Maestro, born John Mastrangelo, had a career that spanned doo-wop, rhythm and blues, pop, rock and soul for more than five decades, the bulk of that time as the leader of The Brooklyn Bridge, a group formed from the merger of The Del-Satins and the Long Island-based Rhythm Method in 1968.
"Johnny was a low-key, easygoing type of guy," said Jimmy Rosica, who has played bass with Maestro in The Brooklyn Bridge for 42 years. "He was very grounded and humble, but self-assured because of his gift."
That gift - that strong, yet vulnerable, voice that powered the No. 3 hit "Worst That Could Happen" in 1969 - made Maestro and Brooklyn Bridge international stars who continued to headline arenas until January. But for those close to Maestro, it was his inner strength that made the biggest impact.
Rosica said that Maestro's final performance - at the Mohegan Sun Arena in January, as part of "Bowzer's Rock 'N' Roll Party" - reflected the singer's personality.
"He was frail and a little jaundiced, and he had torn the ligaments in his shoulder so he had his arm in a sling underneath his jacket," said Rosica, who, in addition to touring, runs the Very Cool Music School in Coram. "We hadn't disclosed to anyone that he had cancer, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out something was seriously wrong. But when Johnny went onstage, he just nailed it."
Jon "Bowzer" Bauman said that when Maestro left the stage, he found him and told him, "That was the most courageous performance I'd ever seen."
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Bauman said that Maestro usually ended with "Worst That Could Happen," but there was a change in plans. "Johnny turned to me with a look in his eyes I will never forget," Bauman recalled. "Johnny was always quiet, but his eyes said something deep, profound, and unmistakable. 'One more,' he said, 'I need to do one more.' "
He then led a powerful version of the band's concert favorite, "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Maestro was a groundbreaker in The Crests, one of the first interracial groups to land a big hit. He was also one of the first artists to sign on for the Long Island Music Hall of Fame's first induction ceremony in 2006, said Richard L'Hommedieu, the hall's founding chairman, who organized the first gala.
"He was a really kind, gentle soul who really embraced everyone around him," said L'Hommedieu. "You couldn't help but be drawn to him as a person."
Though Rosica and his bandmates had known Maestro was seriously ill, his death still came as a surprise. "I'm still numb," said Rosica, who had been planning to visit Maestro Thursday to show him the mastered version of The Brooklyn Bridge's upcoming live DVD. "He's irreplaceable. . . . The only thing that helps is that Johnny's legacy is on vinyl, on DVD. It's recorded and it will exist for Johnny's great-great-great grandchildren. It's something we will always appreciate."