At age 8, James Mattaliano learned to play the drums. By age 15, he started performing at nightclubs with his father. And by age 19, he and his brother formed a singing duo, performing on their own in restaurants, nightclubs, VFW halls, anywhere that would have them. The Forest Park resident spent 31 years of his life crooning for crowds. But a devastating car accident abruptly halted his career.
Now after three spinal surgeries, Mattaliano, 61, is looking to get back in the game, recording songs and posting them to YouTube, under the channel named “James Mattaliano.” His videos have been viewed by thousands of listeners, with one tribute to legendary crooner Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live” garnering 122,000 views. Mattaliano has posted covers of songs by Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Perry Como, even venturing into music from the recent remake of the film A Star Is Born.
“I miss singing very much and that’s why I still put these YouTube videos on,” Mattaliano said. “I’ve always liked to adapt to different types of music; I never wanted to get set into one style of music. During my course of singing, I really mixed it up. I did a lot of different types of music — you know rhythm and blues, old pop and newer pop, and country, a lot of Broadway-type things as well.”
Growing up in the south Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, Mattaliano’s musical career seemed set at birth. His father was a popular singer, who also played clarinet, alto sax and tenor sax, his mother an opera singer who played guitar. Their sons were competitive.
“I have an older brother who was a pretty decent singer and he used to like to say, ‘Oh boy, I’m so good and you’re so young, and you’re not that good yet.’ I wanted to see if I could raise the bar a little bit,” Mattaliano recalled. “I grew up in a very rough neighborhood; education was limited, not the easiest for me. In between studies, my father groomed me very early to be a professional.”
When he wasn’t at school, Mattaliano practiced drums, attending his father’s shows at nightclubs, where he watched in awe his father’s skill at entertaining guests. By the time he was 15, his father — who went by the stage name “Jimmy Vincent” — decided his young son was good enough to start performing with him. From then on, he spent his nights banging on the drums in his father’s shows across the Chicago area. Mattaliano said he enjoyed playing drums but, for him, singing was his passion. He used the experience performing to develop his singing voice.
“My father used to tell me, ‘If you can connect with the people, you’ve got it made, you can make a living at this,” he said.
Two years later, Mattaliano decided to give that a try and him and his brother John formed the Vincent Brothers band. He took up his father’s stage name “Jimmy Vincent” — “Vincent” is his middle name, after all — and started touring around the area, performing at The Drake hotel, Mid-Continental Plaza, the Merchandise Mart and more. For a few months, he went down to Las Vegas and performed in the lounge at Caesar’s Palace. But it was there he realized he was a family man and wanted to settle down.
Mattaliano got married at age 20 and returned to Chicago, where he and his brother performed together for the next 13 years. Mattaliano remembers one Saturday night in the 1980s — both he and John were in their late 20s — and the two were scheduled for a performance at a club named the Old Barn in Burbank. They arrived, set up their show in the restaurant’s lounge and found themselves surrounded by well-dressed guests and movie stars.
“I’d say to my brother, ‘Look at this. Everybody came out to see us; they came out because we’re here. Do you know how special that is?’ It wasn’t an ego trip or anything, it was just a deep appreciation like, ‘My God, they shower and dress and go through all this because we’re performing,” he recalled.
Eventually, John decided to pursue a songwriting career in Tennessee. And after a decade of performing full time, Mattaliano decided to find a more stable career and took a job as a painting contractor, spending the next 31 years slapping paint on the sides of houses. But on weekends — and it was every weekend — he still continued to play at local clubs. He recorded four albums along the way.
“As long as I was working, I was happy and, like my father told me when I was young, connecting with people. That was everything to me,” he said.
But the years of painting took a toll on his back. At age 52, Mattaliano was also involved in an automobile accident, with a car sideswiping his vehicle on the passenger’s side. Doctors guessed that the impact of the crash herniated his disks. He spent the last decade in chronic pain.
“I couldn’t perform anymore after that, I just couldn’t. The pain was so intense I could hardly stand it,” he said.
“I don’t mean to make this sound like a country-western song, but that’s when I had just gotten divorced and, you know how it goes, I lost everything in the divorce. I mean everything. I was living in a little apartment on the North Side. I can assure you there are probably 10 million musicians who will tell you they’ve really struggled. Well I was really struggling after that divorce. But even with that, I still loved singing.”
After nine months of rest, Mattaliano got up from his first back surgery and was able to get into a regular routine. He started going to karaoke bars, just to keep his voice in shape. For three years, he headlined an annual Christmas show on the south side of Chicago. He has performed impromptu shows at the Forest Park Public Library. As he aged, Mattaliano discovered his voice growing deeper, more resonant, a little richer with emotion.
A couple of months ago, he was watching legendary singer Diva Montell perform at a nearby club, when she recognized him. Back in the day, Mattaliano used to rub elbows with her father, Freddie Montell, who had encouraged him when he was just 14 and still learning to sing. Diva pulled him onstage.
“We sang a song together and it was a lot of fun. Her eyes kind of popped out because she hadn’t heard me before,” he said. “When I got off [stage], the owner actually came up to me and said, ‘We’d like to hire you like right now.’ But see, the thing is, I can’t lift equipment anymore.”
About a year ago, Mattaliano underwent spinal fusion surgery, finally securing the disks in his back together. At that time, the neurosurgeon told him that lifting anything more than 20 pounds was off limits.
Now he is looking for someone to accompany him to shows and set up equipment.
“No matter how good you are, you’re not an island. You can’t do it alone. Everybody needs help, so I’m currently looking for that help from someone,” he said. “I feel with everything I’ve been through, I have at least another good 15 or 17 years in me, where I could get out there and still do it.”