Chris Ruggiero is an up-and-coming 22-year-old singer from the East Coast who loves songs from the golden age of rock and roll, performing and recording music from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Chris and talked to him about his musical childhood, his national television debut on PBS, his relationships with a number of well-known musical friends, in addition to the release of his two new recordings, Time Was and I Am Chris Ruggiero.
We understand you were born and raised in Westchester County, NY. We know your grandfather had a musical group, Joey and the Quotations, but are any of your other family members musical?
[Laughs] No, not even in the slightest little bit!
So how did you first get interested in music?
I first got interested in music when I was in my grandpa’s car. I was 12 years old, and we were on our way to my Little League baseball game, and he was playing a Larry Chance and the Earls’ CD in his car. He was good friends with Larry because he and Larry grew up in the Bronx together and used to sing all the time on the street corners. And I heard Larry’s rendition of “On the Streets of the Bronx,” and that was it, you know? I just lit up! I went home and downloaded every song I could possibly find that had anything to do with the ’50s, the ’60s, and doo-wop. And at 12 years old, I started learning these songs as if they were mine — as if I’d grown up back then — and I don’t know if it’s a past-life kind of thing or what, but some of the songs I listened to, I already knew, even though I’d never heard them before.
As a youngster, what was it about ’50s and ’60s songs that appealed to you?
I guess it’s because the songs have nice lyrics — and lyrics which can be so meaningful — and the melodies are so strong, too. To me, the songs are timeless — you could be 20 years old or 80 years old and you can still enjoy a lot of these songs. A lot of them have been in movies and in commercials, too. I have friends, for instance, who are my age who love a lot of ’50s and ’60s music because they’ve heard it in movies and commercials — songs like “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “California Dreamin’” and many more — they’re just good songs.
Who are your favorite artists from the ’50s and ‘60s?
My favorite ’50s groups — as far as harmonies go — would be The Platters and The Flamingos; they really were the best. And as far as my favorite single singer is concerned, it’s Jerry Vale. I’m a huge Jerry Vale fan. He was just so smooth; he had an incredible voice.
We heard that, at one time, your nickname was “Cadillac Chris.” Where did that come from?
That was my nickname years ago — now, I just go by Chris Ruggiero — but it was Cadillac Chris because I love Cadillacs. Since I love old music, I also have this affinity for old cars. I’m a huge car guy.
When you were 18, you appeared on the nationally-televised PBS special, Doo Wop Generations, which was produced by T.J. Lubinski. How did you get involved in that show?
Somebody told me there was a production company looking for young singers to sing older music, and he told me to send in a video of me singing some songs, so I did. Not even two or three days later, I got a phone call from T.J. Lubinski who told me they liked my video and asked me to come down to Asbury Park, NJ.
We drove down to Asbury Park — which was about three hours from my house — and I had no idea I was going to be on TV; I mean, I didn’t even know what this was all about. We got there and we saw all the cameras, and it was just incredible to see what was happening! Then they told me the show was going to be nationally televised, and I thought that was really cool.
We understand the show was filmed over the course of two days at one of our local venues in Asbury Park. Since we’re from the Jersey Shore, we’re curious what your thoughts were about performing at the Paramount Theater?
Oh my God, what a theater! The place is so pretty — it’s a really nice theater — but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any heat! We were there in the winter and there was a foot of snow on the ground, and I remember it was zero degrees outside and it was so cold in there we were all freezing. And when people came to watch the show, they even had on hats and gloves and jackets throughout the show. [Laughs] It was really cold! So I don’t know if the heat wasn’t working or what, but there was definitely something going on.
Maybe they wanted to keep you guys cool for the TV production?
I don’t know, but everybody was shaking — it was cold!
On the show, didn’t you sing with The Duprees?
I did. I sang “You Belong to Me” with The Duprees. And I also sang two other songs with six young ladies behind me who were actually members of two different musical groups.
Were you nervous working with The Duprees?
Oh, yeah! I was a nervous wreck. That was the first time I was ever on stage with a band!
The first time you ever appeared on stage with a band you were being filmed for national television?
Yeah! And every group that day got a rehearsal, but with my luck, the only group that didn’t get a rehearsal was me with The Duprees. But I said to myself, “I know this song like the back of my hand” — I’d known it since I was 12 — and we just got up there and did our thing like we didn’t even need a rehearsal.
Since then, you’ve gone on to do lots of concerts. Can you tell us some of the artists we might know whom you’ve shared the stage with?
The Drifters. Bobby Rydell. Shirley Alston Reeves of The Shirelles. It was great working with all of them.
Very cool! We understand that, a few years ago, you appeared locally on the Let the Good Times Roll cable TV show, hosted by one of our favorite entertainers, Vito Picone of The Elegants. We interviewed him ourselves recently, but didn’t he interview you on his show?
[Laughs] He did! That was probably four or five years ago. We went out to Staten Island — me and my mom — and he interviewed me. He’s a nice guy, Vito.
And a funny guy, too, isn’t he?
Oh, he’s really funny, and so quick with the stuff he comes up with. I’ve done some live concerts with him, as well.
And didn’t you also recently perform in Las Vegas?
I did. I had two shows in Vegas. My first-ever time going to Vegas, my show sold out, which was a dream come true for me. And then I went back again about a month and a half or two months after that show, so this year, I went to Vegas a bunch.
We’re actually a bit jealous because we understand that you met some celebrity friends out there, notably Bill Medley and Bucky Heard of The Righteous Brothers. How cool are those guys?
Cool is not even the word. They are the sweetest, most down-to-earth, humble people you’ll ever meet. I even went out to dinner with Bill and my manager. We drove out to California to have dinner with him, because Bill was at my show in Vegas. He got to see me perform — which was awesome for me, just looking out and seeing Bill Medley in the audience — and Clint Holmes, who’s a great friend of ours, was there, as well. So we had dinner with Bill and we were with him, I think, for four hours, just listening to all the stories he has, and it was great.
We interviewed Bill Medley one time and asked him, “Where do you think the term ‘blue-eyed soul’ came from?” and he winked and said, “That was us!”
[Laughs] He’s the definition of “blue-eyed soul!”
You’ve said that, through your shows, you enjoy bringing people back to the ’50s and ’60s and making them feel happy. Do you ever sometimes feel you were “born too late” for the type of music you sing?
All the time. I mean, you just gave me the chills, actually! I feel like I don’t belong in this time, you know? Like I said, with the whole past-life thing, I feel like I’m not from now — I feel like I’m from the ’50s and ’60s — and it’s very strange, because I was born too late, for sure. And I would give anything to have been able to have been born back in the ’40s and ’50s and grow up with all the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s music.
Our dad was a big band leader during the ’40s, and we sometimes wish we could have been around to hear him and his band.
Oh, I love the ‘40s! I rarely talk about it — and I’ve never spoken about it before in an interview — but I’m a huge fan of ’40s music. The Andrews Sisters? The big bands? I just love that stuff!
We were there in 2019 when you performed “Oye Como Va” alongside Tito Puente, Jr. at the East Coast Music Hall of Fame ceremonies in Wildwood, NJ. How did it feel when you learned you were a 2020 East Coast Music Hall of Fame nominee?
It definitely was cool — really cool! I was humbled by it, and I’m looking forward to the next East Coast Music Hall of Fame ceremony which, I think, is going to take place next June.
When concerts were postponed for over a year, you spent time on social media, where you have thousands of followers. Did you find that to be a fulfilling experience for you and your fans?
You know, I don’t think there’s any substitute for live shows, so as far as being “fulfilling” goes, it was great seeing people on Facebook and seeing they were enjoying the videos I made. And reading the comments people post every day is something I love, as well. When I wake up in the morning, I go on the computer and I read the comments that come in and I answer every comment there.
But, that said, there’s nothing like a live concert. I think most people probably enjoy live concerts more than Facebook videos but for me it’s all about the fans. As long as the fans are happy, I’m happy. I just love connecting with people. I love singing on stage and looking out and seeing the twinkle in each audience member’s eye, you know?
And speaking of Facebook, we recently did an interview with Don Dannemann of The Cyrkle who told us about a video he did with you. Apparently, it was so popular on social media, the two of you have since recorded a Duets EP together. How did that come about?
About a year ago, we recorded “What’s Your Name.” We put it on Facebook and it got over 200,000 views so we said, “Let’s do some more.” The fans really seemed to connect with it — and it gave us a chance to connect with the fans in a more meaningful way — so we recorded several more tunes together and ended up releasing a four-song CD called Duets.
And you have two new CDs out, as well. Can you tell us about the first one, Time Was?
Time Was is for all of the people who think things were better “back then” and just love everything from the “olden days,” so to speak. It’s for the purist, you know? People who love songs like “Chances Are” and, for the most part, want to hear them exactly the way they originally sounded.
So that basically describes Time Was. I did the songs pretty close to the original recordings, and I did songs that I basically grew up with — songs like “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “Silly Love Songs.” And, actually, the cool thing about “I Only Have Eyes for You” is that my grandfather sings background vocals on it, and up until we recorded it, he hadn’t been in a recording studio in over 60 years!
We were just listening to that cut last night, and it really turned out great.
Thank you. My manager sang on it, too. My manager is a former member of The Flamingos, so could you get any better than that? He arranged all the background vocals, too, and we really tried to come as close as possible to the original sound.
Tell us more about the second CD, I Am Chris Ruggiero, which features arrangements by the great Charlie Callello. What was it like working with Charlie?
Working with Charlie was an incredible experience. It was something I never dreamed I’d be doing! We were so fortunate and happy that Charlie wanted to work with us. We had some arrangements of tunes that we did in Vegas with Clint Holmes and we brought them to Charlie and said, “What can we do with these?” and he gave them a listen and said he thought that he could, sort of, bring them to life with his own ideas, and he did.
He arranged all the music on the album, and just working with him was awesome. He would come into the studio in the morning so excited, smiling like a kid in a candy shop. We would be in the studio for 12 hours — and Charlie is 80 years old now — but he wasn’t tired at all! He left even happier at the end of the day than when he walked in in the morning. I can’t even explain it; it was the most incredible thing to see.
On I Am Chris Ruggiero, you recorded Chris Montez’s “The More I See You,” which, as we understand it, features an arrangement that was influenced by some of our favorite musicians: Bob Miranda of The Happenings, and The Vandellas, whom we also love. Can you us a little more info about that cut?
Sure. We wanted to give it a Motown/Happenings feel, so we figured who better to call than Bob Miranda of The Happenings, and he helped us out so much with the arrangement. He asked, “How do you hear it?” and we answered, “We hear it like a Happenings’ tune,” and so Bobby sent us back his ideas that he had — just playing guitar and singing on a video — and we listened to it and said, “Wow, that has a Happenings’ feel!” You know, it just sounded like something The Happenings would do.
So even though it was originally supposed to take on a bit of a Motown feel, we were totally OK with it because when we were in the studio, our piano player started playing sort of a boogie-woogie New Orleans feel on the piano — so it kind of went in that direction a little more than the Motown direction — and we didn’t stop it. We thought it sounded pretty cool so we just let him go. By the way, his name is Rick Krive, and he is the musical director for Deana Martin.
Another one of our favorite songs on the record is your rendition of The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” — a great song, with another great Charlie Callello arrangement. Was this one a bit of an emotional one for you to do?
Oh, yeah. There were a couple of songs where I was crying when I was singing them in the studio, and this was definitely one of them. Even though I’m only 22 years old and I haven’t really had that much heartbreak in life, I did have one experience that, when I was in the studio, I thought back to all the emotions and feelings I was going through when that was happening.
And when you meet the one you’ve been “waiting for forever,” there’s no words to describe it, I guess. So when I was singing the song, that’s really what I was thinking about: “How would you tell the person that they are the one you’ve been waiting for forever, and what would you do when you finally met that person?” So that’s what I was trying to get across in the song emotionally, because the lyrics suggest that to me, for sure.
The arrangement gives it that feel, as well, and the modulation gives it a great lift, too, so it all works together very nicely.
You feel like you’re floating on air!
We were happy to learn that you’re currently back to doing concerts! One show which is coming to New Jersey will be on October 1, 2021 at the Strand Theater in Lakewood, and that concert is produced by Joe Mirrione, who always puts together such great shows. You’ll be the special guest with other artists including Dennis Tufano, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Lou Christie, and The Cyrkle. Have you been looking forward to that one?
I really am looking forward to that show! Dennis Tufano is a really good guy. We had lunch with him and Chris Montez when we were in Los Angeles. Dennis is as funny as can be, and he’s got a powerhouse voice. I’m really excited to meet Gary Lewis and the Playboys — I haven’t met them yet — and I’m also excited to see Lou Christie again — I love his recordings; I grew up listening to them. And Don Dannemann and The Cyrkle, of course, are going to be there. They’re the nicest, sweetest people you’ll ever meet, and I’m also excited because I think Don and I are going to get to do a duet on stage.
Is there anything we forgot to ask you, anything you’d like to add, or anything you want to say to your current fans or to people who read this story and who might be interested in knowing a little bit more about you and your music?
Sure! I don’t only do this because I love the music, or because I love being on stage. The number one thing I love is making people happy. There’s nothing that makes me happier than hearing stories from fans after a show — and I hate to even call them “fans”; I call them “family.” After every show I do, I feel like the fans are my family, and I love when they come up and talk to me after a show and tell me their stories about things that have happened to them in their lives. For instance, they might tell me about how I took them back to their wedding day, or to their first kiss — all of those stories are so great — and that’s why I do what I do and that’s why I love it!
To learn more about Chris Ruggiero — including information about upcoming concerts in addition to info about his new CDS, Time Was and I Am Chris Ruggiero — please go to chrisruggierosings.com.
Photos by Leesa Richards and Latoya Moore