Sometimes you CAN judge a “book” by its “covers.”
So it is with the booking of talented singer Gene Ferrari to play the Italian American Club next Saturday night, October 3. Ferrari, who was the opening act for Don Rickles for seven-and-a-half years, will salute the best singers of our time, covering the songs of artists from Nat King Cole to Aerosmith. Backed by a 12-piece orchestra, his aim is to hit every segment of the audience.
“I’m a singer in the vein of Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones but I do my own thing and put a different spin on it,” Ferrari says. “Throughout my career, people have compared me to Enge or Tom but then I started choosing my own material. After working clubs and lounges, I began working cruise ships and then made a connection to Don Rickles. I toured with Don on most of his dates from 2002-03 until 2010. I played the best venues in the country because of Don and I also opened for Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, and Pat Cooper.”
Ferrari, who still speaks with an Italian accent, was born in a little town in Sicily called Catania. Although his father left when Gene was six months old, when he was about a year-and-a-half old, his father took the family to Egypt where he owned two Fiat dealerships under the monarchy of King Farouk. The family settled in Cairo while the father lived in Alexandria. When Gene was 11, Nasser returned to power in Egypt and the country became Communist and a lot of people who owned businesses were forced to leave. His father got his money out of the black market for 50 cents on the dollar and moved the family back to Italy, where, again, his father lived separately.
“In 1966, an uncle who was a musician gave me a guitar,” Ferrari recalls. “I left it in the closet and never touched it. Then, one day, I took it out and taught myself how to play it. I joined a little band in Sardinia and also sang and people responded to my singing. I was mimicking different singers. In 1969, I went to Rome and started working in piano bars
“One night, after I finished a set, two guys, who looked like they had just stepped out of casting for The Godfather, walked over to me,” he adds. “They were Americans who spoke broken Italian and I spoke no English. But they came back the following week. One of their wives had told them that they had to bring me to America and they ended up sending me a round-trip ticket. I was 23 and I came to America by myself with $100 in my pocket. My first day in Rochester, New York, was the loneliest, saddest day I can remember. But I said to myself, ‘Either stay here or leave today.’ So I stayed.”
The year was 1972 and the two gentlemen who had brought him to this country helped Ferrari put together a band while he set about learning to speak English by watching the TV show, Bonanza. He found Americans to have good hearts and with that being his incentive, he fell in love with this country and didn’t want to be “lost between two shores.” So he bought an Italian-American dictionary, watched hours of soap operas on end and began putting sentences together. He forced himself to start thinking in English instead of translating Italian into English in his thought process. He was determined to integrate himself into the country.
While the two gentlemen, under the name of The Brotherhood, took 60 percent of Ferrari’s income for three years, he was intensely aware that he wouldn’t be here without them (and, in fact, still keeps in touch with the 93-year-old widow of one on the men, who he says is like a mother to him.) Then, a fortuitous meeting ended up making a big impact on Ferrari’s life. One night, while he was appearing at a hotel in Buffalo, international superstar Engelbert Humperdinck, who was performing at a nearby venue and staying at the hotel, came into the lounge to see Ferrari’s show. He had been brought there by Andy Anka, Paul Anka’s father, who used to book Ferrari and impressed with Ferrari’s talent, ended up becoming the young singer’s mentor.
“Engelbert came in for the next five nights,” Ferrari recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing at that point. I was parroting other people and I did this bit in the show where I turned and faced my drummer. I’ll never forget Engelbert saying to me, ‘Who do you think you are turning your back to an audience? He then said to me, ‘Anytime you want to come see me, come see me’.” And I did. I watched hum from the wings and took notes. Anything I asked him, he answered. We became good friends. He has been very good to me.”
Ferrari also feels blessed by his association with Don Rickles and what the years of touring with the comedian have done for him.
“Don was very kind to me,” he notes. “He didn’t put any boundaries on me. Most opening acts only get 20 minutes; he gave me 35. He would stand in the wings and watch me perform and would encourage me. We would have a drink before the show together – he liked to drink Kettle Vodka –and he always offered me food. What I learned most from Don was timing. I can be very amusing to an audience – I don’t take myself seriously. I try to establish a musical conversation with the audience. I learned that from Don. I’m very comfortable in my own skin when I’m on stage.”
Where is it that Ferrari wants to go from here?
“I’d like to play a performing arts center with a philharmonic orchestra,” he responds.
Judging by his past, he just may have the future covered.