The Sopranos is moving forward by looking back. In some ways Tony Soprano would hate that. He always said “remember when” was the lowest form of communication. But get him started on how this thing of theirs all began, and he can dish out a seven-course dialectic worthy to be taught at Rutgers, where James Gandolfini graduated. David Chase and Lawrence Konner recently delivered a screenplay to make a feature film prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos. The film will be produced by New Line who bought it under the working title The Many Saints of Newark.
David Chase won’t be the director on the project, but he’ll pick one. The script is set during the era of the 1960s riots in Newark, N.J., which means the story would focus on Tony Soprano’s uncle Junior, who was played by Dominic Chianese on the series, Tony’s father, Giovannia “Johnny Boy,” played by Joseph Siravo, and his wife Livia, who was played by the late Nancy Marchand. James Gandolfini, who starred as Tony, died in 2013.
Tony’s father John Francis “Johnny Boy” Soprano and his brother Corrado “Junior” Soprano were capos in the DiMeo crime family. “Johnny Boy” was the guy who got Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri to tell a state trooper he had a cousin named Barnie Fife on Paulie’s first trip south of Jersey. The boss, Ercoli DiMeo, almost set Johnny up to take over as the boss after he stepped down. Johnny had good people on his crew, like Paulie Gualtieri and Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. Tony Soprano would turn eight in 1967. It would take Dr. Melfi to regress him to the age for anything he might have repressed. But we can’t rely on the series for clues to the movie because a capo would hide a lot from a kid.
Last year, Chase told the AP he might be interested in exploring “the beginning, the really true beginning of the flood of drugs.” There is very little evidence from the show that Johnny Soprano was involved with drugs. Of course, like most of the families, drugs weren’t talked about. They might have been sold, bosses might have taken money from drug sales, but the official word was just say no, to everything but the money. The Gambino crime family, who settled in Cherry Hill a few years after the series is set, were into drug trafficking. So, if Chase goes in this direction. The DiMeo family would have been under the family of New York’s Carmine Lupertazzi.
A Glorified Crew
The first thing that greeted you in New Jersey, when the series was set, was a warning: Buckle up. It’s the law.The “Welcome to New Jersey” sign on the turnpike didn’t say “take a tomato from the Garden State.” It said, stay in your vehicles, nothing to see here. In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, one of the first things Tony Soprano tells his therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), is that he’s been “thinking” it’s good to be “in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know, but lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. That the best is over. I think about my father, he never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways, he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had their pride. Today, what have we got?”
The mob had long roots in New Jersey. Dutch Schultz was executed at a chop suey joint at 12 East Park Street in Newark. Willie Moretti was shot to death at Joe’s Restaurant in Cliffside Park in 1951. Brooklyn’s Genovese family set up shop on one end, Philadelphia Boss Nicodemo ”Little Nicky” Scarfo’s forces set up shop in Atlantic City and muscled in on the other. In the middle was Jersey’s own DeCavalcante family.
Before the 1970s, South Jersey took orders from Angelo Bruno out of Philadelphia. They were mainly into loan sharking, gambling and labor rackets. The northern New Jersey factions of La Cosa Nostra were into loan sharking, gambling, trucking and construction, just like their cousins across the river. The first New Jersey mob boss was Newark’s Filippo Amari. He died in 1957 and Nicholas Delmore took over until 1964.
Tony Soprano is loosely based on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palermo, the almost son-in-law of Simone Rizzo “Sam” DeCavalcante. “Sam the Plumber” was the de-facto boss of the crime family that was really just considered a “glorified crew” by The Sopranos’ New York mob. Sam the Plumber was the guy who turned it into a family. Palermo ran the DeCavalcante family until he turned state’s witness and disappeared into the wilds of Houston.
The DeCavalcante family was led by John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico, an associate of the Gambino family, for a while. D’Amico was a former bodyguard for John Gotti and after Gotti went up the river, D’Amico was on the Gambino family ruling committee with Peter Gotti, Nick Corozzo, and John Gotti, Jr.
According to what I get from the series, the DiMeo crime family came into its own in the 1950s. The DiMeo crime family was tied in with the Lupertazzi crime family. The first father was Ercole DiMeo. Its top crew was Johnny Boy and Junior Soprano, as well as Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, Raymond “Buffalo Ray” Curto, Michele “Feech” La Manna, Patrizio “Uncle Pat” Blundetto, Robert “Bobby” Baccalieri, Sr., and Giuseppe “Beppy” Scerbo.
Hog jowl is the same recipe as guanciale
Tony’s father was also a partner in F-Note Records, owned by Hesh Rabkin and known for ripping off black artists out of their royalties. No, like any good gangster, Johnny didn’t sing, he was a silent partner. This ties in to Joey Gallo, the inspiration for all the old Sicilian messages and the mattresses in The Godfather. Gallo started out in the jukebox rackets. I think of him as a pioneer in early rock and roll. Gallo was one of the Barbershop Quintet who whacked Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia on 57th Street while he was under the hot towels.
“There are a couple of eras that would be interesting for me to talk about, about Newark, N.J. One would be in (the) late ‘60s, early ‘70s, about all the racial animosity,” Chase told the AP last year.
The official synopsis says “a prequel to The Sopranos set in the era of the Newark riots in the ’60s, when the African-Americans and the Italians of Newark were at each other’s throats, and when among the gangsters of each group, it became especially lethal.” The decade saw a lot of activity as the crime syndicate that had reigned for so many years after prohibition was experiencing new rivals in a changing landscape. Newark went from an immigrant neighborhood to a predominantly African-American community by the 60s, but the old crime bosses still claimed all the take.
Besides the dirty business of turf wars, crime and entertainment were two of the first industries open to early diversification. Hoboken born singer and iconic Italian icon Frank Sinatra strong-armed personal Civil Rights battles on behalf of his fellow musicians that set precedents. Joseph “Crazy Joe” “the Blond” Gallo of the Profaci family went against his stripes at Green Haven Correctional and Attica Correctional when he became became friends with African-American drug dealer Nicky Barnes. Gallo could see the Mafia was going to lose the Harlem drug rackets to black gangs, and recognized talent and skill.
Gallo was labeled “The Criminal” for fraternizing outside the social order. He sued the Department of Corrections for brutality on August 29, 1964, He argued that guards inflicted cruel and unusual punishment he let a black barber cut his hair. Gallo was labeled an agitator by the Commissioner. Gallo worked hard to establish alliances with African-American and Italian gangsters. He also publicly called out the Klu Klux Klan influence he saw inside the prison system.
The Newark Riot of 1967
The 1967 Newark riots lasted for four days and left 26 people dead. It was sparked by an act of police brutality against a black taxi driver. Martin Luther King Jr. saw it coming. He warned “all of our cities are potentially powder kegs” it in his speech “The Other America,” which gave at Stanford University on April 14, 1967. The riot began during the early evening of July 12, 1967. Two white Central Ward cops beat up Safety Cab Company driver John Smith for driving around a police car and double-parking on 15th Avenue. The police claimed Smith was “tailgating,” and charged him with driving the wrong way on a one-way street, using bad language and threatening physical assault.
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the United Freedom Party, and the Newark Community Union Project civil rights leaders looked in on Smith in the holding cell of the 4th Precinct holding cell. They saw his injuries and demanded he be transferred to Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. By 8:00 p.m. word was spread over cab drivers’ radios and a crowd gathered outside the 4th Precinct. At 11 p.m. the civil rights leaders told the police they would confine their peaceful protest across the street from the precinct. While CORE, Newark Legal Services Project members and a leader of a local poverty group called for a nonviolent march, a young man grabbed the bullhorn and called for more immediate action. These people were angry after years of institutionalized psychological oppression and profiling. First people started to throw bricks and bottles at the precinct windows, then they escalated to Molotov cocktails.
Looting began after midnight on 17th Avenue and spread. Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio downplayed the incidents the next day, but by 6:00 p.m. Thursday night, the 4th Precinct was surrounded again. After midnight Thursday, looting spread, and “Black Power” chants filled the night. Mayor Addonizio asked New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes to send in the National Guard at 2:20 a.m. A looter was shot fleeing from two cops, five people were killed and 425 people were jailed by Friday morning.
By Friday afternoon 3,000 National Guardsmen and 500 state troopers patrolled the city, The rioting continued for three more days. The riot ended on July 17, 1967. 26 people were reportedly killed, 750 were injured, and more than 1,000 were put in jailed. Property damage exceeded $10 million. A government report laid the blame on the state, which cherry-picked preferential treatment and doled out inequal rewards and held back opportunity. Mayor Addonizio was convicted of extortion in 1970.
We know exactly where Tony, his sister Janice, Johnny and Junior were during the Newark riots from a flashback sequence spurred by a shrink session at Dr. Melfi’s office. They were at Rideland. Johnny didn’t know Tony was there with them, though. The kid hid in the trunk of his Caddy while the old man drove Janice out. But they weren’t there for the cotton candy. Tony learned his father wasn’t like other fathers from that amusement park. A few days later, Tony took three buses, and got chased by some black kids for littering their streets, to witness his father’s cousin get shot, and his father, uncle and some clown get arrested for selling high-fashion swag out of the park. The people on the street recognized Tony’s father, saying “hey, that’s Johnny Boy Soprano,” a local antihero.
Where Could It All End
The Summer of Love didn’t always play uptown. Newark’s riot was one of 159 race riots during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.” A prequel franchise could end with the Unrest of ’83, when Tony Blundetto and Michele ‘Feech’ La Manna were popped and sentenced to about 20 years each. Tony rose up through the family after he robbed Feech La Manna’s card game with Jackie Aprile, younger brother of Richie Aprile, who was the boss of his crew.
Samuel DeCavalcante was the boss of New Jersey until the early 1970s. He was succeeded by John Riggi. One of his capos was Anthony “Tough Tony” Provenzano, a Teamsters Union vice-president who word on the street says was one of the conspirators in Jimmy Hoffa’s murder. Though they never state it explicitly, all the evidence seems to point to Johnny Soprano dying of emphysema some time in 1992 or 1993, though some have speculated that he could have been alive as late as 1995. There is a 1984 date on Johnny Soprano’s grave in the episode “In Camelot.”
In the show, Tony has a flashback to 1970, when he saw his father cut off Francis Satriale’s pinky finger for a gambling debt. Satriale didn’t actually bet his finger, and when you think about how little you could get for a finger in the early ’70s, you might wonder how that would square him. It didn’t. Johnny Soprano wound up taking over Satriale’s pork store, giving Tony and his crew a place to sip coffee and make plans. Tony became acting capo of his father’s crew in 1986, making him the youngest capo in the family at age 27.
Ercole DiMeo got a life sentence in 1995 and named Jackie Aprile acting boss over Junior Soprano. Jackie was boss until 1999. Aprile was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1998 and named Tony Soprano as boss, again passing over his uncle Junior. That started the War of ’99, where The Sopranos began.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.