Al Capone's Hobby: Songwriting
There weren’t many constants in Al Capone’s rocky life, but the crime boss—who was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1899—had a love of music, and it 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 having committed tax evasion. While behind bars, numerous attempts were made on his life, including an especially nasty shower room episode in which bank robber James “Tex” Lucas stabbed Capone with half a pair of scissors. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” Capone famously told the warden.
Things started looking up (if only slightly) when Capone joined the Rock Islanders, Alcatraz’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 was planning to become a Jesuit priest (although those plans later changed), and 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.” Entitled "Madonna Mia," the romantic solo 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…”