He never sang to the feds, but it turns out Al Capone had a song in his heart. All it took was a stint in Alcatraz to bring it out.
Now, more than 70 years later, the tender love song that the ruthless crime boss penned while sitting in the pen is being recorded and released on CD. And an inscribed copy of the music and lyrics to “Madonna Mia” is up for sale at $65,000.
“It’s a beautiful song, a tearjerker,” said Rich Larsen of Caponefanclub.com, who helped line up musicians and singers to record it.
The story of “Madonna Mia” begins in a cell in Alcatraz, where Scarface was sent after getting pinched for tax evasion. Capone, who loved opera and jazz and whose speakeasies hired musicians like Louis Armstrong, apparently had time to kill.
Capone could read music and liked to play a banjo and a mandola, which is like a mandolin, only bigger. According to Larsen, who is working on a documentary about Capone’s influence on music in the 1920s and ’30s, the gangster begged the warden for permission to form a small band. The warden relented, the inmates sent away for instruments, and Capone made music behind bars.
Enter Vincent Casey. As part of his training to become a Jesuit priest, Casey would visit Alcatraz to offer spiritual counsel to prisoners in the 1930s. Casey and Capone talked in the mobster’s cell every Saturday for two years, becoming good friends, said Casey’s son, Mike Casey, a retired airline employee in Temecula, Calif.
One Christmas, Capone presented his friend with a piece of sheet music. The lyrics told of a man’s undying love for his “Madonna Mia.”
“With your true love to guide me, let whatever betide me, I will never go wrong,” Capone wrote. “There’s only one moon above, one golden sun, there’s only one that I love, you are the one.”
For Mary or Mae?
The way Larsen tells it, the gangster who supposedly orchestrated the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — in which his henchmen pulled machine guns from violin cases, incidentally — was a religious man. So the song might be about the Virgin Mary.
But Larsen thinks it is more likely that the song was Capone’s valentine to his wife, Mae, who stuck by him, even after he went to prison and suffered the effects of syphilis, the disease that led to his death in 1947.
The sheet music is inscribed, “To my good friend Father Vin Casey with the best in all the world for a Merry Christmas always for you. Alphonse Capone.”
Casey took it home. Never ordained, Casey married and before he died in 1960 showed the gift to his son, suggesting that it may have more than just sentimental value.
The younger Casey sold the sheet music to an auction house, though he would not say for how much. But today that piece of paper is on sale for $65,000 at the Boston location of Kenneth W. Rendell, a dealer of historical documents.
Traditional love song
For the past eight months or so, Larsen and a producer have been recording the song, with two singers — a man and a woman — backed by a mandolin, accordion, violin, piano and standup bass. Larsen said the CD should be on sale next month.
The song, a clip of which was obtained by The Associated Press, sounds like a traditional Italian love song that was popular at the time.
Capone’s love of music was evident right up to the end of his life. In his research for a book about Capone, Chicago author Jonathan Eig found that even when Capone’s mind was ravaged by syphilis and he was paranoid and delusional, he continued to play his mandola.
That doesn’t mean that Capone totally abandoned his preferred way of settling scores.
“At one point he got into a fight with an inmate named Lucas, and Lucas stabbed him in the back,” Eig said. “Capone responded by hitting him in the face with his banjo.”
Eig joked: “This may be the only time a gangster actually had an instrument in his instrument case.”