Bucky Pizzarelli

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This article by Richad Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,

1999. All rights reserved.

Jazzman’s Roots: `Itsy Bitsy Polka Dot Bikini’

His career spans more than five decades and includes

high-profile White House shows with Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra.

But in the 1960s jazz guitarist and composer Bucky Pizzarelli paid

the bills and supported his growing family by playing on rock ‘n’

roll records. While the thought of that may make some old-timers and

hard-core jazz fans twinge, he’s quick to point out that while he

didn’t always enjoy what some of these early rock ‘n’ roll groups

were putting down musically, he had no control over popular tastes.

Pizzarelli’s playing can be heard on all the early recordings of Dion

and the Belmonts, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. He played on Roberta

Flack’s smash hit, a rendering of Ewan MacColl’s folk song, "The

First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." He can be heard on Ray Charles’

original "Georgia On My Mind." Pizzarelli’s guitar playing

can even be heard on the Delphis’ novelty record, "Itsy Bitsy

Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," circa 1960.

Pizzarelli, now 73 and headed for a Saturday, July 24, date at the

George Street Playhouse, didn’t come into his own as a jazz performer

until the late 1960s. Throughout most of the 1950s and into the ’60s,

Pizzarelli was what they called a "session guitarist," a musician

hired by the contractor or the producer to come in and add his expertise

to a certain recording. Rock records were made differently in those

days, he explains. All of a given group’s members wouldn’t necessarily

be playing in the studio on their recordings. Session guys would be

brought in.

"When you did a recording session, it was a three-hour session,"

he recalls in an interview in June at the Atlantic Mutual Jazz Festival

in Madison.

"If you did a radio or TV commercial, it was a one-hour session.

So everybody avoided those unless there was a five-hour session for

a cigaret commercial or a beer commercial. In those days, recording

sessions [for vinyl records] paid $41.25 for the three-hour session,"

he explains. "And you played your heart out for that," he

adds, laughing.

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Bucky Pizzarelli

In the 1960s, Pizzarelli was busy raising his two daughters,

Anne and Mary, and two sons, Martin, now a bass player, and John,

a guitarist. John Pizzarelli’s most recent release, "John Pizzarelli

Meets The Beatles," on RCA Victor, has been both a critical and

commercial success, a rare thing these days.

Asked about how he got started on the six and seven-string guitars,

and how he arrived at his current style — rhythmic, warm and filled

with exquisite, complicated runs of fingers up and down the fretboard

— Pizzarelli says it all started when he was eight years old.

"My uncles gave me some lessons," he says. "But the style

I have today is really a collection of all the stuff from every great

guitar player I’ve ever been associated with." Several of his

uncles played banjo, he recalls, "but they told me, forget the

banjo, take up the guitar, that’s the new instrument."

John "Bucky" Pizzarelli was born and raised in Paterson, where

his father owned a grocery store and his mother was a housewife. He

recalls going to school with the late poet Allen Ginsberg, who was

his age. At school he was also taught by Ginsberg’s father, Louis,

whom he recalls as "a magnificent English teacher."

Pizzarelli recalls his first big break as if it were yesterday. It

was the chance to work as the guitarist with Vaughn Monroe’s big band.

It was December, 1943, and he was just about to turn 18. "I was

on Christmas vacation in high school, and I went out to Scranton,

Pennsylvania, with him, because a lot of the guys in the bands were

being drafted," he says. After graduating from high school, Pizzarelli

worked with Monroe’s big band for four months before he, too was drafted.

"I went into the service for two years, and when I came back,

he gave me my old job back, which was a big deal in those days. I

jumped on the bus again and stayed with him for five years."

Pizzarelli made his entree into working as a session guitarist after

coming off the road with Monroe’s big band. He joined the staff at

NBC-TV in 1952. After 12 years there, during which he often toured

with Monroe, he moved to ABC and the Dick Cavett Show. Throughout

this period, he also freelanced, taking on as many jobs as he possibly

could. That included playing guitar on novelty records, early rock

‘n’ roll records, and doing television and radio jingles.

"I’ve been lucky through my long association with the studios

in New York to meet almost everyone from the East Coast and a lot

of the great West Coast guitar players," he says. "When you

watch the champs perform and do what they have to do on a studio session,

it’s like a master class."

Pizzarelli was called in to play guitar on recording sessions by Columbia,

RCA, Mercury, and Capitol Records. "Also, all of these little

companies would come up from Philadelphia and record things quickly,

Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and guys like that, and I would be included

in the guitar section on these recordings."

So how was Pizzarelli, making $41.25 per three-hour session, plus

commercial work, able to afford a house in pricey Saddle River. "Well,

41 was worth 41 in those days!" he replies, laughing. "Just

recently we moved across the street to a smaller home, now that the

kids have left home."

After all those years of anonymous, uncredited session work and radio

and TV jingles, when did Pizzarelli begin to feel established as a

jazz artist in his own right?

"In 1966, I went with Benny Goodman and became known as a performer,"

he says. "I went to Europe with him on a major tour in 1966, while

I was doing `The Tonight Show’ in New York with Skitch Henderson."

He had a little duet show worked up with fellow guitarist George Barnes

in those days as well. And by the end of the end of the 1960s, the

rock ‘n’ roll world began to change, some would argue, for the better.

"Later in the 1960s, the recording dates started to drop off because

the rock groups started using their own bands. And they were taking

like two and three weeks just to get a rhythm track down! It was gettin’

ridiculous. They would sit in the studio all week, change this, change

that. We used to do a whole album in two sessions," he recalls.

Not only did the groups often live together, as the Grateful Dead

did for a time in San Francisco, but they also began flexing their

muscles with producers, insisting that their members play on all of

their own recordings.

At this juncture, this fundamental change in the way

records were being made, Pizzarelli began to pursue his solo career

as a jazz guitarist with greater enthusiasm.

"Now, I realize I’ve been through all the phases, the one nighters,

and they disappeared but have now come back. Television got real hot

for a while, now that’s disappeared as well, and the recording sessions,

they stayed hot for about 12 years, but then that disappeared."

"I was always doing something," he recalls, "I was always

playing, whether it was in the studio, performing, whatever, back

and forth. And in those days, I did a lot of these jazz parties too.

I remember in Odessa, Texas, we’d play for four or five days. I did

lot of those. They had these jazz parties all over the country,"

he explains. "And in Elkhart, Indiana, there’s one going on right


These days, Pizzarelli can be heard most often in small, quality-conscious

jazz clubs, like Shanghai Jazz in Livingston, the Cornerstone in Metuchen,

or Zinno’s in lower Manhattan.

"The club shows allow us the opportunity to put new material together,"

he says, "and once in a while I play in a quartet, with Kenny

Davern." Davern, a Manasquan-based clarinet player, was described

as the world’s finest clarinetist several years ago by the New York


At the George Street Playhouse, Pizzarelli will be joined by bassist

Jay Leonhart. The pair will run through instrumental versions of classic

tunes like "These Foolish Things," "Tangerine," Ellington’s

"In A Mellow Tone," and Fats Waller’s "Jitterbug Waltz."

He’ll also touch on some compositions from his most recent albums

for Arbors Records. "Contrasts" is a 1998 album he recorded

with son John, and "April Kisses," is his 1999 release. "April

Kisses," an acoustic album of mostly obscure compositions by guitarists

Eddie Lang, Carl Kress, George Van Eps, and Django Reinhardt, really

showcases Pizzarelli’s mastery of the seven-string guitar. It includes

some of his original compositions like "Silk City Blues,"

his ode to Paterson’s long history as a center for silk manufacturing.

After his early afternoon set at the Atlantic Mutual Jazz Festival,

three people come up to Pizzarelli to compliment him on the last tune

in his set, "April Kisses," a composition by Eddie Lang.

Given that he’s been doing this for 53 years, how does he maintain

his enthusiasm for performing and recording? He takes joy in finding

obscure little gems like "April Kisses. I’m always searching for

new material to learn," he says, adding that he practices guitar

every day, no matter what.

"All good musicians look for some little gem that’s sitting around

and it’s probably right under your nose, sitting on the shelf in one

of the books. It’s never some far-off thing, you look for these things

and say, `Wow, there it is.’ It’s never a thing that’s gonna come

flying out of the sky and hit you in the head, it’s always something

that’s right under your nose," he explains, "those are the

best tunes."

— Richard J. Skelly

Bucky Pizzarelli, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. "Undiluted Bucky," featuring

guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli solo and with bassist Jay Leonhart. $15.

Saturday, July 24, 8 p.m.

Bucky Pizzarelli Band, Jersey Jazz, Food, & Wine Festival,

David’s Yellow Brick Toad, Route 179, Lambertville, 908-475-4460.

The Garden State Wine Growers Association gives a wine tasting accompanied

by jazz from the Bucky Pizzarelli Band and the Nelson Hill Quartet

throughout the afternoon. $12 adults; $5 for age 20 and under. Saturday

and Sunday, July 24, noon to 5 p.m.

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