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Exploring American Southern-Italianitá (fa bella figura) – 1950s Street Corner Doo-wop singers.

Exploring American Southern-Italianitá (fa bella figura) – 1950s Street Corner Doo-wop singers.

Tom Verso (February 15, 2013)

Is there such a thing as southern-Italian American culture beyond Little Italy nostalgia and misplaced Renaissance adoration? Is there something more to southern-Italian American culture than food? A typical front page of i-Italy has at least one (generally more) article(s) and Active Bloggers about food. And, ten of the current eleven “i-ItalyNY- TV Episode Series” (91%) are completely or have significant sections devoted to (you guessed it) FOOD, and each episode leads with two food advertisements. Is there any other topic on southern-Italian American culture that generates so many column inches or video minutes on such a regular basis? Are we such a one-dimensional culture? Perhaps the propensity for what Anthony Tamburii characterized as “Nostalgic Reminiscence” is motivated by the greater complexity of the Little Italy culture compared to post-1950s heterogeneous suburban culture. For example, the southern-Italian American Doo-wop musical genre was a product of Little Italy “street corner society”. There are no street corners in suburbia – only intersections.


 I was watching an Italian television drama on American TV. It was some sort of weekly family melodrama series from Italy.  I don’t understand Italian, but I was interested in the life styles, apartment décor, dress styles, etc.  It was like being a tourist without the hassles of flying. In one scene, the father character said something to the teenage daughter that clearly (by gestures and expressions) had something negative to do with the way she was dressed.  Her response: unlike what one would expect from an American teenager – a defiant response about her rights to dress the way she wants - the Italian girl looked at her father with a perplexed expression, shrugged her shoulders and rhetorically said: “fa bella figura, no?” 

When I was a boy, Chris a Sicilian man who lived in the house behind mine would be in his little garden every evening after dinner picking things way from the plants – things that I could not see. It was as if he was sweeping the dirt with his hands. I ask my father: what is he doing?  My father just smiled and said it was his hobby.  Then one day Chris came running into our yard calling to my father excitedly.  His face was beaming:  “Joe, Joe look – these are for you,” he said as he gave my father a handful of figs.  I could not understand then and I’m not sure I fully understand now, what exactly made him so happy. But, I would say fa bella figura the perfection and beauty of the figs he had grown.

Michelangelo, in his relentless quest for fa bella figura, would shock his helpers by smashing the frescos he painted the day before, and he walked away from many half finished sculptures because they had flaws that no one else could see. 

One could go on with these types of examples from Italian culture over the centuries. From the southern shores of Sicily to the Italian Alps, from ancient Roman to today’s Milan runway fashions, Italy can be thought of as a giant art gallery. 

But, that art is not limited to churches, frescos, painting, sculptures, etc. That art manifests itself in gardens and kitchens, from highly skilled artistic crafts to the most mundane of household and laboring crafts.  Even our gangsters are unique in the world of crime.

Booker T. Washington describes numerous examples of the menial raised to fa bella figura in 1910 southern Italy:

- “On a street corner… I discovered, one day, a macaroni factory. Within a space perhaps three feet wide and ten or twelve feet in length one man and a boy conducted the whole business of the sale as well as the manufacture of macaroni, from the raw grain to the completed article of trade. The process, as it was carried on in this narrow space, was necessarily a simple one. There was a bag of flour, a box in which to mix the paste, and a press by which this paste was forced through holes that converted it into hollow tubes. Afterward these hollow tubes were laid out on a cloth frame which, because there was no room inside, had been set up in the street. After leaving this cloth frame the macaroni was hung up on little wooden forms for inspection and for sale. (The Man Farthest Down, p.192)

-  “About nine o'clock Saturday night -- the night upon which I arrived in Catania -- I was walking down one of the side streets in this part of the city, when my attention was attracted to a man, sitting in his doorway, working by the light of a little smoky lamp. He was engaged in some delicate sort of iron work, and, as near as I could make out, he seemed to be a tool-maker.

What particularly attracted my attention was a little girl, certainly not more than seven years of age, who was busily engaged in polishing and sharpening the stamps he used. I stopped for a moment and watched this man and child, working steadily, silently, at this late hour of the night. I could but marvel at the patience and the skill the child showed at her work. It was the first time in my life that I had seen such a very little child at work, although I saw many others in the days that followed. (p.194)

- “Once or twice every year, at the time of the grape and olive harvests, the girls and women come down from their mountain villages to share with the men in the work of the fields. On the Sunday I arrived in Catania, crowds of these women were trooping, arm in arm, through the streets of the city. A party of them had, in fact, encamped on the pavement in the little open square at the southern gate of the city. They were there nearly all day and, I suppose, all night, also.

I was interested to observe the patience with which they sat for hours on the curb or steps, with their heads on their bundles, waiting until the negotiations for hiring them were finished. (p. 156. Think: Hemingway’s “Grace under pressure”)

All of Washington's writings (himself born into slavery and lived under Jim Crow) describing his South of Rome sojourn, exude his admiration for these mighty peasants whoes very being was - fa bella figura. What all these diverse scenarios have in common are individuals in a quest for what they considered perfect and beauty. That quest, to my mind, is captured in the phrase ‘fa belle figura’ (which I take to mean: ‘make something beautiful’, and beauty implies perfection), and the phrase comes close to a common cultural definition of the Italian.


Doo-wop ‘bella figura’


When “Jersey Boys” came to town I took in a show, not because I like (liked) the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, rather because they were the last of the music genre that may be called “southern-Italian American Doo-wop.”  Southern-Italian American Doo-wop is a cultural manifestation of Little Italy Street Corner Society (title of W. F. Whyte’s study of 1930’s Boston North End). I was interested to see how well the show captured the ‘street corner’ aspect of Little Italy culture.

On summer nights, in the 1950s urban pre-electronic entertainment and car mobility culture, young men (boys) would gather on neighborhood street corners; passing the time talking, arguing (occasionally fighting) about baseball, girls, baseball, cars, baseball, wars, baseball, whatever – did I mention baseball?  From time to time they would entertain themselves by singing. From these primordial street corners came the southern-Italian American Doo-wop musical genre.

John F. Porcaro lists dozens of such groups on his webpage (  But even this formable list of groups, that attained some degree of fame, could not begin to approach the infinite number of street corner groups in America’s Little Italies, that no one ever heard sing. Just guys passing the time on summer nights hanging on street corners and ‘hitting a few tunes’.

Discussion of southern-Italian American Doo-wop often juxtaposes the differences and similarities of it with the African American style, which is said to evolve from Church singing beginning in the 1930s. However, to my mine, to appreciate the nature and creativity of southern-Italian American Doo-wop singers one has to compare them with the popular male groups of the late 1940s and early 50s.  Groups such as the Four Freshmen, Four Aces, Four Lads, Ames Brothers, etc. Groups such as these could be classed in a musical genre called ‘harmony groups’ and essentially were variations of “Barbershop Quartet” singing.

Southern-Italian American street corner groups were, primarily, not focused on creating harmonic melodic sounds. That was nice.  But, when you’re trying to escape the monotony and boredom of urban summer nights, one has to be more creative.  That creativity took the form of voices imitating background rhythm instruments. 

A group, for example, might sing a standard such as “I Love Paris in the Springtime.”  In the Barbershop Quartet form, the song would be rendered in melodic four-part harmony.  But, the corner groups would lose much of the harmony and substitute rhythm voices. With no musical instruments, the groups would ‘experiment’ with voice substitutes for the instrumentation; getting what was thought to be the right combination of ‘rhythm’ background for the lead lyric singer was the challenge and essence of the creativity.

This street corner dimension of Doo-wop was largely lost in the ‘splashy’ Jersey Boys rendition of this very significant component of American southern-Italianitá. However, there was one moment at the very end of the show where the Fankie Valli character at the height of incredible fame, pauses under a corner streetlight and waxes nostalgic about the times when singing (music) was about creating a ‘sound’.  That brief moment in the show, to my mind, captured the essence of, not only the street corner groups, but also more generally an Italian aesthetic.

All those infinite number of street corner singers had no hope or illusion of fame – not even a recording.  They never even thought about it.  They were just trying to create a sound; a perfect sound, a sound that they could find satisfying and be proud.  Just as they played stickball with a passion having no illusions of being famous baseball players, they sang with passion having no illusions of a gold record.  It was the act in itself; hitting the ball or hitting a note was an end in itself.

At the end of the evening, they went home.  No one else heard that sound or would ever hear it; but they left the corner with a sense of satisfaction and would return the next night to work on another sound.

As the boys walked home, they passed small urban gardens, flower boxes and planters.  In the teeming concrete cities, southern-Italian Americans managed to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers. Any place they could find to put even a few inches of dirt they grew something.  From the kitchens, waifed the aromas of the southern-Italian cooking that has come to dominate American cuisine. The same passion to create something perfect/beautify manifested itself in gardens, kitchens and on street corners; fa bella figura to my mind defined Italianitá on both sides of the Atlantic up through the 1950s Little Italy years.

But what is a fa bella figura genre in southern-Italian American culture today? Is food the only thing left of our three thousand year fa bella figura heritage? Are the defenders of Guido-ism grasping at cultural straws? I emphasize genre because I’m not talking about this-or-that Italian American who was successful in this-or-that undertaking (music, writing, moving making, etc.).  They are regularly featured on the pages of i-Italy.  I’m talking about whole categories, genres that are prefaced with southern-Italian, which are so intensely identified with southern-Italianita that we call it our culture.

What does the ‘This’ denote in:

THIS is why we are

proud to be

 love being

nothing we would rather be than

Southern-Italian Americans

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I very much enjoyed your

I very much enjoyed your article.I may have misunderstood your point. I m 63 years old this year. My family is from Genoa ( a small mountain village north of there) and " Bella figura" is an expression I ve heard my entire life. I don't think it can be taken literally. It means,basically, don't embarrass yourself and, as importantly, don't embarrass your family.