PROVIDENCE – Call Tony Cerbo the very definition of enigma.
As a painfully shy teen, he abhorred being in the limelight and wasn't attracted to music, especially singing.
Nowadays, he revels in belting out tunes made famous by Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble before sizable crowds at restaurants, clubs, weddings and receptions throughout southeastern New England.
In fact, back on Dec. 15, this self-described “self-made crooner” starred in his fourth annual “Home for Christmas Dinner Show” at the B. Pinelli's Restaurant ballroom in East Providence, and claimed he had “a blast” doing it.
“That was my E.P. debut, and I was very excited about it,” Cerbo, 33, grinned Wednesday night as he relaxed in his office, located on Baker Street near Allens Avenue. “It was a new city for me, at a brand new restaurant, and I knew Buble was what they wanted to hear. He's got a huge following, and I think that's what has made me more popular over the past four years.
“Michael's music style is like Sinatra's, with a modern, 21st Century twist,” he added.
Cerbo promised more of the same when he entertains at Uncle Ronnie's Red Tavern, located at 2692 Victory Hwy. in Nasonville at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 21.
Actually, it's a rather amusing story how Cerbo became a “regular” there, more so than other venues.
“The owners are Ronnie and Paula Dumas, and Paula e-mailed me back in February of 2010,” he explained. “She wrote, 'We heard about you, and we'd like to book you.' I was really surprised. I mean, the tavern was in Burrillville, and I was thinking, 'Why would they want a lounge lizard, a city slicker, like me?' I didn't think I'd go over real big way up there.
“I figured they'd be more into country music, rock 'n roll,” he continued. “No offense to Burrillville, but that's what I thought. I told Paula I didn't have any openings until November (2010), and she said, 'That's fine. You're booked.' I figured it would be a one-shot deal, but she e-mailed me about two weeks before the show, which was Nov. 6.
“She wrote something like, 'Is it OK if you came earlier in the afternoon to set up? We're sold out; we have a full house,' and I was pleasantly shocked. It went amazingly well. It wasn't a lounge act but a show, and I could just let loose, be myself.
“That was the kind of show I always wanted to do, but – most of the time – I can't. Usually, I'm just an act, providing background music for people eating dinner. At special places like Uncle Ronnie's, I can perform to my fullest. I can have fun and just be Tony. Honestly, it's like magic in there. I love it because I feel loved there.”
Now Cerbo entertains there once a month, and even has those dinner shows planned through next August. All one needs is a dinner reservation.
As he sat in his cushy chair looking out over the Providence skyline, Cerbo described his unusual ascent from being a musical nobody to the house entertainer at the renowned Capital Grille.
“I graduated from Johnston High in 1997, then went to New England Tech to study video-radio technology,” he offered. “I never sang in junior high or high school, and never took voice lessons, as 99 percent of those in this business do.
“I had no interest in music whatsoever; I didn't even go to high school dances because I just didn't care. Like I said, I was incredibly shy. It wasn't my style. My brother, Paul, is a musician, and he plays in more than a few bands, has his own original music. But he's into heavy metal, and that definitely isn't me.
“I went to a Billy Joel concert at the 'the 'Dunk' when I was 21; that was in March 1999. I went with my best friend, Jordan Randall,” he continued. “When he came out and sang 'Piano Man' and 'Only the Good Die Young,' I just thought, 'Man, that's what I want to do!' I just loved his music, but, of course, that's easier said than done.”
In 1999, he met local crooner Ronnie Rose, a man Cerbo called “legendary” as he often was hired to perform at weddings, receptions and other galas around New England.
“I was in Luca Music in North Providence; Ronnie walked in and announced to everyone, 'Hey, anybody need a job?' I just looked at him and said, 'Yeah, I do,'” he offered. “I didn't know him from Adam, so I spoke up. He told me who he was and what he did; he explained he needed an assistant to help him set up and break down his equipment after gigs.
“Ronnie was the house band at Quidnessett Country Club in North Kingstown, and they gave him free reign to enter the building '24/7,'” he added. “For instance, if he was playing another club on a Friday night, he'd tell me he had a reception the following day at Quidnessett and needed me to set up.
“He'd drop off the equipment at around 1-2 a.m., and I'd be there. After setting up, I'd spend two or three hours in the ballroom just singing away. There was no music, just me. I used to get home at, like, 5:30-6 in the morning, and my parents (Paul and Francine) would say, 'Where the hell were you?' I just said, 'Singing at Quidnessett, driving the security crazy.' They just shook their heads.”
Cerbo claimed he'd do that whenever the chance arose.
He graduated from New England Tech in 2001, but – oddly enough – never worked in his field of expertise. He became a retail manager at a Cumberland Farms convenience store in Coventry.
Each night upon reaching home (naturally, his parents), he'd walk directly to his basement bedroom and practice more, belting out tunes from Joel, Sinatra, etc.
When asked if he thought the “workouts” at Quidnessett and his cellar helped him, he responded, “I thought it did. Most of all, I knew I was young and I'd have to pay my dues, but I was also having fun. I'd be sitting in my room at 1-2 a.m., just singing.
“To this day, I don't even know what I am (in terms of vocal range) – alto, soprano, whatever – I don't have a clue. I'm just a lounge singer. I told you before, I can't read music, never could.”
He didn't reveal his secret to Rose during the three years he worked for him.
“I used to watch him, and I felt like I was working behind the scenes for a local man doing the best he could to make it,” he said. “I learned from Ronnie the 'ins-and-outs' of the music business, and from Billy Joel the passion. I initially didn't tell him I wanted to be singer like him; I don't think I was sure yet.
“I mean, this isn't something you just pop in to – 'I want to be a singer, so I will be.' I'm an entertainer, but it takes years of learning the trade, how to build a reputation.
“One example is working with brides and grooms; that can be a really nerve-wracking experience,” Cerbo added with a mischievous grin. “Six months to a year before, they own you. They'll call you to change songs on their list. You have to deal with them very delicately.”
In the fall of 2007, he e-mailed Rose, explaining his plans to begin a singing career. He asked his former boss, who at that time had moved to Las Vegas to work at clubs, for some advice. Two days later, Rose returned a note asking Cerbo to call him.
“I did, and he told me he was driving to accept some kind of award,” he mentioned. “He also told me he wished me the best of luck, and that the business was 'very difficult, so just keep singing. Don't let anybody get you down.'”
On June 21, 2008, he earned his first gig at a Charlestown clam shack; the employer told him he would be working for tips only. He performed mostly Buble tunes, and said the response went “pretty well.
“I remember making about $100 in, like, three hours,” he stated. “At the time, I was working full-time as a pharmacy manager in Johnston. I realized then how wet behind the ears I was, in terms of my style and technique. There was no seasoning. My parents were there and they told me I did well. I knew I could sing, but I didn't have the control, the patience, I have now.
“I went home that night and sang in the basement. There were times my parents would say, 'Are you out of your mind?' I was, like, 'What do I have to lose?' In Charlestown, I was petrified. I had never got up before an audience, not even in an elementary school play. I soon discovered that, when you're a showman, you want to be loud and entertain people, but that's not always true.
“I've come to realize there's a time and place to be loud, and there are other instances when you must be reserved. Say I'm playing at a restaurant. I can't be loud because people are eating and talking, so I'm basically just the background music. In the beginning, that's difficult for an entertainer to learn.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2009, and Cerbo claimed he was dumbfounded when Capital Grille General Manager Christopher Phillips told him he had landed a weekly gig.
“They asked me to sing every Friday night; I wasn't scared as much I was very humbled,” he noted. “I knew that was a huge account. I mean, there are people who travel here from all over the country, and they want to eat there. I was honored.
“I had filled in for another artist who played there, and Chris told me they wanted to go another route, and that route was me,” he added. “He said he liked my personality and the way I do business. Now I'm the house entertainer there, so whenever a client approaches management, they recommend me first. That's a fantastic feeling.”
When asked how the money is, he gushed, “Great. I'm making a living doing this, but not a stupendous living … You know, I'm feeling a little more respected now. It's always going to be a struggle to gain respect from both the audience and the business. Don't forget, I've only been doing this four years, and I'm making a living at it, but it's not easy.”
Cerbo admitted winters can be slow; that's why he currently is looking to add to his list of gigs, which now include Capital Grille (every Friday at 7 p.m.); Ritrovo's (Saturday, Feb. 4) and Richard's Pub (Feb 11) in East Greenwich; and Uncle Ronnie's (Feb. 18, March 24, April 21, etc.).
“I'm looking for new venues in which to entertain,” he said. “I'll go anywhere from Pawtucket to Smithfield, East Providence to Woonsocket. Singers in this business 30-40 years have told me, 'You have to pay your dues.' I feel like I've paid them through and through, but I don't mind continuing to pay.
“I love this. I'm still shy, definitely, but when that microphone is in my hand, I'm a totally different person. I know I'm there to entertain. I don't feel nervous beforehand.”
Then he laughed, “That's what a scotch is for. No, seriously, when I'm in a club or at a concert, I'm still very reserved. I'm not huge on crowds. Put me in front of an audience, and I'm changed. I don't know why. I just know this is what I'm meant to do.”
For those interested in seeing Cerbo at Uncle Ronnie's, limited reservations are still available by calling (401) 568-6243.