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Joe Pesci sings again

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In New Jersey sometime in the late 1950s, according to legend, Joe Pesci introduced his friend Frankie Valli to the young songwriter Bob Gaudio, a meeting that gave the Four Seasons their career. Pesci’s own singing career never reached such heights. His fame came from elsewhere, mostly from the terrifying “Do I amuse you?” scene with Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.

If you’ve seen The Irishman, you’ll know that Pesci, on his emergence from a 20-year screen hiatus, steals the film: he sets its temperature and provides its emotional core, without raising his voice once. He has also taken the opportunity to revive a recording career which hitherto produced only two albums: Little Joe Sure Can Sing! in 1968 and Vincent LaGuardia Gambino Sings Just For You — performing as his character from My Cousin Vinny — in 1998.

Pesci… Still Singing sees a return to his first love: singing ballads in the piercing, often anguished style of the late, great jazz-lounge maestro Jimmy Scott. Three years ago I wrote about Pesci’s appearance on two tracks of Scott’s posthumously released album, I Go Back Home. One of those duets, on “The Nearness of You”, reappears here. There are also two pleasant collaborations with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on a suave “My Cherie Amour” and the cha-cha groove of “Baby Girl”. Otherwise Pesci’s high, soulful voice is alone with a bunch of orchestral arrangements which are lavishly appointed but never to the extent that they turn the music into mush. Anyone with a fondness for the work of Nelson Riddle will appreciate the use of cor anglais on “Falling in Love Is Wonderful”, while space is made for fine trumpet, tenor and guitar solos, and the playing of the rhythm section is beautifully supportive. Only a melodramatic “Exodus” goes over the top.

I wish I could credit the arranger and the musicians properly, but the curse of streaming — the only way this album is currently available — is that you have to do without the sort of information that listeners of earlier generations depended on as we joined the dots in our quest for musical knowledge. Maybe eventually there’ll be a physical manifestation of Pesci… Still Singing, on which these mysteries will be solved and credit properly apportioned. (Since first posting this I’ve been told that the personnel — on some tracks, at least — includes the pianist Kenny Barron, the guitarists Pat Martino and Vinnie Corrao, the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Lewis Nash, which explains a lot.)

What I can tell you for certain is that Pesci sings with an exemplary attention to meaning, phrasing and tone. He treats some fine songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “If I Should Lose You”, “Round Midnight”, “In My Solitude”, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and so on — with the necessary respect, and they repay his courtesy. This is an album made with love. And to those who don’t get the point: it’s entirely your loss.

* I streamed Pesci… Still Singing from Amazon Music, at a cost of £7.99. The photograph above is a still from The Irishman, with Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran.

Fantoni’s Sixties

Fantoni Beatles

It’s fair to say that Barry Fantoni had a good Sixties. Now we can read all about it in A Whole Scene Going On, his memoir of the time when he wrote gags for Private Eye, appalled the Royal Academy with a pop-art painting of a Pope, a judge and a general, created the visual backdrops for Ready, Steady, Go!, had a girlfriend who shared a flat with Jane Asher, presented a TV youth programme of his own (from which his book adapts its title), had an abortive stab at becoming a pop star, became a brilliant cartoonist, and did all the other things that people did in that blessed time. He mentions finding an address book from 1966 that begins with Annie (Nightingale) and ends with Zoot (Money).

Others who passed through his life during that period, with varying degrees of intimacy, include Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Ray Davies, Ralph Steadman, Peter Osgood, John Mayall, Terence Donovan, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page (and his mum), and Felicity Innes, who wore a mini-skirt before Mary Quant. There are great stories about all of them, and about the early Private Eye gang: Ingrams, Booker, Rushton, Cook, Wells and so on. I loved the affectionate evocations of the brilliant designer Robert Brownjohn, the journalist Penny Valentine, the Nova art director Harri Peccinotti, a bloke called Bob who invented Gonks, the art critic John Russell, and Keith Goodwin, Fantoni’s press agent.

Goodwin also looked after Paul and Barry Ryan, Donovan, Cat Stevens, the Temperance Seven and Dusty Springfield, the subject of a chilling vignette: “You needed to know Dusty offstage to get the real picture. To see the face beneath the heavy makeup, back-combed hair and black eyeliner. What I saw was a rather frightened and plain-looking girl from the London suburbs with a bad temper and a desperate need to be loved.” Among those also sideswiped along the way are Tariq Ali, Robert “Groovy Bob” Fraser, Jeff Beck and Gerald Scarfe. The grudges, as is usually the case, add significant value: his resentment of David Hockney’s success is nothing short of epic.

I met him at the very end of this period, when he was contributing cartoons to accompany the wonderful Melody Maker column in which Chris Welch chronicled the adventures of an imaginary pop star called Jiving K. Boots, who was usually either getting banned from the Speakeasy or getting it together in the country: it was Spinal Tap avant la lettre, with a dash of Beachcomber’s random whimsy. I remember greatly coveting the Fantoni portrait of Denis Law that another friend, Geoffrey Cannon, had on the wall of his house in Notting Dale. Apparently that’s now lost, like the large quantity of Barry’s early paintings — including the famously scandalous “The Duke of Edinburgh in His Underpants” — taken off in 1963 to be shown in Los Angeles and never returned. “I have no idea where my work is now,” Fantoni writes of that episode. “Covered in goose shit, I expect.”

This was the Sixties, so not all the detail of Fantoni’s recollections is 100 per cent accurate. But that doesn’t matter. He brings alive a world in which dinner would be at a King’s Road trattoria one night and the all-night Golden Egg on Oxford Street the next, and when making art and having fun seemed to be all that mattered.

* Barry Fantoni’s A Whole Scene Going On: My Inside Story of Private Eye, the Pop Revolution and Swinging Sixties London is published by Polygon. His painting of the Beatles, first exhibited in January 1963 and reproduced above from the book, is now owned by Paul McCartney.