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Il Fanciullo del West: Shorty Joe Quartuccio’s Country Western Sound

Il Fanciullo del West: Shorty Joe Quartuccio’s Country Western Sound

Laura E. Ruberto (October 12, 2011)
Shorty Joe and his Red Rock Canyon Cowboys - 1947 (Shorty Joe Quartuccio, Bob Simas, & Jim Franchina)

A Few Notes on California’s Sicilian American country music history.


Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks aside, some might think a musical landscape of an Italian Old West begins and ends with Giacomo Puccini.

His 1910 La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), set in the Sacramento Valley during the Gold Rush, mines images of the American frontier and subtle western-tinged sounds to create what the San Francisco Opera in their centennial production dubbed the first Spaghetti Western. Indeed, the history of the opera—involving Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s family’s emigration history, and David Belasco (the San Francisco Sephardic Jew often misidentified as Italian) who wrote the original play—is ripe for a serious Italian American transnational critique.


Enrico Caruso at The Metropolitan Opera, NYC, La Fanciulla del West

In fact, pretty much all of the diasporic Italian-Western musicscape needs some scholarly attention. Somewhere within that still unwritten history there’s a place for Giuseppe “Shorty Joe” Quartuccio, San Jose’s own Sicilian American country music artist.

Quartuccio was born in Monreale, Sicily (province of Palermo), in 1924. He emigrated with his parents via New York to Ohio in 1930 and then settled in San Jose in 1936. His family worked as farm laborers and cannery workers—he started picking fruit at age 12 and later worked in various fruit canneries. During World War II he worked as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy and later assisted in the training of astronauts and jet pilots at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. But it was as an immigrant teenager that he was first taken by what he recently described on the phone to me as “what we called them then, ‘cowboy bands’” (October 10, 2011).

And it wasn’t just any kind of country music, but a West Coast-inflected variety that he connected with. One of his earliest influences was Dude Martin, né Stephen McSwain, the San Francisco Bay Area cowboy singer who created an entire “cowboy” persona. As Martin describes, “And though born in California, I spoke with a Texas drawl, or as reasonable facsimile as I could muster.”  Indeed, even before World War II, a young Quartuccio started his first country trio, mimicking Dude Martin’s style and sound.
After the war, the trio started up again and in a short time grew in size (to an octet) and in popularity (larger venues, broader radio play). In no time at all, Shorty Joe and the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys, whose original members were all Italian American, were recording under the Golden West and Bella labels. Their original numbers had a Bay Area flavor (e.g., “In Santa Clara Valley Round Ol San Jose”); they played sold-out shows all over Northern California alongside the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and Lefty Frizzell.


Today his band’s recordings are housed at the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. Shorty Joe and his music will be honored as a “living legend” at the San Jose Italian American Heritage Foundation on Sunday, October 23, 2011 (see attached PDF), where nephew Anthony Quartuccio (and current assistant opera conductor for the acclaimed San Jose Opera Company) will also be in attendance.

Shorty Joe, 2009
Shorty Joe Quartuccio has shaped California’s own style of what some call “dago twang.” Together with musicians like San Diego-based Andrew “Cactus” Soldi, Larry “Pedro” De Paul, and Joe Limi, co-owner of the honky tonk Blackboard (one of the Central Valley’s most influential venues that helped shape the Bakersfield Sound), Shorty Joe asks us to rethink our accepted notions about Italian (Sicilian) American influence on US popular culture.
And along with other Italian American country artist—Michael FracassoJoe Val, and Tim McGraw come to mind—Shorty Joe reminds us that honky tonk, bluegrass, western swing, and other country styles may not be so distant from the land of bel canto.


shorty joe flyer[1].pdf [open]
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