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.”
In a previous post we highlighted a YouTube video for the shampoo/hair products company Pantene featured a young deaf girl playing violin in a music competition. This “commercial for the viral video era” illustrated the future of advertising – the ability to engage hearts and minds, tell stories, and associate those popular snippets of media with your product – rather than simply 30 seconds on television telling people how wonderful your product or service might be.
This stunning video of a musical flash mob aboard the Copenhagen Metro in cooperation with Radio Klassik is another wonderful illustration of such an engaging short film, and nothing engages hearts and minds more effectively than music.
What I love most about the video are smiles on the faces of people of diverse ages and ethnicities, and the look of wonder and amazement on the faces of the young children.
NAMM and music educators recently partnered to develop an 8-page insert for the Washington Post outlining the academic, social, and wellness benefits of playing music. The .pdf is available at the NAMM website.
Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently:
The greatest malady facing our culture today is the fact that we seem to value fame more than talent. It’s a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the explosion of reality TV and the likes of Snookie, Kendra and Hank, American Idol cast-off William “She Bangs” Hung, and the laundry list of dysfunctional characters parading themselves across the screen on a nightly basis. It’s particularly sad when those flashes of stardom flame out, because there’s essentially no talent or substance to fall back on.
And that brings us to the story of Meatloaf. The animated rock/pop vocalist and performer burst onto the music scene in 1977 with the blockbuster album Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums of all time worldwide. The success of that album made the thought of any follow-up attempt daunting for the overnight music sensation. From the various accounts, it seems that he suffered from a temporary loss of his ability to sing brought on by psychological effects of that newfound stardom. The encore recording attempts were plagued by additional challenges including disagreements with his collaborative partner on B.O.O.H., drug use, and financial woes.
Then the music world changed. In the late 70′s and early 80′s, punk rock shook the music world. Video music brought on the likes of Duran Duran, The Cure, The Human League, Depeche Mode, and a plethora of fashion-focused, synthesizer-based pop stars. Only a few years after achieving blockbuster success, Meatloaf was perceived by record industry executives as being as outdated as the mood ring and the pet rock, (pardon the 70′s references).
But when in doubt, he fell back on his talent. Meatloaf was one of the most dynamic live performers of the 70′s rock era with a powerful voice. He took his larger than life act on the road to small bars and clubs. Meatloaf gave the same exhaustive live performances that he once gave in sold out arenas, and word began to spread. The audiences and venues began to grow, until the late 80′s and 90′s when the recording industry once again took notice. 16 years after the release of B.O.O.H., Meatloaf released Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell which included “I’d Do Anything for Love,” a #1 hit in dozens of countries worldwide.
Venerate people committed to excellence and hard work, and society wins. Applaud shallow fame, and we get what we deserve.
Paul Wesley Roy of Roundlake, New York was awarded the first annual Shannon Kelly Kane scholarship by MENC for his outstanding performance at Syracuse University, Setnor School of Music. Paul will attend graduate school to study Music Education and Choral Conducting. Congratulations to Paul on his accomplishments and thanks to MENC for recognizing his achievements.