The lady can sing: 82-year-old Angelina Cerrito

Angelina Cerrito and Greg Abate work on an arrangement of a song she wrote.
This Wednesday afternoon Angelina Cerrito is rehearsing with the Jazz Combo in a classroom in the Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts. Adjunct Professor of music Greg Abate, on piano, is directing the five-member band.

On his cue, Cerrito gets up from her desk and places her hands on the edge of the piano. Facing Abate, she performs a smooth, sassy rendition of “My Ideal,” a standard from the Big Band swing era.

After rehearsal he asks, “How you doing, Angela?” Cerrito straightens her rounded back and nudges her eyeglasses up on her nose. “You’re smiling Greg,” she says. “And when you’re smiling, I know everything is all right.”

“There’s some technical aspects about singing that Angela is learning,” Abate said, “like timing and projecting her voice, but she’s got such energy and passion. She’s also the sweetest, most sincere person I’ve ever met.”

Cerrito, 82, is a nondegree student of jazz who has spent a lifetime singing and writing music in her solitary time. Recently, her son Joe urged her to find an arranger. Cerrito leafed through the “Directory of the American Federation of Musicians” to find the best active musicians in the state and picked Greg Abate, former Ray Charles bandsman and international jazz/recording artist, saxophonist, flautist, arranger, composer and RIC adjunct professor. Though Abate tours around the globe about 150 days out of the year, Cerrito took a chance and sent him a few of her songs to review.

“I figured Mr. Abate would either be on tour and not reply or he’d write me back and tell me to go back to school and learn something, then come and see him. Instead, he wrote me and told me he liked all my music and to keep writing.”

In the spring of 2009 Cerrito enrolled in Abate’s Jazz Theory course. This fall she is a soloist in his Jazz Combo workshop. Abate is even arranging some of her original songs.

“For a musician of Greg’s caliber to take the time for an unknown like me is a dream come true,” Cerrito said. “Greg practices with me now and writes the leads and chords for my songs. I may not become famous or well known, but it’s good to know that some of my music will be here when I’m gone.”

Angelina Cerrito, age 19
Cerrito was born in 1927, growing up during the Depression era. Her first-generation Italian father and second-generation Italian mother settled in Coventry. Angelina (Italian for little angel) was their only child and she was singing as soon as she could talk.

“I knew I had to learn every song I ever heard,” Cerrito said. “I knew some day, somebody was going to ask me to sing those songs.”

Cerrito attended grammar school in a four-room schoolhouse. She was teased mercilessly by the boys, which made her painfully shy. But every Friday afternoon was music day. She remembered her teacher would say, "Angelina are you going to get up and sing a song for us today?"

"When I stood in front of the classroom and closed my eyes, it took all the shyness away," Cerrito said. "I sang to the fifth- and sixth-grade class. I sang my heart out.”

Though she considered making a career of singing, her family feared it. “It’s a hard life touring on the road,” Cerrito said. “You have to give up your life. You have to give up your family. Family, to a little Italian girl, is everything.”

At 19 Cerrito married a boy from the neighborhood who had just come back from active duty in WWII. Cerrito also had three uncles and a cousin who had enlisted. The impact of the war on her family inspired Cerrito’s first attempt at writing songs. She was given a poetry assignment in high school and set her poem “Miss Liberty” to music. Thereafter, original songs (lyrics and melody) in the jazz style of the 40s and 50s would enter Cerrito’s head seemingly out of nowhere. She’d write the songs on single clef music composition paper and neatly file the songs away. Over the decades, Cerrito’s stack of compositions grew three inches high.
Cerrito sings her 1993 compostion“Brooklyn in the 30s”

Cerrito became an LPN and in 1964, with three adopted children in tow, she sat down and recorded a few vocals on a reel tape recorder: “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” and “(How Much is That) Doggy in the Window.” Then she slid the tape inside an envelope addressed to UNITED ARTISTS RECORDS.

Cerrito’s pure intonations, influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn, caught the attention of the United Artists (UA) executives who contacted her and asked her to come to New York.

“They offered me a singing contract with bookings in New York,” Cerrito said. “But I knew I didn’t have the kind of husband who would follow me on tour. And we had three children. The youngest one was only two.”

Cerrito turned down his offer. But opportunity knocked again.

Before driving back to Rhode Island, Cerrito and her husband stopped to catch the “Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour.” The show featured talented singers hoping to make it big in the music industry. Those who passed the initial screening were invited to compete on the show. Performances were judged by television viewers who voted by letters and phone calls, similar to the present day “American Idol.”

Now the Cerritos stood in a long line of people slowly entering the theater. Inside was a long corridor. Chairs ran the full length. Cerrito and her husband seated themselves and waited.

Cerrito, September 2009
After a while Cerrito was tapped on the shoulder. “Go in that door,” the man said. Inside, a pianist sat at a baby grand, and four men sat at a table with pad and pencils in hand.

One of the men asked her, “So, what do you do?” That’s when Cerrito realized she had gone through the wrong door. This was an audition for the “Amateur Hour.” Never one to turn down a request to sing, Cerrito told him she was a singer.

She had no sheet music nor did she know what key she sang in, but she asked the panel of judges if she could perform “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey.” Then she closed her eyes and sang. Toward the end of the number, she opened her eyes and saw the men tapping their pencils in time.

According to Cerrito, one judge said to the other, “We don’t have room, but we’re making room for her. You’re going to be on the next show.”

She returned to the waiting area and told her husband that she was going to be on the next Amateur Hour. Her husband discouraged it, she said, and they headed back home to Rhode Island.

Decades passed. Cerrito continued to sing and write songs as she went about her daily tasks. She advanced from an LPN to an RN. She became a grandmother. Her father died. She cared for her mother until her death. Finally she retired after 53 years of nursing. In 2006, at 79 years old, she entered one of her original songs, “Lord, Please Lead Me,” in the Gospel/Christian category of the International Songwriting Competition in Nashville.

The song was also submitted to Lamon Records, where she was signed as a songwriter. In 2008 the song won third place in the Composers Guild Annual International Composition Contest. But in 2009 she asked to be released from her contract with Lamon because she was unable to travel to Nashville and work on recordings.

Cerrito was beginning to doubt herself. She recalled how in 1983 when Governor Thompson of Chicago sponsored a songwriting competition to honor Chicago’s history, she did her research and submitted “Birth of Chicago.” The governor replied with a personal letter in praise of the song’s “quality,” “dignity” and “originality.” The submission, however, didn’t make it to the finals because it lacked an arrangement for orchestra. Cerrito had never learned to arrange music.

Cerrito realized she needed to learn more. She enrolled at CCRI with the intent to take a music arrangement course, but first, she had to take elementary music courses before she could advance. She completed four courses before leaving CCRI, unable to afford private piano lessons. From there, she enrolled at RIC.

Now, every Wednesday afternoon, Cerrito meets with Abate independently to work on her arrangements, then she attends his jazz workshop where the five-member band practices songs from her heyday: standards from the Great American Songbook, the Big-Band swing era (the 40s) and hard bop (the 50s). Cerrito is the only vocalist in the combo. With the band, she is rehearsing “My Ideal” and “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do.”

Cerrito lovingly calls the Jazz Combo “my family.”

Hear Angelina Cerrito sing:
“Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”