russo.................. Keeper of the 'O'
From 1956 into the 1970s, (with all due respect to four Liverpool lads) the greatest singer on the 'Big Blue Ball', was Elvis Presliano - also known as Elvis Presley. With sales of over 2.5 billion physical units, he is far and away number one in record sales.
All well and good you say. He had 14 number one hits including such classics as Jailhouse Rock and Don't be Cruel. But how does he qualify to get the coveted "O" placed on the end of his name?
I am glad you asked. The "O", signifying an honorary 'Paisan', was created by me many years ago when I first conferred the title on my friend Louie Bengin, of the world famous Jack's Joke Shop on Tremont Street in Boston. Lou's brother, Harold was the longtime owner of the landmark beantown store which drew customers from all corners of the planet.
In the 1950s and on to the very early 2000s, Jack's Joke Shop was also the gag and magic trick supplier to a string of joke emporiums covering all of Massachusetts and a good part of New England. Lou was the guy in the trenches, - the man Harold sent out to the wholesale customers.
Blessed with an unflinching sense of humor, Louie was very likely to show up at a store in a gorilla mask or perhaps with an 'arrow' through his head. When I first met him, he had not opted for the arrow; instead he went with a bloody knife through his head! As he introduced himself, I saw that there was a fifty dollar bill on the floor at his feet.
"If you pick up that fifty dollar bill by my shoe, it's your's," said Lou.
When I reached down to grab the money, it blasted off under its own power and flew right into Louie's hand.
"The money is attached to an invisible string," he explained. "When I push a little button on the gimmick in my hand, the bill flies away. It's a great gag. It retails for $5.00 and the wholesale is only a dollar!"
That was Lou. Always clowning and doing business at the same time. After knowing Lou for only a brief period, I felt compelled to issue him the first honorary 'Paisan' award; and so from that time onward, to me, Louie Bengin became Luigi Bengini.
By default, the award involves bestowal of an "O", but I felt that "B E N G I N I", sounded better than "B E N G I N O". I amended the rules to allow for either an "O" or an "I".
Elvis Presliano - O Sole Mio (It's Now or Never)
Tony Martino - O Sole Mio (There's No Tomorrow)
The Three Tenors - O Sole Mio
Mario Lanza - O Sole Mio
Enrico Caruso - O Sole Mio
O Sole Mio
So how did Elvis Presley, from Tupelo, Mississippi, get to have his name "O-ized"?
It's because of his song choices. He paid respect to the masters; Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Luke Pavarotti et al. Among his several tribute treatments of Paisan classics; two are especially noteworthy.
O Sole Mio (My Sunshine) - Lyrics written in 1898 by Giovanni Capurro.
Che bella cosa è na jurnata ’e sole,
n’aria serena dopo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca para già na festa...
Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole.
Translation: What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!
The air is serene after a storm,
The air is so fresh that it already feels like a celebration.
What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!
The song is Italy at its best. The seminal versions of the song include the work of Mario Lanza and the masterful performance of the "Three Tenors"
How Elvis came to perform the classic is a story in itself. In 1949, radio singer Tony Martin had the biggest hit of a long recording career with, "There's No Tomorrow". Reaching Number Two on the hit parade, it was the melody of O Sole Mio, with new English lyrics by a pair of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths named Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold.
Fast forward to Germany in the late 1950s where Elvis is stationed with the United States armed forces. Elvis heard Tony Martin's recording and fell in love with the song. He wanted to record it, but he wasn't too crazy about the words.
Here's the opening lines of the Tony Martin version:
There's no tomorrow when love is new
Now is forever when love is true
so kiss me and hold me tight
there's just tonight.
Elvis wrote to his Mother about the melody and how he'd like to record an updated version of it. His Mom conversed with Elvis' music publisher who nosed around and found the Misters Schroeder and Gold still banging away on pianos in cramped quarters at West 28th. Street in New York City.
In just 30 minutes the duo reworked their Tony Martin version into "It's Now or Never". Released in 1960, it would go on to become the biggest seller of Elvis' career. It was Number One all over the world, including the U.S., the U.K. and Austrailia.
Here's the 'new' lyrics to O Sole Mio...
It's now or never
come hold me tight.
Kiss me my darlling
be mine tonight
tomorrow will be too late
it's now or never
my love won't wait
Elvis Presliano - Return to Sorrento (Surrender)
Luciano Pavarotti & Meatloaf - Return to Sorrento
Mario Lanza - Return to Sorrento
But Wait....There's More!
One song is pretty good. One song that goes to the top of the charts all over the world is really good - but still is not enough to get a name "O-ized".
But then a year after O Sole Mio, along came "Return to Sorrento" in 1961. Another pinnacle of Paisan music.
Legend says that the song was written at the request of Guglielmo Tramontano, who was mayor of Sorrento in 1902. He asked his pal Giambattista De Curtis to write the tune. Giambattista penned the words and his brother Ernesto came up with the music. Tramontano wanted the song to be sung to the visiting Prime Minister of Italy, in hopes he would funnel some lira into the desperately poor city. I don't know how the deal played out for Sorrento, but the song was a Number One hit for Elvis when Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman reworked it, added new English lyrics, and re-titled it as "Surrender".
Here are the 'new' lyrics:
When we kiss my heart's on fire
Burning with a strange desire
And I know, each time I kiss you
That your heart's on fire too
"So, my darling, please surrender
All your love so warm and tender
Let me hold you in my arms, dear
While the moon shines bright above."
That clinched the deal. I had to grant Elvis an "O" for his magnificent work on yet another classic from the land of olives, pasta, and wine. In my mind, Elvis is forevermore a "Presliano"
Buon lavoro Paisan!
Good work my countryman