Anyone venturing to impersonate the legendary Conway Twitty, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, he would need a nearly flawless act.
Enter Joe Amato, the longtime Sussex County resident who expertly channeled Twitty for his “Legends in Concert” tribute. He would take to the stage belting out hits like “Only Make Believe, “Slow Hand,” “Tight-Fitting Jeans,” and Twitty’s signature piece, “Hello Darlin’.”
“Then the fun begins as Amato puts on the beard, mustache and cowboy hat to begin playing his rockin’ guitar on stage in the different personality of Hank Williams Jr., the rowdy, rough, rocking country singer,” said a Laughlin, Nevada, newspaper from that time. “The audience loves the songs and joins in the fun. When they introduce the acts after the show, the people can’t believe Joe impersonated both artists in the show.”
This is the story of the late, great Joseph Anthony Amato Jr. Locally he was known for playing DJ at a car cruise in the McDonald’s parking lot on Route 206 and for his radio personality on the local airwaves.
Vincent DePeppo of Lafayette met Amato in the ‘70s, when he saw him perform striking renditions of Frank Sinatra songs at the Playboy Club. Over the years, the two bonded over their love of music and cars. Then, about five years ago, Amato and his wife, Barbara, moved to South Carolina.
“I was helping to run our car cruise and thought of asking a few trivia questions to our car enthusiasts relating to the ‘50s and ‘60s,” DePeppo said. “I asked a question pertaining to our friend Joe Amato, asking who he sang with years ago. The answer to the question was: The Del-Satins, Joey Dee and the Starliters, and Dion (DiMucci). Little did I know that these questions would open up the proverbial Pandora’s Box.”
Many people started asking DePeppo, “What ever happened to Joe Amato?” He had to find out.
DePeppo’s search led him to Surfside Beach, South Carolina, and to Barbara Amato, who delivered the sad news that Amato had passed away, at age 71, in 2017.
DePeppo and Barbara want folks to know Amato’s full story.
’Rock and Roll Lives On’
Amato was born in Manhattan and then moved to the Bronx. He had quite the musical career, beginning with singing in his church choir, at age ten. In 1978 he moved to Andover and on Friday and Saturday nights started doing his routines at the old Feher’s Country Inn on Route 206. The owner, Jack Fry, eventually moved to the Lafayette House in Lafayette Village.
Amato was also a radio personality for 12 years on WIXL and WNNJ AM/FM. His weekly specialty shows included “Sunday with Sinatra” and the doo-wop show “Rock and Roll Lives On.”
“I heard him on the radio and was particularly impressed when he did an ad for the only dry cleaners (Naetone Deluxe Cleaners & Tailors in Newton) at the time that also rented tuxedos,” Barbara Amato said. “In a voice identical to Frank Sinatra’s, he sang something like, ‘Start spreading the news, you’ve got to go to Naetone.’ He was very talented.”
A short time later, Barbara and a friend caught Amato’s act at the Lafayette House. That was in 1990.
The Amatos began dating and were married in 1996 on Frank Sinatra’s birthday, Dec. 12.
“Joe had wanted to expand his impersonations, so he sent his tapes to ‘Legends in Concert,’” Barbara said. “They called him down for an interview, and he started the next night doing his Conway Twitty tribute impersonation about a year after Conway died.”
That was 1994. Amato went on to perform with “Legends in Concert” around the country.
“Joe was also a guitar player and wanted to expand his act,” Barbara said. “One night we were watching Monday night football, and it came to him that if he got a fake beard, he could impersonate Frank Williams Jr.”
It was through touring with “Legends” that Amato first saw the Grand Strand, a place that became near and dear to his heart.
He also appeared in the Oscar-winning movie “Leaving Las Vegas” and was for a couple of years was a member of The Four Aces singing group.
Barbara had a full-time job in information technology. She worked for many years at Selective Insurance in Branchville. She changed things up at the end of her career by working for Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice.
“If I had a few days off, I’d fly out to meet Joe wherever he was performing,” she said.
In 2007 the Jersey bluesman released a solo CD titled “The Blues Are Here to Stay,” which is still available at Amazon.com.
Wednesday night cruisin’
The Wednesday night car cruises started at a little ice cream shop in Newton, Barbara Amato said.
“The guys who owned cars would meet, but they outgrew the space,” she said. “Joe had recently done a radio promo at the Newton McDonald’s and had met the owner. They worked it out that the cruise would move to the lot next to McDonald’s (where Lakeland Bank now stands) on Friday nights.”
On the first night at the new venue, members of the Drifters Car Club and the Wanderers Car Club came out to the tune of 100 cars. Word quickly spread, and soon there were several hundred cars each week.
“The cruise moved out to the Chatterbox, in Augusta, and finally back to where it is now in front of Friendly’s,” Barbara said.
Enamored with the Myrtle Beach area, where Joe had performed, the Amatos bought a house in the area in 2014. They moved from Sussex County to Surfside Beach in 2015.
“All of the traveling took a toll on Joe,” Barbara said.
Joe Amato died at The Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston, with his wife by his side.
Sussex County locals saw “The Dean of Doo-Wop” spin records at car cruises, red McDonald’s baseball cap atop his head. They heard Amato on the airwaves. They were regaled by his performances around the area. But few in Sussex County knew about his illustrious career as a singer, songwriter, and professional impersonator.
Here’s to Joe Amato. May he keep on jammin’ with Frank, Conway, and Hank in heaven.
“Then the fun begins as Amato puts on the beard, mustache and cowboy hat to begin playing his rockin’ guitar on stage in the different personality of Hank Williams Jr., the rowdy, rough, rocking country singer. The audience loves the songs and joins in the fun. When they introduce the acts after the show, the people can’t believe Joe impersonated both artists in the show.” Laughlin, Nevada, newspaper