Joseph Marinaro had a dream: He was going to be a great singer, like his heroes Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza.
But the talented young crooner from Buffalo, N.Y., got married and had 10 kids, set aside his musical ambitions and laid asphalt to support his family.
Now, several decades later, the youngest of that brood – the formidable Chicago singer Paul Marinaro – has fulfilled his father's promise in a most unusual way. Indirectly, the younger Marinaro has realized his dad's dream, producing a stunning debut album, "Without a Song." The plushness of Marinaro's baritone and the acuity of his interpretations of classic American repertoire hint at what might have been for his father.
But Paul Marinaro has made the link to his father's aspirations even more explicit, digging up his dad's long-lost, self-made, 78 r.p.m. recordings and elegantly interweaving snippets of them into "Without a Song." To hear his father's ghostly, grainy old tracks dovetailing with his own lustrous, state-of-the-art cuts is to behold two generations communing through time and space in a language they share: music.
How fitting that Paul Marinaro is releasing "Without a Song" this Father's Day week, with a celebratory performance Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase, his father and mother flying in from Buffalo for the big event.
When Joseph Marinaro, 85, first heard this music, "I couldn't hold myself from crying out loud," he says, speaking by phone from Buffalo. "It's a marvelous thing to (hear) something that was put away. I had to put it away because I had too much to do. ... I didn't get mad at God because that's the process of life: We go from young to old, and we take on a lot of things that we don't particularly care for."
But even as a child, Paul Marinaro knew that his father's music had meaning, that it shouldn't have been discarded or forgotten. Which is why when he was 5 or 6 years old and saw something awful happening to his father's old records, he had to act.
"I watched my brothers throw all of them in the garbage – I was horrified and I pulled them out," says Marinaro, 39, realizing in that instant that his siblings did not understand what their dad was all about.
Joseph Marinaro "seemed like a man who was stuck doing something he wasn't meant to do, and I knew that as a kid," says Paul Marinaro. "It was a very physically exhausting job, he didn't have the best equipment, and I always thought he wasn't meant to do this. And he would get bitter. …
"I think my brothers might have picked up on some of that negativity. … There was a bit of: 'What good was that stuff? It didn't get him anywhere.' They couldn't see it, and I could."
Flash forward a few decades, and Paul Marinaro – who moved to Chicago 10 years ago to launch his career as a singer – became increasingly obsessed with those old acetate discs, which he had lost track of. When his father suffered a stroke on the night Marinaro was making his Chicago singing debut, a decade ago, the young man realized more clearly than ever that time was passing quickly.
He eventually located the old friend he suspected might still have the recordings – they were stored in a piece of recording equipment he had lent her, tucked inside an old sweatshirt. But when Marinaro got the discs back, he was shattered by how much they had deteriorated: They were badly warped and "flaking away," says Marinaro, making them virtually unplayable.
Marinaro discovered, however, that he could retrieve the music locked into those grooves by spinning the acetates at 16 r.p.m. – instead of the 78 r.p.m. at which his father made them on a record-cutter he had bought at age 17 (at the then-exorbitant price of $275). Marinaro and technicians then poured this "audio soup" into a computer and used various editing programs to delete pops, clicks, hisses, scratches and what-not.
Finally, they arrived at a haunting echo of what Joseph Marinaro sounded like as a hopeful young singer more than half a century ago.
Yet it's what Marinaro and friends have done with these ancient sounds that proves so deeply moving. The album opens with the scratchy tones of a teen-aged Joseph Marinaro singing "That Old Black Magic," the hope and buoyancy of his vocals expressed in the murky technology of 1947. After about a minute-and-a-half of these historic sounds, the album segues into the younger Marinaro picking up the same tune, his voice sumptuous and luxuriant, the son answering the father.
Later on in the recording – after Paul Marinaro delivers evocative readings of "Fools Rush In," "Everything Must Change" and other songs of his father's era – we hear a disarming duet pairing a vintage, cassette recording of Joseph Marinaro with a contemporary one of Paul Marinaro in "You Will Be My Music." But unlike, say, Natalie Cole's somewhat creepy duet with her dead father on "Unforgettable," the Marinaros' partnership sounds fresh, urgent and very much alive. The two artists phrase quite differently, and there's no attempt to make their melodies line up precisely.
"I wanted to give the listener the sense of hearing two singers in two different times, with two different technologies," says Paul Marinaro, whose story is the subject of a documentary film in the making. "It wasn't about trickery and perfectly matching. It was: This is all we have – unfortunately, he was never recorded professionally, but it's still important."
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering Paul Marinaro's gifts, his father sounds quite good, singing with conviction, warmth and dramatic insight.
How bold of the younger Marinaro to pack this much storyline, as well as technological creativity, into a debut album.
"In a day and age where everybody is downloading things, there's no such thing as an album anymore," says Marinaro. "I wanted to do a real concept album – and give people the feeling of what those old acetate recordings were like."
Marinaro clearly has done that, and something more, too. For in addition to creating his first album, documenting one of the most beautiful vocal instruments in the business today, he has said a great deal about the nature of family, of fathers and sons, and of how music can bind them.
His father "always carried a bittersweet connection to music," says Marinaro. "I think he's accepted the path that he took, and he's proud of his life and his kids, (yet) he always wonders: 'What if?'
"And while I still have him , I wanted to show him how important he was. That my connection to the Great American Songbook was a priceless gift (from him)."
To Joseph Marinaro, hearing himself in his youth – and belatedly duetting with his son on CD – "is like coming alive again," he says.
"A lot of times I watch that movie ('On the Waterfront,' in which Marlon Brando says), 'I could've been a contender.'
"That's how I feel. But I'm glad Paul's got a lot of that (spirit), and he keeps striving."
Equally important, he just made his old man a contender.
Paul Marinaro performs music from "Without a Song" at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $10-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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