Singing Sopranos

The music of television’s best show

Every writer has personal favorite stories. (And plenty he wishes could somehow be wiped from the long memory of the internet). This one, which I originally wrote for Green Magazine, is one of my pets. It’s not staggering prose or anything. Just that I loved The Sopranos so deeply and felt proud to be able to contribute to the body of knowledge surrounding the show in a meaningful way. We are approaching the 20th Anniversary of the debut of The Sopranos. Back then, unearthing the performer of the key song in the “A Hit Is a Hit” episode in Season 1—and talking to the creators—was kind of a thing. You’ve got to remember that in the late 90s, not every fact was instantly Googleable. The message boards were all buzzing with people wondering about the massive voice behind the stunning “Nobody loves me but you” chorus as Chrissy smokes on a pool table. (Here’s a nice example of many that pointed to my story.) It annoys me that Bankrate sold the Greenmagazine.com URL (to John Deere!). I view it as somewhat Stalinist that a couple years of daily journalism have simply been replaced by stories about tractors. This story has been lost to me for almost 20 years—it originally ran on November 22, 1999—and only returned when I had to get an old hard drive recovered for other reasons. Happy to see that it still holds up, long after all six season of The Sopranos have concluded.

Of all the perfect moments on The Sopranos, the one that hits me where I live is the first season’s music business episode, A Hit Is a Hit, which first aired on March 14, 1999.. Chris has been honest but unkind to Adrianna about her support for a middling band, Visiting Day. She leaves and he’s devastated. Later, Chris is sitting on a pool table at the Bada Bing, smoking, thinking. Hesh walks by as a transcendently beautiful and sad song plays on the strip club’s stereo. “Now, that’s a hit,” he says, and Chris knows that there’s a difference.

Actually, the song wasn’t a hit. In fact, no one seems to know what it is or who sings it. Subject of endless conjecture on HBO’s Soprano’s message boards (and even the terrific fan-site sopranoland.com can’t identify it), the tune is Dori Hartley’s “Nobody Loves Me But You,” from her album “Blue Djinn.” It’s a great, great song. And like every single song on the best show there’s ever been, it’s perfectly chosen.

Blue Djinn by Dori Hartley.

It has to be. Unlike just about every drama, The Sopranos uses no composers, and there is no score. Only licensed music, hand-chosen little gems to capture and enhance what you see before your eyes – from A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” for the Lincoln Tunnel intro (which is so apt that people assume it was written for the show) to Springsteen’s “State Trooper” to Andrea Bocelli, Frank Sinatra and RL Burnside.

Martin Bruestle is a producer on the show, charged with finding these songs. He is quick to credit series creator David Chase, who he also worked with on Northern Exposure, for the show’s music: “Finding these songs is a very collaborative effort. David’s tastes are fantastic and he’s involved in all the strokes of the brush.”

One of those brush strokes was the episode in which Hartley’s song appears. Joe Bosso, the writer of that script, was an executive at Island Records, whose signings included seminal hardcore band Quicksand and Local H. Bosso shares with Chase and Hartley a Garden State background. “I was brought up in Jersey — Somerville — and my wife’s from Garfield; we’re Jersey people. I was an A&R guy over at Island. I was seguewaying into a writing career. I had a script that got some attention and got in the hands of David Chase right when he was plotting the first season of the Sopranos. He wanted to do a shady music business episode of the Sopranos,” Bosso recalls. “We needed a band and they had to be astoundingly average. That’s harder to do than real bad or real good. I said I know exactly the people. Defiler was born.”

One of those people was Nick Fowler, who played Richie, Defiler’s singer and Adrianna’s boyfriend before being jolted while trying to catch fish with a power line. Bosso remembers, “Fowler had been in New York bands, also had done some acting. I always thought he was extremely talented.”

Another member of Bosso’s crew was engineer and producer Greg Wattenberg, guitar player and principal songwriter of Defiler. Bosso and Wattenberg often goofed around at Island, writing songs and strumming guitars. The pair started writing songs for Defiler and Visiting Day, the introspective alternaband Defiler morphs into as Adrianna develops them.

Greg Wattenberg played Vito the guitar player for Defiler and Visiting Day. In real life, he went on to write and produce several No. 1 songs, including ‘Easy Tonight’ by Five For Fighting, ‘It’s Not Over’ by Daughtry, ‘Shattered’ by O.A.R. and ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ by Train.

Wattenberg says Bosso told him to write songs for both bands that were “Thoroughly mediocre, but played with such conviction that people will buy it.” Wattenberg recalls that “Chase said he was looking for a bunch of guys who don’t know when to give up. I put together mid-30s guys who had been in these cheesy hard rock bands.”

When the proto band had enough material, Bosso says, “David Chase came to a rehearsal to see if Nick had the right look. He gave the band his blessing,” and even ended up casting Wattenberg to appear in the episode, as Defiler/Visiting Day’s guitarist.

Wattenberg laughs as he recounts his screen debut: “They called me Vito. I’m this Jewish guy and they gave me this big Italian name. My big line is ‘It’ll probably be our first single.’ I was standing at the back trying to look tough and my brothers are like, ‘You can’t even act like you’re standing around.'”

Wattenberg’s big line reflects lots of familiarity with the kinda sad but kinda sweet world of the musician whose day is past. The reason the show is perfect is that it finds these moments of unexpected tenderness, hidden in the worlds of low-level mobsters and over-the-hill musicians. Wattenberg knows that moment first-hand. “Every band I produce always has their biggest song, the obvious single. And they don’t want to make it their first single – they wanna go with some much-less-appealing song; going with the obvious choice is a sell-out.”

Another reason the show is special is that even the not-quite-there band they put together cooks up some extremely memorable moments. When Chris and Adrianna bring rap impressario Massive Genius to see Visiting Day, their song “Erase Myself” meanders at midtempo, ridiculous but pretty good, too. Or the Defiler tune that plays over the closing credits, the sort of band theme song that a group like Bad Company might employ: “Stay Out of our way, don’t be so gay / We’re coming to defile, defile you.” Bosso says, “We were trying to think of what these idiots from New Jersey would sing.”

According to producer Bruestle, songs for the show are often chosen as scenes are viewed in the studio. “For ‘Wheel in the Sky,'” referring to the Journey hit that plays in season two as Carmela contemplates her marriage and new interest in a wallpapering he-man, “David was in LA, I was in NY to do some looping. Kathy Dayak [Sopranos music editor] and I were sitting together, playing music, laughing at songs, getting a kick out of them. I walked out of the office and dropped off Journey’s Greatest Hits CD and that song just fit perfectly.”

Bruestle confirms how important the songs are, noting that choosing one instead of the other can have dramatic impact. “For every song you end up using, there are 20 that do something else to the scene. You don’t create these choices at the script level. You play the music against the images after you’ve shot it. There’s so many things you can do with music. Restraint in its selection is what we’re trying to do with it. To not be in your face totally.”

For Dori Hartley, her song’s appearance might not have been in anyone’s face, but meant plenty. “It was thrilling to see ‘Nobody Loves Me But You’ featured so nicely in the Sopranos.”

Thrilling is right.

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership, co-written with Rudy Giuliani.

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