“How many of you out there are Spanish?” shouts the beaming, curly-haired singer in the fancy embroidered jacket.
Only a few in the packed house raise their hands.
“That’s OK,” says the singer to the upturned faces. “By the end of the night, you’ll all be.” And pretty soon he’s handing out maracas and insisting everyone join in the show.
The singer is Cerrito, and he’s creating a whole new throng of country music fans by singing and recording classic country lyrics in alternating English and Spanish. His latest album, They Know You’re Gone,
released September 2007.
While American country audiences are just getting to know Cerrito, his voice is already familiar to fans in Mexico and Honduras and throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan. Country stars are also among his most enthusiastic supporters. He has recorded with two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Janie Fricke and Hank Williams’ daughter, Jett Williams. And he’s jammed backstage and at parties with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Charley Pride and Ricky Van Shelton.
William Thomas Cerrito is an Italian-American who fell in love early with Spanish culture and language. “I grew up in Rhode Island in a multilingual family,” he says. “My whole family played country music. My grandmother would sing ‘Your Cheating Heart’ in Italian. I’m one of six children, and all of us sang.”
Cerrito says it’s a misconception that New England’s soil was too rocky for country music—or that only Scotch Irish people grew up singing country. “When the immigrants from Italy came to the United States, they didn’t all settle in New York,” he points out. “A lot of them went to the Kentucky coal mines. That ‘s how the mandolin was introduced into bluegrass music. And there are lots of theaters in New England where you can hear country music, especially in the summer. I remember going to see Mickey Gilley and Crystal Gayle.”
It was his extended family, though, that gave Cerrito his country credentials. “My mother and grandmother listened to Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. For my older sisters, it was artists like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. My generation went for singers like Vince Gill and T. G. Sheppard. But I always came back to traditional country because that’s what I grew up listening to—people like Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves.”
In his early 20s, Cerrito decided it was time to take his act on the road. He sang in Las Vegas and then moved to San Antonio, where he learned Spanish and began mixing bilingual country lyrics into his repertoire. The crowds loved it. During one of Cerrito’s Vegas engagements in Vegas, Charo, the flamenco guitar-playing, “cuchi cuchi” bombshell, heard him and hired him to be one of her background singers.
“Cerrito is super-talented,” says Charo, “and a real artist. “When he performed at my restaurant in Hawaii, the people were going crazy every night. I’m looking forward to working with him again.” Cerrito toured with Charo for two—from Atlantic City to Los Angeles—and worked the showroom of her restaurant for seven nights a week for 16 months. It became a favorite haunt for such notables as Alice Cooper, Madonna and Sean Penn.
After Charo became pregnant and temporarily left the road, Cerrito concluded it was time to take his music to Nashville. There he signed with an independent label and quickly charted two singles in Billboard. Unfortunately, he arrived just as country music was taking a direction different from the one he wanted to travel. “The ‘90s on Music Row was an era of huge money,” he explains. “That’s when labels were spending a million dollars to break an act. Since I was pitching country in English and Spanish, I found that kind of deal was out of my reach. The labels were like, “We’ve tried it. We’ve done it. And we don’t want to hear it.”
Fortunately, there were musical icons urging Cerrito to continue his quest, among them Dottie West and Lacy J. Dalton. Jim Halsey, then the powerful manager of the Oak Ridge Boys and Roy Clark, was another vocal supporter.
Cerrito’s vision and persistence have paid off. Now the flagship artist for Checo Records, his English/Spanish singles are charting all over the world. His recording of Hank Williams’ “Mansion On The Hill” with Hank’s daughter Jett charted domestically in Music Row, New Music Weekly and Inside Country magazines; and this and other singles have made the charts in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Great Britain.
Cerrito is so deft in involving his audiences that his shows feel more like festivals than regular concerts. The Country Music Assn. is making a major push to reach America’s Spanish-speaking population and sees in Cerrito a natural ambassador for the cause. He was featured at the 2007 CMA Music Fest on the popular Family Zone stage.
“Blending English and Spanish in my music is instinctive for me,” says Cerrito. “In San Antonio, I sang country music with mariachi players, and the audiences would go wild. I’ve worked all the border towns in Texas—Laredo, El Paso, Eagle Rock. I’ve played Bandera, which is the honkiest honky tonk of all. Hey, wouldn’t that make a great country song?
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