Entertainment legend Tony Ocean

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Photo by Luciano J. Bilotto

Three decades and 8,000 performances later, Tony Ocean continues to chart his own musical course, attracting legions of fans in the process.

As Tony Ocean belted out the final notes of “My Way” to a roar of applause on May 29 at the Des Plaines Theatre, he surveyed his band onstage and his wife and family in the audience and, amid a shower of roses, wiped a tear from his eye. And why not? Ocean had just finished his 8,000th performance.

There has been plenty of glitz along the way: a run in Las Vegas, a performance in Aruba, and the wildly popular “Rat Pack Is Back” shows at Jilly’s and other clubs. But all that fun and glamour has been built on a foundation of hard work: endless rehearsals, countless sound checks, driving home at 2 a.m. in subzero temperatures. But Ocean wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m so grateful that my fans would spend their hard-earned money on one of my shows, and even if some didn’t have a lot of it, still come out to see me,” Ocean says. “And I’m so lucky to be able to work with all the musicians who have played in my bands, and people like Ron Onesti, who believed in me and backed me.”

The foundation for Ocean’s long musical career was laid when his parents, Giovanni and Graziella Carrara, left Lucca, a small village in the Tuscan region of Northern Italy. They came to the United States in the summer of 1962, settling just outside of Chicago, where they had a son, Maurizio, and daughter, Tania.

“I grew up in Cicero and attended Elmwood Park High School,” Ocean says from his north suburban home. “My father was a baker who worked for Gonnella — first at the factory on Erie Street and then at the frozen food plant in Schaumburg. He worked very hard for many years. It’s from him that I gained my work ethic.”

Ocean grew up in a household that embraced its Italian heritage.

“My mom spoke only Italian,” Ocean says. “As for music, that was very Italian, too. My mother listened to Italian operas and popular music, and my uncle listened to Sinatra and Martin.”

Ocean got his first taste of fame when his high school choir performed for Pope Paul VI in Rome. But while his mom loved Verdi and Puccini, rock ’n’ roll was Ocean’s genre of choice.

“I was very much into the British Invasion, listening to everyone from The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits to The Bay City Rollers,” Ocean says. “I was also into bands like The Raspberries, Ramones and Cheap Trick. The first band I gigged with regularly was The Dream Police, a Cheap Trick cover band.”

Still going by the name Carrara, Ocean played local clubs and bars like The Thirsty Whale in River Grove. Though he was on the verge of success for years without it materializing, Ocean kept at it. As the old saying goes, “Good luck is another word for tenacity of purpose.”

“We had a record deal that fell through, and I was working at Electek in Willowbrook,” Ocean recalls.

Ocean (center) and Big Bang Rodeo

The tipping point came in 1992, when his band, Big Bang Rodeo, was voted runner-up on the TV show “Star Search.” The band lost by half a vote, and Ocean knew it was time for a change. He took the stage name Tony Ocean as an homage to Danny Ocean, Frank Sinatra’s character in “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“I began singing Dean Martin songs at a karaoke bar,” Ocean recalls. “People enjoyed it, and we started to do a little show at Café Clemenza. Nick Fortuna (best known as the bass player for The Buckinghams) liked it, and we put together a little jazz show featuring the old Martin and Sinatra songs at the Jazz Buffett in Chicago.

“We wanted to move to a bigger venue, and we were all set up at Piper’s Alley in Old Town. The show was sold, but we had no liquor license. That’s when Ron Onesti saved the day. He got the liquor license, and we started putting together what would eventually become ‘The Rat Pack Is Back.’”

The show played to sold-out houses in a variety of locations for nearly 20 years.

“It took off in 1998, and we owe much of the credit to Tony Bennett,” Ocean says. “He was the one who introduced the music to a new generation through his performances on ‘MTV Unplugged.’”

An offshoot of this musical rebirth was the opening on Rush Street of Jilly’s, which was named after Frank Sinatra’s favorite club in New York.

“It was a wonderful place, where on any given night celebrities like Tommy Lasorda, Kevin Costner, Tom Jones, Mike Ditka would show up,” Ocean says. “Out of my 8,000 shows, I can’t count the number I did at Jilly’s, but it was a lot. I’m so grateful to (owner) Stan Wozniak for bringing me in.”

Ocean’s fame began to spread nationwide, leading to appearances at the Riviera in Las Vegas, Jilly’s in New York and in Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey.

“We opened for and got to meet Don Rickles, Tony Bennett, Pat Cooper,” Ocean says. “It was one of the first Rat Pack tribute shows, and I was lucky enough to perform it for two decades.”

For his commemorative show at the Des Plaines Theatre, Ocean, a 10-piece band led by Nick Psyhogios and producer Ron Onesti put together a musical retrospective that squeezed 30 years and 8,000 shows into a three-hour extravaganza. Channeling David Clayton Thomas, Rod Stewart and John Lennon, Ocean got the ball rolling with stirring renditions of “You Make Me So Very Happy,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “Imagine.”

When Jack D’Amico took the stage and the duo launched into “That’s Life,” the audience lit up like a bonfire. A steady stream of guests followed, including the Jersey Girls, Rat Pack co-stars Elliot Wimbush and Bill Serritella, and local favorites Diva Montell and Denise Tomasello. Backup singers included Kim Peterson; Regina Karma; and Ocean’s sister, Tania.

Switching gears yet again, Ocean brought his Cheap Trick tribute band onstage. His booming voice filled the theater as he and his band performed “I Want You To Want Me,” “Dream Police” and “Surrender.” Meanwhile, the audience was dancing in the aisles, the lobby and probably the bathrooms.

The show ended with Ocean covering “Luck Be A Lady,” “New York, New York” and a rousing reprise of “My Way.” While that song signaled Sinatra’s first retirement, Ocean says he’s nowhere near ready to pack up his golf clubs and move to Palm Springs.

“I’m a long way from retirement,” Ocean says. “There’s a saying that old musicians never die; they just go from bar to bar.”

The above appears in the August 2022 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About David Witter

David Anthony Witter is a Chicago public school teacher and a freelance writer and photographer. Along with William Dal Cerro, he is the author of "Be-Bop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience." He has also written "Oldest Chicago" and "Chicago Magic, A history of Stagecraft and Spectacle." His work has appeared in Fra Noi, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Living Blues, New City, Chicago Reader, Bay Area Music Magazine, Primo, Ambassador and Italic Way. He also has entries in "The Italian-American Experience, an Encyclopedia," and "BluesSpeak, The Best of the Chicago Blues Annual."

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