We spotted Joe Piscopo trolling the rainy streets of downtown Red Bank earlier this week.
Hunched over the wheel of an enormous black vehicle with a license plate that proclaims his essential Jerseyness, Piscopo appeared lost. His darting, googly eyes, and slow speed, were dead giveaways.
Um, concert? That right. Joe Piscopo, the former Saturday Night Live comedian who killed with his broad aping of Frank Sinatra, is a legit singer now, an entertainer. And he’s doing his ‘Sinatra’s Birthday Bash’ on the 92nd anniversary of the late singer’s birth in the town of Basie’s birth. He’ll be backed by the 17-piece Red Bank Jazz Orchestra, led by Piscopo’s longtime music advisor, Red Bank’s own Joe ‘Mooch’ Muccioli.
A father of four who lives in Hunterdon County, Piscopo is going through his second divorce and “closing in on my third,” he says. “I’m looking for the future ex-Mrs. Piscopo.” He took time out from the hunt, and from show rehearsals, to talk to redbankgreen about his lifelong love of Sinatra.
redbankgreen: When you were growing up, what did you think of Sinatra?
JP: That’s an interesting question, because as a child growing up in Bloomfield, when I was 8 or 9 years old, my father used to take me to Yankee Stadium. And when the Sinatra music came on, I had trouble deciphering Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and everybody else. But in a very short time, my father taught me who Frank Sinatra was, and after that his voice for some reason or another always stood out, and I had an affinity for it.
But then I got caught up in the rock and roll thing and was just a huge Hendrix fan. So there was like this dichotomy like every other kid, I played the Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix, but I was also into Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. I think every Italian kid in Jersey was like that. You’d be like, “Whoa, listen to this Cream!” But then, back home, there’d be a Frank Sinatra special on TV the Old Man, as we affectionately called him. There must have been a state law that every kid in Jersey had to watch it. I remember sitting around the TV watching him sing “Send in the Clowns” and thinking, “Wow, he’s so theatrical.” He told a story in his songs, and it left such an indelible impression on me.
But it wasn’t until Saturday Night Live that I really entrenched myself in Frank Sinatra.
redbankgreen: Do you remember the first time you did him as a parody?
JP: Yeah, I did him at the Improvisation in New York. I did a Sinatra-esque character with the hat and the coat. I did “The Lady is a Tramp,” but I never ended the song I kept singing, “That’s why the lady… that’s why the lady…” I did it like 30 times to drive the audience nuts.
redbankgreen: Did it go over?
JP: Yeah, it went over immediately. Then I did it as part of my audition tape for Saturday Night Live. Then, on the show, they said, “You’ve gotta do him.” But I said, “I ain’t gonna do him.”
redbankgreen: Why not?
JP: Because I didn’t want to offend him. He was a hero to me. So I didn’t do him, and this went on for a month or two, until I was given the edict, “Shut up and do ‘im.” So I was a good soldier. But I made sure I wrote the piece myself. I wrote Mr. Sinatra a letter. I said, “This is done out of respect.”
redbankgreen: You did this in advance of the skit?
JP: Yeah. I guarded the… to this day, as we go into the Basie Theatre with this great show we do, it’s with great respect to the Sinatra family to Frank Jr., to Tina, to Nancy and always to Mr. S. He sent cease-and-desist letters to 50 or 60 people, but he never sent me one. He always appreciated it.
redbankgreen: Did you ever hear directly from him?
JP: Yeah. You’d be asked to show up at a show or something. A limo would pick you up, first class all the way, and you’d go to like a press conference for the Chivas Regal Diamond Jubilee Tour. That’s the way you got you approval “The old man wants you to show up someplace.”
I remember walking in at 1 Times Square and getting a briefing from the press person for what it was. I had no idea what it was about. And there was Jill St. John, and Robert Wagner and Shirley MacLaine, all there for the Old Man, and he wasn’t there. But that was how he showed his approval. It was only later that he’d invite me to the Friar’s Club or whatever, shake my hand. But I was never in the inner circle.
redbankgreen: So what was that like for you, meeting him?
JP: It was like meeting Joe DiMaggio, who I also had the pleasure of meeting. It was like meeting my heroes.
redbankgreen: So how did you go from parodying Sinatra on SNL to doing this heartfelt tribute to him?
JP: A lot of practice. I’ve had great musical mentors, like Joe Muccioli, Vincent Falcone, Artie Schroeck. These are great musicians, and when I started this, they said, “Joe, you can do this.” I didn’t know.
redbankgreen: Well, that’s the mechanics of it. But how do you shift gears from ribbing Sinatra comedically to honoring him this way?
JP: You know what? I went in full-bore, streaight ahead. Didn’t even think about it. But the trick is not to take it too seriously.
We’re very true to the music. But you can never imitate Frank Sinatra. You can emulate Frank Sinatra. You can’t do the Old Man. No one can do the Old Man.
So you go on stage thinking, “We’re going to have fun with this, but don’t think for a second that we’re not going to be true to this great music.” Which was genius music to me that’s inarguable. So we went in, laid out the music, and it’s just full-on, balls-out Sinatra on steroids. And I’ve never done steroids just for the record.
redbankgreen: When you first did the show, were you concerned that people would say this it was just another Sinatra skit?
JP: Exactly. But half the show is comedy. I’ll do bits, and a lot of it is music-based bits. So I give the audience what that want in that regard. A lot of it is stuff people will know. I’ll do a Letterman impression, I’ll do Tony Soprano, I’ll do Rodney Dangerfield. We’ll throw it all in. But the base of the show, the anchor for the show, is the Frank Sinatra music, with the authentic arrangements. What I do now is a full entertainment show. It looks improvisational, but it’s very well rehearsed.
redbankgreen: I understand you play the drums, piano, the flute…
JP: Yeah, the flute. Jethro Tull. It all goes back to the rock ‘n roll.
redbankgreen: Do you play it on one leg?
JP: No, I don’t play it one one leg. People say, ‘How do you do it all?’ A lot of practice. My life is one long friggin’ rehearsal.
redbankgreen: How did you come to be working with the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra?
JP: Through Mooch. One of the joys of my life was being in the Hague don’t ask me why and hearing a bunch of people yell, “MOOOOCH!” It was worth the price of admission. Joe Muccioli, from Red Bank, New Jersey! We were in freaking Holland!
Joe Muccioli, Vincent Falcone, these guys are my mentors, and they’re serious jazz artists. I hooked up with Joe around ’99, when I hit Resorts. We did it as a sextet. Now, you’ll get the full 17-piece orchestra.
redbankgreen: So after all these years of admiring him and impersonating him for laughs, you’ve sort of stepped into Frank Sinatra’s clothing, haven’t you?
JP: Yeah, but you know what? The promoters don’t like me saying this, but for the Frank Sinatra experience, you’ve got to see Junior. Frank Jr.’s totally into his own now. But if you want to see some comedy from Saturday Night Live, you want to have some fun, you want to hear a different retrospective of the greatest entertainer of all time, I will channel him on Dec. 12.