Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Guest Post by Chris Oakley: "Singing A Different Tune"

On January 17, 1899, Alphonse Gabriel Capone, widely considered by music aficionados to be one of the first bona fide great American opera tenors of the 20th century, was born in the New York borough of Brooklyn to Italian immigrant parents. Growing up in one of Brooklyn's roughest neighborhoods, he could easily have been drawn into a life of crime, but shortly after his eighth birthday his family had a chance meeting with a former soprano that would radically change his destiny; recognizing the young Alphonse's latent singing ability, the soprano made arrangements with his parents to sponsor him as a student at one of New York's best schools of music.

By the time he was thirteen years old, he was a regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera House, and at sixteen he had five original arias to his credit. His musical career would be briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June of 1917 and served with the American Expeditionary Force in France, but less than a year later he would return to the U.S. and pick up with his singing right where he had left off; he celebrated his 20th birthday by performing for then-Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson at the mayor's residence.

Capone had many admirers in the musical world, the most enthusiastic of them being noted Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Eliot Ness, who declared him to be “untouchable” as the premier American opera singer of his generation. At the height of his popularity in the 1920s, Capone received an average of 10,000 fan letters per week, more than any other well-known American figure with the exception of baseball great Babe Ruth; one of the most frequent of his correspondents was fellow opera star Enrico Caruso, who would later introduce Capone when the then 27-year-old tenor gave his first performance at Milan's legendary La Scala in June of 1926. An admirer of Italian ruler Benito Mussolini in the early days of Mussolini's reign, Capone turned against the Duce after Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

Perhaps the most famous--and certainly the most controversial--performance of Capone's career happened on Easter Sunday 1939 when he teamed up with African-American singer Marian Anderson for a concert at the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson's application to perform at Constitution Hall was denied by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Notorious radio personality and Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin denounced Capone as a “traitor” to the Catholic Church for agreeing to participate in Anderson's concert; in response New York City mayor Fiorella LaGuardia issued a civic proclamation hailing Capone's role in the Lincoln Memorial concert and naming him honorary New York deputy mayor for arts and culture. In late 1940, just over a year before the United States formally entered the Second World War, Capone finally fulfilled a longtime dream by performing at the White House for another of his most famous fans, President Franklin Roosevelt.

While too old for military service by the time the U.S. declared war on the Axis in December of 1941, Capone still played a huge part in the American war effort, giving concerts at USO halls to boost soldiers' morale and donating thousands of dollars to the Red Cross. From the spring of 1942 until Mussolini's death in 1945, Capone gave weekly anti-Fascist radio speeches to the Italian people; when the war in Europe ended, he went to his ancestral homeland of Sicily to assist with the distribution of food and medical relief supplies.  At the invitation of Pope Pius XII, Capone came to the Vatican in Rome in July of 1946 to sing for the pontiff and the College of Cardinals in what would turn out to be Capone's last overseas appearance.

Shortly after his Vatican concert, Capone received devastating medical news when his doctor diagnosed him with inoperable lung cancer. Rather than endure costly radiation therapy that might damage his brain or his voice, Capone reluctantly chose to retire from opera and spend his final days at his seaside retreat in Florida; his farewell concert, held at New York's famous Carnegie Hall on September 27, 1946, and broadcast live throughout the world, attracted one  of the largest crowds in the hall's history and ended with the audience according him a fifteen-minute standing ovation. He died on January 25, 1947 at the age of 46; at the request of his widow, the former Mae Coughlin, he was buried in a cemetery plot directly adjactent to that of his old friend Fiorello LaGuardia.


In reality, Al Capone all too readily embraced the criminal life at an early age, becoming one of gangster Johnny Torrio's proteges when he was just fourteen and assuming the leadership of Torrio's syndicate in 1925 after a near-miss with assassins from a rival gang prompted Torrio to quit the underworld. Capone would eventually rise to become Chicago's undisputed top crime boss and rule the city's illegal liquor trade with an iron fist until he was arrested and convicted on tax evasion charges in 1932; he would be paroled in 1939 on medical grounds after being diagnosed by prison doctors as having serious neurological problems. Though Capone never had lung cancer, he did suffer from paresis and pneumonia in his later years and would in the end die of cardiac arrest. In the 1950s, FBI agents investigating organized crime activity in the Chicago area would discover that some of Capone's old associates had joined forces to start their own syndicate and used it to take over the post-World War II Chicago underworld.

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