The Sicilian Wedding Singer

My Grandfather was a wedding singer.  No, not a wedding singer like Adam Sandler in that movie of the same name.  Grandpa would sing purely for the love of it.  I doubt that he was ever paid to perform.  Giuseppe Accardi grandpaAmericanized his name to “Joe” after he landed a foundry job upon immigrating from Marsala, Sicily to Beloit, Wisconsin in 1921. Unfortunately, he died in 1956 when I was only five years old.  I don’t recall ever hearing Grandpa sing publicly.

If you’ve attended a traditional Sicilian wedding reception, you know it’s an extraordinarily joyous celebration involving ritual, food, wine, music and dancing. The food is homemade.  The “sweet table” is nothing short of phenomenal.  Sometimes the wine is homemade too.  The dancing is contagious.  Most importantly, the music is performed live by a band whose instruments might include an accordion, a clarinet, a guitar and a drummer.  I recall a clarinetist who appeared to have one glass eye that never moved with his other one. I recognized him at a number of wedding receptions when I was a kid.

The musicians typically were themselves Italians and played tunes ranging from traditional tarantellas, to swing, to songs that might have been featured on Your Hit Parade, a popular radio show back then.  One or more band members also would sing.  They sometimes invited guests to participate.  That was the proverbial “drop of a hat” resulting in Grandpa joining the band.  Apparently, Grandpa Accardi, with his resonating baritone voice, gained quite a reputation among friends and family at these gatherings.  Eventually his role in weddings was cast ahead of time, judging by this clipping from page 3 of the June 9, 1935 Rockford Morning Star:

Fast forward fifty years. The Janesville Public Library board president heard a radio broadcast in the fall of 1985.  Sima arrived unannounced at the library director’s office door to question me about it.  Surprised, I stood to greet her.  “Joe, did you ever make a record of Italian songs?” she asked without warning.  Thinking on my feet, I deftly answered, “Huh?”  She ignored my response and described listening to Joe Accardi of Beloit, Wisconsin singing “delightful” Italian songs on a Wisconsin Public Radio program called Simply Folk.  Understandably baffled, I phoned the Madison station after our brief exchange and spoke with producer Judy Woodward.  She read a description to me that accompanied the recording.  Well, that could only have been my grandfather!

The song, Luna Mezzo Mare, was selected from a collection of forty-year-old 78rpm shellac discs housed at the University of Wisconsin Mills Music Library in Madison.  Further conversation with Judy, and later with my Dad, revealed that on a warm summer’s day in 1946 Grandpa was invited to record seven Italian songs for the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, a federally-funded program initiated in 1939 to preserve America’s ethnic folk music.  Excited to learn I was the grandson of singer Joe Accardi, Judy mailed me a cassette copy of all seven songs.  Eventually acquiring technology to transfer the songs from cassette to CD, I duplicated and shared them with other family members.

The original 78rpm recordings remain housed both in Washington, DC and in Madison.  In 1998, Sylvia and I traveled to DC for the American Library Association Conference where we took advantage of some free time to visit the Library of Congress.  There we heard all seven songs while seated at a private listening station.  grandapa LC catalog cardContents of the shellac discs had been transferred to a seven-inch tape reel which was carefully mounted on a deck for playback through headphones.  The catalog card reproduction shown above is still filed with several others bearing Grandpa Accardi’s name and song information in the Library of Congress.

locbSometimes when I close my eyes and listen to his recording, I imagine grandpa at a microphone on the bandstand, musicians playing on their instruments behind him, and the dance floor animated with guests twirling in their colorful wedding attire.  As for me,  I’m sneaking over toward the sweet table to grab a cannoli, humming along with Grandpa while he sings Luna Mezzo Mare.  (If you click on the song title, you can hum along too!)


Nine Out of Ten Ain’t Bad

While awaiting my turn at the barbershop, the AARP Magazine cover stared back at me from its rack.  Okay, it wasn’t really a barbershop.  It was a salon,  But not just any salon.  It was one of those franchise salons for cheapskates like me who carry around coupons for discount haircuts.  “Ten Essential Boomer Albums,” the headline read.  I grabbed the magazine, rescuing it from  between Glamour and People.  I flipped through some pages to the list of records.  “Alright,” I muttered to myself.  I owned nine out of those ten albums!

The first one was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.  I had that one… until someone “borrowed” it from me, along with a Simon & Garfunkel album not on the list.  Never saw either one again.  I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on my cousin’s transistor radio while we were fishing along the banks of Turtle Creek.  Now, I have nearly every Dylan album ever released, even the “borrowed” one.  Dylan’s music probably has influenced me more than any other songwriter.

Long ago, I wrote about the second album on the list, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for a review column in my high school newspaper, Arista.  In that same column I also reviewed We’re Only in It for the Money by the Mothers of Invention.  That one isn’t on the list for reasons unknown to me.  I have some clippings of those record review columns.  Each of them ended with a plug for Don’s Record Shop.  A classmate on the business end of the newspaper staff was supposed to collect money from old Don in return for the advertising.  Whether that actually happened remains a mystery.  On the other hand, I don’t recall ever buying record albums at retail prices from Don.  Ever the cheapskate, I sought out the record bins at Arlan’s Discount Store.  Karma triumphed on Don’s behalf though, when both albums warped beyond playability in the trunk of my parents car one sunny afternoon, the result of my own negligence.

I had to look up Led Zeppelin IV.  Zeppelin never bothered to title their first four albums and even though three of them were in my collection, my head hurts trying to recall anything after Led Zeppelin II.  To make matters more confusing, this fourth album goes by an alternate title comprised of four Runes symbols, each representing a band member.  So I remember it only by its cover art featuring an old guy hunched over and carrying a bag of sticks.  It’s also the album with their most overplayed song, “Stairway to Heaven,” and is one I wore out on my turntable.

What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), Tapestry (Carole King), Exile on Main Street  (Rolling Stones), Innervisions (Stevie Wonder), Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975  (Eagles), Exodus (Bob Marley & the Wailers) and Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Soundtrack (Bee Gees) made up the rest of this “essential” list.

Saturday Night Fever?  Really?  I confess to seeing the movie, but never thought seriously about owning the soundtrack album.  I was miffed by the “disco” wave the Bee Gees chose to ride.  The Bee Gees had made some decent music and their first album, appropriately titled Bee Gees 1st, was in my collection.  But their Odessa album with the red-flocked, gatefold cover was the real gem.  Either my first wife or her sister owned that album, depending on whose home it was in at the time.  An oft-pilfered item between them, it finally met an unfortunate fate, melting into a charred hunk of red-flecked vinyl, the result of a house fire while in my sister-in-law.’s possession.

So the AARP music critic and I might agree on nine out of his ten essential boomer albums… all ten if you take into account a different Bee Gees album that burned to a crisp.  I could easily come up with a different “Ten Essential Boomer Albums” list.  There’s a very good chance none would have been purchased at Don’s Record Store.  Sorry, Don.

Arista Full copy

What are your “Ten Essential Boomer Albums?”  Leave a comment and let me know.