Accordionist’s death squeezes out musical memories

Famous accordion player Dick Contino, who died at the age of 87.

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Famous accordion player Dick Contino, who died at the age of 87.

Despite the earnest efforts of my mother, I never learned to play a musical instrument.

When I was in elementary school, she had me take piano lessons. After just six months, I had mastered “Hot Cross Buns.” But the lessons ended when the teacher determined I was physically incapable of playing with more than one finger at a time.

In junior high, she signed me up for violin lessons. Despite my obvious lack of talent, which had to be painfully apparent to anyone with even half an ear, she was convinced I would become the next Jascha Heifetz and persuaded the minister of our church to let me play a solo at a Sunday morning service. After hearing my version of “Rock of Ages,” two-thirds of the congregation immediately became atheists. Lord only knows what damage I could have done to Christianity with a tuba.

Prompting this trip down my musical memory lane was an obituary in Monday’s New York Times for Dick Contino, who died at the age of 87.

For those of you who aren’t really, really old, Dick Contino was an accordion player. But that’s like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player. Contino was the most popular accordion player of the 1950s. He sold out Midwest theaters and made as much as $4,000 a week in Hollywood nightclubs. He was called “the Rudolph Valentino of the accordion.” He somehow managed to appear sexy while playing the accordion — no small feat – and, as Parade Magazine reported after one performance, “the bobby-sox audience howled, stamped and clapped its hands.”

Now all those bobby soxers are wearing support hose and you don’t see many accordions anymore. But they were the guitars of their day and every other kid I knew played them. Strapping on an accordion was the price boys paid for growing up in my neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland.

No Polish wedding was official until you had danced to an accordion playing The Beer Barrel Polka (“roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun) and The Too Fat Polka (” I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me. She’s too fat, she’s too fat, she’s too fat for me”). Sensitivity was not a big thing in the ‘50s.

Before there was Lawrence Welk introducing Myron Floren there was Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King” playing Lady of Spain. He sold 30 million records and we tuned in every Sunday morning to watch him in black and white on television.

But all that ended for me when Elvis came along. Guitars replaced accordions. Lady of Spain gave way to Blue Suede Shoes. And the only musical instrument I ever mastered was my 45 rpm record player.

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