Al Capone's Hobby: Rewriting Songs
There weren’t many constants in Al Capone’s rocky life, though the crime boss’s love of music never wavered. He spent countless hours reclined listening to his phonograph, which cycled through an impressive collection of Italian opera records (Aida by Giuseppe Verdi was a personal favorite). Capone also adored—and more or less controlled—Chicago’s rising jazz scene. Musicians would gravitate toward him, hoping to score a gig at his favorite nightclubs.
In 1926, the mobster’s friends kidnapped jazz star Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller. Holding him at gunpoint, they ordered the terrified artist into the back of their limo. But, to Waller’s surprise, he wasn’t harmed. Instead, he was taken to Capone’s 27th birthday party and politely asked to perform. The shindig lasted for three days, and by the end, Waller had received scores of tips and free drinks from grateful attendees.
Five years later, Big Al’s chickens came home to roost. On October 24, 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in Alcatraz for tax evasion.
At Alcatraz, Capone joined the Rock Islanders, the prison’s very own inmate-run band, which threw Sunday concerts. Capone’s instrument of choice was a banjo sent by his wife, Mae—though he eventually switched to the mandolin-like mandola.
Between performances, Scarface could often be found strumming away in his cell. And on Saturdays, he’d speak at length with a special guest: Vincent Casey, who was planning to become a Jesuit priest (although those plans later changed). His training involved spiritual visits with Alcatraz detainees. Over a two-year span, he and Capone grew quite close. According to Casey’s son, Mike, “My father spoke very highly of him. It was incredible. This criminal murdered many people, but he told me when you got to know the man in the cellblock on Alcatraz, he was very humble and polite and courteous.”
One holiday season, Casey received an unexpected present: a piece of sheet music. “To my good friend Father Vin Casey,” the accompanying note read, “with the best in all the world for a Merry Christmas always for you. Alphonse Capone.” It was originally thought that the romantic solo, entitled "Madonna Mia," had been penned by the ex-gangster himself, presumably about his faithful Mae.
Here’s how it went:
In the quaint Italian garden / While the stars were all aglow / Once I heard a lover singing / To the one that he loved so.
In that quaint Italian garden / ‘Neath the starry sky above/ Every night, he’d serenade her/ With his tender song of love:
“Madonna Mia / You’re the bloom of the roses / You’re the charm that reposes / In the heart of a song.
Madonna Mia / With your true love to guide me / Let whatever betide me / I will never go wrong.
There’s only one moon above / One golden sun / There’s only one that I love / You are the one.
Madonna Mia / This I vow here before you / ‘Till the end, I’ll adore you / Madonna Mia.”
Once again, I see that garden / Many years have hurried by / I can see that sweet Madonna / There’s a teardrop in her eye
For her soldier has departed / Left his loved one with a sigh / She said “I will wait forever” / As he sang this last goodbye: / “Madonna Mia…”
But as it turns out, plagiarism is among Capone’s extensive list of offenses. It was recently discovered that the crime boss had merely transferred an existing 1930s song to an easier key.
According to the Boston Globe, Richard Larsen was working on a documentary about Capone and jazz when he showed the music to actor-singer-songwriter Anastacia Scardina. Suspicious, Scardina investigated the tune. Her sleuthing turned up a song from the 1930s with the same name, written by Abner Silver, Al Lewis, and Al Sherman.
The Globe obtained sheet music of both songs and asked Jim Dalton, a local professor of music theory, for an opinion. He noted that Capone’s version was transposed into an easier key, but conceded that Capone “did do a decent job.”
“Madonna Mia” wasn’t the only song Capone appears to have stolen. In 2018, Jack White told The Tonight Show that he had seen an auction for “handwritten sheet music by Al Capone in Alcatraz.” He bought it, intending to record the song.
As White was recording, a woman came in and asked why the band was playing Humoresque by Antonin Dvořák. Dalton told the Globe that Capone’s version was in a different meter, which again simplified the song. The woman didn’t recognize the lyrics, but it was later determined that Capone hadn’t penned those, either. Jack White still recorded it for his album Boarding House Reach—though it’s credited to Dvořák and a man named Howard Johnson.
A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021 to include new information about Al Capone's purported songwriting.