This “Forgotten Gem” features one of the few pop novelty songs that has stood the test of time. The knock on novelty songs is usually that they focus on topics that are tied to specific periods or fads, and are destined to fade. The “Flying Saucer” songs are prime examples, as is Ray Stevens’ early 1970s hit “The Streak.” Others, such as Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater,” simply sound dated. Rare is the novelty tune that remains enjoyable after ten years; rarer still is a song that can be performed and received enthusiastically after five decades. “Eh, Cumpari!” is one of those rarities.
Written or “adapted” by Archie Bleyer and Julius LaRosa in 1953, “Eh, Cumpari!” is based on a traditional Italian folk song. LaRosa bastardized the lyrics, rearranged the melody, and Bleyer made musical sense out of it all. The song is “cumulative,” in other words, each verse contains and adds to all of the previous verses. A good example of this is “12 Days of Christmas” or the chorus of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” In LaRosa’s recording — and subsequent performances — the demands of the final cumulative chorus leave him breathless. At this point in the song he shares a self-deprecating laugh with his audience, as if to say, “who could possibly sing all this!” It still draws big smiles and applause from an appreciative audience.
“Eh, Cumpari!” was a massive hit in 1953, and music critics were quick to point out that LaRosa was a fixture on The Arthur Godfrey Show, and claimed that as the explanation for the song’s success. While there is no doubt that exposure jump-started the song, the critics overlooked the key elements that made it so likeable.
Part of the appeal was of course LaRosa’s “Julie the nice Navy boy from the Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn” persona. He was the simple guy makes good, as discovered by Godfrey. Again, that may have given him his start, but it was LaRosa’s exceptional voice and stage presence that made him popular. He was a natural singer, a natural entertainer.
As for “Eh, Cumpari!” — the song did a lot of things right. For Italian-Americans, it used a wacky mix of Southern Italian dialects that they recognized. After all, that’s the language most second-generation Italian immigrants spoke…a blend of this and that heard around the neighborhood; in many cases their own parents spoke two different dialects. So when LaRosa put together a mishmash of Sicilian and Neopolitan words and expressions, it spoke directly to a lot of people.
At the same time, the song unintentionally did a lot of things right for people who didn’t understand Italian. The melody was catchy, and listeners were naturally curious as to what it all meant. The lyrics were quick to answer; although non-Italians had no idea what a friscalettu was, the whistling sound sort of explained it. Followed by more recognizable words like saxafona and mandolino — also confirmed by vocalized sound effects — the song was reasonably understandable. This gave the listener a subtle sense of accomplishment, which made it even more appealling.
Through all this, LaRosa’s vocal sounds like he’s enjoying himself…it was easy for a generation raised on radio to visualize Julie smiling as he sang it. Add in his out-of-breath “stumble,” and the end result was irresistable.
Set against an early 1950s background of cold war and Korea, the happy tune was a refreshing escape. The song peaked in November of 1953, reaching #1 on the Cash Box charts. There it battled with another up-and-coming Italian-American singer; Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” had been at the top spot, “Rags” returned to #1 after a week.
It’s ironic that Tony Bennett — a great stylist — went on to a long, successful career for which he is now revered. LaRosa — a great vocalist — didn’t fare nearly as well. Only recently have audiences and critics begun to realize how strong his voice was, and ponder the question of “what he could have done.”
Shortly before “Eh, Cumpari!” rode up the charts, Arthur Godfrey had some medical procedures and began to act strangely at times — at least according to a majority of witnesses and historians. LaRosa, seeing his career blossoming and concerned about Godfrey’s erratic behavior, hired a manager. This was a terrible sin in Godfrey’s opinion; his “Little Godfreys” didn’t need a manager according to the boss. Godfrey stunned the tv audience — and LaRosa — when he announced one performance as Julie’s swan song on the show. The backlash hurt Godfrey’s credibility, as an overwhelming number of sympathetic viewers rallied to support LaRosa. Unfortunately the whole affair did a lot of collateral damage to the young singer’s career in the long run.
LaRosa struck gold again in 1955 with “Domani,” and had a brief television show of his own that year. This led to more and more work as a “host,” both on tv and radio. Eventually he became a popular disc jockey on New York’s WNEW-AM, which during the 1960s and 1970s was the 800-pound gorilla in adult contemporary programming. Working in a daily schedule with legendary jocks Gene Klavan, Ted Brown and William B. Williams, by the early 1970s LaRosa was better known for his radio work than for his vocal career. He would go on to numerous acting roles, appearing on Broadway and eventually scoring an Emmy nomination for a soap opera role.
Editor’s Note: By 2009 when this was originally published, the world had fortunately re-discovered LaRosa’s vocal talents. Better late than never…although for his part, LaRosa had no regrets and was the first to say he had a long and wonderful career. Personal appearances were rare by 2009, but as always, “Eh, Cumpari!” never failed to bring the audience to its feet. We lost Julius LaRosa in 2016 to natural causes; wherever he is we imagine an infectious smile and a microphone nearby…