“The music of Alberto Rabagliati helped Italians dream at a very difficult time.” So stated Prof. Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana Zerrilli-Marimo’ at NYU, at the Casa’s Homage to Alberto Rabagliati. Swiss tenor Gilbert Rolle and pianist Frank Ponzio, under the direction of Maestro Alfredo Bonavera brought this music to life in song and story. Rolle seemed very much at home in Rabagliati’s repertoire.
Born in Milan in 1906, Rabagliati’s early career opportunity was tied to the death of Rudolph Valentino. Valentino’s untimely passing in 1926 created what has been described as mass hysteria in his female fans. Hollywood wanted to capitalize on Valentino’s immense success and sponsored a worldwide lookalike contest with the promise of roles in Hollywood films for the winner.
Rabagliati won the contest over about 2 million other men and found himself on a ship crossing the Atlantic. He later reflected, “For someone like me, who had seen no more than Lake Como or Monza Cathedral so far, finding myself on board a luxury steamer with three cases full of clothes, a few rolls of dollars, grand duchesses and countesses flirting with me, was something extraordinary”. Upon reaching Hollywood, it seemed his benefactors had forgotten their promises of film roles and his acting career stalled before it began. However, he learned to enjoy the many gifts of America (including women) and danced to the ubiquitous swing and jazz music emanating from radio and nightclubs.
After about four years his money ran out and Rabagliati returned to Italy. He launched his singing career and in 1934 joined the Cuban band, Lecuona Cuban Boys, then touring in Italy. Rabagliati had a hit with Maria La O and, for reasons no one seems able to explain, performed with LCB in blackface.
In 1939 Rabagliati auditioned for the Italian state radio station, EIAR, and became the vocalist for the station’s orchestra. His voice was an instant success and soon his own show, Canta Rabagliati (Rabagliati Sings), was causing a sensation. His hits included Ma l’Amore No, Mattinata Fiorentina, Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina, Silenzioso Slow and Bambina Innamorata.
His signature style was Swing Made in Italy and he based it on the American swing and jazz singers of the day. Rabagliati toured Italy with a 100 piece orchestra in 1941 and started a trend of rhythmic symphony concerts. Touring made him even more popular with the Italian people and females tossed him red roses at every performance. A popular cartoon of the day showed Rabagliati dancing in the street while every person (and a horse and a statue!) mimicked his freewheeling style. Crowned the King of Swing, Rabagliati’s joyous music was a desperately needed counterpoint to the devastation and uncertainty of the war going all around him.
All of this is even more amazing when we remember that at that time, Mussolini had banned all foreign influences from Italy, including music. Swing and jazz were distinctly American art forms. However, Rabagliati’s popularity was so overreaching that he was allowed to flout the ban and Il Duce even used one of his recordings as a campaign anthem.
With this much popularity, the Italian film industry wasn’t far behind. Beginning in 1940, his appeal translated easily to the screen and his film career spanned over 25 years.
(Casa Italiana brought this aspect of Rabagliati’s career to life by showing delightful clips of some of his more popular works.)
One of his most iconic roles was 1943’s La Vita E’ Bella with Anna Magnani (not to be confused with Roberto Benigni’s film of the same name). Rabagliati played a young count who considers suicide when he loses his fortune. His friend, a doctor, convinces him to submit to a serum injection that will kill him in 10 days, but could save many lives. The doctor tells him, “You’ve wasted your life, don’t waste your death, too”. In the ensuing 10 days, the now destitute count becomes a farmer and falls in love. He returns to the doctor insisting that he is no longer seeking death and wants to live. The doctor assures him that the serum he administered was harmless, and that he “only wanted to give (him) an injection of life. Life is beautiful, go live it!”
This story touched the deep suffering of many Italians at the time. It offered a way to move through the starvation, torture and death that was everywhere. It prompted the Corriere Della Sera to observe, in a 1998 retrospective of Rabagliati, that he “reminded Italians how beautiful life was in a time of war.”
And anyone who can do that deserves to be remembered.