He may only be 17, but already, Charles Laurita is making waves on the Garden State club scene, owing to his innovative mind for creating unique arrangements of classic cover songs. Laurita is in his senior year at Nottingham High School in Hamilton. He credits studio owner and guitar teacher Ernie White with his success.

On Tuesday, December 23, Laurita will perform with his blues-rock trio in a benefit for local charities as part of Ernie White’s annual holiday extravaganza at KatManDu in Trenton. Proceeds from the concert benefit the Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund and HomeFront.

In September at Jam for Life, a concert to benefit an organization that promotes organ donation, also at KatManDu, Laurita blew this reporter and the crowd away with his trio. Aside from playing familiar material from Cream and other British blues-rock exponents, Laurita and his trio threw in rocked-up cover versions of classic songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurhythmics.

“Ernie White has been my teacher since day one, and he’s opened me up to a lot of different styles of music,” Laurita says in an interview from the Hamilton home he shares with his parents, Charles and Teresa. “He helped me to expand my possibilities.” He says that at Jam for Life he purposely “wanted to do a whole bunch of different artists who had nothing to do with one another and I wanted to go way outside the box.

“I like to take songs that the crowd will recognize and change the genres and make them into more of a rock-styled song, so with ‘Sweet Dreams,’ we turned that into a hard rock song and with ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ we turned it into a funk song,” he continues. “When I cover a song, I like to put my own touch on it. I just like to be creative, and when I do a tune, I want to own it for a few minutes, so I’ll put a different vibe on it, something you wouldn’t expect. It’s like the ‘telephone game,’ people will change the story a little bit in passing it on to other people. Only I like to revamp the story completely.”

Laurita is quick to also credit blues and rock guitarists like Paul Plumeri and Joe Zook with helping to shape his style, adding that his parents took him to see these two local legends shortly after he began taking guitar lessons from White.

He says both Plumeri and Zook “have helped me through the years with little tips and advice, so I always like to observe their shows and pick up little things that they do.

“My parents don’t play any instruments but they’ve always listened to a lot of good music,” he says. His father was a part-time party DJ for years, and both his parents’ musical tastes have been a huge influence on him.

Laurita divides his time between his college prep-oriented studies at Nottingham High School, practicing guitar and continuing his lessons from White, and performing both as a solo act and with a trio. In recent months, Laurita has frequented It’s A Grind coffee house in Plainsboro, CheeBurger-CheeBurger on Route 1 near Quakerbridge Mall, and the Brewed Attitude coffee house on Route 33 in Hamilton. He hopes to attend Mercer County College, where he can study concert production and stage, sound, and lighting vocations.

Laurita says one of the musical high points from his relatively short performing career so far with his original trio, consisting of himself and two high school classmates, was the pleasure of playing at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park three times. So maybe that’s three high points. “They had these ‘Super Tuesday’ nights, and it was all amateur bands, one after another. We played in those last year and in 2006,” he adds.

Laurita says has has worked with White to get over his initial stage fright, not an unusual affliction in musicians his age. “I would go to see Ernie’s band play a lot, and he’d have me sit in with him, so that got me used to playing in front of people. I used to be really nervous in front of people.

‘Now, most of the coffee house gigs I play tend to be positive, and the people like what they hear, so that makes me happy,” he says. Sometimes after a show with his new trio — which will include veterans Rich Lucherini on bass and his uncle, Chuck Bailey, on drums at the December 23 show — people will come up to him and offer some well-meaning advice. “They’ll say things like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ should not be played as a funk song.”

“Writing songs is a lot tougher than I thought it would be, so it’s not a walk in the park for me,” he says. His influences include everyone from Black Sabbath to the blues-rock super groups of the 1960s, bands like Cream, Blind Faith, and the Yardbirds.

“When I started to learn certain things on guitar, Ernie would always recommend songs on certain records,” Laurita says, “but he would also ask me to bring in songs that I liked on records. He would break them down for me and teach me the chord progressions.

“I’ve been taking guitar lessons for a long time. Now I’m able to teach myself, but in teaching other people, you go way back to point zero and relearn some things that you had forgotten about,” he continues, referring to his students at the Music Box.

Aside from performing at coffeehouses a few times each month, and teaching at the Music Box in Quakerbridge Plaza, Laurita is also working on an album, recording in a variety of studios and working on writing original songs. He hopes to release it in 2009. “I want people to appreciate it more than anything. So when they hear songs, they’ll understand you don’t always have to play the song exactly as it was written. Being creative is good. I want people to think in terms of expanding the possibilities in what they see and what they hear.”

As for the December 23 show at KatManDu Laurita says: “Since it’s a Christmas show, we’ll at least be doing a funky, bluesy version of ‘Jingle Bells.’”

Ernie White’s Christmas Extravaganza, KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Route 29, Trenton. Tuesday, December 23, 7 p.m. Ernie White and Friends, including 17-year-old Charles Laurita and his trio, Tom Reock, Joe Zook, Paul Plumeri, John Bushnell, Duke Williams, Honey Spot Boulevard, Sandy Zio, Lisa Bouchelle, and others. $25 donation. Proceeds benefit the Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund and HomeFront. 609-393-7300 or www.katmandutrenton.com.

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