Lifestyle

They finally got Al Capone for tax evasion. But what about plagiarism?

xxcapone -- It was once thought that Al Capone wrote the song "Madonna Mia" for his wife, Mae, while he was doing time at Alcatraz. But in reality, he most likely copied the music and lyrics from a songbook. (RR Auction)
(RR Auction)
It was once thought that Al Capone wrote the song "Madonna Mia" for his wife, Mae, while he was doing time at Alcatraz. But he most likely copied the music and lyrics from a songbook.

Al Capone may be remembered as a notorious gangster, but he had other interests besides breaking the law. He had a lifelong love of music. He strummed the tenor banjo and mandola when he was in prison, learned to play a number of songs, and even played in a band with other inmates at Alcatraz.

For the longest time, it was thought that Capone wrote and composed his own music. But few examples of his songwriting were known to exist. One handwritten song, titled “Madonna Mia,” went on the auction block for $45,000 not too long ago. Another, titled “Humoresque,” sold at an auction in Massachusetts last summer for $18,750.

But it turns out that Capone didn’t author either of those songs. He did write out the lyrics and musical notes in his own hand, but newly discovered evidence shows that he most likely copied them out of a songbook.

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Google the words “Al Capone” and “song” and “Alcatraz” and you’ll find dozens of news stories about the Chicago crime boss writing romantic love songs in prison.

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The two Capone music manuscripts for “Madonna Mia” and “Humoresque” “were in the marketplace for a long time,” said Bobby Livingston of RR Auction, a Boston-based auction house that sold the “Humoresque” manuscript last summer.

The authenticity of the documents was rarely questioned because they came from a reputable dealer in Pennsylvania and had been checked out by experts, according to Livingston. The backstory — that the songs were purportedly written by Capone — was further bolstered when they were put up for sale by Butterfield & Butterfield, a prestigious auction house on the West Coast, in 1999.

The lyrics and music of “Madonna Mia” were written out in Capone’s own hand on a blank piece of sheet music.

In a quaint Italian garden

While the stars were all aglow

Once I heard a lover singing

To the one that he loved so

In that quaint Italian garden

Neath the starry sky above

Every night he’d serenade her

With his tender song of love...

At the bottom of the page was the inscription: “To my good friend Father Vin Casey, with the best in all the world for a Merry Christmas always for you, Alphonse Capone.”

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Vincent Casey befriended Capone at Alcatraz in the mid-1930s. At the time Casey was training to become a Jesuit priest, and he visited Alcatraz regularly. Apparently, Capone enjoyed his company so much that he gave him a handwritten copy of “Madonna Mia” as a token of appreciation.

When that “Madonna Mia” manuscript went on the auction block in 2012, RR Auction listed it as an original composition penned by Capone, and described it as “a beautiful love song about his wife Mae” which he gave “as a Christmas gift to his friend and confidant Casey.”

“Madonna Mia” was expected to fetch at least $45,000. But it didn’t sell, and was ultimately returned to the consignor, according to Livingston. It was later sold to a private collector.

When Capone’s other music manuscript, “Humoresque,” hit the auction block last summer, it caught the attention of musician Jack White, the former frontman of The White Stripes.

White recently appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and told the story of how he acquired the song.

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“I saw this auction that said ‘handwritten sheet music by Al Capone in Alcatraz,’ ” White told Fallon. “I thought, ‘What could that possibly be?’ It said ‘Humoresque’ written on it, and I was like, ‘Did he write a song in Alcatraz?’ And the description said, ‘He was in a band in Alcatraz. He convinced the warden to buy the music equipment. The band was called the Rock Islanders, and Machine Gun Kelly was the drummer in the band.’ ”

White said he later found out that “Humoresque” was authored by someone else. It turned out that the music was composed by Antonín Dvořák, a famous Czech composer, and the lyrics were written by Howard Johnson, a prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriter who penned the immortal tune “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream.”

But White was still so impressed that Capone chose to write out the lyrics of “Humoresque” (“It’s a beautiful song for a murderer,” he told Fallon), he even recorded a cover of the song.

It appears as the last track on his latest album, “Boarding House Reach,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in April.

*****

Soon after the “Humoresque” auction took place last summer, the true origins of “Madonna Mia,” came to light. At the time, Richard Larsen, a self-described Prohibition Era researcher and lifelong resident of Chicago, was working on making a documentary about Capone’s love of jazz music. A central piece to the film was “Madonna Mia.”

“I was mesmerized and enthralled by the dichotomy of the other side of Capone. . . . The gentler side, the more human side,” said Larsen.

But that changed after Larsen showed “Madonna Mia” to Anastacia Scardina, an actor-singer-songwriter from the Chicago area. She began to question whether the song was really about Capone’s wife, Mae. (If Capone had written it for his wife, why would he give it to a priest?) To her, it seemed as if Capone was describing the Virgin Mary. The more she read the lyrics, the more skeptical she became. She began to wonder whether Capone really came up with those words on his own.

Scardina began doing research, and discovered that “Madonna Mia” was listed among the holdings of a historic sheet music collection at Brigham Young University. But Capone’s name was not mentioned anywhere. The song had actually been copyrighted in 1935 and Abner Silver, Al Lewis, and Al Sherman were credited as the authors.

She showed Larsen what she found.

“All he did was transcribe it,” she said. “Here is my proof.”

Scardina doesn’t know if Capone had written down the music for his band to play, or if he just did it for fun, to pass the time in prison. If he was trying to pass the songs off as his own, “Al Capone had his last laugh,” she quipped, “as the gangster of plagiarism.”

Regardless of his intentions, she said, “The public needs to know the truth.”

*****

The idea that Capone wrote his own music did not come out of nowhere.

“Our family was well aware of his love for music, which was passed down to his son,” his granddaughter, Diane Capone, recalled in an e-mail to the Globe. “Growing up there was always music from popular tunes to opera being played at our home.”

When he was serving his sentence for tax evasion, Capone wrote a letter to his son explaining his daily routine at Alcatraz. He wrote that he worked each morning, spent afternoons in the yard, and “otherwise I play my music until 3 P.M., and from 3 P.M. I write songs.”

Capone told his son that he played the tenor guitar and tenor banjo, and he could play hundreds of songs on his mandola (“there isn’t a Song written that I can’t play”). He also told his son that he could transpose piano sheet music.

But if Capone penned any original songs, they have yet to surface in the public eye.

The Globe obtained copies of the 1935 copyrighted version of “Madonna Mia” and of “Humoresque,” which was copyrighted in 1932, and asked a music expert to compare them to Capone’s handwritten manuscripts.

Jim Dalton, a professor of music theory at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, said Capone’s version of “Madonna Mia” was transposed to a key that many players would consider easier than the original, and “Humoresque” was written in a different meter, which was also a simplification from the original musical score.

After reviewing the manuscripts, Dalton concluded that they were “written by someone fairly comfortable with notation.”

“He did do a decent job,” said Dalton.

The revelation that the lyrics and notes didn’t spring from Capone’s imagination puts to rest a belief long held by crime buffs, historians, and even members of Capone’s own family.

“We were under the impression that my grandfather (‘Papa’) wrote those two songs,” said Diane Capone, “but perhaps he only wrote arrangements of two songs he admired.”

It was also news to John J. Binder, an organized-crime expert and author of the book “Al Capone’s Beer Wars.”

“This is certainly a surprise to me,” said Binder, “because much has been made of Al Capone writing love songs in prison.”

Jeff Burbank, a content development specialist for The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, echoed those sentiments.

Burbank does a lot of research on famous crime figures, including Capone. Part of his job is to find the true stories behind the legends and lore that have developed over the years.

“There are a lot of myths attached to mob history,” he said. “It looks like the story of Al Capone as composer and lyricist is another one of them.”

But Capone’s grandniece said she was always skeptical.

“We grew up in a very musical family,” Deirdre Marie Capone said in a telephone interview.

If her Uncle Al had written an original song, she said, “believe me, I would have learned that song.”

*****

Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction, acknowledged that auctioneers had incorrectly described the manuscripts in the past. He wants to set the record straight.

“We take these things very seriously,” he said.

Livingston said he was not aware that “Madonna Mia” was written by someone else until he was contacted by the Globe.

“It’s fabulous that we can correct the story,” he said. “Getting it right is paramount.”

Although Capone didn’t come up with the lyrics himself, Livingston said it doesn’t diminish the value of the manuscripts, because the fact remains that Capone once put pencil to paper and transcribed these songs.

“They’re beautifully done,” he said.

Livingston said the artifacts still represent an “incredible piece of history” that help tell the story of Capone learning to play songs while he was incarcerated.

“Even though Capone didn’t compose this piece,” he said, “it’s a remarkable insight into this notorious crime figure.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.