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Monday, Oct 22, 2018
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It was time for a change

HYDE PARK - Lisa Casalino was a new teacher seeking a new job at a new school when she accepted the music instructor position at Durant High in 1995. Florida sunshine was an additional perk for Casalino, whose rookie year of teaching was in her native New York. Then 23, she interviewed in a trailer at the Plant City school, still under construction. Accepting the position, she taught chorus, show choir, mixed choir, keyboards and other musical skills for eight years. She loved teaching, but yearned for more. "I spent my entire 20s teaching, and I thought maybe I could try something different. I was 31. I just wanted to make a change," she said.
However, she had no desire to veer far off course. "Music has always been part of my life and what I'm doing. I've always been part of a band — chick singer in house bands, party bands, wedding bands," she said. When she took a leave of absence from her Durant High job in 2003, she had already worked as a weekend performer at Stumps Supper Club in Channelside for several years. To help ensure financial success, she taught part-time and got a real-estate license, but focused on becoming a fulltime singer. In January of this year, that dream became reality. Her first CD will be released later this month. On a recent Friday, Casalino arrived at South Tampa's Mise en Place restaurant early to set up for her first gig of the night, a 90-minute happy hour performance. She bought a $500 Yamaha sound system when she started in the business, but has since upgraded to a Bose that plays iPod tracts. A woman in the lounge requests "Let's Fall in Love." Casalino confirms the woman wants "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," written by Cole Porter. No problem, the 1928 jazz standard is in Casalino's huge repertoire. "Most songs I know by heart, and I can learn lyrics pretty easily," Casalino said. "After signing a song once or twice, I pretty well know it." Later she sings "Break a Leg," one of the songs she co-wrote with her occasional guitar accompanist, Nate Najar of St. Petersburg. Over the years, Casalino has performed at weddings and country clubs, at parties — even a St. Petersburg cornhole tournament. She has done her share of "nursing home gigs" and also sang at International Plaza's Tiffany & Co. jewelry store, dressed as Audrey Hepburn. She has been the featured vocalist at various area sporting events, including after the July fourth Lakeland Tigers game, a minor-league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Baseball fans awaiting the post-game after-dark fireworks display provided Casalino's largest audience for an hour-long performance, which included 22 numbers. "I was prepared if I had to go longer," she said. The Holtsville, Long Island, native reached her largest live audience on Sept. 13, 2010, at Tropicana Field, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" for 40,000 fans who saw the Tampa Bay Rays defeat the New York Yankees in a pennant game. Casalino has performed weekly at Love's Artifacts Bar and Grille, 4914 S. MacDill Ave., since its early 2010 opening, said owner-operator Lynn Love. "She's my Friday girl, consistently every Friday," Love said. "There are a lot of positives to her. We love her to death." Casalino's versatility and wide vocal range find an attentive, appreciative audience at his restaurant/lounge, he said. "She brings in a great crowd. She's very good at working with the audience — she's sensitive to them, she talks to them," he said. "She's classy, she dresses the part, she looks the part." GrillSmith restaurant, Carrollwood, is another regular gig, but many of Casalino's performances are at South Tampa establishments like Timpano Italian Chophouse and The Fox restaurant and jazz club. Being in Tampa so much, she moved from Brandon to Hyde Park two years ago. Some of those venues are among the 10 sponsors of Casalino's CD release party at Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn, 6 to 9 p.m., Aug. 21. The $20 admission includes an autographed CD, a live performance by Casalino, hors d'oeuvres and door prizes. Party details, recordings and videos of Casalino's performances and a schedule of personal and TV appearances are on her website, www.lisacasalino.com. The CD of three original numbers and nine covers of popular standards was recorded in New York City in 14 hours over two days. Studio accompaniment included acclaimed jazz musicians Harry Allen (saxophone), Chuck Redd (percussion) and her co-writer/guitarist Najar, who also produced and mixed the CD. Casalino is her own manager, agent and promoter, utilizing Facebook, Myspace, YouTube and Twitter. Early on, she did one audition and subsequent jobs came through word of mouth from "good friends who recommend me, believe in me and give me an opportunity," she said. Looking back, "I didn't have a website, I didn't have a demo. I had nothing," she said. "On my CD I said thank you to Tampa for hiring me when all I had was a business card and a smile."

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