You know you’ve been there: out to a place with live music where you heard a singer so awful you thought, “I could do a better job than that, heck the bartender probably sings better.”
This is exactly how Nico Giangrasso found a new life as a rock singer, and eventually as a vocalist with the Polish Nannies, a high-energy, party rock cover band.
About 20 years ago the Hamilton resident had been living in Florida and managing/tending a bar, and by the end of one especially ear-splitting night, he was singing lead for the band.
Giangrasso, now 47, says he had always loved music and developed a good ear from singing with his naturally talented, music-loving mother, but he had never been on stage. He hadn’t even imagined the possibility because he had always been too shy.
But one evening the band at the place in Florida had a singer so dreadful that Giangrasso told them so, and not shyly.
“They said, ‘I guess you think you could do better,’ and I said I thought I could,” he says. “They said, ‘well, come on up and try.’ So for the midnight show, I did. I got up on stage, picked out a song we both knew, sang my heart out, and everyone roared. A few weeks later, I got a call from the bandleader, saying, ‘Hey, we fired that guy, do you want to be our new singer?’”
Since that rock-and-roll revelation Giangrasso returned to central New Jersey, and is now the co-founder, vocalist, and spokesman for the Polish Nannies. The Hamilton-based quintet also features Dena Bonfonti on vocals, Jim Hallberg on drums, bassist Ryan Bones Hackett, and Erik (just “Erik,” a single name like Prince or Cher) on guitar and vocals.
They will be performing at the Ivy Inn on Nassau Street in Princeton on Friday, March 23, and again on Friday, April 27.
As the Doors had the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, and the Ramones had CBGB in New York, the Ivy has become the Polish Nannies’ home base, and they have been playing there for about eight months.
“The place is always mobbed,” Giangrasso says. “We’ve also been playing private parties, weddings and things, and we played outdoors at Laurita Winery last summer to a crowd of something like 9,000 people.”
“We also play Pete’s (Steakhouse Tavern) in Hamilton where we’re the hometown favorites,” he says. “I’ve known the owner, Rich Tonti, all my life, and it’s always crazy playing there — the Halloween party was insane.” (They will be at Pete’s, Saturday evening, March 24.)
Earlier that same day, the Polish Nannies will play a late St. Patrick’s day celebration outside of Bill’s Olde Tavern in Hamilton Township. (The appearance was postponed from the original March 10 date due to the winter storm with the Irish name “Quinn.”)
As of this writing Giangrasso was pleased to announce that the group will also be playing the patio outside of the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, part of the Nassau Inn in Princeton, Thursday evenings starting May 3 and regularly after that.
In addition to singing with the band, Giangrasso had been doing the booking. “All the legwork, in fact, and it was a lot of work,” he says.
The first incarnation of the Polish Nannies was just Giangrasso and guitarist Erik, whom the former found via Craigslist after he moved back to New Jersey from Florida. The two bonded immediately, musically and personally.
“It’s been a great friendship from day one,” Giangrasso says.
They were having a blast with their playlist of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Bad Company, and the like. However, Giangrasso says he looked around the room one night and saw mostly men rocking out to them and decided to change the Nannies’ sound to more pop and R&B — music folks could dance to.
Apparently, as Giangrasso explains, guys are excellent to have as fans, but venue owners might prefer women clientele. When the gals come out to hear live music, they want to dance, not bang their hard rock heads. And when they dance, they get thirsty and want liquid refreshment, which brings in more money and makes the venue owners very happy.
“The owners want those cash registers ringing,” Giangrasso says. “We still play a little bit of rock and roll, but we wanted to go in a new direction. We expanded the group, I found (new personnel) via cold calls and Craigslist, and once we got Dena as a singer, we found we could do all kinds of stuff — old school rap, disco, country music, etc. Now we’re more popular than ever. We go to every end of the spectrum, and it’s all stuff you can sing along and dance to. That’s our main goal, to get the ladies dancing.”
“We also got a booking agent, who got us in with Parx Casino” in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, he adds. “We’ll be playing there this summer, so we’re really heading in a great direction. We’re playing four to six shows a month, around here, at the Shore, in Levittown, and even up in Jersey City.”
He adds that their new agent is negotiating with the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, and the Nannies have their fingers crossed for that potential big gig.
“We’re still very new relatively speaking, but we’ve made a good dent in the scene,” Giangrasso says.
Giangrasso says he was more of an athlete than a musician, growing up in Trenton, where his father, who came to the United States from Sicily, worked as a home improvement contractor. His mother, who is Polish-American, had aspired to be a professional singer, but instead settled down to raise their family and work as a hair dresser.
His mom loved to play records and sing along to such 1970s female singers as Linda Ronstadt and Helen Reddy, and she also loved Tom Jones.
“I loved Tom Jones, too,” Giangrasso says. “My uncle was a biker, and he got me into rock and roll. Also I was about 11 when Van Halen hit it big, and their videos were all over TV, so (front man) David Lee Roth was my idol growing up. He was huge when I was a kid. I wish I had been more involved in music when I was young, but sports — mostly baseball and football — took up the majority of my time.”
Giangrasso’s other favorites include Paul Rodgers, the lead singer of Bad Company (now a solo artist), and the late Freddie Mercury, Queen’s dazzling front man.
In 1988 he graduated from Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville and later attended New England Technical School in West Palm Beach, Florida, graduating in 1999. Giangrasso also did an apprenticeship for UA Local 9 (Plumbers and Pipefitters), and has been working regularly in the HVAC field, mostly for the Hamilton Board of Education.
Giangrasso’s wife, Christine, works for Bloomberg in Princeton, and the couple has a 2-year-old son, Rocco. “He’s the best work I’ve ever done, he’s an absolute clone of me,” Giangrasso says.
Incidentally, all the other members of The Polish Nannies have day jobs, too. Singer Bonfonti works for N.J. Cure auto insurance, “just Erik” is in law enforcement, bassist Hackett is a technician for Verizon, and drummer Hallberg is a financial advisor.
The earlier version of the Polish Nannies made their first live appearance in December, 2012, at Trenton Social, on South Broad Street in Trenton, part of a birthday celebration for Christine.
“I can’t think of a better way to start out,” Giangrasso says. “I also know Trenton Social’s owner, T.C. Nelson, from Notre Dame. He’s a good guy and has done really great things for the community.”
“We had planned to do other things at Trenton Social, but we knew that we had to rehearse more, get a few sets of music together,” he continues. “So that’s what we did, and when we thought (the group) was ready, we said, let’s put it out there and see how it goes.”
As for the name “the Polish Nannies,” it’s a bit of an homage to Giangrasso’s mother’s heritage, and her old neighborhood, the Polish/Eastern European section of Trenton near Olden Avenue.
It’s kind of a private joke between Giangrasso and his guitarist friend, Erik, but the two men often drove through the neighborhood, noticing the many attractive young Polish-American women there pushing baby strollers and tending to children — thus, “the Polish Nannies.”
In the logo for the band the “N” in “Nannies” is a shapely young lady, and there is a silhouette of another young lady, dressed in a French maid’s outfit, holding a feather duster. “It’s been a little racy from the beginning,” says Giangrasso.
The Polish Nannies have been a hit with the local club scene, outdoing rival bands that have been in the business for decades.
“The other older bands have been sticking with the same thing, the same music, but we play more modern stuff, and it’s always new,” Giangrasso says, adding that rehearsals take place regularly at the guitarist’s home studio in West Windsor. “We’re always putting new sets of music together.”
“See us in two months and we’ll have 8 to 12 new songs in our (playlist),” he continues. “That’s what sets us apart — we keep it very fresh.”
The Polish Nannies, Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, Princeton, Fridays, March 23 and April 27, 9:30 p.m. 609-921-8555. www.ivyinnprinceton.com
Bill’s Olde Tavern, 2694 Nottingham Way, Hamilton Township, Saturday, March 24, 2 to 6 p.m. 609-586-0193. www.billsoldetavern.com
Pete’s Steakhouse Tavern, 535 White Horse Avenue, Hamilton Township, Saturday, March 24, 10 p.m. 609-585-8008.
Yankee Doodle Tap Room, 10 Palmer Square East, Princeton, Thursday evenings beginning May 3. 609-688-2600. www.nassauinn.com
The Polish Nannies on the web: www.Facebook.com/thepolishnannies