The Groundbreakers – Italian-American Vocalists Before Rock and Roll

Essential Question

How did the careers of Italian American vocalists in the first half of the 20th century reflect the experiences of Italian American immigrants and attitudes toward them in the wider American culture?


More than 3 million Italians immigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century, establishing the largest immigrant community of the period. Like many other immigrant groups, these new Americans – generally poor, sometimes illiterate – faced numerous challenges in assimilating into the larger society, from limited job opportunities to outright prejudice.

Beginning in the 1930s, and to a greater degree in the 1940s and 1950s, a group of Italian-American male vocalists achieved great success as recording artists and performers. In this lesson, students will examine the careers of these artists and what they reveal about society’s attitudes toward the Italian-American community.

“In Frank Sinatra’s voice,” argues Mark Rotella in his 2010 book, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, “you can almost hear the suppression of decades of immigrant frustration and anger. This was the time when Italian Americans entered the mainstream of empowerment, and when they broke into popular culture.”

Students will investigate what these singers, from Sinatra to Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, brought to popular song, and why their particular style of singing made such an impression on the American public.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The general history of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
    • The contributions of important Italian-American male vocalists to American music in the first half of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin
    • How the careers of these artists reflected attitudes toward Italian Americans in the wider culture
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Examine how the careers of particular artists reflect attitudes in the society from which they emerged
    • Evaluate the extent to which the Italian roots of these singers influenced their style of performance