All three of Caruso’s first recordings of Vesti la Giubba, from 1902, 1904 and 1907, on one hit vid. All were smash hits, tho’ whether the Italian recording of 1902 or the second Victor (pre-RCA) recording were the first records to sell over a million I don’t know. You can find claims to both online. There were so many millions of each pressed in their day that even now one of these antique cylinders is worth about as much as your thrift store Tijuana Brass LPs. All three versions were pressed as cylinders, too, platters were still in the future. Though after 1913 when phonographic technology changed forever each quickly became million selling platters as well. They still sell, in fact, and somewhere spoiled rotten heirs of Enrico Caruso get richer by the day off these ancient recordings. Considering the primitive acoustic recording technology of the time—basically shouting into a megaphone, exquisitely analog—Caruso’s voice is astonishingly loud and full. Compare it with the orchestra behind him (probably literally behind him) on the 1907 recording which is so distant and compressed I mistook it momentarily for a squeezebox. My favorite of the three versions, incidentally, is the 1904 recording. It’s a tad more subtle (which might be the the first time Caruso and subtle ever occupied the same sentence) and a tad less stagey to my ears (and mind’s eye), but then that was a time that loved the stagey and overwrought, kind of like our own time, actually. Besides, it was two years before Enrico was shaken out of his wits by the San Francisco earthquake to emerge dust covered and stark naked in a paisan’s pajamas in the wreckage of the hotel lobby. Visions of Palermo a century or two earlier, leveled by a quake in the dead of night, the survivors wandering the streets dazed and nude and white with dust, ghosts in the moonlight. I wish I could remember where I read that.
But to undigress, if you remember this tune from the singing whale in the Disney cartoon you just aged yourself. Was it named Willie? There was no need to even explain it back then. Even the kids knew it was a cetacean Caruso. Have the same whale singing Stairway To Heaven today and children would know it’s a cetacean Led Zeppelin. One of those iconic things. I actually have that whale singing Vesti la Giubba here somewhere. One of those DVDs you somehow find at a truck stop. I’ll probably watch it this afternoon because you can do things like that when you’re retired. You can do it unemployed too, except when you’re retired you don’t feel guilty about it. Incidentally, any resemblance to Ronnie James Dio is coincidence. Even Rainbow In The Dark.
Somewhere in the blog there’s a story of the time we went to a now vanished pizza place in Echo Park. It had been there since these recordings were less old to them than Dark Side of The Moon or Born To Run or Saturday Night Fever are to us now. You walked in off of Sunset Blvd and instantly you were back in Jersey. Everything red vinyl, scenes of Napoli and Sicilia on the walls, a photo of Uncle Luigi in a stiff collar, fresh off the boat. Every tune on the jukebox was Italian. Dino was singing Volare as we ordered and when the pizza arrived, steaming hot, Caruso began singing Vesti la Giubba. We ate in silence, listening. Then we played it again. Sometimes little things all come together and a perfect moment is seared into your memory forever.