Her name was Jeannette and in the eyes of young Julius LaRosa, she was just about the prettiest girl in Grover Cleveland High School.
She could also sing and was heading for the All-City Chorus.
“I tried out for All-City Chorus so that I could be with Jeannette,” LaRosa recalls from his home in Westchester, New York. “I started singing in school. My friend Joey San Giorgio was in the senior chorus and used to get a lot of days off for special occasions. I tried out for All-City Chorus so I could be with Jeannette.”
Growing up in Ridgewood, the product of P.S. 123 was a big Frank Sinatra fan, but he never figured that he himself would one day become one the country’s most beloved crooners of all time.
This week, LaRosa, 78, will be featured among a cavalcade of other celebrated Italian-American singers in PBS’ “That’s Amore: Italian-American Favorites.”
LaRosa first scored gold in 1953 with “Eh Cumpari” which hit number one on the Cash Box chart and number two on the Billboard chart and he has never stopped singing it.
Other LaRosa favorites still in demand today include “Domani,” “My Lady Loves to Dance” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
LaRosa describes his childhood running around the streets of Bushwick and DeKalb avenues in the 30s and 40s as “normal and spectacular.”
“It was the prototypical Italian-American family,” LaRosa says. “You had all your buddies with you. We used to take the train to Coney Island just to get a hot dog.”
It didn’t take long for the wider world outside of Brooklyn to recognize LaRosa’s vocal talents. After Grover Cleveland High School, LaRosa immediately joined the United States Navy where his popularity among his shipmates convinced Arthur Godfrey to feature LaRosa on his television show.
Other early television show appearances included Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” variety show.
LaRosa even landed his own television show for 13 episodes in 1955. This year, LaRosa was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.”
“It’s a great feeling of Pride,” LaRosa said of being included with other great artists featured in “That’s Amore: Italian-American Favorites” – artists like Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Louis Prima.
For LaRosa, however, ‘ol Blue Eyes and his singular talent for interpreting lyrics and relating them to personal experiences, still reign supreme.
“Sinatra was a very intelligent man,” LaRosa explains. “He was a huge reader. He recognized that the lyrics of Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein and Sammy Cahn – these people were poets. They ended up calling it ‘phrasing.’”
Today, LaRosa’s extended family has moved far away from Brooklyn and he hasn’t been back to his boyhood home for a long time, but he still loves to connect with his concert audiences.
“I sometimes upset various lighting technicians because I want the house lights on when I perform,” LaRosa says. “That’s because I want to make eye contact. If I make eye contact with one person, I’ve made contact with everybody in the room.”
Celebrated for his rendition of traditional standards like “Three Coins in the Fountain,” LaRosa says that traditional singers like him are the “luckiest people in the world.”
“We have the greatest writers in the world,” LaRosa declares, and isn’t particularly interested in discovering any new musical horizons.
“I’ve done everything I’ve ever dreamed of doing,” LaRosa says. “What most enchants me today is my grandson. He’s going to be 11.”
Things never worked out with Jeannette – and that’s probably all for the best since LaRosa has been married to Rosemary – the love of his life – for 52 years.
“I don’t have a favorite song,” LaRosa says. “Songs have their own history. But I do have a favorite line. It’s from ‘My Funny Valentine.’
You make me smile with my heart.
“I always thought of that as very profound,” LaRosa says. “Making you smile is where your life starts.”
That’s Amore: Italian-American Favorites premieres September5 6 at 7:30 p.m. on Thirteen/WNET with The Sopranos star Vincent Pastore live in the studio and September 8 at 9 p.m. on WLIW21 with Julius LaRosa live in the studio.