Gabriel Russo of Dahlonega, Ga., remembers spending summers visiting with his grandparents on Park Avenue in Hoboken as a child. They were great times, filled with family, friends, and special moments.
So it was a homecoming of sorts for Russo, 60, when he was crowned winner of the eighth annual Sinatra Idol Contest on June 12 in the DeBaun Auditorium at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Russo won in a sing-off over Charles Stayduhar Jr. of Pittsburgh, Pa., after the two had tied following judges’ voting. Russo’s rendition of “Come Fly with Me” clinched the victory for him.
Russo, an artist and murals painter, came to Hoboken with the goal of winning the contest, and was overjoyed when he did.
“There’s no reason to do it if you don’t come prepared to win it,” he said.
Russo had spent two weeks every summer with his grandparents in Hoboken until he was 15 years old.
“My family ate, drank, and slept Sinatra,” he said. “His was practically the only voice I heard from a Victrola (record player) for the first years of my life.”
In 1960, when just eight years old, Russo started singing with his father in night clubs. He has performed on and off since then, and wears the tuxedos of his dad, now deceased, during his engagements.
Thirteen others competed for the vaunted Sinatra Idol title, including Humphrey Uddoh of Jersey City and Joe Vozzella of Bayonne.
Mario Cruz of Guttenberg, last year’s winner, began the evening, performing “You Will be My Music” and “All the Way” and passed the trophy on to the 2014 winner.
This year’s event featured the contest’s first-ever woman entrant, Alexa Marino of the Morganville section of Marlboro. In addition to Georgia and New Jersey, the performers hailed from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Florida.
Uddoh loved Sinatra’s music from childhood, but his interest was interrupted during his college years when he lost his singing ability due to smoking. Smoke free for the last few years, Uddoh has reacquired his skill and his desire to emulate his idol.
Vozzella has been a professional singer for years, performing the tunes of Jay Black, the Duprees, and the Stylistics. Last year, he had the opportunity to sing with Larry Chance and the Earls.
Judges were “Brother Biggie,” Michael Yaccarino, owner of Biggie’s Clam Bar; Jimmy Farina, Hoboken city clerk; Bill LaRosa, director of Hudson County Cultural Affairs & Heritage Affairs/Tourism Development; and Diana London and Florence Pape, both of the Hudson Theatre Ensemble.
The main sponsor of the event was Muller Insurance.
Geri Fallo, Hoboken administrator of cultural affairs, and Gary Simpson emceed the competition.
Fallo said that next year will be the “Sinatra Centennial,” when “Ol’ Blue Eyes” would have turned 100 years old, so an even bigger observance is being planned. She asked anyone with ideas or volunteer time to contact her at (201) 420-2207.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.