By Sally Deering
How many people can say Frank Sinatra’s mother brought them into the world? Born in Hoboken under the watchful eye of midwife Dolly Sinatra (she was a neighbor), Al Certo was raised in Hoboken where he dreamed of being a dancer but, instead, built two careers as a professional boxer and men’s tailor, Certo weaved back and forth between those two worlds until he eventually hung up his gloves and threw himself into herringbones and tweeds.
Certo’s Custom Tailors has thrived in Secaucus for more than 50 years. Back in the day Certo’s shop was two floors with eight tailors handling the orders; today, the top floor is now a pizzeria and Harsh Khindri who has been with Certo for 15 years handles most of the work.
“He’s one of the greatest tailors I ever met,” Certo says. “He has gold in his hands.”
Certo’s tailor shop is filled with sewing machines and along several walls are rows of hangers with yards of fabrics like cashmere, wools and cottons. Above the hangers is a line-up of photographs mostly of famous boxers who Certo knew from his years in the ring. Sometimes they came to Certo’s shop to talk boxing and sometimes they picked out a suit. That’s what boxing legend Muhammad Ali did.
“I got to be very close to Ali,” Certo says. “He came walking in; I got all the pictures of the fighters on the wall and he says, ‘where’s all the black fighters?’ We hit it off good. Ali had a 34 waist and a chest like, I would say 50-52.”
Back in the day, Certo built a good reputation as a boxer, won the Golden Gloves in 1953 and turned pro in ’56. He owned a gym on Washington Street in Hoboken during those years, too, but there came a time when Certo had to flip a coin and make a career-decision.
“What do I do, let this thing go and devote full time to the boxing? “ Certo says, describing how he chose tailoring over boxing. Pointing to the 8 x 10 framed photographs that line the top edge of the walls, he says: “There’s a billion dollars-worth of talent on that wall.”
He’s right. Black and white photos of the biggest legends in the boxing world like Ali, Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta, Jack Dempsey, Chuck Wepner, Jersey Joe Wolcott and Rocky Graziano are hung next to superstars like a young Frank Sinatra, who Certo dressed in his custom-made suits. Sinatra had a 29-inch waist at the time, Certo says. There’s also a picture of Martin Scorcese, Joe Pesche, Ray Liotta and Rober DeNiro who visited Al while filming “Goodfellas”.
“DeNiro was doing research on his role as Jake LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull’ and he knew I was a fighter and fight promoter and wanted to ask me questions,” Certo says.
Certo is featured in several books including a popular new release “The Boss Always Sits in the Back” by Jon D’Amore who is a former Secaucus resident now residing in Hollywood. Friends since the 1980s, whenever D’Amore comes to the area for book signings, he hooks up with Certo.
“Since back in the late 1970s when I was 14 years old I’ve credited Al Certo with being one of the people responsible for my successful career as a musician that lasted until I retired from it in 1985,” D’Amore says. “He booked my first group, The Mixed Expressions, made up of 6 high school teens from Secaucus and Weehawken, for our very first paying job at The Plaza Arena. Al and I have stayed friends ever since and it’s been an honor to know him. Even now that I live in Hollywood, whenever I come back to New Jersey or New York City I always make it a point to stop by Al’s shop and have a cup of coffee.”
Although he built his custom-tailoring business in Secaucus, Certo’s a Hoboken guy who remembers “when rents were $5 or $6 a month”. He grew up on Monroe Street a block from the Sinatra family and it was Sinatra’s mother Dolly who supplemented her income as a midwife and brought Certo into the world. His father, Al, a trombone player and mother Nettie raised 12 kids – Certo was a middle-child — and when Certo was big enough, he worked as a shoeshine boy near the Hoboken docks that lined the Hudson. In his early 20s, he married Lee Bernacci; they are together 64 years.
“I never wanted to be a fighter. I wanted to be a dancer,” Certo says. “I was a good dancer with my sister Joanne. Once, we were at a dance in Hoboken and the whole dance floor got off and watched us dance. We were great.”
Dreams of dancing like his idols Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire are now stored away along with memories of his days as a pro boxer, Light on his feet and in good shape, Certo looks like he still could wow ‘em on the dance floor – an observation that he brushes away like a puff of lint on a lightweight wool.
“I’m 85,” he says. “I got two left feet now.”
Certo’s Custom Tailors
1259 Paterson Plank Road