I’ve written several dozen music articles and reviews for local publications and jazz websites as a sideline over the past 7 years. I write mostly for the satisfaction of shedding light on musicians whom I believe have had a level of publicity or recognition that pales in comparison to their considerable accomplishments.
My friend and musical colleague Bobby Lonero passed away recently. Bobby was best known for his spot-on renditions of Louis Prima’s Greatest Hits, making him a favorite of the considerable Italian-Sicilian-American community in New Orleans. Italian-American Marching Club events, St. Joseph’s Day festivities, parades, weddings, banquets – Bobby was a fixture and brought immense joy to all of those events for roughly 50+ years as a professional musician.
Bobby Lonero was not widely known beyond the metropolitan New Orleans area. He had an original song or two that received airplay and charted in the late fifties, but nothing that would be highly recognizable beyond the most devout music historians. Bobby’s greatest legacy will be the thousands of glasses of red wine raised in celebration, wedding dances of Fathers and daughters named Angelina, Marie, or Giovanna, music accompanying St. Joseph’s Day parades, and Tarantella’s danced on overcrowded New Orleans dance floors.
Bobby Lonero was not perfect. His financial difficulties sometimes strained relationships with fellow musicians. He could be forgetful and disorganized. He sometimes embellished the truth. But as is the case with most accomplished musicians, when the final tally is completed by the only accountant who matters, the smiles and the joy and the memories he created for others will far outweigh his faults. And it’s not even a close call.
So as I find proper epitaphs difficult to come by and very little fanfare on display as I reflect on Bobby’s life and career, 5 1/2 decades of a working musician’s life at least seems worthy of a simple blog post.
Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago. From late 2002-2004, I played several dozen jobs with Bobby’s band, so in some small way I guess my association with Bobby affords me a sense of music immortality.
I couldn’t attempt to compile a complete chronicle Bobby’s career. The formal documentation of his career is minimal, and most events would have to be pieced together from the recollections of the thousands of musicians who shared the stage with Bobby. Everyone has their own personal version, and this is mine.
My earliest memories of Bobby were of my parents going out to see Bobby’s band at local music/dance clubs in the early 70′s when dancing, drinking, mingling, and leisure suits were the order of the day. The culture was different then, before DJ’s, karaoke, and synthesized 1-man bands took over the night club scene. As a teen I took up the guitar and joined a garage rock band, with plans to conquer the world with our original songs. My dad once asked upon hearing one of those original songs why we didn’t focus more on cover songs. “Bobby Lonero plays other people’s songs, and he makes money playing music,” he would say.
Perhaps that was Bobby’s greatest strength and shortcoming. As time moved on, Bobby’s repertoire gravitated increasingly toward Louis Prima hits to satisfy his Italian-American following. Though he recorded and pursued original songs early in his career, he never quite caught the break that would give him a defining “signature” song that so many other New Orleans artists used to propel their careers. When we had conversations about songs that he had recorded and written, there were also stories of deals gone bad and promises not kept that doomed some of those songs and recordings to obscurity.
For decades I knew Bobby only casually as the musician I’d see at Italian events, parades, and celebrations. In 2002 our musical paths would cross serendipitously. My Uncle Walton “Duke” Duplantis was known to many in New Orleans as the host of Franky & Johnny’s restaurant who would sing Sinatra hits on the P.A. system along with the jukebox that still spun vinyl 45′s. When friends and extended family decided to give Duke one “Big Night,” a first class Black Tie events where the charismatic, yet perhaps unpolished vocalist could realize his musical aspirations, we all knew there was only one backup band who could fill the bill – Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express.
I had written charts for many of the Sinatra tunes that Duke was familiar with, and for several months Bobby, Duke and I worked out the kinks and honed in on the songlist, later bringing in the full band. The fruits of those efforts came to fruition in November of 2002 at a sold out Rosy’s Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas St., a night that will be remembered fondly by all who knew these 2 musicians, the background story, or both.
There would be annual “Duke’s Big Night” shows again in 2003 and 2004. We would play smaller clubs with a scaled down band in the months in between. After the 2004 show, I began to pursue some of my original music with other musicians, and Bobby and I lost touch musically. On occasion we would cross paths, and I’d help him out with transportation or a favor, or I’d buy him lunch.
I guess what I’ll always remember is how happy Bobby would be when things went well musically. The instrumental song “Europa” became somewhat of a signature song for me, as the saxophone player and I would trade off verses and licks throughout. Bobby always laughed and smiled at me when we tore that one up. We once worked out harmonized licks at the end of the bridge in the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and we were both in musical heaven when our two guitars plucked in unison.
We played an Italian Festival in Kenner years ago, and I’ll never forget one song in particular. I took a break for a couple of songs and walked the audience, and one of those songs was a crowd pleaser known as “Eh Gumbari.” He had a number of parents line up with young children along the front of the stage, each participating as the kids shouted out the various instrument names and the band echoed the sounds. It’s a wonder anyone would have the patience to pull off such a feat. But Bobby’s defining quality was that he so desperately wanted everyone to enjoy the music and that he wanted everyone involved. And rarely did Bobby fail to get such a reaction and participation from his audience.
I surprised him once in 2005 when my wife and I took a weekend getaway to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, to our surprise, he was playing at one of the hotel lounges. He lit up with an ear to ear grin when we walked in and told the audience that a great musician and great guitarist with whom he had played many, many shows had just entered the bar. Bobby had such respect for fellow musicians. I don’t think I can ever recall an instance where he denied a request of a fellow musician to sit in when we were playing together.
He asked if I had any requests, and he obliged with “Banana Split for My Baby,” another real crowd pleaser.
I had the above photo of Bobby & I framed, and I brought it to him one day to sign. He wrote simply, “To a great player and a great friend. Your forever friend, Bobby.”
Here’s one final musical memory of Bobby – a poignant Christmas song I had the pleasure of performing with him live entitled “Christmas for Two.”