The Local Music Scene

Meet Dean Petrella: From child pianist to successful adult rocker

Local musician sings, plays multiple instruments and leads The Complaints

By Michael Khouri
Posted 2/14/24

I recently had the opportunity for a sit down with Rhode Island singer/songwriter/guitarist Dean Petrella to chat about his nearly three-decade-long career in the local and national music scenes. The …

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The Local Music Scene

Meet Dean Petrella: From child pianist to successful adult rocker

Local musician sings, plays multiple instruments and leads The Complaints


I recently had the opportunity for a sit down with Rhode Island singer/songwriter/guitarist Dean Petrella to chat about his nearly three-decade-long career in the local and national music scenes. The first thing that struck me was his appearance. At 50, Petrella (a devoted, 20-year second-degree black belt student of Taekwondo), does not look his age.

He arrived at our agreed location sporting a leather jacket, mod haircut and hipster eye glasses. Petrella’s aura projects that of an unruly, dangerous rocker. It’s a veneer that serves him and so many other musicians well, but his personality is contrary to that visual impression. In fact, I found him to be a soft-spoken, charming, humble gentleman. He approached me with a warm smile, an extended handshake and a sincere “so good to see you.”

Over coffee, he spoke nostalgically about his family upbringing, the ‘business’ of music, and the best advice he has ever received. His drive seems indefatigable, while his optimism displays no bounds. Even on hard subjects, he was able to find the lessons and the blessings within them. Intelligent and genuine, he was a pleasure to chat with.

“I was born and raised in Rhode Island and spent my whole life here,” said Petrella. “I like to consider myself a family guy. I had great parents. I’m the youngest of five siblings, and we all still live here. And even though my musical travels take me away quite a bit, I’m really a homebody. I’m still a Rhode Island boy and always will be.”

It started on the piano

When did you begin to get interested in music, I asked?

“We had a piano in the house, and by the time I was 5 or so, I was fiddling around with it. I started to take some lessons on and off around 8 or 9 years old,” said Petrella. “I had a good ear for music, which is sometimes a detriment. When you can hear something and play it pretty easily, it can undermine the discipline you need to read and learn about music, so it’s a positive but also a negative. My sister played the piano and sang, and my brother is a guitar player. He’s about eight or nine years older. So, I always had music around me. My mom was always going about the house singing.”

I asked about his dad, who was in the business of entertainment and somewhat of a local legend.

“My mom and dad moved here in the early ’50s from Italy. My dad was a self-starting entrepreneur,” said Petrella. “He and a friend of his had a little record store up on Federal Hill, then he owned a movie theater in Johnston where he would show Italian films. He was also involved in promotions, where he would bring in and showcase singers and artists from Italy. They would perform in the movie theater during, and he also would book them in other venues as well. He ultimately landed a job as a disc jockey. He had his own Italian radio program on WRIB out of East Providence at the time. His name was Rolando Petrella, and the name of the radio show was ‘The Voice of Italy’. He did the show for over 30 years before he passed away.”

I wondered if his dad had inspired him to become a working musician.

“The music bug I got, I think, from everyone in the house. Everyone singing and playing around me. My dad inspired me in a different way. I got the entrepreneurial spirit and public relations savvy from him,” said Petrella. “He wrote and produced his own radio shows. He worked with his own advertisers, selling ads and collecting the money, did his own books and really built his own little franchise.

“When I was in my early twenties and gigging and booking my band, he got sick, so I ended up helping him do some of the advertising and collecting and those types of business chores,” he continued. “At the time I don’t think I understood that I was getting an education about the business side of music, but in hindsight I see that I learned from him public relations, building strong connections with people, and how to view and treat the business, vendors, customers and the public in general. All the keys to self-promotion and self-sufficiency. So, I think I got all that from my dad, which are the tools you need to run a band and a musical career. It’s a huge part of it.”

From Kiss to a career

When did you know you were destined to be a working musician?

“I remember a distinct moment in my musical life. My brother was in the eighth grade. He was about 13 or so and I was 6 or 7 at the time,” recalled Petrella. “My mom took me to see him play at a school assembly. He got up there with his band and started to play like a half an hour of Kiss music. It hit me hard. I was so impressed and a bit jealous as a kid, because I wanted to be up there, but I wasn’t sure why. It was kind of like my Beatles moment, you know, like ‘wow maybe I can do this.’ The energy, the crowd, the volume and the reaction of a live audience defined, and set in motion, my path for the future.

Petrella said being the youngest in the house was an asset because of a plethora of musical influences that were readily available to him. One of his sisters was into early Springsteen and Neil Young. His oldest brother was listening to Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. His brother who was closest to him in age was a Kiss and Van Halen fan, while his other sister was into disco and R&B.

“I credit my sister Rita with the best advice ever. I was jamming in the basement with friends that were my age, and it was great. I’m a teenager, about 15 or 16,” said Petrella. “One day I’m in the basement playing the piano and the doorbell rings. It was my neighbors that heard my piano playing. They were in their mid 20’s and had a band. They wanted me to play with them, but I thought it would be more fun to play with friends my age. Rita sat me down and said, ‘It’s like playing tennis. If you play with someone who’s as good as you or not quite as good, you’re never going to get better, but if you play with someone who’s better, with more experience, then you’ll grow.

 “I asked my mom and she said OK, but asked what else does it entail besides playing in their garage? Well, I said we have to go to colleges and frat parties, and my mother wasn’t going to have that. Not at my age. So, I kept jamming with both bands, and a couple years later I’m starting to drive and by the time I’m 18 I’m playing clubs and college frat parties with the older guys — very exciting for a kid my age.”

College and club gigs

The band Petrella joined was called Jasbow Fender. In addition to colleges and fraternity parties, some of their first gigs were in Bristol at The Bristol Clubhouse and The Topside. They also performed at the Bristol Fourth of July Parade on more than one occasion. Gigs in Somerset and Fall River at some smaller clubs were common as well. Petrella says it was a good introduction into being in a working band. Because the band was not built around him, it wasn’t ‘heavy pressure’. He was just an ‘addition’. But as time went on, he developed a proclivity for leading and began to think about being a front man.

“As an initiation in the band, I had to learn 30 or 40 songs and learn all the harmonies. I did my homework and became a full-fledged member,” said Petrella. “I’m onstage playing keyboard, and I noticed the singer running around the bandstand and the guitar player moving all throughout, and here I am sitting stationary at the piano. I didn’t like it. I had started to dabble in guitar, but now I’m really into playing and practicing it intently. I wanted to play some guitar at the gigs, and they allowed it. They were good guys. I played more and more, and pretty soon I was competing with the guitar player.”

Out on his own

From there Petrella ended up ‘drifting off‘ on his own. He left the band and got accepted to Providence College. While in school, he put together a few iterations of what would become The Dean Petrella Band and ultimately The Complaints — the band he still leads today with drummer Anthony Marotti and bassist Chris Cruz, 25 years after its inception.

These days, The Complaints, performing covers as well as original music, are staples at Twin River, Dublin Rose, One Pelham East, Yellow Kittens, Bon Vue Inn and Escada, among others. They have also become fan favorites at the Red Lion in New York City.

“We still practice every Monday night. We are best friends and are having a great time playing to enthusiastic audiences,” said Petrella. “I also do solo gigs performing original material. The band and solo material is written, in various combinations, by The Complaints, myself and by friend and co-writer Joe Martira.”

The solo project takes Petrella to The Portside Tavern in Bristol, Brewology Lounge in Smithfield and Strings in Johnston, and as much as he can, he travels to Nashville, where he performs at The Bluebird Café, Alley Taps as well as various songwriter showcases in town.

A new album

“The Complaints just released our fifth, full length album, titled ‘Chasing Light’,” said Petrella. “Ninety radio stations around the world have picked us up. Spotify and many digital platforms have also taken us onboard. You don’t make much money anymore because you’re not selling physical copies. It’s all digital and online, and the money is quite small when you get airplay. For instance, your song might get played 50,000 times, literally, and you’ll get a royalty check for $18. So money isn’t the motivator. It’s for the love of music.”

He added: “It’s a hustle. Talent isn’t enough. You need to understand the business side of it, and thanks to my dad, and years of experience, I do. There have been a lot of bands during our time that have come and gone, but here we are, still playing, still rocking.”

As we finished up, Petrella re-counted a final anecdote.

“I was in Nashville one time doing a songwriter in the round, and you have to introduce yourself, and I mentioned my band, The Complaints,” said Petrella. “There was an older gentleman in the audience and later he came up to me to chat. He said he loved the name of my band. He couldn’t express it enough about how cool he thought it was. When I asked why he liked it so much, he said, ‘because complaining is the essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll’.”

Find out more about the band at

Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.