Everyone who’s been in show business has had some sort of contact with The Mob. In my case, both The Mob and The Police had an impact on the direction of my career. When I was a kid, singing in my room along with my 45 records, learning how to harmonize, I never thought it would lead to a relationship with one of the most terrifying men I’d ever met.
I always loved the sound of harmony. In High School, it was impossible for me to be at a party without looking for a couple of guys willing to hang out in the corner of the room and sing. More times than not the rest of the guests didn’t appreciate our ear-cringing attempt at harmony, and instead of responding with the delightful sound of applause they would usher us to the nearest bathroom and slam the door shut behind us. We didn’t mind it that much, but the people who used the bathroom found it rather disconcerting to hear songs like the Del Vikings hit, “Come Go with Me.”
When I was discharged from the Navy I began to think of singing as a career and joined a couple of different groups that had very little success. It was only after I met a couple of guys in a bowling alley in Brooklyn, started a new group named The Emotions, wrote a song called “Echo”, and signed a contract with Kapp Records, that incredible things started to happen. It was also a time in my life that was so incredibly ominous it scared the hell out of me.
The day our first record was released I was driving to my manager Henry’s house when I heard it played on the radio for the first time. I became so excited that I stopped the car abruptly, jumped up on the hood, and began dancing The Watusi – a very popular dance at the time. It was only after a motorcycle cop pulled up and I heard the car horns blaring behind me that I realized I’d never even pulled the car over to the side of the road. The drivers in the line of cars backed up behind me looked like a caravan of serial killers ready and willing to fight each other for the sole purpose of putting me out of my misery, but the exhilaration of hearing myself on the radio kept me dancing until I heard the cop roar at the top of his lungs:
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING UP THERE?”
“I’m doing the Watusi!” I responded and demonstrated some new moves that I thought were quite inspiring.“If you’d like, I can show you a few steps.”
“THE ONLY STEPS YOU’RE GOING TO SHOW ME ARE HOW TO STEP DOWN OFF THE HOOD OF YOUR CAR AND PULL IT OVER TO THE SIDE.”
After doing what the cop commanded I noticed that as the cars that had been stopped behind me drove past, the drivers all gave me “il maocchio,” which for those who don’t know is the Italian version of “the evil eye.” All except for one guy. He was sitting in the back of a long black limo, wearing a white fedora, black pinstriped suit, a silk shirt, and a bright yellow tie with an exquisite pattern of handguns and bullets all over it. He flashed me a big toothy grin, revealing glistening gold nestled comfortably in his teeth, flipped what looked like a business card out of his window, and made a zipping motion across his lips as the limo pulled away. That was my first encounter with Nunzio Nunziota, head of the Nunziota Crime family. After the cop lectured me and gave me a ticket for dancing on my car – which, incidentally, became the title of the next song I wrote – and motored into the now freely moving traffic, I picked up the card the guy in the limo had dropped and didn’t know what to make of it. There were two large N’s interwoven with swirls and curls, rendered in beautifully crafted calligraphy that appeared to be some sort of crest, followed by the words:
“If you want someone to never tell,
call on me, I’ll send’ em to hell.
”Nunzio NunziotaWisest of all Wise Guys
I stuffed the card in my pocket, continued to my manager Henry’s home, and found him even more ecstatic than I was: “WE WON, JOE; WE WON, WE WON!” Back then there was a very popular DJ named Murray the K, who played five new recordings every night, asking for his audience to call in and vote for their favorites. Each night’s winner would then compete at the end of the week for the RECORD OF THE WEEK. This was a big deal because winning would almost assure the record becoming a top 40 hit.
“WE WON, JOE; OURS WAS THE WINNING RECORD TONIGHT, AND WE’LL BE COMPETING SATURDAY NIGHT FOR THE RECORD OF THE WEEK!”
Henry screamed and began dancing ecstatically around the living room. When I say, “around the living room,” I mean it literally because he had two left feet, which prevented him from doing anything but boogying around in circles, so I placed the song “Let the good times roll” by Shirly & Lee on the turntable and played it nonstop until Henry tired of his rotational frolic and collapsed on the floor. Then I picked him up, threw him on the couch, and headed home.
The next day, still hardly able to contain myself, I received a phone call from someone whose voice sounded like Louie Armstrong talking through a mouthful of gravel. (Please note that what follows are not typos. The words are spelled phonetically to reveal how they sounded to me.)
“Joey, is dishu?” “The last time I looked I was.” I have a habit of joking whenever someone makes me nervous.
“You’re a very funny guy. Now take off your jokin hat so I don haf to come over dere an pull it down ova you ears. I’m calling for Mr. Nunziota. He would like your presence at The Get Whacked Pub, and be dere soon.”
“I don’t know how to find my way to Get Whacked.”
“If you don chu soon will!”
“Uh, o-okay, h-how s-soon is s-soon?” I answered with my heart in my mouth.
“Stop whatcha doon and be dere by Noon,” he growled and hung up.
When I pulled up to Get Whacked (oh my God, even typing the words frightens me), I could almost hear the theme from the movie The Godfather. Of course, I knew it was only my imagination… which is what I thought until I walked through the front door and heard the melody lilting in the air from a jukebox in the far corner of the room. Sitting at a table with a couple of guys standing behind him who looked like they had been cast in every gangster movie I’d ever seen was Mr. Nunzio Nunziota, looking every bit as dapper and intimidating as the first time I saw him through the window of the limo.
“Siediti qui,”meaning “sit here”, he muttered and pointed to a chair on the other side of the table. “You like a cup of double espresso!”
“No thanks, I don’t drink…”
When he put up his hand I realized he wasn’t asking if I wanted double espresso, he was telling me I did, so I said with as much respect as I could:
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather have more… I’d love a cup.”
He snapped his fingers and before I knew it a steaming cup of double espresso was placed in my trembling hand.
“Joey, Joey, Joey, I’ve had my eye on you for a long time.” Which made the blood in my veins seem to freeze instantly. Then seeing the alarm on my face, he waved his hand in front of me the way a priest does at confession and continued.
“No, no, it’s not what you think.” He brushed a tear from his eye and said, “Let me explain. Before your Uncle Lundy, my very dear, dear friend, left for a better place he made me promise that I would look after you.”
Then watching him wipe a tear from his other eye, I couldn’t help but think that he was being a little melodramatic. You see, my uncle Lundy left for a better place by moving from New Jersey to California – but I kept quiet and listened intently.
“So, Giuseppe, I don’t want you to worry about Saturday because yours will be The Record of the Week. I guarantee it. Now drink up before your double espresso gets cold.”
He then stood up and walked through a curtain into a back room with his two body guards following closely behind. I swallowed the espresso in one gulp and left, wondering if I’d just made a deal with the devil, which was weird because at that very moment the godfather theme stopped playing and The Clover’s rendition of “Devil or Angel” started blaring from the jukebox.
I spent the rest of the week quaking in my boots. Have you ever quaked in your boots? It’s not as bad as crapping your pants, which I came close to doing while sitting with Nunzio, but in all fairness drinking a cup of double espresso, as bad as it tasted, was much preferable to either one. Saturday night I sat by the radio with nervous anticipation until Murray the K shouted with unbridled enthusiasm:
“FOLKS, SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED THAT’S NEVER HAPPENED ON THIS SHOW BEFORE. WE HAVE A TIE. THE EMOTIONS’ “ECHO” HAS TIED WITH THE FOUR SEASONS‘ “BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY” FOR RECORD OF THE WEEK… SO I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO ANNOUNCE THEY’RE BOTH RECORD OF THE WEEK!”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after seeing the Broadway show “Jersey Boys” I couldn’t help but wonder if one of The Four Seasons also had an uncle who knew Mr. Nunziota. A month later, while I was basking in the elation of extensive airplay and huge record sales, gravel voice called again and suggested I check out my front step. On the mat was an envelope with the words “Bank Jobs” written in striking calligraphy across the front. Inside were contracts for a month-long series of shows at a chain of banks whose name I can’t mention because I’ve since signed a non-disclosure agreement for $130,000.
Thinking that I already owed Nunziota a favor and didn’t want to be any deeper in his debt I decided to call back and say I couldn’t accept the offer – until I saw how much we were being paid for each show and realized that there was no way I could pass up that much money… so we started the tour the following week. The performances were scheduled after banking hours, with special invitations given to high rollers, politicians, and well-known celebrities. I must admit the shows were incredibly successful. We received standing ovations, met many influential people, and made a hell of a lot of money to boot.
A couple of months after the tour, despite the fear and anxiety that flowed through my veins every time I thought of Nunzio Nunziota, I began to relax, enjoy our success, and be thankful for my Uncle Lundy and his relationship with Nunziota – until the chickens finally came home to roost.
One day there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, I was confronted by two FBI agents who asked if I knew a gentleman named Nunziota. After I shook my head in a nonspecific gesture that suggested neither yes nor no they advised me to come down to FBI headquarters to answer a few questions. It didn’t make me feel any better when I recognized one of the agents as the motorcycle cop, since promoted I assumed, who had ticketed me for dancing on my car. An uncomfortable sense of déjà vu was compounded when we got to their car, and after flashing an impish grin he said:
“Please take a seat in the back, or if you prefer you can ride downtown on the hood of the car.”
After sitting alone in a small room for a couple of hours a different FBI agent entered, sat down across from me, stared deeply into my eyes until the sweat was dripping from every pore of my body, and asked, “So, Joseph, how much money did you make from all the bank jobs you did?” As frightened as I was I answered arrogantly, assuming he was just disparaging my music.
“I’m sure you already know, and it’s probably a lot more than you make in a year.””
Much to my surprise my response didn’t bother him in the least, and he stood up with a smug smile on his face, handed me a pencil and pad, asked me to write down everything that happened, and as he walked out of the room whistling the tune “Jailhouse Rock,” I picked up the pencil and wrote…
“Our opening number was ‘Rock and Roll is Here to Stay’ in the key of C, with two bridges and one key change before ending with a loud 4-chord harmonic crescendo.” I continued describing the show until I got to the fifth song, “Oh, What a Night.” I mumbled the word “Oh” as I was writing it down and for some reason repeated it a number of times, “Oh, Oh, Oh, OH, MY GOD!” And that’s when it hit me like a jarring chord from an un-tuned guitar. Nunzio Nunziota had set up our shows as a distraction so his goons could rob the banks while we performed so no one would notice. The bank jobs WERE REALLY BANK JOBS! I suddenly became paralyzed with fear, and as I sat there alone in that interrogation room the thought came to me that in the last couple of months I had had the hell scared out of me by both sides of the law.
Videos of us performing at the exact time the robberies occurred were proof enough that we had nothing to do with the crimes, and all charges that were being considered against us were dropped. When asked if I knew anyone named Nunzio Nunziota, I responded, “I can’t recall,” in my best Jeff Sessions impersonation, hoping that from now on Nunzio would be out of my life forever.
A couple of months later, while we were performing at a night club in Little Italy in Manhattan, there was a knock on the dressing room door, and when I opened it a very large man handed me a burlap sack of fresh espresso beans and in the same gravelly voice I’d heard numerous times before muttered:
“Mr. N, wants to let you know he appreciates you keeping a secret.”
I thanked him for the beans and before shutting the door answered, “Tell him not to worry. I can keep a secret – it’s the people I tell who can’t!”