After 70 years, accordion master Angelo DiPippo plays on
As a youngster, Angelo DiPippo would practice the accordion three to five hours every day to master the instrument. And after more than 70 years of playing his squeezebox professionally -- at legendary Manhattan night spots, in dozens of movies and television shows, on his own albums -- DiPippo believes he's more than mastered it.
But he still practices three to five hours every day.
"I have to keep the finger muscles moving," says DiPippo, who lives in Garden City. "It's just like in track. A runner has to keep his leg muscles in motion."
DiPippo, who doesn't want his real age publicized, continues to nimbly tackle jobs as a musical arranger and still enjoys performing with his trio, The Amazing Accordion Kings.
"Angelo DiPippo is one of the best musicians I've ever known and a fabulous accordionist," says Linda Reed, president of the American Accordionists Association in Fairfield, Connecticut. Reed says the organization has 1,000 members, and while the instrument isn't as popular as it was in the 1950s, small clubs of accordion players have popped up over the past few years, extending its life as part of our music culture.
Discovering the accordion
When DiPippo was 8 and living in Providence, where his Italian immigrant father was a watchmaker, he was given no choice about playing an instrument or taking lessons. "Providence was a mainly Italian town. All the kids played the accordion, so one day my mother said to me, 'You're going to play the accordion.' I said, 'fine,' and that was it," DiPippo says. "I just started devoting all my time to it. I practiced every morning before school from 5 to 8. My parents never told me to do it."
He also studied piano for about five years, but the accordion fascinated him. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he studied music arrangement. During summer breaks, he joined a band that played for the elite of Newport, Rhode Island, including Perle Mesta, the "hostess with the mostest," who was the subject of the Broadway musical, "Call Me Madam."
After college, DiPippo headed to Washington, D.C., and worked for Meyer Davis, whose orchestra played primarily for the city's upper crust. Seeing no future in playing for the very rich, DiPippo made his way to New York, where he joined the musicians union.
"When I came to New York in the 1950s, the accordion was gigantic on television shows and concerts. I did weddings, and I worked at The Stork Club on Sunday nights. I also subbed at the Latin Quarter," he says.
Dippo also played at the Plaza Hotel's Rendezvous Room until he requested vacation time and was fired. That started his career as a freelance musician, finding gigs on '50s TV shows, including "Saturday Night Dance Party." A spot with the Max Kaminsky Orchestra, which was under contract to Jackie Gleason Productions, led to playing on numerous TV pilots.
He has provided music at his share of weddings, bar mitzvahs and private parties, but DiPippo is no stranger to Broadway, where his resume list of shows includes "Fiddler on the Roof."
In the 1960s, DiPippo formed a four-piece band that performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and made two appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. "I remember the lights going on for the first number and my legs started shaking uncontrollably, which had never happened to me before," DiPippo says. "I had very wide pants on, so maybe people couldn't see it, but from the torso up, I was static and played very well. Then, a few months later, he called me back and the same damn thing happened."
Reorchestrating his career
As the '60s ended, so did his band. TV shows like "The Lawrence Welk Show" began to fall out of favor and synthesizers became more prevalent at recording studios. That's when demand for accordion players hit a sour note, DiPippo says. "I remember one morning I was in bed having coffee with my wife and I said to her, 'It's over. I have no job.' "
DiPippo couldn't have been more mistaken. Singing duo Sandler and Young, a staple on '60s variety programs, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," needed an arranger for a new album. DiPippo was recommended, opening a second phase of his career doing musical arrangements for headliners including Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, the Andrews Sisters, Peggy Lee and even The Ramones, the punk rockers from Forest Hills.
His favorite gig was a 23-year run with opera singer Robert Merrill, who died in 2004. "We went all over the country doing concerts. I conducted the orchestra. I'm not a learned conductor, but I can conduct a show, and I did the arrangements," DiPippo says.
"As a musician and a person, Angelo is top-notch," says Paul Gurevich, 81, a violinist from the Bronx who played many club dates with DiPippo back in the 1960s. "I remember when Angelo put out a recording titled 'The World's Greatest Accordionist.' I used to kid him and say, 'You're very good, but the world's greatest?' "
While DiPippo's career thrived, touring kept him away from his wife, Maria, and their six children for weeks at a time. Despite her husband's frequent absences, Maria never urged him to get a job closer to home. "He loved what he did. I was always supportive, probably because I was in the music business also," says Maria, who was once an accordionist.
The two met after DiPippo graduated from college and moved to New York, where they both studied with the same music teacher. They married in 1955 and have 11 grandchildren. Though Maria had a successful career, including a gig on "The Ezio Pinza Show," she gave up the accordion after they married and has never played it again.
"He was a tough act to follow," she says of her husband.
Playing at movie weddings
Even with his success arranging music, DiPippo never abandoned the accordion. He played it during the wedding scene in the 1970 film "Lovers and Other Strangers." That was followed by a spot as one of the accordionists during the wedding scene in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972). "You can see me standing behind Al Martino," says DiPippo, who is pictured with his Excelsior accordion.
The wedding scene was staged like the real thing, DiPippo remembers. "Francis Ford Coppola had a bullhorn and he said, 'I want you people to have a party.' Every day, the set was catered with good food. It was kind of embarrassing because after shooting, people were putting the food in bags and taking it home with them," he says. "I never ate. I can't eat and play."
DiPippo returned to the world of movies in 2012, when he was hired to do the arrangements and play accordion on the soundtrack of Woody Allen's film "To Rome With Love." All of his recording was done in New York, so he didn't go to Rome, where the film was made, and he never met Allen. One of his songs from the movie, however, was used by a travel agency in Korea for a television commercial.
Long live the Kings
DiPippo had long wanted to form an accordion-only group that would play a little bit of everything, from classical to jazz. Eight years ago, he saw Frank Toscano perform at the Magnanini Winery and Restaurant in upstate Wallkill. "He said to me, 'We should do something together,' " says Toscano, 73, of Seaford, who also runs a music school in Astoria. For the third member of The Amazing Accordion Kings, DiPippo contacted Manny Corallo, 54, of Centereach, a friend of more than 25 years. The Kings will play in Dix Hills on Sept. 21.
For Toscano, being a member of the trio was a chance to work with someone who is a mentor, of sorts. "My father would listen to all of Angelo's albums," says Toscano. "My father said to me, 'Do you think you could play like that someday?,' and I said, 'I can try.' "
Through one of his contacts, DiPippo got the Kings a record deal. Their debut disc in 2007 had 30 songs, with each member doing 10 arrangements. The Kings only do a couple of concerts a year, but DiPippo has plenty to keep him busy, doing arrangements for entertainers, including actress La Tanya Hall, and an album for the Daughters of Mary, a Catholic order of nuns in upstate Round Top.
After all these years, DiPippo says he still can't figure out why the accordion holds such a fascination for him. "Nobody plays the accordion anymore," he says. "It is hard to learn, and to play it to any degree of excellence, you have to put in the time. Why do I do it? I don't know. I guess I just enjoy it."
CATCH THE ACT
The Amazing Accordion Kings, featuring Angelo DiPippo, will be performing an eclectic mix of music, from Mozart's "Turkish March" to "Wabash Cannonball" on Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. at Dix Hills Performing Arts Center, Five Towns College. Tickets are $30, $25. For more information, call 631-656-2148 or visit nwsdy.li/accordion.