Legendary Singer to Perform at St. Peter’s Pac in Jersey City.
By Sally Deering
In the 1960s, Jay and the Americans’ hits “Only in America” “Come a Little Bit Closer” and “Cara Mia” topped the record charts and on Sat, Sept. 15, lead singer Jay Black will headline – along with Darlene Love – at the new Saint Peter’s PAC in Jersey City.
Now in his 70s, Black works with a different set of musicians (for legal reasons he can’t use the name ‘Jay and the Americans’ – sanctioned by the IRS over unpaid taxes) and he sings his hits at venues like The NYCB Theater at Westbury, formerly the Westbury Music Fair. Black still packs the house and even though the girls who saw him perform on The Ed Sullivan Show back in the day are now grandmothers, they still scream and shout when they hear him sing.
With a career that spans more than 50 years, Black does it his way. He doesn’t rehearse or warm-up before a show, just hits the deck running when the curtain opens. On a recent Friday afternoon, Black gave an impromptu interview with Riverview Observer to talk about his show biz career and performing at the new Saint Peter’s PAC. RVO: Jay, can you tell our readers where you were born and raised?
JB: I grew up in Bensonhurst. It was great. I thought I was a tough guy. The prestigious thing was to be the toughest. Then I started singing and I changed my whole persona. I had to. Now my definition of a tough guy is a guy who the doctor says you got six months to live, not a guy who fights.
RVO: How did you discover you could sing? Was there a singer you admired back then?
JB:I sang in choirs when I was a little boy. I would imitate guys like Mario Lanza and hit the notes he did. My voice is the healthiest part of me. At one show they were applauding for ten minutes after I sang “Cara Mia”. They wouldn’t sit down. That’s a good thing.
RVO: Your first hit was in 1963 with “Only in America”. How did that come about?
JB: ‘Only in America’ was a protest song. I didn’t like it in the beginning. After I sang it they speeded it up to make it a faster song. My voice turned into a high-pitched sound but people don’t know the difference. The Drifters originally recorded it, but they couldn’t release it. The Civil Rights Movement was going on and they thought it was hypocritical for an African-American group to sing about “the land of opportunity’. I said I’d like to do it and here I am.
RVO: What was it like hearing “Only in America” on the radio for the first time?
JB: We were driving to Florida and I was doing all the driving and I remember when we got to Florida and the DJ on the radio says “This week, this song is No. 1 in Miami.” It was thrilling.
RVO: Your second hit was ‘Come a Little Bit Closer” in 1964 and in 1965, “Cara Mia”. What made you record that song?
JB: I actually rewrote “Cara Mia.” It was a slow song that Mantovani wrote. I redid it and made it into a rock n’ roll song. The record company didn’t want to do it. After I sang it on The Tonight Show thousands of letters came in, so the record company decided to put it on the “B” side. What happened? The whole country turned the record over. It became a monster hit. They flew me to Amsterdam when it was No. 1 in the Netherlands. Those were thrilling days.
RVO: Did you ever saunter over to Jersey City or Hoboken to perform or hang out?
JB: I worked there probably in the course of the 52 years I’ve been doing this. To me New York and New Jersey are the same. I have friends in Jersey. I don’t consider us different; we’re attached at the hip.
RVO: You are the first headliner to appear at Saint Peter’s new Performing Arts Center.
JB: I’m looking forward to it.
RVO: How often do you perform these days?
JB: I recently did an outdoor show, 10,000 people at the PNC Arts Center on a Tuesday afternoon. Bill Medley is opening for me at Westbury on Nov. 3rd, the day after my birthday.
RVO: To what do you attribute your career’s longevity?
JB: I think the fact that I give people more than just singing. I give them a show. I interact with the audience. I do a lot of funny stuff and the fact that people are blown away that I can still hit the same notes I hit 50 years ago. My voice is the most powerful part of me.
RVO: How do you keep your voice doing all these concerts? Is there a vocal exercise or something special you do?
JB: Nothing. I don’t warm up. I don’t rehearse. I don’t sing in the shower. When the group goes to a sound check, I don’t go.
RVO: Do you have any advice for up and coming singers?
JB: Get a good lawyer.
RVO: Seriously, any advice?
JB: It’s difficult to give advice to people who are starting out because it’s a completely different business now than when I started. The music is different. The attitude is different. I would say as a new artist, you have to stay tuned to what other new artists are doing