On October 13, 1998, actor Joe Pesci made a personal appearance at the HMV music store in Manhattan to sign autographs and plug a new project. It was not Lethal Weapon 4, which had just been released that summer, or the video releases of his two 1997 films, Gone Fishin’ and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.
Pesci was there to sign copies of his record album, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, a 13-song compilation in which Pesci alternated rap spoofs (“Wise Guy”) with earnest renditions of classics (“What a Wonderful World”). It was as close to a sequel to his 1992 hit movie My Cousin Vinny as fans would ever get.
Actors trying to achieve success in the music industry is not unusual. In the 1980s, Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, and Patrick Swayze all spent time in the recording studio, to varying levels of success. (Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” was a hit; Miami Vice heartthrob Philip Michael Thomas’s ”Don’t Make Promises” was not.) And while Pesci may not have attracted a younger demographic like Swayze did, he at least had a background in music.
Before his breakthrough role as the brother of boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull, Pesci had designs on becoming a recording artist. He got an education in that and more when his father enrolled him at Marie Mosier's School of Acting, Song, and Dance at age 4. As a teenager in 1950s Newark, New Jersey, Pesci shadowed jazz singer Jimmy Scott, hoping to soak up the performer’s knowledge of the industry: Pesci would later call him “my guru.”
In the 1960s, Pesci became a singer and nightclub performer who had a circuitous, Forrest Gump-esque journey through the music scene. He was briefly in the same road band (for Joey Dee and the Starliters) that once employed Jimi Hendrix; in the 1960s, he introduced songwriter Bob Gaudio to Frankie Valli, which sparked a collaboration between Valli and Gaudio that helped launched Valli’s career.
Pesci also released an album, Little Joe Sure Can Sing!, in 1968. The record featured Pesci, who went by the name Joe Ritchie, singing covers of Beatles and Bee Gees songs, including “Fixing a Hole” and “The Fool on the Hill.”
“It was a real big deal,” he said of the album in 1997. “I was very happy and excited, thinking, you know, that something had finally paid off for me. But I had singles out before that, maybe about five or six, that were under different names and different styles of singing. And I finally settled on doing … a jazz-blues album, that I wanted to do, the way I wanted to sing.”
But Pesci, who was not a known commodity in either music or acting at the time, didn’t immediately follow up with another album. Instead, he agreed join a nightclub act with future actor Frank Vincent.
The musical aspirations didn’t last long, given the upswing of pre-recorded music for dance clubs. Instead, Pesci and Vincent pursued a comedy duo act, Vincent and Pesci, which lasted through 1975. (In 1980, they would reunite, in a manner of speaking, when Pesci’s character battered Vincent’s in Raging Bull. He would do the same to Vincent’s Billy Bats character in Goodfellas.)
Acting seemed a better fit for Pesci, who saw his reputation grow after Raging Bull. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, he had two franchises (Lethal Weapon and Home Alone) as well as the prestigious Scorsese projects.
But by the late 1990s, Pesci had seemingly had his fill of Hollywood. He instead seemed more concerned with returning to his roots.
Pesci’s biggest hit as a leading man was My Cousin Vinny, in which he played the title character, an ill-prepared attorney trying to help his nephew (Ralph Macchio) beat a murder rap. The comic persona was apparently appealing enough to Pesci to adopt it for his new album, which was being distributed by Columbia Records.
Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You is an oddity. Esquire described the entire thing as a “coked-up version of Dean Martin.” In some songs, like “Wise Guy” or “Take Your Love and Shove It,” Gambini’s profanity-laced bravado is apparent. Others, like the duet with My Cousin Vinny co-star Marisa Tomei on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” are seemingly sincere. Pesci even included a holiday number, “If It Doesn't Snow This Christmas.”
Critics weren’t sure what to make of it. “One minute he’s goofing on Louis Prima’s ‘Robin Hood’ and the next he’s rapping (yes, rapping) to Blondie’s ‘Rapture,’” wrote Eric Searleman of The Arizona Republic. “The album swings in a halfhearted sort of way, and it’s doubtful the arrangements will inspire many couples to get on the dance floor. It’s also questionable whether the non-stop barrage of profanities qualifies as humor.”
The album debuted in 36th place in the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, though it didn’t appear to get any significant radio or television airplay. Coupled with his low-key retreat from acting in 1999, it seemed like the public was about to hear the last of him.
But Pesci wasn’t done, either with music—or with pseudonyms. In 2003, he appeared on organ player Joey DeFrancesco’s Falling in Love Again, a jazz album in which he was credited as “Joe Doggs.” Pesci never acknowledged the alias and even went so far as to do an interview in the Joe Doggs persona.
Pesci hasn’t been involved in many projects since, appearing in only a small handful of movies, shows, and one 2011 Snickers commercial. But in 2019, the same year he had a significant role in The Irishman, he released Pesci…Still Singing, a new 13-track album that also featured Adam Levine.
Whether Pesci will release more albums—and whether he’d do it under his own name—is unknown, but there may be a good reason for the latter. While being interviewed as “Joe Doggs,” Pesci noted that during live performances with DeFrancesco, people in the crowd kept shouting his own famous movie lines at him.
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