Before boom boxes and lavish car stereos, there were guys on both sides of the Hudson River sporting slicked-back hair and dark pants and T-shirts, singing harmonies.
On street corners from Hoboken to Manhattan, they imitated the vocal-based rhythm and blues music of ’50s/’60s groups such as Dion and the Belmonts and the Duprees.
Secaucus resident Joe Griffo, 63, was one of those guys.
“Back in those days, a lot of guys sang on the street corners,” Griffo said last week. “We had a group called The Citations, but after a while we all had to get jobs, so we couldn’t really pursue it.”
The Citations did open for the Duprees and other acts, but circumstances forced the men to go their separate ways. Yet, 40 years later, Griffo still brings the simple immediacy of a happy tune and a good story to an admiring public. For the past 18 years, Griffo has been driving Secaucus seniors around town for the Department of Social Services in order to go shopping, to events, or on out-of-town trips. Instead of tight pants and hair grease, Griffo uses a gentle touch and a good word to keep his audience happy.
A really good guy
Kroll Heights resident Lana Pasquale, 80, has been living in Secaucus for the last 33 years. Pasquale knew Joe in Hoboken where they both grew up.
“He’s a really good guy – I love him. He’s just aces with me,” said Pasquale. “Joe has a lot of patience and always makes me laugh. Sometimes he sings some of the old songs”
Secaucus Senior Center social worker Rose Marie Mansfield has been working with local seniors for the last 25 years. She is from the same era Griffo is, and so is social worker Mary Ann Formisano. Both women said Griffo makes coming to work very pleasant.
“Joe’s a happy go lucky guy. He always tells jokes and sings songs from that time,” said Formisano. “He never has a real serious moment. He comes in singing and dancing – that’s the way I remember myself as a teenager.” Mansfield said that dealing with seniors can be very challenging. She said Griffo handles all the events of the day with grace and good humor.
“He has a heart of gold if he likes you,” said Mansfield. “If one of the seniors needs help, he’ll come and help them. One woman who died a while back left him money in her will. She adored him like a son.”
Griffo and his buddies, Joe “Biggie” Yaccarino, Johnny “Bacala” Pietropaulo, Jerry Caputo and Pete Altilio (Secaucus Housing Authority Deputy Director Mike Altilio’s brother) formed their Doo Wop group, the Citations, in the late 1950s when they were teenagers. He said they sang in the style of Dion and the Belmonts and for four years played as a warm-up group for bands popular at the time, like The Tempos, Isley Brothers, Duprees, and Bobby Rydell.
“We played at places like Palisades Park and the Community Center in Hoboken. We were very popular with the locals,” said Griffo. “Once when we played with Anthony and the Imperials, and they got mad because we got more applause.”
The Citations cut only one record for 20th Century Fox, singing a song they wrote called “Jenny the Girl Next Store” and the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song “Stormy Weather.”
The recording did not take off, and the group eventually went their separate ways.
“Joe [Yaccarino] went into the service, Pete [Altilio] got in a bad car accident, and the rest of us had to get jobs. I went to into the trucking industry. Back in those days, you did what your father did.” Griffo met his wife, Jo-Ann, at the Community Center, and they were married when he was 23. They moved to Secaucus 26 years ago and have lived there happily ever after.
Griffo sometimes sings with his friend Gerard Esposito, who performs on Saturday nights at La Reggia Restaurant on Wood Street. Griffo said sometimes, they do Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis acts. “Even though I didn’t become famous like I wanted, I still love life and people,” Griffo said. “I have millions of friends.”