How Joe Pesci Makes a (Sort of) Cameo in The Many Saints of Newark

Goodfellas’ Joe Pesci is on the flipside of a hit in The Many Saints of Newark, and a major wise guy in rock history.

Little Joe Sure Can Sing (Joe Pesci) cropped
Photo: Brunswick

This article contains light spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark.

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta have a Goodfellas reunion, of sorts, in The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. No, the former Tommy DeVito isn’t in the credits, and he doesn’t bring his shine box. He is slipped in like contraband at a federal penitentiary.

Both David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos and co-writer of The Many Saints of Newark, and Alan Taylor, the film’s director, revel in film references. The esteemed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is renowned for making small appearances in his own films. For the film Lifeboat, which had a very limited cast and set, he makes his cameo on the page of a newspaper. Pesci shows up on classic vinyl.

The Many Saints of Newark focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) in the series. Liotta plays his uncle, in prison for killing a made man. His punishment was never meted out in the street, and no one visits him behind bars. He is a jazz junkie, and Dickie supplies his habit by bringing in pure Miles Davis, though the stash is cut with some pop missteps. On one of the visits, we can plainly see the cover for Little Joe Sure Can Sing!, a 1968 album released by Joe Pesci under the name of Joe Ritchie. The album came out on Brunswick Records, the same label Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) points out “Oh Girl” singers the Chi Lites were on during a memorable episode of The Sopranos.  

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Bushwick was by this time an R&B powerhouse featuring stars like Jackie Wilson, whose “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” came out on the label in 1967. Produced by Monte Kay, Little Joe Sure Can Sing! is a wonderful time capsule find, mixing jazz voicings through the late sixties pop production standards. Some of the arrangements by Artie Schroeck, are quite intricate, and often experimental within the parameters of genre limits. The album includes three Beatles covers – “The Fool on the Hill,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and “Fixing a Hole” – and each is adapted uniquely, allowing Pesci to make his distinctions clear. He is consciously evoking the noted jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott, a major influence who he emulates proudly. But Pesci also unconsciously nails Frankie Valli’s non-falsetto voice. The two New Jersey natives had a history, knowing each other for years.

Pesci’s connection to the Four Seasons was memorialized in the Broadway play and film Jersey Boys. Joe introduced Valli to Bob Gaudio, the songwriter who perfectly distilled the Four Seasons’ sound into a series of era-defining hits. Gaudio’s compositional skills kept up with the times, after the British Invasion and Motown acts changed the playing field. Valli has a more direct connection to The Sopranos. He played a recurring character: Rusty Millio, the highest-ranking Capo in the Lupertazzi family who stages a power grab after turning down the top slot.

Pesci had been performing since he was five years old, appearing on stage and on Star Time Kids, a New York City television variety series that ran from 1950 to 1955. He didn’t always have to have the top slot. He was quite happy, and equipped, to play back up. He played guitar with Joey Dee and the Starliters, best known for the hit “Peppermint Twist,” which featured Joey Dee, David Brigati, Larry Vernieri on vocals, with Carlton Lattimore on organ, Sam Taylor on guitar, and Willie Davis on drums. They were the house band of the immensely popular, hip and trendy Peppermint Lounge. Every big act who came to town partied at that nightclub, including the Beatles.

But they are also the other band, besides the Beatles, who backed up British singer Tony Sheridan for the album My Bonnie. The tracks were recorded in Hamburg, Germany, and the record is famous for being the first official release with the Beatles on it. According to Mersey Beat magazine editor Bill Harry, the Starliters were the backing band on the song “Ruby Baby.” The Beatles opened for Joey Dee and the Starliters during a 1964 show in Stockholm. The lineup for that European tour included Gene Cornish, Felix Cavaliere, and David’s brother, Eddie Brigati, who would go on to become the Young Rascals.

They weren’t the only major players to sit in for the band besides guitarist Joe Pesci. In 1965, Jimi Hendrix played guitar for the band during a 10-day set of shows in Boston. Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers also played guitar in the group. Pesci’s stint on lead also led to his first feature film appearance as an extra in Hey, Let’s Twist! (1961), a jukebox musical starring Joey Dee and the Starliters. Years later, he played a major role as the villain in Michael Jackson’s 1988 long-form music video Moonwalker.

Pesci continues to make music. In 1998, he released the rap song “Wise Guy,” which samples Blondie’s “Rapture” and the theme to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The song was featured on the album Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, named after his character in the film My Cousin Vinny. Pesci put out the 2003 album Falling in Love Again under the name Joe Doggs, and in 2009 released the album Pesci… Still Singing.

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Brunswick Records will re-release Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on all major digital platforms (Amazon, Apple, Pandora, Spotify, TikTok and YouTube) on October 8. The Many Saints of Newark will be released in theaters on October 1, and will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from the theatrical release.