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"A Diamond in the Rough"

johnny carson story

Learn about Rocco Maselli, Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and "The Hoodlum Priest"

When you hear the name, ‘Rocco,’ your mind conjures up the stereotypical image of a larger-than-life outspoken Italian in a tracksuit. The real Rocco Maselli shatters that image. An eloquent, soft-spoken man in his 70’s, Rocco still owns the same jewelry shop that he has for over 25 years. Maselli and Son sits at 3rd Avenue between 49th and 50th street, in Manhattan. This was Johnny’s “go-to” jeweler, and he and Rocco were friends for years. Rocco Maselli recalls how their paths crossed 47 years ago...

In June of 1965, Rocco was with his buddy Frank Sinatra in Chicago. Frank invited Rocco to fly to St Louis with the Rat Pack and renowned Chicago mobster Sam Giancana (photo below). Sam, or “Momo” was one of the main heads of the Chicago Cosa Nostra.

“Frank told me he was going to do a charity date as a favor to Sam Sam Giancanafor the help he gave the Kennedys in the 1960 presidential campaign. He asked me to tag along with him and the pack to St. Louis," said Rocco. "When Frank Sinatra asks you to do something, it's unwise to turn him down."

So Rocco flew to St. Louis and attended a benefit concert for the Dismas House—a national halfway house for ex-convicts. Father Charles Dismas Clark founded that facility. He died in 1963 and the concert was held at the Kiel Opera House in St Louis.

“The Hoodlum Priest,” said Rocco. Father Clark achieved that nickname because his work was for those that had run-ins with the law. You may recall the 1961 movie, “The Hoodlum Priest” starring Don Murray, that was based on the life of Father Clark.

Johnny Carson, filling in for Joey Bishop and only three years into his stint as host of "The Tonight Show," stepped to a microphone on the stage in St. Louis' and introduced Frank by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present our hoodlum singer.” Fortunately for Johnny, he kept his thumbs after that quip—most everyone in the audience had a wrap sheet longer than his hotel bill. Every gangster from the Midwest was required to show up and contribute to the cause.

The Hoodlum Priest filmBackstage before the show, everyone was sipping the sauce and feeling no pain. Johnny was the newcomer but immediately fell into the rhythm with the group. The chemistry was formed instantly. They discussed the routine and gave Johnny free reign to swing with the pack. Quincy Jones was conducting the Count Basie orchestra, which helped heighten the buzz. By the end of a sensational show, Johnny, a bit sauced, joined Sammy, Dean and Frank in singing that now famous “Birth of the Blues.”


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