Amsterdam’s St. Michael’s Church was a huge part of my life as a child and teenager. My grandparents had donated a quarter every week to help get St. Mike’s beautiful home built on Grove Street during the 1920’s. I had been baptized there and the Nuns assigned to the parish had taught me the Catechism and put the fear of the Almighty in me at a tender young age.Then in the early 1960’s, I followed the example of my two older brothers and became an Altar Boy. That’s how I met and first became friends with today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, Luis Ernesto Velez. Louie was also a St. Mike’s Altar Boy. His parents, Rogelio and Ana Velez had been one of the first Latino families to settle in Amsterdam, when they came here from Puerto Rico in 1950.
My most vivid memory of Louie back then involved another historic member of the Amsterdam Latino community, a priest who had escaped from Cuba after Fidel Castro had forced that country into communism. Father Mauro Mouriot was assigned to St. Michael’s and Louie and I were often teamed together to serve weekday morning Masses offered by Father Mouriot. Back then, the Catholic Church was still doing Masses in Latin and at certain points, priests were required to chant poetic passages in that ancient language. Well Father Mouriot had a beautiful singing voice and when he got into one of those chants it sounded as if you were at a Mark Anthony concert. Louie loved listening to that man sing (as did I). After the Mass as we were hanging up our Altar Boy gear, Louie would make me laugh by imitating Father singing those chants and it was very clear even back then that young Mr. Velez could sing.
Another thing that was very clear about Louie was his passion for music. We both were raised in Amsterdam’s West End so even outside of Church, we’d run into each other all the time and usually when we did, he would be listening to music on a portable radio or cassette tape player. He made his mark on the local music scene when he joined an Amsterdam band called Friends after graduating from Amsterdam High School. This six piece group became one of the most popular bands in the area and featured Velez as their lead vocalist. I can remember Friends packing crowds into the old Bronze Bell up next to Fulton Montgomery Community College.
His life was not without personal struggles. He went through a failed marriage that produced two children. After working just short of ten years at the GE main plant he was laid off. But all during that time he kept singing with bands and developing his voice. It was during this time that my brother Matt Cinquanti was directing the Amsterdam Follies and he asked Louie to sing a song that Sammy Davis had recorded and turned into a hit, called Candy Man. Louie told me years later that he hated the fact that he was forced to dress up like one of those turn of the century candy vendors on the Atlantic City Boardwalk but I was in the audience during one of those performances and believe me, nobody was looking at his outfit because they were enthralled by his amazing voice.
Fortunately for Louie, Amsterdam native Lorraine Luciano DiMezza entered his life. She was partners in a local talent agency called Star Seekers and after hearing Velez audition, she dedicated the rest of her life to advancing his career. Early on in the relationship, Louie had showed his new agent a video of his Candy Man performance at the Follies. It was the “Aha moment” for DiMezza. It became her mission to make Louie a Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator. That led to another important career decision, a lock stock and barrel move to Las Vegas, the world capital of celebrity tribute shows.
The move itself didn’t end the struggle. Louie got a full time job in a Vegas warehouse to support Lorraine and her daughter Lisa, while Lorraine strategized Louie’s career and made connections. They would then spend all their spare time getting Louie’s Sammy Davis act in front of the public any way they could. The breakthrough came when Lorraine had Louie dress up in a tuxedo and took him and his boombox to Ceaser’s Palace and had him perform his tribute act on the sidewalk outside the famous venue. The crowd got so large it was spilling into the busy street and Ceasar’s security was forced to break it up. But not before a publicity agent handed Lorraine a card and told her he wanted to get Louie an audition with a guy named John Stuart, who just happened to be owner and producer of a show called “Legends in Concert”, one of the most popular tribute acts in the world! Louie wowed Stuart and the rest is history.
More accurately, the rest is a book now being written by Louie, which describes his journey from one of the first Latino families in Amsterdam history to standing ovations from standing room only crowds on a Las Vegas stage. The story includes Lorraine’s passing away in 2001 and how Louie and Lorraine’s daughter, Lisa fell in love, and how Louie became a member of “the new Rat Pack” and his performances in foreign countries, and how the entertainment industry in Vegas really works, and how what happens in Vegas doesn’t really always stay in Vegas after all because Lisa and Louie have returned to Amsterdam. Happy Birthday Luis Velez! I can’t wait to read your book!
Meanwhile, take a moment to listen to Louie’s amazing voice in the clip below!