Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

It’s About Being Better

I started this blog to share with the world all that is wonderful about New Jersey. And I would say almost all my posts are positive and highlight what I love about the Garden State.

Sadly, this is not one of those posts.

Absolutely everyone who knows me knows I grew up a dedicated band kid. It shaped my young life. It taught me important skills beyond music. I learned about teamwork, pride, confidence, and the brotherhood that exists among all band members, no matter where they are located.

I am a proud kid from Belleville; what we lovingly refer to on our Facebook group as the Motherland. We may not have always liked each other, but we could always count on each other.

This is why I feel compelled to stick up for my fellow Belleville High students and, more importantly, my fellow band kids.

On September 10th, Belleville played our local rival Nutley for the Mayor’s Cup. I’ll be honest; I never paid attention to the game. I was there for halftime. While I didn’t get to the game in person, I was excited to see someone uploaded the halftime show to YouTube.

Well, I was excited.

Belleville, NJ Marching Band
The Belleville Marching Band with the Nutley football team warming up in the background and the referees chatting off to the side. Credit: Mitch Zoltowski

Excitement turned to immediate outrage. Not because of the band, but because of the Nutley football team. The band just started their halftime show when the Nutley football team appeared and actually had the audacity to start warm-ups ON THE FIELD! To make matters worse, the referees had a nice coffee clutch around the 20 yard line. The final insult is that this all took place on Belleville’s home turf.

I was completely appalled! These kids work just as hard as anyone else. They deserve respect. Where was the coach on the Nutley side? There was not one adult on the Nutley side that thought “this isn’t right?”

I feel coach Vick of the Nutley football team owes the Belleville Marching Band and their director an apology. He should lead by example and teach his kids that band kids, regardless of the town they are from, work hard and deserve their time on the field.

Coach Vick, you need to be better. And you need to teach your kids to be better.

Shame on you.

It’s Spring: Get Out!

Let’s face it; we’re all sick of being stuck inside. As the weather continues to improve, the masses will head outside to the many wonderful parks and open spaces throughout New Jersey. As families continue to cancel vacations and choose to stay local, some of the hidden gems of The Garden State may not stay quite as hidden. Here are some suggestions as you and your family head outside.

Frenchtown, New Jersey

Be a tourist in your own backyard

You could live in New Jersey your entire life and miss out on some of the best attractions, parks, museums, and more within a short drive from your home. Start your day by checking out the New Jersey tourism site to see what is right near you. The site not only provides information about places to go, it also has a calendar of events so you can get out and enjoy a special event. Like jazz? How about the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May. Want to learn about how Revolutionary soldiers survived winters during the war? Experience America’s first national historic park, Morristown National Historical Park. There’s something for everyone.

Take a step further and do even more local research by looking at county and town or city websites. The Morris County website can tell you all about the Frelinghuysen Arboretum. The Essex County website will tell you when to visit Branch Brook Park in Newark and Belleville to see the cherry blossoms in bloom (hint: it’s now!). Every town in New Jersey offers something interesting. I bet there’s even something in your own hometown you may not even know is there!

Know before you go

COVID rules are continuing to change at a dizzying pace. Make sure to go online and check the current rules so you are properly prepared. This will help avoid frustration and disappointment when you head out.

Leave only footprints

Last year, our parks saw traffic that was unprecedented. Unfortunately, some visitors did not treat our parks with the respect they deserve. Last summer Hedden Park in Morris County was closed for two weeks to repair damage from park visitors that included hauling out trash, stream repair, and taking care of damage from a dumpster fire.

Please do not leave trash behind, move rocks in streams, or harass or feed wild animals. And absolutely please do NOT leave behind PPE garbage. PPE like masks and gloves are threatening wildlife everywhere. Leave the electronics in the car (or even at home!) and enjoy the beauty of nature around you. Make sure to carry in/carry out. Take only pictures and leave only footprints.

Get out!

So take advantage of the nice weather and finally leave your home confinement. Check out one of the great New Jersey museums, visit Branch Brook Park, go down the shore, enjoy some Kohr’s frozen custard, and take a walk down the boardwalk. Just get out!

Kids, a Trumpet, and an Album: 1966

While my husband and I never had children of our own, we have thousands of kids. How you may ask? Decades of students taught by my husband. From marching band during his college years to 25 years as a public school band director. No matter what our kids decided to do professionally, we were always proud. Several over the years, aspired to become band directors and professional musicians. One such musician is Jose “Jay” Oliva.

This past week we were especially proud of Jose, as he premiered his first album. What makes this even more special is he completed this project with his father, a world-class musician at the young age of 88.

Recently, I sat down with Jose to discuss his album.

When did you first start working on the music for this album?

Although we first stepped into the studio in late summer 2020 to begin recording, I’ve been mentally preparing to record this album for over 20 years! Titled “1966,” this album contains music arranged for my father Tomas Oliva and performed by him and his band throughout the 60s. The arrangements in this recording also include some Herb Alpert originals like “A Taste of Honey” and “Green Peppers”.

What was the motivation to do this work?

I grew up listening to these very songs and have been humming them in my head since grade school. My father and I always talked about me re-recording this project and bringing back, even for a moment, this once popular style of music. Beware though, one listen, will have you tapping your number 2 pencil and whistling along with a nice smile on your face. If ever a bad day, queue up our album…bad day…gone!

What was the best part of working on this project? What was the worst part?

The absolute best part of working on this project was being in the studio with my father. He recorded the 2nd trumpets in the album. He toured many countries playing this music and having him step back into the studio 55 years later at 88 years old to re-record his album was absolutely priceless for me.
Another absolutely amazing experience is a guest appearance by my wife on clarinet. There was a small solo part that was written as a “whistle.” While my father and I discussed on the phone who would be the whistler, a sudden light bulb going off as my wife entered the room humming songs as she always does around the house. She played the clarinet in high school and after much convincing, she dusted off that old gem for a super cool solo on “Caliente”.

Who are your musical influences? What music styles are you drawn to the most?

I’m mainly a contemporary style trumpet player who got pulled into the Latin salsa world because it was in my blood and that was the style of music my father was heavily involved in during the later part of his career. He got me a lot of great salsa gigs with many of the top bands in NYC when I started playing professionally. We got to perform together for many years. My true passion however was to become a classical trumpet player. Nevertheless, I would trade being a classical trumpet player if I could play jazz solos like Chet Baker!

My father is a classical trumpet player with an astonishing musical career. He was principal chair in the “Orquesta Nacional del Perú”. He was also part of the World Symphony Orchestra in 1971 under Conductor Arthur Fiedler from the world famous Boston Pops. His amazing career was a huge influence on me as a musician.

If you could collaborate with any musician, who would you choose?

If I could collaborate with any (other) musician it would be Chris Botti. Trumpeter Rick Braun is also on that list.

Where can people find your album?

Even though “1966” is now available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, iHeartRadio, and Apple Music, my plan was never to launch it to the public under a record label. Initially, I thought I was just going to put this on a cd and hand it out to my immediate family and friends. My vision after we completed the recording was my dad and I sitting back and listening to the tracks while having a beer on a Sunday afternoon.

After listening to the awesomeness of my band “The Oliva Brass Project” which include Jordan Rose on drums, Mike Bono on guitar, Juan Lukunza on trombone, Adrian Moring on bass, Julio “Chino” Moreno on marimba, my father Tomas Oliva, who is still a world class trumpet player at 88, guest appearances by my wife Katlyn Oliva on clarinet and Kevin Rodriguez, piano on “Green Peppers”, I knew this needed to be bigger than originally planned.

Proud and humbled to say that today, I get to share some great songs that are very special to me and my family. 1966 was the year my father introduced these songs to the world and 55 years later, we get to do it all over again.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Bucky Pizzarelli

COVID-19 has certainly left us devoid from us this year. We’ve lost family, friends, and others we admire. One of those wonderful New Jerseyans of Italian heritage we lost to the virus is John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.

Born in Paterson in 1926 to the owners of a local grocery store, Pizzarelli picked up the guitar for the first time at the age of nine. At 17, he embarked on his professional career when he joined the Vaughn Monroe dance band in 1944. Over his amazing career, he played with an incredible list of iconic musicians that included Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Paul McCartney. He was also a long-time member of the “Tonight Show Band.” When Johnny Carson decided to move the show to California, he opted to stay in New Jersey, unwilling to uproot his young and growing family.

John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.
Source: johnpizzarelli.com

After his time with the Tonight Show Band, he began to play regularly at clubs in Manhattan with long-time friend and collaborator, George Barnes. Additionally, he began performing and recording with top jazz musicians. In 1980, he also began collaborating with one special individual – his son John. The father-son duo would perform and record together many times, often joined by Bucky’s other son, Martin, a bassist, and vocalist Jessica Molaskey, John’s wife. John once described them as “the von Trapp family on martinis.”

He never had plans on ever retiring. In a 2015 profile in New Jersey Monthly, Pizzarelli, then 89, said, “Retire?! Why am I gonna retire? I’m gonna sit home and watch Judge Judy all day? No thanks!”

He was a force of nature until the very end and made incredible contributions to jazz music. He passed at home in April of this year due to complications from COVID-19 with his wife of 66 years, Ruth, by his side in Bergen County. Sadly, she passed one week after suffering his loss. May she be continue to be serenated by him in Heaven.

Going Old School in Jersey

My entire career has been focused on high tech. From prepress to IT to SEO, everything I’ve done has involved the latest in technology.

I think that’s why people are so surprised to hear I have analog hobbies. I fly fish, as well as tie my own flies. I do yoga, hike, crochet, felt, weave, spin my own yarn, garden, and am learning to sew on a 1951 Singer. I also love photography; old school photography – with film.

For as long as I can remember, I loved photography. There was a point when I was young I actually wanted to be a photojournalist. However, as life became busier, that idea was put aside.

One of my shots from college. My then-boyfriend (now husband) preparing for a marching band competition. Like Raso and Fedele, he is also a “Bill on the Hill” graduate.

I picked up photography again in college when I registered for a film photography class. I used my father’s Canon F 35mm and learned to develop my own film in the bathroom of my home, much to my mother’s displeasure. Seton Hall University had two darkrooms and I spent hours in there working to create the best prints possible. For every roll of film I was able to come up with a few solid shots. While on the school paper, I would work with the photo editor on cropping and resizing. My print production and typography classes were great and I still use the skills I learned back then.

While my photography was eventually put aside, that knowledge served me well while working in prepress, print production, and on press runs.

About two years ago, I purchased a digital camera to get back into shooting again. But what I really longed for was old school photography. I went to a monthly used camera event in Hasbrouck Heights and picked up a Canon F – right back where it all started. Since then a dear friend gave me a Mamiya C300. I also have a Polaroid Land Camera from the 60s. Additionally, I’m toying with the idea of picking up either a Diana F+ or a Brownie Hawkeye.

So why am I telling you this long winded story? Stick with me.

I discovered the Film Photography Project quite a while ago and have placed orders with them several times. However, it is only recently I started listening to their podcast. Wow! I have been missing out on something great.

The The Film Photography Podcast is hosted by Michael Raso, Duane Polcou, and John Fedele – all Jersey guys. Raso, a proud William Paterson graduate (known lovingly as “Bill on the Hill”), brings a curious nature to tackling multiple film-related topics. Polcou has an encyclopedic-like knowledge while making the information easy to understand to the average enthusiast. Fedele rounds out the trio and has a long-standing friendship with Raso that began in the William Paterson darkroom. He is an accomplished videographer, as well as a great musician.

Each episode is full of great information, coupled with a lot of humor. They can switch topics from developing film at home to where to get the best plain pie in North Jersey. Their comedic banter is just great. Put as straightforward as possible – they have that Jersey attitude I live – and love. And yes, I love The Sopranos.

I am currently listening to the entire 10-plus year history; checking out a few old episodes, then a few new. I plan on listening to the entire backlog.

If you are interested in film photography, and I highly recommend it, I urge you to check out the Film Photography Podcast.

Belleville Loses a Favorite Son: Tommy DeVito

Music is a huge part of the history of New Jersey. The Boss. Bon Jovi. Southside Johnny.

The Four Seasons early in their career, from left: Bob Gaudio, Frankie Valli, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito. Credit: via The Four Seasons

There is another part of music history that goes back a little further. Those greats include Francis Albert Sinatra, Bucky Pizzarelli, Connie Francis, and The Four Seasons. Straight from Essex County, and more specifically, my hometown of Belleville, Gaetano “Tommy” DeVito was one of the original members.

This week, Tommy’s voice fell silent as he was lost to complications from Coronavirus.

“It is with great sadness that we report that Tommy DeVito, a founding member of The Four Seasons, has passed,” according to a statement released from Frankie Valli & Bob Gaudio. “We send our love to his family during this most difficult time. He will be missed by all who loved him.”

The youngest of nine, Tommy was born in Belleville into an Italian-American family. At eight years old, he taught himself to play his brother’s guitar by listening to music on the radio. He quit school after the eighth grade and by the time he was 12, he was playing for tips in a variety of local hangouts.

His professional career began officially in the 1950s with his group, The Variety Trio. The group went through several incantations until it turned into The Four Seasons after childhood friend, Joe Pesci, introduced him to Bob Gaudio. In September of 1962, the single “Sherry” hit number one. This was the first of three consecutive chart-topping hits from the group. Other hits included “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

As a little girl I remember going upstairs to my Grandmother’s and would listen to The Four Seasons records on my Uncle Sonny’s stereo. It is a wonderful memory.

After Tommy left the group, good friend Joe once again helped him get parts in movies like Casino. He also recorded an album of Italian folk songs.

“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in November 2005 and highlighted the history of the famed group. At the beginning of the show, there’s a shoutout to Belleville; and anyone in the audience from the town gives a yell and applause on its announcement.

Belleville has been home to many favorite sons and daughters. From medal of honor recipients to musicians. Tommy DeVito is definitely among our favorite sons.