A lot of writers will tell you that sometimes their best work comes when they’re hard-pushed to meet a deadline. This is how Bob Merrill came up with Mambo Italiano. He was already a renowned hitmaker. Indeed, this became his fourth UK number one, after She Wears Red Feathers, (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window? and Look at That Girl. Merrill was looking for a way to cash in on the craze for mambo music in New York in 1954, and considered Rosemary Clooney the best artist for the job. The problem was, he couldn’t think of a tune and he was running out of time, until one night he was eating in an Italian restaurant and it came to him. He quickly scribbled his idea on a napkin, rang the studio from the restaurant payphone and dictated the whole thing to producer Mitch Miller and the studio pianist.
Whether this explains the fact the lyrics are often either lazy, stereotypical Italian (basically, any Italian word an American would have known, and some Spanish as well) or actual gibberish, I’m not sure. let’s face it, Merrill had written borderline offensive songs before (She Wears Red Feathers), and been very successful with it. In less enlightened times, who was going to stop him? He gets away with it on Mambo Italiano for two reasons. One, the tune is so catchy. Two, Rosemary Clooney’s performance.
Clooney (actor George Clooney’s aunt, if you didn’t know. I didn’t until recently) throws herself into the song completely, and does a very good impersonation of an Italian despite her Irish-American upbringing. This is in part due to the many Italian musicians she worked with. She’s the embodiment of the lusty temptress, and she even throws in some feral growling at times. It’s easily the sexiest number one yet. So hats off to Clooney. With this and This Ole House, that’s two good number 1s in a row. Mambo Italiano has been covered many times since, with Dean Martin’s being probably the most notable. Martin was Italian-American and didn’t seem to have a problem with the song. In fact, neither did Italy, as it became popular there in 1956 thanks to a cover by Carla Boni. I guess as far as national stereotypes go, ‘those Italians are always horny and we like their food’ is one of the better ones.
Mambo Italiano knocked Dickie Valentine’s Finger of Suspicion off the top spot for a week, before Valentine took over again for another fortnight. A further two-week stint followed for Clooney, and then her time at number 1 was over. She continued to have television and music success for many years, but also suffered from several nervous breakdowns, depression, prescription drug addiction and money problems. She continued to perform though, until succumbing to lung cancer in 2002, aged 74.
And who were the Mellomen, who were credited alongside Clooney on this track? They were a very popular singing quartet, that’s who. At this time they consisted of Thurl Ravenscroft (also the voice of Tony the Tiger, who helped out Clooney on This Ole House), Max Smith, Bill Lee and Bob Hamlin. They went under several guises through the years, and together, and separately, they recorded with Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and Doris Day, as well as providing voices for Disney films including Alice in Wonderland (1951) and The Jungle Book (1967). Chances are we’ll hear of them on this site again.
Written by: Bob Merrill
Weeks at number 1: 3 (14-20 January, 4-17 February)