Inside Joe Pesci’s Star-Studded—and Underrated—Music Career
From Jimmy Scott, to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Adam Levine, and even Hendrix—the movie star's musical connections are as impressive as his movie accolades.
By Dom Nero
Nov 29, 2019
Joe Pesci–whether he likes it or not–will always be known for his darkly funny (like a clown?) onscreen persona. His signature black humor, which is always cut with insecurity and rage, earned him an Oscar in 1991, and has made him a cornerstone of American cinema. This year, the actor was convinced to return from his decades-long retirement to star alongside Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. But The Irishman isn't Pesci's only big artistic endeavor of 2019. The actor is also putting out a jazz album this month called Pesci…Still Singing. That's right, Pesci is a jazz singer. He sings!
The movie mob boss, who was a child performer, has been crooning for just about as long as he's been acting. And, like his character in The Irishman, Pesci's music isn't over-the-top aggressive or comically acerbic. His old-fashioned jazz albums, for the most part, are tender, playful, and sincere. They hail from an eclectic jazz history that includes the predictable influences like Frankie Valli, but also more esoteric artists such as the seldom-remembered blues vocalist, Jimmy Scott. We've come to know Pesci on screen as an Italian-American angry man. But what's made Pesci such an enduring presence in Hollywood for so many years is not just his ability to accurately portray violent psychopaths onscreen. It's his range. Irishman, for the first time since perhaps Raging Bull, gives Pesci a chance to showcase his subtlety. That's exactly what we can see in his music career, which connects to hallmarks of jazz music and big band classics. Pesci may not ever get recognition for it–but he's got some serious range.
Pesci's presence in the music scene goes all the way back to the early '60s. A Jersey-born kid of a working class Italian-American family, he's partly responsible for the success of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons–Pesci actually introduced a few of the guys to singer and songwriter Bob Gaudio, who would go on to write many of the group's biggest hits. There's even a scene in the Jersey Boys musical about it.
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Throughout the '60s, Pesci made a name for himself in the Jersey music scene, playing guitar in groups like Joey Dee and the Starliters, an early rock and roll outfit that also hosted a young Jimi Hendrix as guitar player for a brief moment. Pesci put out his own solo album in 1968. This was before Raging Bull, before Goodfellas, before the actor was even on Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese's radar. It's called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. It's a collection of covers of pop songs from the era, like the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill," "Fixing a Hole," and the Bee Gees' song, "To Love Somebody." His voice, as expected, is high pitched and commanding–pretty much exactly what you're probably imagining as you read this. It doesn't sound like anything special, but Little Joe does put the famously crass movie star in a different perspective.
Pesci earned himself an Oscar nomination in 1980 for his performance in Raging Bull, going on to win the Supporting Actor award for Goodfellas in '91, then appearing in hugely successful pictures like Casino, the Lethal Weapon series, and Home Alone. The actor's last significant role came in 2006 as a glorified cameo in The Good Shepherd, one of Robert De Niro's directorial efforts. Pesci later performed in the poorly-received Love Ranch alongside Helen Mirren in 2010. He almost showed up in the John Travolta Gotti biopic from 2018–even claiming to have gained 30 pounds to play mob enforcer Angelo Ruggiero–but the role was cut and Pesci sued the production for $3 million. We haven't really heard from the guy at all in the past few decades, unless you count his Snickers commercials from 2011. That's because the actor actually retired from the industry in 1999 to focus on his music career.
"Little Joe" would continue to put out albums over the next few decades under different names. In 1998, he released an album following the success of My Cousin Vinny, called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. That's his character's name from the movie. Unlike his other albums, this one's a raucous, satirical project that sounds like a coked-up version of Dean Martin. My favorite is the obscene breakup song "Take Your Love and Shove it," which is every bit as mean and offensive as Cousin Vinny from the film. The opening lyrics of the song are, "Why don't you take your love and shove it up your big fat ass / you know you're the reason we're through!"
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Then came the "Joe Doggs" era, yet another rebranding of the actor's enduring pop culture reputation. Pesci, who is famously contentious toward the press (he refused to speak at all during a recent Irishman event) apparently intended to keep the identity of "Doggs" a secret during the release of Falling in Love Again, his album with notable jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco in 2003. It's a legitimate jazz album, full of big-time musicians from the scene. Unlike his covers or the parody music in his My Cousin Vinny album, Falling in Love Againis a display of Pesci's serious commitment to the medium. This isn't the sort of gushy, elevator muzak you hear in Starbucks from smooth jazz guys like Dave Coz or Kenny G. Pesci's understated tone on the album sounds less like a schmoozy lounge singer and more like an instrument on the band stand. If you can get past the Goodfellas visuals that may be playing in your head while you listen, it's actually pretty impressive to hear. And the album coming out following the release of Irishman seems to be more of this kind of music, at least based on the song that's been released so far, which features Adam Levine and legendary trumpet player Arturo Sandoval.
Whether you're into Pesci's music taste or not, it's clear the actor has a real respect for the craft. Pesci has spoken at length about the influence of the late vocalist, "Little" Jimmy Scott. Probably most recognized for his appearance in Twin Peaks, Scott made a huge impact on Pesci's career from a very early stage. He's the reason Pesci put the "Little" in front of his own name for his first album.
Scott had a rare genetic disorder called "Kallman syndrome" that altered his adolescent growth and gave him an unusually high singing voice. Scott was a prominent figure in jazz music in the early '50s, appearing on Lionel Hampton records and even providing vocals for Charlie Parker. In Scott's biography, which was written about in a United Press article from 2003, Pesci said about the late singer, "He'd listen to me and encourage me. Some days he'd disappear for days at a time, but when I caught up with him … he'd smile and welcome me into his world. … We'd sing together nonstop for hours, sometimes all night. … He became my guru. I became his shadow." Pesci's reverence for the little-known singer in endearing, and in the clip below, it's plain to see the influence Scott made on the actor's musical disposition, with both of them putting an emphasis on phrasing and tone in their singing.
Pesci…Still Singing drops on November 29, shortly after the premiere of The Irishman on Netflix. With all the reports of how resistant Pesci was to appearing in Irishman, it's not clear if this is the new golden era for the longtime performer. To me, 2019 seems like a swan song for a 76-year-old artist who may be a bit more interested in returning to music than anything else right now.
Dom Nero Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.