CLEARWATER — For thousands of music fans in the northeast United States, particularly those who crave cantorial Neapolitan romantic ballads, Jimmy Roselli was a hero whose photo hung in Italian restaurants beside those of Frank Sinatra and the Pope.
For the rest of America, he was the greatest singer you never heard of.
He packed the 700-seat Copacabana nightclub and sold out Carnegie Hall. Critics called him an overnight sensation whose rich tenor voice rivaled or even surpassed that of Frank Sinatra, who grew up five doors down from Mr. Roselli in Hoboken, N.J.
He moved gangsters to tears. Carlo Gambino once sent a limo his house to take Mr. Roselli to his Long Island home for a leisurely dinner. Mobster Larry Gallo was buried holding a Roselli record. For many years, characters with names like Trigger Mike, Charlie the Blade and Frankie the Knife hovered around him, admiring his talent and wanting a piece of his box office.
Mr. Roselli succumbed to wiseguys repeatedly, accepting their favors while resisting their demands, a combination that cost him financially and could have proved fatal. He eventually broke free of their influence and rebounded on his talent, commanding as much as $100,000 a night and selling out Trump Plaza in Atlantic City until his retirement in 2004.
After a career that spanned nearly 70 years, he retired to Clearwater. He died June 30 at his Clearwater home, of heart trouble. Mr. Roselli was 85.
Profiles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine and others always try to answer the essential question regarding Roselli: How could someone with so much talent perform in relative obscurity for so many years, outside of a committed fan base?
Some theories blame blackballing by the mob, with whom he maintained a love-hate relationship. Others point to his enmity with Sinatra over a series of perceived slights.
Al Certo, a friend who grew up across the street from Mr. Roselli, believes that the singer was his own biggest obstacle.
"He made a lot of bad decisions," said Certo, 82. "I think he had a fear of being successful — or failure."
Mr. Roselli often said he was more comfortable with failure than success, said David Evanier, author of Making the Wiseguys Weep — the Jimmy Roselli Story, and a book now being released about Tony Bennett.
"Jimmy was the Raging Bull of show business," said Evanier. "He was very angry and suspicious, and he was not able to deal with the mechanics of show business."
Even so, Evanier said, "he was steps away from being a megastar."
Composer Sammy Cahn once said that Roselli had "a larger, richer voice than Frank (Sinatra). He's a miracle."
Mr. Roselli grew up in a cold-water flat with his grandfather and three aunts. His mother died two days after he was born, and his father abandoned him.
He found solace in music, entering bars with a shoeshine box and singing for tips.
"They used to have intermissions to carry out the wounded," Mr. Roselli told Evanier.
After a tour in the Army, during which time he saw combat in northern France, Mr. Roselli returned to a career on the rise. His first big break came when an impressed Jimmy Durante persuaded a club to double Mr. Roselli's $300 salary.
To manage his career, he turned to people he had known, starting with a loan-sharking boss known as "Gyp the Collar."
"The more I got around wiseguys," Mr. Roselli told his biographer, "the more I found out I didn't want any part of it."
The ensuing years would bring more wiseguys and more conflict. After sellout concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1966 — for which his wiseguy managers paid him nothing — he gained his independence. He went on to record 35 albums with United Artists and his own record company, and he cracked the top 100 charts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom with There Must Be a Way and When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New.
The road to success came with many blowouts. Mr. Roselli performed three times on The Ed Sullivan Show but reneged on an additional four engagements. He stormed off the set of The Merv Griffin Show when he learned he would not be able to sit on the couch with the host, snubbed invites to The Tonight Show and Regis and Kathie Lee, and he turned down a singing role in the film The Godfather Part II — because, he said, those venues would not pay him what he was worth.
He was a friend of actor Joe Pesci, and his personality has been compared to that of Pesci's character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas.
"Everyone wanted to be close to him and he didn't want to be close to anybody," Evanier said. "And somehow, that made them love him even more."
His funeral in Hoboken on Tuesday packed mourners into St. Ann's Catholic Church, where Mr. Roselli was baptized. As his casket was carried from the church, his pianist played the song My Way in tribute.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]