Giovanni Vicari – Occhi di Bambola

December 22, 2008

vicariIn previous posts I’ve raved about how the American green Columbia label released some of the very finest Irish, Ukrainian, and Polish folk music from the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Their “F” series (records where the catalog numbers ended in the letter F) stood for “foreign.” Despite the name, the vast majority of recordings on the F series were recorded in North America and marketed to North American immigrant populations. And in terms of output, no market was catered to more than the Italian-American market. Columbia released 1,292 “Italian” records in the F series. Only Polish and Greek records came remotely close, with 799 and 696 releases, respectively.

Giovanni Vicari (1905-1985) was an undisputed mandolin and banjo master, and recorded mazurkas, tangos, and folk melodies from Naples and Sicily, the earliest of which were for Columbia. According to possibly apocryphal legend, he rarely left New York’s Little Italy during his life, and still played for friends in local barber shops and the like. He had to have gotten out of the neighborhood a bit however, as he seems to be the same Giovanni Vicari who played mandolin on several Vivaldi pieces conducted by Leonard Bernstein for a 1958 session. Vicari apparently had many students as well, one of whom was filmmaker and 78 collector Terry Zwigoff (see comments). In the 1940s, Vicari had something of a parallel career, recording Latin music for the Harmonia label under the name “Juan Vicari y su Genial Orquesta”!

When I imagine New York City and its immigrant communities in the 1920s, I can really picture this recording being part of a traveling art form. The record company was located in New York, the artist was in New York, it was recorded in New York, and it was sold in Italian-American neighborhood shops in New York to Italian-Americans – with the New York metropolitan area still having the largest concentration of Italians in North America. The music went from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the shop to homes, and into the ears of families, friends and passers-by – all in a very short radius of one another. It reminds me of my favorite film about New York City and the traveling art form: Style Wars. The art of graffiti writers on subway trains went from borough to borough, day after day, communicating a certain message in a certain language to other graffiti writers. (That film had a major impact on me when I saw its premiere on PBS at age 11, and was partially responsible for me moving to NYC seven years later.) Perhaps the recording will only ever be a traveling artifact – the music itself is the art form.

This piece, “Doll’s Eyes,” was recorded in New York in June of 1928, when Vicari was just 23 years old. It’s got a beautiful sound to accompany the adroit banjo playing – nice and loud.

Giovanni Vicari – Occhi di Bambola

For more Vicari, check out Rounder’s CD Italian String Virtuosi.

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 14407-F
Matrix Number: 109406 (2-A-1)

30 Responses to “Giovanni Vicari – Occhi di Bambola”

  1. HAJI MAJI said

    Great record…according to Mr. Zwigoff, Vicari (rhymes with hickory) was involved in the Godfather soundtrack…maybe he’ll stop by excavated shellac and elucidate…the story of his “lesson” is great, but it’s his to tell…

  2. David Seubert said

    Another great record with fabulous sound. I bet you could make this the “Columbia -F series blog” and there would be few complaints.

  3. sroden said

    yeowzah. its the perfect soundtrack on this rainy monday morning… the sound is incredible… the room starting to feel like i’m in an orson welles film…

  4. JW said

    Thanks, all –

    Haji: his indeed! Glad you liked the rekkid…

    David: Thanks! I love the F series almost as much as I love the X series. (And no people, that’s not risqué.) Wish more turned up in ex. condition, though.

    Steve: Yes, the rain here is always a welcome change.

  5. picturesclerk said

    hmmm.
    for me, a new favorite…?

  6. rootlesscosmo said

    I wonder if this is a truncated version of the piece–it ends (a little abruptly I thought) in the relative major.

  7. Philippe Varlet said

    Although I am French and only a 1/4 Italian, the ending sounds perfectly logical to me…

  8. M.F. Tedeseco said

    A tiny bit of edification: Giovanni Vicari, a child prodigy, had a long musical career, perhaps beginning as a 15 year old concert master (1st violin) in his home town of Catania, Sicily; notably, working directly with Mascagni on the local production of the composer’s “Iris.” He came to the U.S. in 1920. Besides the the “Giovanni Vicari” Italian sides for Columbia and Harmonia during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, he also released South American sides as “Juan Vicari”, also on Harmonia and various 10″ 33 rpm re-issues. In addition to teaching a select few advanced students, he toured vaudeville, played regularly on the radio, recorded, and was a member of orchestras under Xavier Cugat, Arturo Toscanini, and Leonard Bernstein. From approximately 1949 until his death in 1985, he played violin, banjo, mandolin or guitar, for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and just about every Broadway show you’ve ever heard of. That’s his banjo on “Hello Dolly,” and yes, he played mandolin on the “Godfather” soundtrack release. You can even see him in the movie, during the wedding scene, as of course, the mandolinist on stage.

    Hope this helps. I really enjoyed Vicari’s “Occhi di Bambola” and I’m glad you posted it; I didn’t have this. It really displays his virtuosity on banjo, which was an instrument he initially became fond of in Sicily, after hearing some Paul Whiteman recordings.

    Best,

    M.T.

    • Great synopsis of Mr. Vicari’s life in music. I studied mandolin with him from 1975 to about 1983. He had a music studio in Chelsea. He was an amazing teacher. After many years of playing broadway shows, he was elated to be asked to play once again at the Metropolitan Opera in Don Giovanni. Alas, it was not to be. He contracted cancer and passed away before the production. The last time I saw him was in Sloan Kettering Hospital. I still play the mandolin he procured for me in Catania Sicily, his home town and play his original compositions which he hand wrote for his students – non one had computers then!

  9. M.F. Tedesco said

    After all that I spelled my name wrong! Tedesco

  10. JW said

    Thanks very much for all the info!

  11. M.F. Tedesco said

    Also, I made one other mistake: Giovanni Vicari came to the U.S. in 1925, when he was 20 years old, and not 1920, when he would have been 15.

    Best,

    MT

    • Laurette klier said

      I am Giovanni Vicari’s grandneice. My maiden name was Casamassima (my father’s family was from Bari). Giovanni’s widow, my great aunt, turned 90 in May and is a wealth of biographical information and enchanting stories about perhaps the loveliest human being I’ve ever known. Please contact me if you would like more information about Giovanni.

      Kind regards, Laurette

      • Dear Laurette,

        I’ve been meaning to reply for some time now. I was pleased to hear from you, and I wanted you to know that I have had the great pleasure and privilege of calling and visiting your great aunt on a number of occasions since 1998; the most recent being this past Memorial Day. Ask her, I’m sure she’ll be happy to give you the scoop!

        Best,

        Michael

        mtstudio@earthlink.net

      • Dear Laurette, I was a student and close friend of Giovanni Vicari and after his death, i spoke with his son. I have very special memories of our friendship and would like to be in touch with is family. Is his son a music teacher on Long Island? Thank you. Caroline Stuart

  12. How can I hear this record? In the comments left by others, it seems as if they were able to listen to it somehow, but I’m not seeing anything obvious as far as players/buttons etc.
    I just happened to find your blog when I googled G. Vicari. I have a red label columbia 78 that belonged to my parents, that has two great tarantellas.
    great blog by the way!

    ~Joey

  13. I too, would love to hear this recording. Please let me know how I can get my ears to partake in this unique selection.

  14. Couldn’t hear the recording from this blog, but someone in the Bay Area made a kind of “underground” CD of some of this music. Giovanni Gioviale is another great mandolin player from that era. I heard that Acoustic Disc (David Grisman’s label) may be issuing a CD of some of his music.

    Is there a catalog of all the Columbia F Series Italian music? I had no idea there were so many recordings.

    GUS GARELICK

  15. JW said

    Hi Gus –

    All the tracks that have been removed can be found on the WFMU free music archive, on Excavated Shellac’s page.

    http://freemusicarchive.org/curator/Excavated_Shellac

    As for the F series, Dick Spottswood’s “Ethnic Music on Records” has the vast majority of the Italian F series cataloged. There might be some imports in there, but I think most of them were recorded in the US.

  16. Eileen said

    I was a student of Mr. Vicari from 1976 until shortly before his death. I was a painting student at Pratt Institute but had played mandolin since childhood and needed a respite from the pressure of creating visual art. I studied classical mandolin with him and my sister Pat studied classical guitar. The three of us often played together. He was a phenomenal teacher. He taught in his studio on West 24th street. He made his home in Long Island with his wife and son.

    I still play the mandolin that was made in his home town of Catania, Sicily by Carmelo Catania. These mandolins were preferred by many of his students and he arranged the sales. My parents bought it for me as a gift when I graduated from Pratt.

    Before each lesson, he made us hot chocolate and biscotti di anisette. In my mind, Mr. Vicari (we always observed this formality) took the place of my grandfather, who had died a few years before and introduced me to the mandolin.

    I never pick up my instrument without thinking of him and all that he taught me. I still have music that he wrote out by hand for me to play–original compositions as well as transcriptions of violin pieces.

    Best regards,

    Eileen Kennedy

  17. Earlier in the thread it was mentioned at Terry Zwigoff had mentioned Vicari’s association with the Godfather film. I believe it’s in the second one, at the wedding of Michael Corleone, that one can see an orchestra playing in the garden. If you look carefully, you’ll see a mandolinist and a guitarist in the center of that orchestra, both playing D’Angelico instruments (of course). The mandolinist is Vicari, and the orchestra was his orchestra. If there was a request for more than a duo, and the gig paid well enough, he’d bring the larger ensemble you see in Coppola’s film. Terry visited Vicari shortly after that film came out and had some really good conversations with him. Eileen, I think you were very privileged to have met him and learned from him.

    I’m glad someone mentioned Dick Spottswood’s amazing “Ethnic Music on Records.”

  18. Don’t know about Godfather 2. I’d like to go back and look. However, Giovanni Vicari is indisputably visible on stage in the wedding scene for Godfather 1. You can get a clear, medium close up sight of him if you use freeze frame.

  19. Godfather 1? Could well be, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen them. Coppola had good taste!

  20. Godfather 1, absolutely.

  21. […] musicians are masters of their craft and perform with confidence and passion. Maybe try out “Occhi di Bambola” by Giovanni Vicari or “Angel Mio” by Conjuncto Medrano, but don’t stop […]

  22. He was my teacher I will posting about him on the following web site. http://www.AmericanIdol.pro. The site will be updated later tonight. He was a fantastic teacher. I will link this site in his honor.

    Thanks
    Chuck

  23. I too was a student of Mr. Vicari, and he had a very profound influence on my life. The story goes back to the 1940’s when my grandfather emmigrated to the U.S. from Sicaly during the war. Not able to take my father and grandmother to America he came here to work to get the money to finaly get them here. My grandfather being musical found Mr. Vicari 0n 24 th steet where he was living dodging immagration cops . Thats were the story begins. My grandfather and Mr. Vicari struck up a musical and personal friendship from the start ,being from the same country and cercumstance. As time went by my grandfather was able to get grandma an dad to N.Y. and settle in the Bronx. My grandfather haddent seen his son for I think 13 years. He was being raised by his grandfatrher in Italy. As my father became a teen my grandfather took him to Mr. Vicari to study music, by this time were in the 1950’s . My father then married in 1955 to my mon Elvira Marsalisi where they were living in Manhattan on 107th st beteen 2nd and 3rd .Dad not having a great education got into the constuction boom to support his family. My sister Elaine born in 1959, and finaly me born in 1960. I grew up a child of the Beatles and such,but had a very strong connecting to jazz. My goal was to be a studio musician ,not a rock star ,but rather a working pro that would last longer than the one hit wonders. ie. studio player ,giggles ,pit man, session hired hand. That was my goal. So I got my shit toghter and studied with studio pro Carmine D’Amico and it was great, learned to read and feels and bizz.Ok time check, where in the mid to late 70’s in fact early 80’s. My father would always tell me that I should go study with Vicari. My response would always be “I don’t want to go to some old greaseball” untill one day I was reading GUITAR PLAYER mag. and was reading a peice about studio hero of mine, John Tropea. In this article he said how he was a student of Mr. Vivari and how he turned his playing around. WOW! now I had to see him. Sorry I know this story is long ,but it’s a good one.So anyway I talk to my grandfather about it and we go down to 24th st. unannounced,ring the bell Mr. Vicari opens the door ,and the rest I will never forget for the rest of my life. They saw eachother for the first time in 40 years ,hugged and cried . And seeing me at 19 years old was something I will never forget. I studied with Mr.Vicari for years ,in fact he ask me to be his duo parter on gigs when long time friend Benny Mortel go terminal cancer.He is the guitar player next to Mr. Vicari in the wedding secne in the “GODFATHER PART ONE” What a great honor to ask me, he though a lot of me. Through the years I became close to his wife and son Nino, and was with him till the end of his life. I will never forget him. “I LOVE YOU MR.VICARI” we’ll play again. I am VINNY D’ARRIGO.

  24. JW said

    For the fun story of Terry Zwigoff’s meeting with Giovanni Vicari, check Cormac’s radio show podcast of May 6, 2012:
    http://radiovalencia.fm/gramophoneybaloney/

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