"I always love coming here," said Carmine as he popped another cough drop in his mouth outside the St. Patricks Youth Center on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. "But who wouldn't, if they came from my kind of neighborhood? Close-knit, everybody knew each other, people singing on the street corners until two or three a.m. every night."
That's just where you would have found Carmine, if you'd been hanging around Mulberry or Howard Streets or Columbus Park 25 years ago. Like countless other would-be Dions, he and his doo-wopping pals used to go into the hallways, down to the subway, under the columns of the government buildings in Foley Square -- anywhere to find the echo that would enrich their renditions of songs by the Passions, the Duprees and the Dubs.
Tonight, Carmine had finally graduated from the corner to center stage. For the annual Valentines weekend dance -- a fund-raiser for St. Patrick's, where he and apparently half of Little Italy went to school -- he was coming back to the neighborhood as lead tenor for The Neighborhood, a 10-piece band composed mostly of guys who'd grown up on these same streets.
"I used to kick him out of the hallway where we rehearsed," recalled Ross Ascuitto, formerly of a local group called the Exceptions, who now stands two microphones to the left of Carmine. "He was just a little kid. 'Can we hear you sing?' he used to ask. 'Get outta here,' I'd say. Now look at him. He's great."
But until a year ago, he was also frustrated. Carmine was born with a sweet, sweet tenor -- but his timing was way, way off. "He always had a beautiful voice," said Carmine Sr., who still lives in the house in Crosby Street that once reverberated with the sound of young Carmine's voice. "If I had money and connections, he'd of been a star in the Fifties."
Problem was, Carmine came of age in the 1960s. He was 14 in February, 1964: a date that will live in doowop infamy. That was when the Beatles arrived in America -- and not long after, the echoes on the street corners of the neighborhood began to fade.
Carmine went on to have some success as a teenager: In 1968, the a cappella group he'd formed with some neighborhood buddies, the Castells, won the citywide Catholic Youth Organization talent show. But later that year, he was drafted into the army and sent to a nuclear weapons base in Turkey, 100 miles from the Soviet border. For the next two years, he worried less about street-corner harmonies than about whether or not they'd doo-wop The Big One.
When he returned home in 1970, things had changed. At one neighborhood club he used to frequent, he found strobe lights on the ceiling, psychedelic guitars on the speakers, and people huffing glue in the corridors. "The music was gone," he recalls sadly. "Everybody was listening to hard rock and doing drugs. I wanted no part of that."
By his own account, Carmine spent most of the 70s in a club on the West Side -- one of the few that still played the old doo-wop hits -- standing by the juke box with a drink in his hand, teaching people the backup vocals to "Runaround Sue".
He also found time to marry a girl from the old neighborhood. In 1978, Carmine and Dorothy moved to Farmingdale on Long Island. He worked the night shift at his typesetting shop in midtown -- and on those long train rides home in the early morning hours, he listened to tapes of the old music, and dreamed. The occasional, informal reunion with his street-corner pals at family functions wasn't enough -- but it looked like that was all there was going to be for Carmine as a singer.
Then, at an oldies show at St. Paul's Church in Manhattan in 1987, he ran into some buddies from the Castells. "We started singing," Carmine said. "And we realized we still had our sound after twenty years."
A year later, they were invited to show off their stuff at a Staten Island doo-wop revival show, The Oldies Are Back for Good. The Castells did only a few songs, and it wasn't meant to be anything permanent -- after all, these were all middle-aged guys with jobs and families. But, backstage, Ascuitto, the show's promoter, listened and liked what he heard. A former New York City cop who once got in hot water because he was caught doing harmonies with three vocalizing vagabonds in Washington Square while on duty, Ascuitto needed a new singer for the doo-wop/oldies group he'd formed. The little kid from Crosby Street would be the perfect first tenor for The Neighborhood.
"He's got a powerful voice, with a lot of range," Ascuitto said. "But he's also a very down-to-earth person. And to get this sound, you have to have harmony . . . between the voices and the personalities."
Suddenly, at age 40, boyish-looking Carmine was a working musician; doing double shifts at his regular job so that he could make Wednesday night rehearsals with the group in New Jersey; memorizing lyrics and parts on the train, and practicing at home; gigging on weekends at dances and weddings in the Bronx, Jersey, Staten Island. An appearance on Don K. Reed's Doo-Wop Shop program on WCBS-FM is upcoming, as is a summer show in New Jersey, where The Neighborhood will open for the man some folks, including Carmine, think is the greatest doo-wop singer of them all, Johnny Maestro.
Still, tonight was special for the band -- and particularly for Carmine. His cousins, in-laws, grandparents, old friends, new friends, former classmates and street-corner cronies packed the gym -- the same one in which Carmine had played hoops as a kid -- waiting to hear him. The fact that the group's equipment had been stolen right out of the church gym the night before -- something, they muttered, that would never have happened in the blessed old days -- was no deterrent. Using borrowed mikes, amps, monitors and speakers, the show went on. And from the moment Ascuitto cried, "Lets rock and roll," and Carmine hit the opening notes of "Tell Him" by the Exciters, it was very clear to everybody that he was doing what he was always meant to do.
"I knew he could sing," said Kathleen Hynes, a friend of the Laiettas from their new neighborhood on Long Island. "But I never realized he could sing."
Could he ever. Carmine, backed by Ascuitto and two other singers, had them cheek to cheek on "Sixteen CandIes". His high notes on "I Believe" threatened to crack the beer bottles. And when they dedicated a number to one Dominick Doo-Wop -- a paunchy, middIe-aged guy in the audience who made a request for some good, old neighborhood-style a cappella -- Carmine held the room spellbound with his lead on Maestro's "I Thank the Moon".
"I get chills seeing him perform," said Tony D'Avelli, one-time singer for the Sinceres, another group Carmine had emulated as a kid. "He has the voice and he has the ear -- which is just as important in doo-wop. Because there's no instrumentation . . . no margin of error."
"I think every guy in this neighborhood wanted to be a singer," said Louis Puzzino, who grew up a few doors down the block on Mulberry Street. "I'd give my life to be up where he is now."
For most of his life, Carmine had known that feeling. "To do this now . . ." the singer said, shaking his head in disbelief, during a break. "It's really living a dream."
And what's more, it's a dream the people in his life can share with him. As The Neighborhood kept the hits coming, the crowd of 200 pounded the gymnasium floor dancing the mashed potato, the lindy, the locomotion, the skate. Even their kids, the ones growing up with rap and rock, seemed mildly impressed with the old music. "It ain't bad," muttered one leather-jacketed kid to his pal, sitting at the back of the room.
Singing 60 numbers of this kind of music would take a toll on Pavarotti. Carmine, who said he had prepared for the performance by singing in the shower and popping a roll of cough drops on the drive in from Long Island, was asked how his voice would feel tomorrow. "Very bad," he laughed. "But I'll still sing in the shower. Im always singing."
"This is a pure kind of music," Ascuitto said. "It talks about love, about happiness, about good times. And Carmine's been reborn into it."
Outside, in the cold still of the night, a muffled sound filtered out of the gym. It was Carmine's voice and it echoed through the streets of the neighborhood.
To the delight of the crowd, this 10 piece band, composed mostly of guys who had grown up on the same streets in Manhattan 25 years ago, took them back into time to the old, carefree days with a pure kind of music--songs that spoke about love, happiness and the good times.
One of the lead singers, Carmine Laietta, now lives in our neighborhood with his wife Dorothy and three children. His family and friends not only came to hear his sweet tenor voice, but to share in the joy of seeing his childhood dream become a reality.
The Farmingdale Republican Club Dance Committee should be commended on bringing The Neighborhood to us.
For those of you who were not with us, The Neighborhood will be performing at Staten Island College this November with such 50s groups as the Drifters, the Impalas, Johnny Maestro, and the Brooklyn Bridge, just to name a few. Besides performing at doo-wopp shows, the Neighborhood also do private parties, weddings, and anniversaries. Please call Ross Ascuitto for ticket reservations and/or information at (201) 945-3978.