Al Capone, The Infamous ... Musical Plagiarist?
It’s pretty well-known that ol’ Scarface loved him some jazz. He once famously kidnapped jazz prodigy Thomas “Fats” Waller, only to have him perform some sick beats at Capone’s birthday for three days straight while trying not to pass out from exhaustion and get shot in the head. The entire story is more Chicago than the musical Chicago.
When Alphonse Capone was eventually convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz, he spent a lot of time playing music with his fellow inmates, even joining the Rock Islanders band with the banjo his wife Mae sent him. The former crime boss was also believed to have composed his own music, which collected thousands of dollars on auction many years later. Only, the sheet music he sat and wrote in his prison cell wasn’t his own work. It was actually existing songs he took and transposed into simpler keys before seemingly passing it off as his own. Typical.
“Gonna hustle until my last breath / Gonna hustle you even in death /
I DON’T GOT THE BLUES!”
One of his supposed songs, “Madonna Mia,” was described by the auction block as an original Capone composition about his loving wife, Mae. Only, no, it was neither. Capone copied it from a songbook and gave the handwritten copy to a friend as a Christmas gift. Another of his copies titled “Humoresque” was picked up on auction by none other than The White Stripes musician Jack White. White would later say that the auction description was kind of vague and implied that it was Capone’s original work when it was actually a combination of music by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and lyrics by songwriter Howard Johnson -- the guy who wrote the famous tune where everyone screams for ice cream.
It should be said that Capone’s music notation wasn’t bad, but he most definitely needed some work on his attribution skills. Then again, as the modern Al Capone Theory suggests, plagiarism is just one of the many scummy behaviors of people who feel entitled to dominate and control others. So yeah, it checks out.
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Top Image: Miami Police Dept., Scott Kelley/Unsplash