Singing `Soprano' makes LP debut


June 5, 2001




On the hit HBO series "The Sopranos," there's only one man that north Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano truly loves and respects--his crusty old uncle, Corrado "Junior" Soprano, the symbol of a more dignified generation that is quickly passing into history.

The third season's anti-climactic ending featured most of the well-connected cast falling under Junior's spell as he sang a heartrending version of the Italian ballad "Core 'ngrato." (Daughter Meadow didn't appreciate the tune--she hurled a dinner roll at her great-uncle--but there's no accounting for taste.)

Though he has always valued his singing as much as his acting, Dominic Chianese never thought he would get a chance to croon on the show. But producer David Chase made the actor an offer he couldn't refuse.

"It was the furthest thing from my mind," Chianese said. "I never thought Uncle Junior would sing. People would suggest it, and I'd say, `Uncle Jun wouldn't sing; he's a mean old crotchety bastard.' But I was singing at a party one time, and I guess that gave David the idea. Somehow he made it work."

Now, at age 70, Chianese has released his first album, the ironically titled "Hits," on the Canadian label Suite 102. The refreshingly old-fashioned disc contains a mix of traditional ("Santa Lucia," "Amazing Grace"), contemporary (Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home") and original material. The only surprising omission: There are no tunes associated with the Chairman of the Board.

"He's a daunting presence," Chianese said. "That's why I never sang a Sinatra song, and I probably never will. He was an actor, too, and he always put a spin on his lyrics. I was more interested in [Bing] Crosby and [Perry] Como when I was a kid. Sinatra came later on, when I was 16 and I realized his power as an actor."

A second-generation Neapolitan raised in the Bronx, Chianese grew up surrounded by music, as well as the sort of characters he would later portray. "My dad used to take me by the hand around the neighborhood and point people out to me," he said. "As a little kid, I'd say, `Who are those guys with the hats, Papa?' He'd say, `Those are racketeers.' He wouldn't make a big deal about it; he let me figure it out for myself. Of course, if I had any intention of veering that way, I'd have gotten a slap in the back of my head."

In 1952, Chianese abandoned a budding career as a bricklayer to join a Gilbert & Sullivan repertory company. "With that, you had singing and acting at the same time," he said. "Then the company went professional, and we all got Actors Equity cards, so I became an actor by osmosis. I realized that I had some acting talent, and I learned what acting was all about. By my mid-30s, I had it down, but it took me about 15 years to kind of perfect it."

Chianese went on to rack up a long list of impressive film credentials, including the roles of Johnny Ola in "The Godfather: Part II," the bank robber's father in "Dog Day Afternoon" and Watergate burglar Eugenio R. Martinez in "All the President's Men."

But as his acting career blossomed, Chianese never neglected his music, performing and serving a long stint as the master of ceremonies at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village.

Now, after four marriages, four divorces, six children, 11 grandchildren and 50 years in the business, Chianese has his best role yet, and he's using the exposure to shine a spotlight on his music. " `The Sopranos' was some real leverage for me in getting an album deal," he said in a tone recalling Marlon Brando's Godfather dispatching his consigliore to create a career opportunity for singer Johnny Fontaine.

Not that Chianese isn't deserving of a break. His smooth and self-assured voice recalls his childhood hero, Como, as well as the velvety stylings of Dean Martin. As for where his brand of vocalizing and Spanish guitar-playing fits into the pop spectrum circa 2001, the performer is optimistic.

"It's hard to say this style of music is coming back," Chianese said. "I think music evolves. But there is a sense of coming back to singing again, because we're getting to the point where the sound is overshadowing the voice. The electronics are getting too big, and it's bound to swing back.

"In my own music, I just try to get people to laugh and to cry."