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North End sounds (and Scorsese’s passion for doo-wop)

I was not one of those kids who sang on the street corners. I didn’t have a good voice and by my teen years I tended to hang out less than I did when I was younger. But I remember the kids singing in the park during the day or on cold fall nights around fire-lit barrel. Just like in the movies, as the saying goes.

In doing my own research on the North End I spoke to Nick Savino a while back. Nick spoke about his love for doo wop and acapella. He told me how he and his friends would sing in alleyways and hallways for the echo effect. They would sing until people yelled for them to stop, and then they would move on to the next hall or alley. Nick also told me a story about his visit to New York City in the 1970s to visit my cousin Johnny.

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Johnny had gone to New York to seek an acting career. At the time he had long hair and a beard. He was actually close to getting a part in the movie Taxi Driver, but fate intervened. Sitting in Martin Scorsese’s apartment he briefly met a clean shaven Robert De Niro. Inspired, John went out and shaved his beard and cut his hair. When a chagrined Scorsese saw him later that evening he told John he had wanted him with his long hair and beard – so Johnny never got the part.

In any case, Nick told me that when he went to NY Johnny introduced him to Scorsese though John. Nick said that they talked, among other things, about their shared love of doo wop. Nick was amazed at how like a North Ender Scorsese seemed just because of his love for doo wop!

In doo wop there seems to be something that is very North End and very Italian. A popular Black musical form that Italian immigrants encountered in the cities, second generation Italian Americans not only adopted it as one of their premier musical forms, but added an expressive and melodic dimension of their own. As Joe Sciorra has noted in his appropriately titled article “Who Put the Wop in Doo Wop,” it may be that Italian doo wop groups were inspired as much by Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra as the Del Vikings and the Cleftones. And he quotes Dion Di Mucci (The Belmonts) description of his own style as “black music with an Italian attitude.”

The most famous North End doo wop/acapella group is, of course, Street Magic. The group began in 1980 – it grew literally out of the street singing – and the original group of five consisted of Joe Testa, Steve Gambale, Carmen Federico, Kenny Ross, and Bob Gomez. From the street they went to local events, and then to the stage. Today, Steve and Carmen are still with the group, along with Anthony Gennari, Robert Gennari, and Mike Benard.

(I won’t say more about Street Magic here; I plan to write more about them in the future. But I will note that there will be a nice segment on them in the forthcoming North End Historical Society documentary about the North End – which will most assuredly be ready to premier before the end of this year)

The days of singing on the corners has passed in the North End. It lives on, however, in the hearts and memories of many North Enders, including me.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.