Bob Serrao once appeared on American Bandstand, sang for Steve Allen and released two records. At 17, his rock and roll career as a member of the Brooklyn-bred Bay Bops was moving faster than teens at a sock hop.
As quickly as the Bay Bops burst onto the music scene -- their single, "Joanie," climbed to No. 60 on the Billboard charts in May 1958 -- the quartet broke up over philosophical differences and went separate ways. Serrao, the youngest Bop, eventually traded in his two-button suit and white loafers for a mechanic's uniform, spending 29 years maintaining New York City's fleet of garbage trucks and street sweepers.
Yet, the music never died for Serrao. On a cold Saturday night in Huntington Station recently, he was still coaxing couples onto the dance floor. Rather than thrill with his doo-wop standard from more than half a century ago, Serrao stood coolly behind his laptop and dialed up "Get Lucky," by robot duo Daft Punk.
"As long as people are tapping feet, I'm happy," said Serrao, entertaining the crowd at a Veterans of Foreign Wars Valentine's Day event.
Yes, the former Bay Bop member is now a DJ. And if you didn't catch him confidently moving in rhythm with the music from behind four 1,000-watt speakers, you might mistake the bespectacled guy with a flashy tie for the grandfather of the bride.
"I don't advertise. People look at me and they say, 'Oh, I don't want this guy,'" joked Serrao, who has two grown children and four grandkids.
But watch the Northport resident move. They call him "Happy Feet" for good reason. "We just love him," said Barbara Spadaro, 64, of East Northport, who has seen Serrao work several events through the years. "He's so great for people of our age group. He puts everything into it. It oozes out of him. He dances and knows the type of music people of our era love."
A younger man's game
At 73 years old, Serrao is lucky to have a following. The American Disc Jockey Association, the world's largest trade organization for DJs and karaoke jockeys, estimates there are more than 100,000 party music operators in the United States. That demographic skews heavily toward young men, and for good reason, according to Drax, the Arizona-based organization's president and chief executive.
"Let's face it. Most 26-year-olds don't want 'grandpa' to DJ their wedding," said Drax, himself a 57-year-old performer who goes by a monosyllabic stage name. "I don't care how good you are."
Drax said veteran DJs stay current with the latest musical trends and equipment and are often more polished, professional and flat-out better than their younger counterparts. But there's a strong bias against older entertainers, especially when the target audience is teens and young adults.
Then, there are the physical demands.
"Being a DJ is really a young man's game," Drax said. "There's a lot of equipment that comes with it. You're not schlepping records or big books of CDs anymore, but there's still substantial equipment to carry in."
Speakers can weigh 80 pounds, and steel rigs for lights take heavy lifting and a little dexterity on a ladder. Not to mention gear -- amplifiers, lighting, sound mixer, MacBook Pro, digital music -- that can be a $15,000 investment, according to Drax.
"The guy who thinks he's going to retire and become a mobile DJ -- Dude, go fishing," Drax said. "There are better things to do with your time."
However, being a DJ of a certain age isn't out of the question, Drax said. "There are great work opportunities for older DJs," he said. "There are a ton of opportunities to DJ at senior centers, giving entertainment and happiness to people who are in assisted living. They may not get up and dance, but it's a great chance to get in there and have some fun and show those folks a good time."
Serrao and others in his age bracket have found a niche, one that keeps them in demand and considers graying hair a distinguished look. In addition to senior centers and assisted living residences, church groups and organizations like the VFW cater to older crowds. Retirees-turned-DJs know how to get that demographic dancing because they are part of it.
In mid-February, the VFW Post in Hicksville swelled with excitement despite a snowstorm raging outside. As Post 3211 celebrated its 79th anniversary, DJ Gary Rehn, 66, kept the event festive.
Known professionally as Gary Richard, the Hicksville-based entertainer recently graduated from sampling CDs to a digital operation. He, too, mixes Grammy darling Daft Punk into the rotation with baby boomer favorites like Johnny Rivers.
Rehn also has another tool in his lyrical playbook. He's a first-rate crooner. And if he doesn't have a requested song in his MacBook catalog of 60,000 tunes or stacks of CDs, it's not a problem. "If I don't have it, I'll sing it," Rehn said after wooing the crowd with his version of Engelbert Humperdinck's 1976 ballad "After the Lovin'."
Like Serrao, Rehn once sang in a boy band; his was called The Chants. The Astoria native got a shot at the big time when the group performed on Ted Mack and The Original Amateur Hour at the World's Fair in June 1964.
"We didn't win," Rehn said, laughing.
After three years singing doo-wop, Rehn moved on. Vietnam, marriage, three children and a 42-year career at the New York City Transit Authority, where he rose from bus driver to instructor, then examiner. But he never let go of his passion for harmonizing.
Having grandkids helps
Over the years, he was a regular at Long Island's catering halls, from Larkfield Manor in East Northport and Leonard's in Great Neck to the Thatched Cottage in Centerport and Mattituck Manor on the East End. Rehn jumped from one band to another, performing at clubs and weddings. Eventually, members of his band, Mark V, "just didn't want to do it anymore, so we broke up and I became a DJ" in 1985, Rehn explained. "I've gone from vinyl to discs to computers. If people still want me, I'll keep doing it."
Asked how he stays current with today's music, he answers with one word: grandkids. He's got 11 of them.
Rehn said he averages 12 gigs a year and still lugs boxes of CDs to parties to make sure he has every song on hand. He usually arrives an hour before show time and needs about 45 minutes afterward to pack up. His fees -- like Serrao's -- vary, depending on the event, and he cuts quite a presence, showing off cuff links, a paisley red vest and oversized headphones.
"When Gary plays his music, he gets everybody up on the dance floor," said Hicksville VFW Cmdr. William Walden, 66, who knows Rehn well. "And that's not an easy thing to do. We have younger people who like a certain type of music, older people and those of us who came through the Vietnam era -- we like our rock and roll."
Neither Serrao nor Rehn needs to advertise because they are popular fixtures among the senior set. Serrao is a regular at the Town of Huntington Senior Center and the town's Adult Day Care program. "He really knows how to win over a crowd," said Mike Serrao, 45, the DJ's oldest son and de facto roadie since his dad's recent struggle with and recovery from pancreatic cancer.
Mike Serrao says he grew up in a home that was a party destination on weekends. His father may have given up singing, but his love of music gave rise to a second act as a professional DJ after retiring. And it has become a family affair.
"I back him up," said Serrao's wife, Janet, 66, who works for the Town of Huntington's Department of Human Services as a senior account clerk, "I get the people up dancing."
She understands that the three-hour gigs are about more than music. The gatherings represent a vital lifeline for some. "There's a man at the Adult Day Care center who says: 'I want you to come every Friday. You keep us alive,'" Janet said. When her husband entertains them, the audience "gets in there. They kiss him, they hug him."
Bob Serrao is far removed from his days harmonizing in the high school boys bathroom. The sounds, fashion and dance moves have evolved through the decades. Yet the music still moves him -- and everyone within earshot.
"I just love playing music. I love to see people dance," Serrao said. "And I love to see old people -- when I do senior centers -- singing the songs and tapping their feet. I see the joy they get from the music. That makes me happy."