NEW YORK — He was the velvet voice in the hard hat, a karaoke-loving ironworker whose serenades from a subway construction site briefly became a slice-of-life sensation.
Four years after his brush with fame, the "Second Avenue Sinatra" is being sought after for a darker reason: He's been missing since he left his house shortly after midnight July 28.
Police and relatives have been searching for Gary Russo, whose construction-site stage lent a new twist to the "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" message of "New York, New York," a song he covered. But the limelight faded somewhat over the years, and although Russo has continued performing, a close friend says he recently seemed at a loss about where to concentrate the creative energy he has credited with changing his life.
"It was only when I set out to do what I loved — singing for others ... that I really found what I was looking for. Myself," Russo wrote in a 2012 self-help book he co-authored with a psychologist cousin.
Now it's Russo's family and friends who are desperate to find the 54-year-old, divorced father of two. They've plastered fliers and scoured his coastal Queens neighborhood, Howard Beach. His longtime employer, Omaha, Nebraska-based Kiewit Corp., has been spreading word among workers in hopes they can help locate the foreman, spokesman Bob Kula said. Police have checked hospitals, rooftops, rivers, subway tunnels and Russo's frequent haunts and job sites.
Russo's car was found, empty, near a stretch of reeds in Howard Beach on Monday, said Rich Belziti, a longtime friend involved in the search.
A member of Ironworkers Local 40 since 1997, Russo was helping build the future Second Avenue subway under Manhattan's Upper East Side in late July 2011 when he decided to use his lunch breaks to try something he yearned to do: sing in public.
With a karaoke machine and a hand-lettered sign inviting local residents to forget about construction noise and enjoy the music, he started crooning such tunes as "Mack the Knife" and "Sweet Caroline."
Bystanders danced. Co-workers started singing backup. And a local resident's online video of Russo singing the Sinatra hit "Summer Wind" drew media attention and more than 1 million views.
Within weeks, Russo was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America," was declared "The Best New Thing in the World Today" by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. He performed at the storied Blue Note jazz club and was asked to sing "New York, New York" at the start of the New York City Marathon.
"This was a dream realized," said friend Dan Guarino, president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance in Queens.
But Russo's job-site shows proved short-lived: He was transferred to another location after about a month and said the act didn't fit in there. The crush of calls from TV networks slowed, though Russo has continued to sing at the marathon, appears periodically in other venues and makes motivational speeches.
Lately, he's been renovating a houseboat and working on a host of creative projects, including a play about his life, says Apryl Nebozenko, a friend who performs with him.
But Russo seemed uncharacteristically down and drained at a gathering at her home July 12, saying he "didn't know how to focus his energy," she recalls. She urged him to read some inspirational books, and he seemed more upbeat when they spoke about a week later, she said.
"He really wanted to please everybody, and I think he just got burned out," she said Friday. "I, personally, think he's out there and just needs to check out for a while."
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.