Every few months, the internet discovers that Joe Pesci once rapped, and everyone loses their mind.
It happened in 2019.
It happened again in 2020.
And it happened once more this year on Pesci’s birthday, February 9th, when the Oscar-winner turned 78. There’s a comforting familiarity to these occasional reminders. We never think about his 1998 rap song “Wise Guy” until someone randomly brings it up. And then we can’t think about anything else for 24 hours.
The song, which bites Blondie’s “Rapture” and the theme to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, imagines Pesci as a real-life gangster like the ones he played in Goodfellas and Casino, except not nearly as interesting as those characters. The combination of Pesci’s confidence in rapping “Paid out my ass / Treat all my broads like trash / You’ll catch a blast if you move too fast” and the utter cringe factor of hearing him try so hard never ceases to be absorbing, leaving listeners to wonder if it’s a put-on or if he actually thinks he’s being a badass. The accompanying, hard-to-find video suggests that latter, unfortunately.
“Wise Guy” is, to date, Pesci’s only foray into hip-hop. It came off that year’s Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, named after his My Cousin Vinny character, although the idea that he’s singing in the voice of that streetwise lawyer isn’t carefully maintained. More often, the album is a tongue-in-cheek collection of lounge numbers, adding F-words to standards like “If It Doesn’t Snow for Christmas” while mixing in originals such as the retro, horn-driven dance ditty “Yo Cousin Vinny.”
In the last 25 years, Pesci has occasionally put out music — the 2003 set Falling in Love Again (under the name Joe Doggs) and the 2009 record Pesci… Still Singing (which featured not one but two duets with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) — but those albums are all easy enough to find on Spotify. The real prize is hunting down Pesci’s first album, the one that you can only hear in bits and pieces on YouTube. You’re not a real aficionado of the musical stylings of Joe Pesci until you’ve experienced Little Joe Sure Can Sing!
A generation of moviegoers grew up knowing Pesci as the horrifying mobster Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, for which he won Best Supporting Actor, and as the bumbling criminal Harry Lyme in Home Alone. (Even more remarkably, those two 1990 movies only opened about two months apart.) A decade earlier, he’d earned notoriety as Jake LaMotta’s (Robert De Niro) brother in Raging Bull. But before then, Pesci had essentially given up on acting, settling into restaurant management after failing to land consistent work.
His artistic career had started off so promisingly. When he was a kid growing up in Jersey, he was in plays and appeared on Startime Kids, a TV variety show. “I would do impressions and sing,” he recalled in a 1991 New York profile, later adding, “I did Jackie Gleason. I did a routine where I was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, singing together. I did Nat King Cole and Johnnie Ray and Eddie Cantor.”
Many aspiring actors would have killed for that kind of exposure at such a young age, but Pesci didn’t enjoy it. “My father would push me to do it, as everyone pushes their kids, which I don’t agree with,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “I grew up in the business. I had no choice. … My father loved me so much that he did not want me to be a laborer or anything. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do — push your kids into something and then stay on them until they do it. Let them pick what they want to do.” His dad, who was among other things a bartender, hoped that his kids would be entertainers, but if Pesci had gotten his wish, “I would have done something else in life. Something more calming, in a different area where I did not have to use my emotions.”
One of young Pesci’s claims to fame was that, in the early 1960s, he helped introduce the band that would become the Four Seasons to songwriter Bob Gaudio, who joined the group and wrote several of their biggest hits. Around the same time, he was trying to make it as a singer and a guitarist. For a while, he was part of Joey Dee and the Starliters, who had a hit called “Peppermint Twist.” He even showed up as an extra in Hey, Let’s Twist!, a forgotten 1961 film that featured Dee playing his smash single. Years later, David Letterman had Pesci on Late Show and surprised him with a clip from his (brief) big-screen debut, where he’s twisting away.
In the late 1960s, when he was still in his mid-20s, Pesci recorded his first album. It’s hard to find interviews in which he talks much about it. In the New York profile, he simply says, “I had an album called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. I sang under the name of Joe Ritchie.” And in the 2009 biography Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott, about the revered jazz singer, Pesci tells author David Ritz about meeting Scott as a teenager and the influence that the legend had on him. “The sound of his voice turned my world upside down,” Pesci said. “All the magic, all the mystery of grown-up life, was in his voice. … Just as he was called Little Jimmy, they were calling me Little Joe. My first album, in fact, was called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. All I wanted to do was sing like Little Jimmy Scott. I became his disciple.”
Currently, you can’t buy Little Joe Sure Can Sing! (which came out in 1968) on Amazon. It’s not on eBay. No streaming services offer the album. The usually reliable AllMusic has no clue of the record’s existence. But if you dig around enough, you can at least find a track listing, which indicates that Little Joe Sure Can Sing! features 10 songs on its two sides, including three Beatles covers, two pre-disco Bee Gees tracks and the Mel Tormé standard “Born to Be Blue.” The album credits are pretty sparse, but the co-producer appears to be Monte Kay, a respected jazz producer, and indeed Little Joe Sure Can Sing! has a groovy Swingin’ Sixties vibe to it. Pesci’s take on “The Fool on the Hill” exudes a jazzy, coffeehouse feel, while he tries to make “Got to Get You Into My Life” a hepcat anthem. With modern ears, though, it’s impossible not to hear these tracks and not just think, “Oh my god… it’s Joe Pesci singing.”
Trawling around YouTube, I managed to find five of the 10 tracks — a sixth, “Fixing a Hole,” I’m not entirely convinced is real — but I’m definitely curious to hear the whole thing. Is Little Joe Sure Can Sing! bad? Yeah, probably. Pesci belts more than he croons or serenades — he lacks Scott’s range and effortless command — and his musical backing feels like a cliché of Flower Power atmospherics. But his sincerity keeps the album from being truly embarrassing, and he certainly doesn’t camp it up in the fatuous style of someone like, say, William Shatner.
Still, it’s probably just as well that he moved on. He and future Sopranos actor Frank Vincent (who would later star with Pesci in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino) started doing a two-man comedy/musical routine in clubs. “We did very original stuff,” Vincent said. “We were sort of like a cross between Abbott and Costello and the Smothers Brothers but not that physical. Very sarcastic.” And Pesci spent some time as a barber — which had been his mom’s profession — and even opened his own salon, Studio 548, in Jersey in the early 1970s. How was he at cutting hair? A former client told Entertainment Weekly that Pesci “would always interrupt the cutting of hair to act out a story or tell a joke or practice his routines. Took a long time to get a haircut, though.”
Pesci had all but abandoned show business — specifically, acting, which was now his focus — by the mid-1970s, moving out to Vegas because he was so ashamed that he hadn’t made it. “I had nothing to show for all the years of effort,” he recalled in 1981, “no money, two broken marriages and a daughter that I couldn’t support properly. I didn’t have any offers, couldn’t get in to see any agents. Nobody was interested.” He returned to Jersey only when he found out his dad was dying, becoming a manager of a restaurant for a few years when Martin Scorsese and De Niro approached him about Raging Bull. That job turned his life around, which led to more parts in the 1980s, including everything from Once Upon a Time in America to the crazed bad guy in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker long-form video to the fast-talking Leo Getz in the Lethal Weapon sequels. Pesci never got over how a few good breaks saved him from obscurity. “There are great actors we’ll never see just because they haven’t had my luck,” he once said.
If you’re looking for a good Joe Pesci album, the more sophisticated jazz stylings of Falling in Love Again and Pesci… Still Singing are probably the way to go, even though Pesci’s voice remains a pretty limited instrument. His hero Jimmy Scott, who died in 2014, appears on Still Singing’s “The Nearness of You,” and the prospect of Pesci dueting with Adam Levine on Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” turns out not to be as disastrous as you might imagine.
However, his recent music is nowhere near as entertaining in a trainwreck way as “Wise Guys,” which will always be his greatest hit. It’s funny: Pesci rapping is, essentially, him trying to play into the tough-guy persona that made him iconic. But in all his other music — the stuff you haven’t heard — he’s a much more vulnerable, emotional guy. If anything, the fact that he’s not as confident makes it probably the most heartwarming thing he’s ever done. Little Joe sure couldn’t sing, but it’s touching to hear him give it a try.