“Mambo Italiano” is a popular songwritten by Bob Merrill in 1954 for the American singer Rosemary Clooney. Merrill wrote it under a recording deadline, scribbling hastily on a paper napkin in an Italian restaurant in New York City, and then using the wall pay-phone to dictate the melody, rhythm and lyrics to the studio pianist, under the aegis of the conductor Mitch Miller, who produced the original record. Merrill’s song provides an obvious parody of genuine mambo music, cashing in on the 1954 mambo craze in New York while at the same time allowing Miller to set up a brilliant vehicle for Clooney’s vocal talents. It is also a late example of an American novelty song in a tradition started during World War II by the Italian-American jazz singer Louis Prima, in which nonsense lyrics with an Italian-American sound are used in such a way as to present a benignly stereotyped caricature of Italian-American people (who had been classedwith “enemy alien” status and discouraged from speaking Italian) as likable, slightly brash, pleasure-loving folk. Although Clooney’s own family background was Irish-American (while Merrill’s was Jewish), she could perform such “Italianized” material with an entirely convincing accent, which she had readily picked up from Italian-American musicians and their families.
The song became a hit for Clooney, reaching number 10 in the Billboard Hot 100 and number one in the UK Singles Chart early in 1955. It was also successfully covered by the popular Italian-American star Dean Martin. In the 1955 Italian comedy film Scandal in Sorrento (Pane, amore e…), Sophia Lorendances voluptuously opposite Vittorio de Sica to an instrumental arrangement of the tune made by Merrill, in a simplified, local imitation of mambo dancing (she was also required to dance to the song in the 1960 Hollywood comedy It Started in Naples). The song itself became popular in Italy when Carla Boni scored a major hit with her version of 1956.Also in 1956, Renato Carosone, a well-known singer and band leader from Naples, recorded a successful version that weaves in several fragments of Neapolitan song, of which he was a leading exponent. Versions made in other languages include a French translation made by the Turkish polyglot singer Darío Moreno. More recent cover versions have been made by Shaft(2000), Dean Martin’s daughter, Deana Martin (2006) and Lady Gaga (2011).