When Tito Batista and his Black Rose Orchestra hit the stage, they are nattily attired in tuxedos and bow ties. It's an image reminiscent of the days when legends like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole captivated audiences.
Batista, 63, sounds like he's been crooning forever; but he has, only in the past three years, made the transition from being a song publisher and producer to finding his voice and fronting a band again. When he sang in the '70s, he was rocker; now, his voice is mellow and he slips easily into Spanish or Italian when he's performing.
But he seems proudest of the one asset only he can claim over those other crooners. "What makes me different is that my name is on the moon," jokes Batista who lives in Cold Spring Harbor. "My son won a contest at Northeastern University that entitled his family to have their name on a chip with the lunar module that landed on the moon. I always wanted to go to the moon as a kid, so my name made it."
That trip to the moon could also be seen as a metaphor for the relaunch of Batista's musical career, one that began more than 40 years ago. Though he was the lead singer for several local rock bands in the 1970s, he gave up performing in the '80s once he became a family man. Now that his children are adults, Batista has stepped back into the limelight and is lining up concerts, including a gig at Honu Kitchen & Cocktails restaurant in Huntington Feb. 9, where he plans to belt out a few tunes from his band's recent CD, "Hey Now, I Think I'm in Love."
The album revitalized the musical careers of both Batista and his songwriting friend, Paul Val, who lives in Dix Hills. "I always had that burning desire to get back on stage," Batista says. "Once my last son graduated from college, and I had the opportunity to record some of Paul's compositions, this was a calling."
Val, 76, wrote 10 of the 16 songs on the album and occasionally plays rhythm guitar with the band. Like Batista, his musical journey began when he was a teenager. He wrote his first song when he was 19 and also had a band called Paul and the Reveres (not to be confused with the rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders).
Val's band appeared on "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour" in the late 1950s. "We sang a song I wrote called 'Beatnik Beat.' The crowd really liked it, but we came in second to a baton-twirler," Val says.
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He and his band mates hounded record companies and came close to signing with a label. "The catch was that they wanted us to tour the country first to make a name for ourselves," Val says. "That's when everything went south. One guy got drafted, another was in college and I was going to get married the next year. So the band broke up." Val then took what he called "a 50-year break from music."
With his wife, Marie, he raised three children and went to work at his father's wholesale food business, which he continues to run today in Ridgewood. Though a musical career still played in his mind, it wasn't until 1999 and news of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado that he felt inspired to write another song.
"I was driving home on the Long Island Expressway. I turned the radio off and had a tape recorder next to me," he says. His thoughts on that drive home became, "There Was a Time in America." Val sent a demo tape of the song to six publishers, including Batista's Black Rose Publishing. When Batista heard it, he set up a meeting with Val, and it was the beginning of an enduring friendship as well as an artistic collaboration.
During the next decade, Batista published about six of Val's songs. About three years ago, Batista decided that the songs would never succeed unless they did an album. They approached '50s teen idol Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, about singing vocals on the songs, but due to a limited budget, they couldn't get him.
"Then a friend said, 'Tito you used to be a singer why don't you give it a shot?' So in 2012 he recorded the title track, 'Hey Now, I Think I'm in Love' and it came out so damn fantastic that we decided to go with the whole album that way," Val says.
Even Batista was surprised that he was able to still hit those high notes. "I've been blessed because my voice took a break from all those years," he says. "A lot of my friends who perform have burnt out from smoking cigarettes and performing every single evening. You get a calloused voice. I managed to sustain a certain smoothness in my vocals."
Getting their album made
Batista contacted his friend Brian Drago, who runs Broccoli Rabe Recording Studio in Fairfield, New Jersey. Not only did they get to record part of the album there, but the title song caught the attention of the Conan O'Brien Orchestra members who were at the studio. They ended up performing with Batista on the track and in the music video that can be seen on YouTube. They recorded six more tracks at the studio.
The remainder of the album, which Val says cost him and Batista somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 to make, was recorded at Nightflite Studios in Massapequa. John Pandolfo, 58, who owns the studio, is also the Black Rose Orchestra's musical director and bass guitarist.
"I've known Tito since my early 20s and we were in a lot of bands together," he says. "Anything Tito ever needs, he just has to ask me and I'll do it."
The album came out early last year, but got its biggest spike when Batista's wife, Barbara, who's also the band's manager, sent a copy of "Hey Now, I Think I'm in Love" to Paul Richards, program director of WHLI/1100 AM, which plays American standards. Richards began playing it regularly on the air.
"We were blown away, and so was the audience," Richards says. "There was something different about the song than we were used to. Not only his vocals, but the composition itself by Paul Val, who really knows how to write a song."
Batista also has the distinction of being the only performer who's ever been named WHLI's Artist of the Week three times. "He's got that very friendly, smiley gravelly voice," Richards says. "We're suckers for that around here."
Since then, Batista has also sent Richards some tracks for a "Latin project" he's working on, and Richards has also hosted some of Batista's concerts, which have included the John W. Engeman Theatre in Northport, Five Towns College Performing Arts Center in Dix Hills and Heckscher Park in Huntington.
Though Val's primary focus is songwriting, Batista has his sights on performing at prestige venues such as Lincoln Center as well as touring the country. The group has already received an offer to perform at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.
"I'm definitely not stopping here," Batista says. "Where there's music there's love, and once it's in your blood you can never get it out."
Come hear the band
Tito Batista and his Black Rose Orchestra are scheduled to perform live on Feb. 9.
WHEN | WHERE Honu Kitchen & Cocktails, 363 New York Ave., Huntington, 8 p.m.
INFO $10 cover; 631-421-6900
The band's CD, "Hey Now, I Think I'm in Love," is available on cdbaby.com for $12.97; the download is $8.99 on amazon.com and $9.99 on cdbaby.com and iTunes.