As fans of "The Sopranos" have learned, it's never wise to underestimate Uncle Junior or, for that matter, Dominic Chianese, the actor who plays the ruthless-but-vulnerable Mob family elder.
In 1950, Chianese's agent laughed in his face when the young actor revealed that what he really wanted to do was croon, like his idols at the time, Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
But decades later, the 70-year-old Chianese is kicking off the musical career of his dreams he sang the Italian folk song "Core 'Ngrato" in character on the season finale of "The Sopranos," and will release his first album, Hits, June 5.
"I've been wanting to do it all my life," Chianese said last week, laughing softly in his Manhattan apartment. "It only took 50 years."
Despite his extensive musical experience, which he said included emceeing at the famed Greenwich Village club Folk City and playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, Chianese was tense before singing "Core 'Ngrato" ("Unfaithful Heart") on camera. He knew that Corrado Soprano's performance would cap off the season.
"I was singing as Uncle Junior. You just have to stay in character ... We changed it, made it a little rougher, the way Uncle Junior would sing it," Chianese said. "[The tension] helped the character's motivation. He was singing about an unfaithful heart, which had a lot of resonance with all of the characters. It was a very clever idea."
Brian Liebman, Chianese's manager, said his phone was "ringing off the hook" after the season finale aired for the first time May 20. "People were asking, 'Was that Dominic's real voice?' "
Of course, it was. Chianese shows off that emotional crooning style on his new album, lending it to tracks such as the accordion-laden "Santa Lucia," the ballad "Solamente Una Vez" and even Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" (famously covered by Al Green).
But Chianese also displays a more modern, folk-tinged style on a few tracks, such as the original "True Love Still on My Mind," which, like much of the album, showcases his deft acoustic guitar playing.
"I started learning the guitar in 1964 ... I always liked the pop style. I never stuck to one style. To me singing was singing and folk, pop and country seemed to be all mixed," Chianese said. "I like different styles that's the actor in me, I guess."
Chianese doesn't intend for his musical career to stop with Hits he's already completed a yet-to-be-released second full-length album, consisting entirely of traditional Italian songs, and he's also planning as many public appearances as possible, his manager said.
In addition, E Street Band guitarist and fellow "Sopranos" star Little Steven
Van Zandt produced a studio version of "Core 'Ngrato" for inclusion on the recently released soundtrack, The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs.
"I said, 'I never thought I'd be in a recording studio with Little Stevie,' " Chianese said. "[Van Zandt] said, 'I never thought I'd be on 'The Sopranos.' "
Chianese will sing the national anthem Saturday at game four of the Stanley Cup finals at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, according to his publicist. He'll also sign copies of Hits June 5 at noon during an in-store appearance at the Manhattan record store FYE, at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue.