Roberto Murolo

(Naples, 1912 – Naples, 2003)

By Pasquale Scialò (Università S. Orsola Benincasa, Naples)

(Originially published on Il Corriere del Mezzogiorno, March 14, 2023, p. 13)

The life of Roberto Murolo, whom Pino Daniele deemed a “bionic” man due to his energy and long life, could easily be the subject of a seven-episode television series. Murolo was a multifaceted figure whose episode-filled story was kept in a precious safe (“Casciaforte”), to use the title of a song dear to him: from singer to guitarist, from actor to successful author as well as an attentive popularizer of song repertoires.

The first episode of this imaginary TV series portrays Murolo in a bourgeois setting on the Neapolitan Riviera di Chiaia, frequented by poets such as Salvatore Di Giacomo and Libero Bovio, along with his father Ernesto (Naples 1876–1939) who was a poet, journalist, theater writer and author of successful songs like “‘O cunto ‘e Mariarosa” and “Pusilleco addiruso,” whose verses evoke the luminous gouaches of nineteenth-century landscapes.

As a young man, Murolo did not seem motivated to pursue an artistic career, likely due to the imposing presence of his father. Roberto practiced many sports, including boxing, swimming, and rowing; he attended high school and studied saxophone, accordion and guitar. The latter became his favorite and signature instrument. Later, while working for a gas company, he started having second thoughts and began to devote himself to music.

The second episode finds him with a group of friends listening to jazz and the “a capella” vocal forms in which the voices imitate band instruments. This musical style was popularized by the Mills Brothers whose performances, in songs such as “Nagasaki” or “Funiculì Funiculà,” are still considered highly creative today. In this context, Murolo founded the Mida Quartet in 1934 and subsequently recorded for La Voce del Padrone “Ho le scarpe strette” and “Le tre papere.” The Quartet went on tour, performing in Hungary, Germany and Spain. Meanwhile, in 1939 his father died, leaving the family in precarious economic conditions which led him to prepare for his return to Naples in 1946, to a city that was slowly recovering from the destruction of WWII bombings.

The third episode places him in the Tragara Club in Capri, where his voice-and-guitar performance of traditional songs was applauded, restoring full centrality to singing and the poetic text. Thus Murolo, in a heartfelt homage to his father’s memory, performed “Napule ca se ne va!” and “Suspiranno.” His success was such that the formula of the singer-guitarist, a bourgeois legacy of the ancient art of gavottisti and posteggiatori,[1] was aired on the radio in a show entitled La dolce voce di Capri.

It is in this phase that he shapes his artistic profile, poised between a hereditary culture learned from immersion in his family’s origins, and the acquired taste for imported repertoires. These imported repertoires became popular during the Fascist years on the radio and on V-discs, the “victory discs” produced in the US in support of troops fighting in WWII, with memorable recordings from Duke Ellington to Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Murolo’s vocal range matures into a baritone register with its own personal style, different from both operatic singing and the style en plein air of folkloric songs. The result is a new “vocal hybrid” capable of creating a perfect fusion between the friendly timbre of a crooner and that of a fine actor, blending the warm timbre of Bing Crosby with the expressive one of Gennaro Pasquariello. In 1948 Murolo recorded his versions of “White Christmas” and “Na sera ‘e Maggio,” with an exemplary mix of vocal styles and tones.

In the fourth episode we find Murolo amongst scores and copielle,[2] intent on preparing an anthology of the Neapolitan song: Napoletana, Antologia cronologica della canzone napoletana, a set of twelve LPs collecting 160 Neapolitan songs from the year 1200 onward. The work, issued between 1963 and 1965, features guitarist Eduardo Caliendo and includes some “precedents” of late nineteenth-century classical songwriting. Among these were songs from the folkloric oral tradition, arranged according to the tastes of bourgeois Salon music and taken from Vincenzo De Meglio’s collection L’eco di Napoli (“Canto delle lavandaie del Vomero,” “Cicerenella”) – as well as other forms of vocal music, including the villanella.

In our imaginary series’ fifth episode, Roberto Murolo becomes a songwriter, creating approximately one hundred new songs, according to Gianni Cesarini’s research. The most inspired composition is “’O ciucciariello” (1951), a rural sketch with music by Nino Oliviero, built on descending chromatic scales and appoggiaturas. Once again as a singer-songwriter he participates in a number of Neapolitan song festivals, winning two of them. In both cases, Murolo’s lyrics were set by Renato Forlani: “Sarrà chi sa!”  (1959) sung by Fausto Cigliano and Teddy Reno, and “Marechiaro Marechiaro” (1962), written with Roberto’s sister Maria and sung by Sergio Bruni and Gloria Christian.

In the sixth episode Murolo continues with great productivity as a singer, with songs by Salvatore Di Giacomo, Libero Bovio, E.A. Mario, and his own father Ernesto Murolo, including a valuable tribute to the theatrical songs of Raffaele Viviani. He also dabbles in various flavors such as the comic with a recording of Come rideva Napoli (1967). The only genre he avoided was that of the sceneggiata, considered, unlike in the past, a mere commercial variety show.

In the 1970s Murolo was one of the central figures of Italian music, and his success continued into the ’90s with a surprising seventh episode, thanks to the collaboration with Nando Coppeto. They created such works as “Na voce, na chitarra” and the album Ottantavoglia di cantare (1992), which includes “Cu mme,” a hit written by Enzo Gragnaniello and sung with Mia Martini. Murolo then moved to recording contemporary songs, from Paolo Conte’s “Spassiunatamente” to Lucio Dalla’s “Caruso,” as well as duets with Peppino di Capri, Fabrizio De André, Renzo Arbore and even Amalia Rodrigues. In 1995 Pino Daniele, in a tribute album titled Roberto Murolo and Friends, accompanied Murolo’s voice with his guitar on “Napul’è.” In 2002, the Sanremo Festival awarded the “bionic man” a Lifetime Achievement Award for the release of his last work, Ho sognato di cantare. Retracing the moments of Murolo’s career twenty years after his death on 13 March 2003 leaves us truly amazed and makes us think that such wonderful songs should not be kept in a Casciaforte but, as Enzo Arbore claims, should be heard through Murolo’s own unique voice, a musical instrument “located between throat, trachea, nose and diaphragm, a unique ‘sound box,’ precious like that of an antique Stradivarius, which resonates deeply and harmoniously like no other.”

[1] “Gavottisti” were hired musicians in Naples at the turn of the twentieth century. They played at private parties to entertain the participants with music and dances, including the “gavotta,” a Provençal dance that became particularly popular in Naples during those years. Posteggiatori are “official” street musicians in Naples.

[2] The term “copiella” generally refers to a music score printed on both sides of the sheet, which includes the lyrics and the voice part. It is intended for enthusiasts and amateurs who use it to “start humming their favorite songs, to themselves or during entertainments with friends”. In Pasquale Scialò, Storia della canzone napoletana (1824-1931), Vicenza, Neri Pozza, 2017, p.38.

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