Accordion great has seen it all
By JOHN BECK
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
‘‘You wanna hear a joke about me?” asks accordion player Dick Contino.
It turns out he’s heard a few “Dick Contino jokes” over the years, but this one is his favorite:
“Two guys are on death row and they’re about to be executed and the warden asks the first guy, ‘What’s your last request?’ The guy thinks about it and says, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear Dick Contino play ‘Lady of Spain’ on the accordion.’
“The warden says, ‘You got it.’ Then he turns to the second guy and asks what he wants for his last wish and he says, ‘Execute me first.’”
It’s the same self-deprecating sense of humor that has kept Contino afloat through a 65-year career that teetered from an early billing as “the world’s greatest accordionist” to the lowly label of “draft-dodger” to 1950s B-movie cult star and then a gradual decline for decades as the accordion fell out of favor in pop music.
At 82, Contino lives in Las Vegas and plays about a dozen shows a year, which includes headlining the Cotati Accordion Festival this weekend.
“Don’t expect me to walk on water,” he warns. “I just like to go out and have fun and I like to think I can play somewhat like I did back then.”
From the 48 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to the half-year spent in jail, he’s seen it all. Born and raised in Fresno, Contino first picked up the accordion at 12.
“I had always been very shy and inhibited and I found that by playing the simplest of songs I could express my feelings,” he says.
When he asked his father for a new accordion, he was told, “If you learn 75 new songs, we’ll go to San Francisco and buy a new accordion.”
Seventy-five songs later, he strode into Guerrini Accordions at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco and met his mentor, Angelo Cognazzo, a seasoned accordionist who would teach him how to improvise and play with a passion beyond the notes on the page.
Taking that knowledge, Contini entered the Horace Heidt-Philip Morris national radio talent contest when he was only 17. Playing “Lady of Spain,” he won and would go on to win dozens of radio contests all over the country while taking the song to No. 47 on the singles charts.
“It was like winning a lottery ticket right out of high school,” Contino remembers. “Suddenly I was the teenage idol of America with an accordion, believe it or not.”
In an interview with the Arizona Republic last month, accordion player and parodist Weird Al Yankovic sized up the pop lifespan of the squeezebox: “Back in the ’40s and ’50s, it had a lot more gravitas than it does today. You could play the accordion and still be a respectable pop artist. Dick Contino was like a rock star, for example. But post-Lawrence Welk, it took on a bit of a square image.”
Los Angeles crime fiction writer James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential,” “Black Dahlia”) would later describe Contino in his heyday: “A handsome Italian guy, late twenties, big biceps from weights or making love to his accordion. Dreamboat attributes: shiny teeth, dark curly hair, engaging smile.”
But all that would be dashed when Contino was drafted for the Korean War and abandoned Fort Ord during training due to what he now calls “phobias and anxiety attacks.”
Recognizing that Contino had all the trappings of a tragic hero, Ellroy immortalized him in a novella called “Dick Contino’s Blues.” Blending fact and fiction, Ellroy writes about a popular accordion player named Dick Contino who was branded as a Korean War draft-dodger and eventually hatches a plan to save his name and remake his reputation.
After the real-life Contino served six months in jail for going AWOL, he would go on to serve in the Korean War. When he returned stateside, he would star as a singing truck driver in the cult flick “Daddy-O.” But by the time rock-and-roll took over in the 1960s, the accordion was relegated to the dustbin of old-fashioned, fusty instruments.
Italian festivals and accordion contests would provide ample stages over the years for Contino to flash his biceps and reprise “Lady of Spain,” “Bumble Boogie” and “Tico, Tico” for the aging fans who flocked to see him. But he never reclaimed the fame he had in the ’40s and ’50s.
“It’s what I call the slide,” he says. “You see people like Elvis Presley and they can’t handle what I call the slide. I’ve always enjoyed the character Dick Contino, but I never became that character. I think too many people believe all that (stuff) and that it’s never gonna end. When it does end, they can’t handle the slide. That wasn’t me; I was just wearing a mask. Once the play was over, I was still the same person I was before.”
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @becksay.
COTATI ACCORDION FESTIVAL
When: 9:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: La Plaza Park, Cotati
Tickets: $15 day/$25 two days