“I was so grateful I was able to make my living as a musician through the 1970s and ’80s, often performing my own material,” says veteran Trenton blues and blues-rock singer, guitarist, and pianist Frank Pinto. He performs Friday, August 23, at the new PJ’s Pancake House in Robbinsville.
One of the titans of Trenton’s former club scene — along with Ernie White, Paul Plumeri, Duke Williams, and his cousin Joe “Zook” Zuccarello — Pinto, 64, is a lifelong Trentonian, growing up on Garfield Avenue and moving to the Chambersburg section in 1973.
Living with his girlfriend, Pinto chooses to have no TV or computer, just a radio to listen to noncommercial radio and Yankee games, and time to read and write.
“I’ve been writing my own songs since I was 14,” he says.
And while he says there have been influences — Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Tom Waits, and Bruce Springsteen — there is also something essential. “The older you get, the more you find yourself as a person and as a songwriter, and you eventually find your own way.”
Looking back, the once “not particularly motivated” Notre Dame High School student recalls his early days playing out at high school dances and venues like Elks clubs and Moose lodges that would let minors in.
Then he focuses on the legendary nightclub City Gardens that opened on Calhoun Street in the early 1980s. Pinto’s various bands were among the first to play in the spacious venue, which hosted many national acts.
“I went to high school with ‘Tut,’” he says, using the nickname of City Garden owner Frank Nalbone. “He had me playing in there Thursday nights. He used to call me the Frankie Pinto Explosion. We had steady work there through that whole first year, and later I had a band called Nutz. We played there all the time.”
Like thousands of other kids who picked up on rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1960s, Pinto recalls the Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” as a major turning point.
“I was a music fan and loved the Beatles. They were the first band to get my attention, and that was the start of me being a lifelong music fan. I was 8 years old when they were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and my cousin was there and she was jumping up and down on the couch while we were watching TV.”
Asked about his earliest awareness of music in general, he says keyboards were always his main instrument, though he says he couldn’t stand it at first. He also picked up things on guitar from Joe Zook and his brother.
The song writing, he says, came from sounding out tunes he liked. “I was drawing off my lessons and picking out chords and singing whatever, John Lennon (songs), by ear, picking out songs,” he says.
He says he eventually formed a band with fellow musicians Jim Matlack — with whom he still performs today — and Joe Kramer. “We would rehearse and we never got a job, but this band I was in would play high school dances and stuff. I didn’t start playing in bars until I was 17, but at that time I was able to get in and play.”
Looking at his choices, he says, “I was a pathetic student by senior year. I was just totally into music and geared toward playing music for a living.”
In high school he discovered James Brown and began getting into African-American music, including bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, B.B. King, and Waters’ pianist Otis Spann. He also discovered the Godfather of British Blues, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist John Mayall.
“I was big on John Mayall and I played in blues-rock bands, and I also had an acoustic side, and you see that when me and Joe Zook play shows together.”
The son of a printer and a housewife, Pinto says, “I knew I wanted to play music more than anything else, so I ended up not bothering with college when I got out of high school.” That was in 1973.
But later, when he realized that he didn’t want to see himself playing (Van Morrison’s) ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in some local bar as a 70-year-old, he took a job working for Mercer County, starting as a janitor and then as a painter. He retired in 2016.
Thinking nostalgically, he says, “In those days, you could throw a stone in Trenton and there was music everywhere. There was music on every corner, it was crazy.”
Now after playing music in and around Trenton and New Hope for 50 years, Pinto is excited to be releasing his debut album, “Moonlit Visions,” a 10-song collection of his originals.
“When you hear my record, you’ll see, it definitely sounds Jersey,” he explained, “I’m a city boy, and there’s a lot of inspiration here in Trenton.”
The series of gigs Pinto has coming up this late summer and fall will amount to a series of CD release parties for “Moonlit Visions,” which he recorded at Tom Reock’s Squirrel Ranch Studios in Hamilton.
Unlike other things he has recorded over the years in the home studios of various friends, this disc is professionally mastered and was pressed at an official pressing plant in South Jersey, still something of a hub for CD and vinyl pressing and record distributors.
The album, he says, “wouldn’t have turned out as good as it is if it wasn’t for Tom Reock. He’s playing organ on a lot of things while I’m playing keyboards, and there’s a piano-organ thing happening on some tracks.”
Pinto is joined by George Greenwood on drums, Jerry Monk and Rick Pogany on bass, Joe Kramer and Jim Matlack on guitars, and Pete Tonti on vocals. Pinto plays keyboards and harmonica and sings on some of the tracks.
In short, “Moonlit Visions,” is just an introductory reflection of Pinto’s half-century of songwriting.
“The songs all worked well together on this disc. I couldn’t see this disc being put together any other way. So that means there are songs from 30 years ago,” he says, “so the next one I’m going to start recording in early October.”
Aside from his PJ’s Pancake House appearance, Pinto said a main CD release party will take place at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Bordentown in September or October. He is also playing Jon & Peter’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, September 29. Pinto’s gigs are listed on his Facebook page.
Summing up his multi-genre approach to performing, as he borrows from blues, jazz, gospel, and pioneer rock influences, “It’s kind of like Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich said: ‘There’s good music and there’s bad music.’ I can go anywhere from John Coltrane to Otis Rush to the Beatles, as long as it’s good. If music wasn’t in this world, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Frank Pinto, PJ’s Pancake House, 17 Main Street, Robbinsville. Friday, August 23, 8 p.m. No cover. 609-772-4755 or www.pancakes.com.