Jerry Tempesta started singing on the street corners of South Philadelphia when he was 14, and 60 years later, he’s still sharing great music, although the venues are nicer and the audiences are bigger.
In between, though, were more than two decades when he lost the singing in his heart.
That gap followed a two-year stint in the military, and the day he’ll never forget: April 2, 1970, in Vietnam. “I should have been dead that day,” he told the Rev. Dr. Paul McCullough in his “Serving Our Nation” podcast. “God helped me to live.”
While fighting that day, he saved his platoon leader’s life and took out an enemy position with a hand grenade. He was shot in the head, and the cost to him included a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress syndrome, hearing loss, tinnitus, memory issues and vertigo.
“Tempesta received two Purple Hearts after being wounded in the Battle of Renegade Woods,” VFW magazine wrote in 2022. “Several of his surviving platoon mates believe he should be awarded the Medal of Honor.”
He said effort on that medal is progressing, thanks to many caring and patriotic individuals.
Tempesta has packed a lot into his life, including being a member of three a cappella doo-wop groups; succeeding in a career at the Philadelphia Naval Yard; instilling Italian culture to his family; and serving in the military for his country, following his father and uncle in such service.
“I’ve been very fortunate to live and be raised in this part of the country, in a city with the heritage and the mixture of Italian people, Irish people, Blacks and multiculturals, and having friends from all walks of life,” he said.
He has lived most of his life in the close-knit neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, where on weekends “you could smell the gravy for blocks.” His grandparents came from Naples and San Donato, in Lazio, part of a wave of “hard-working immigrants moving to America for a better life,” he said. “They were among the builders of our country.” He and his wife – Carol, once the personal assistant to music legend Jerry Blavat – live in her childhood South Philadelphia home.
As a teenager, he was inspired to emulate the songs that he heard on the radio. In 1965, he, his brother Anthony and friends Joe Porpora and Sammy Cabobianco formed the Emeralds, with Tempesta – who never had formal voice training but does play the guitar – as first tenor.
In 1969, he was drafted. He was a changed man when his tour of duty ended in 1971, and he calls that “losing the singing in my heart.” Citing his PTSD, “over the next 20 years, I mostly kept to myself and didn’t make too many new friends. I stayed away from people. I was disengaged and distant.”
Tempesta worked for 30 years at the navy yard, His lifelong insistence on giving his all led to him co-inventing a machine that would dry newly cleaned respirators in an hour, rather than the days the old technique entailed. “We set up an assembly line,” he recalled. “It was unheard of in government.”
One day in 1995, just after he retired, Porpora knocked on his mother’s door, inviting Tempesta to make beautiful harmonies again. The Emeralds returned, this time with Scott Finlaysen, Jim Di Placido and bass Tony Basile (who was replaced by Ritchie Grasso in 1998).
They continued to sing “the songs that people grew up with,” this time as a quintet (“five average guys that want to sing good,” he described them in the 2005 documentary “Harmonizing”), with appearances in “Jukebox Dreams,” a touring show created by Tony Orlando, and “Dukes,” a 2007 comedy-drama about singers who wanted to steal gold.
Health problems caused the end to the Emeralds, so he moved over to Frankie & the Fashions, which had formed in 1963. When lead Frankie Lafaro died in 2022, Tempesta then moved to Remember Then, which is based in South Philadelphia and Piscataway, N.J. “They’re all doo-wop groups,” he said, “but they have different styles, and you have to adapt.”
With music so important for so long, Tempesta was given the tough question of placing one song above the rest. “I would say ‘The Impossible Dream,’ by David Ruffin and The Temptations. I just think that my life’s been a dream. I started out life in South Philly, went to Catholic school for 12 years and graduated from Bishop Neumann High School in 1966. That made me disciplined for the military. At the navy yard, I instituted pride in what we did. I tried to make the people under work their best, and I do the same thing with singing. I put everything into singing.”