Dick Contino’s Dead
There is an extensive obituary in today’s NY Times (by Richard Sandomir) about the passing of Dick Contino (87) on April 19th. I’m guessing most readers have no idea whatsoever as to who Dick Contino is/was. That’s quite understandable since Mr. Contino was an accordionist whose career faded after 1958. If, however, you were an 8 year-old whose 120 bass accordion featured a picture of Dick Contino on it, you damn well knew who the man was. (picture left, above) The fact is, all I ever knew about Dick Contino was that his picture was on my accordion. Much later in life I discovered James Ellroy, one of my favorite crime novelists, had written a novella (“Dick Contino’s Blues”) that was included in my paperback copy of Hollywood Nocturnes (1994). In it (and included in Mr. Contino’s obit) Ellroy provides a “picture” of the musician through his own (fictitious) words:’
“I pelvis-popped and pounded pianissimos; I cascaded cadenzas and humped harmonic hurricanes until the hogs hollered for hell — straight through to Horace Heidt’s grand finals. I played BIG ROOMS. I cut records. I broke hearts. Screen tests, fan clubs, magazine spreads. Critics marveled at how I hipsterized the accordion — I said all I did was make schmaltz look sexy.”
The Times obituary verified Mr. Ellroy’s alliterative description, noting that the B-movie “Daddy-O,” which starred Contino, was the beginning of the end of his prominence.
Despite the wizardry of Myron Floren on the weekly Lawrence Welk Show, the accordion quickly faded from public view because, as Wikipedia notes, “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the accordion declined in popularity due to the rise of rock 'n' roll.” By 1962 I was agitating to exchange my accordion for another instrument, preferably a guitar, which my younger brother was already becoming quite skilled at. Plus, there wasn’t much call for accordion-guitar duets on the music scene ever (photo right, above). It is hard to describe the ignominy I felt playing the accordion, almost from the first moment I strapped on my simple 12 bass model. (Accordions are described by the number of bass “buttons” the left hand plays) For some reason, my father loved the accordion (I remember he could play one song on it --- how/where he learned that, we never knew) and, since we couldn’t afford a piano, accordion lessons it was!
We had just moved into our “new house” in Bay Shore in March 1956, and by the summer I was enrolled in music lessons at the local accordion school (What!?) down the street where the Bay Shore Public Library stood on the corner. There is a picture somewhere of my first “recital” with about 25 or 30 other kids, all strapped with accordions, playing together like some bizarre orchestra --- god only knows what that must have sounded like. My memory is that every moment spent with that instrument was pure humiliation. Once the Beatles showed up in 1963, that was it --- the accordion had to go.
The negotiation with Mom and Dad led to a compromise: they would trade in the accordion for a bass guitar only if I took lessons at Amato’s Music School in the King Kullen Shopping Center. The deal was struck and the accordion was in my rear view mirror, finally. Happily for me, by 1964 (photo below) I was playing the bass guitar and was able to become part of a neighborhood band, The Durations, which featured Jeff Scott on lead guitar, Bob Dancik on drums, and Doug Tagner playing rhythm guitar with me holding down the bass. We covered as many hits of the day (Jeff was a genuine prodigy and we all kind of learned from him) and even played the local beach clubs in the summer. Life was great and I would never have to deal with the accordion and Dick Contino again.
Nonetheless, when I saw the obituary this morning, I sat up and took notice. The fact that I can noodle around on the piano and enjoy the music produced there is in no small part the result of those accordion lessons I loathed so much. That I have some sense, however rudimentary, of “how music works” is also a result of that early training. And, to be honest, I can still pick up an accordion and with a little bit of warm up whip out a pretty good rendition of “Lady of Spain,” Contino’s signature piece. When I showed the obituary to the lovely Carol Marie and talked about the old Dick Contino model I was forced to play she smiled and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to start playing the accordion again.” And maybe it is.
RIP Dick Contino.
(Note the Barry Goldwater for President poster with darts in it on the wall!)
John & Bil practicing guitars!