Nicky DeMatteo's mother tells the story of her son's hospitalization at the age of 2 ½. He was in St. Agnes Hospital with double pneumonia and pleurisy and the nuns, taking visitors past Nicky's ward, would often say, "He's singing to the other children." Mother and son agree that this could very well have been where Nicky's future career had its roots. Nicky was born in his parents' home in South Philadelphia.
Both his mother and father, a native of Italy and a farmer (who died in 1976), had been widowed and each brought children from their former marriages: his father 6, his mother 2. During the summer months, the entire DeMatteo family would go to Pedricktown, near Penn's Grove, NJ, to pick tomatoes and asparagus. Nicky would have to obtain special permission to leave school early for these yearly labors. "We were sort of like the Oakies in Grapes of Wrath." he says. By the age of 6, it was known in his household that Nicky possessed what would be called a "sweet, angelic voice."
One day, during classes in the second grade at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, his sister appeared to spirit him home, where a solicitor of child talent was waiting. Nicky feels that, if it hadn't been for the initial backing of his sisters, Sarah and Dolly, he might never have had a chance to start a singing career, since his mother, in the beginning, was not favorably disposed toward the idea. But his sister Dolly supplied the $10.00 down payment and Nicky began singing lessons with Marie Whartenby at the Dale Dance Studios in Philadelphia.
Within a year, Nicky was entertaining at USO shows, "piling into a bus" as he puts it, with a group of other children, to entertain at Fort Dix and nearby military bases. At the same time, he was singing at weddings and funerals. He had a repertoire of two songs for these occasions: "Mother at Your Feet is Kneeling" which had a verse for funerals and another for weddings; and "Ave Maria." He also sang with glee clubs in the schools he attended and, until the age of 13, he possessed a high soprano voice, which changed within a period of months to a rich baritone. He sounded, people said, like a man twice his age. In 1951 at the age of nine, he auditioned for the Horn and Hardart Children's Hour in Philadelphia. He won and went on as a regular with the show for 5 years. Through all this, he says, his family was behind him all the way, urging him on, with his sister, Sarah, doing most of the chaperoning.
In 1956 an audition was arranged by a friend for the Arthur Godfrey Show. Despite the fact that he was only 15, and that the legal age for minors to appear professionally was 16, Nicky was advised to go ahead and put himself a year forward. He did and gained a place, for a short time, with Godfrey and his friends, attracting a good deal of attention on the way. He recalls that Jeanette Davis gave him such pointers as, "Always make sure you bow to Mr. Godfrey first, then to your audience." Once, Nicky made the mistake of calling his host Arthur, and was firmly reminded to say Mr. Godfrey in the future. Eventually, however, it came through the grapevine that Nicky was not, in fact, 16, and he was dropped from the show. "You can imagine how I felt," he says, "here I was hobnobbing with the Andrews Sisters, Pat Boone .. ." Following this, Nicky finished his secondary education, beginning with South Philadelphia High School, which he attended for one semester, going on to Professional Children's' School in New York, and winding up at Lincoln Prep School in Philly where he graduated at the age of 16.
At this point, he began recording, and singing in area clubs. Nicky's many records over the years were given major local airplay, thanks primarily to WIBG powerhouse DJ Bill Wright, Sr., who admired and befriended Nicky (they remain friends to this day). In 1959, the record, "Suddenly," made it into the top 100 in the USA. Because of "Suddenly" Nicky was booked on a Midwest rock 'n roll tour in the Spring of 1960 (this was the exact same tour which, a year earlier, resulted in that fateful plane crash which took the lives of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens). At this point in his career, uncertain about his future, Nicky approached Merrill Brockway, former producer/director of the Children's Hour TV show. Brockway suggested college and recommended LaSalle. Nicky entered the freshman class in 1961 and managed to stretch his course work over a period of 5 years, in order to work and study at the same time, while keeping his grade point average a very respectable 3.4. He earned a B.A. in English.
In 1964, while working in Atlantic City, Nicky met Julie, the girl who was to become his future wife, through a mutual friend. At the time Julie had graduated from Slippery Rock State College and was working as a waitress in the summer and teaching school in the winter. They were married in 1967. It was several years after his marriage that Nicky began to accompany himself on the piano. In the summer of 1970 he was working at Pal Joey's in Atlantic City and a booking mix-up had left the singer without a band. Not too eager to sing without accompaniment and desirous of keeping his job, Nicky went back to the piano after an absence of 10 years.
He worked at it and developed his own arrangements. At first, however, he was skeptical. "To me," he says, "a piano player-singer was a guy about 50, who never made it, kind of out of it, with a cigarette here, a glass with money in it here and somebody saying, 'Hey, play Melancholy Baby!'" But Nicky's voice and style has put him far above that kind of image, and the irony of it is that Nicky is now regarded as the best singer-piano man in the area. Nicky has worked steadily in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area as a singer/piano man since 1970. Currently semi-retired, he works Wednesday nights at Ventura's Restaurant in Voorhees, NJ, and teaches piano on Thursdays. Nicky and his wife have 2 grown sons, Nick (40) and David (37). Nick is married to an attorney (Peggy) and is a singer, songwriter, actor and musician. They have 3 children and live in Manhattan. David is also married to an attorney (Christina) and is an assistant professor of psychology at Drexel University and also holds a law degree from Villanova. They have 2 children. Nicky and Julie happily spend as much time as they can with their children and grandchildren.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo and bio originally donated by Nicky DeMatteo
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