Part II – Memories of The Long Island Banjo Society
With encouragement from Ray Rienecker & Harry Gustafson, Dad and I joined the Long Island Banjo Society. At that time, the group had nearly 200 members and rehearsed every Friday night at the Amityville American Legion hall. As a young banjo player, it made a great impression on me because of the quality of their performances and the diversity of players. The group was founded in 1963 by Allan Doxsee and Archie Accetulli and grew to become one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country. Drawing from the growing suburban population, it represented a cross-section of musical talents and cultural backgrounds at a time before technology eroded music as a widespread popular socialization method.
I vividly remember many of the active members of the LIBS in those years. For convenience sake, I have chosen to categorize them by their roles as I saw them. I am sure that fading memory makes this list incomplete, but each of the people I note here made an impact on my musical and social development which I will always cherish and be grateful for.
MELODY PLAYERS: Charlie Gardella, Anthony (Tony Bee) Alduino, Oscar Moe, Rose Gibb, Ed Radigan, John Engesser, Tom Kelly CHORD PLAYERS: Harry Gustafson, Bob Dielman, Phil Schwartz, Bob Zimmerman, Don McCrum, Archie Accetulli, Ed Quinn. MIXED CHORD & MELODY: Ray Allotta, Fr. Bill Brisotti, Norm Korb, Allan Doxsee, Kevin Walz, Fred Grilli. These were the core mass of the group…reliable role players who kept the melody, harmony and rhythmic backbone of the band. While some had more technical skills than others, they combined to create a solidly distinctive sound that was reliable and true to their sound as heard on three (!!!) albums over the years.
TUBA/BASS/GUITAR: Ray Rienecker (tuba), Joe Bodner (string bass), Fred Kraebel (bass guitar), Mike Rogine & Mike Giorgio (guitars). The ringing overtones of all those similar-sounding banjos needed something as contrast in the low registers and for basic harmonic reference points. All these players did just that with great effectiveness…the unifying heartbeat of the rhythm section.
THE PROS: Mike Currao, Ed Cava, Dave Keilbach. The LIBS had its share of “pro” players who could be featured solo performers, each with a unique style. Mike’s speed and flash were (and still are) formidable. Ed Cava had been a student of Harry Reser and played with smooth, fluid technique while Dave played classic theatrical tenor solos.
ENTERTAINERS: Frenchy Gavreau and Ed Daus each were vaudeville-style dancers…in my memory I can still envision their equally great but radically different takes on “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Al (Leo) Leonidas loved the spotlight as M.C., encouraging audience participation and singing classic Cohan and Jolson tunes. The other vocal “canaries” of the group included Hector Girgenti, Lou Neu, Tom Cain, and 90+ year old George Reichold.
FAMILY MEMBERS: Dad & I were part of many such combinations in the group. Walter Osborne & Caroline (Osborne) Sanderson, Fred Schmidt & Geraldine (Schmidt) Rheel, Mike & Frank Vignola, Chuck & Mike Kuehn, Oscar & Mike Moe, and Jim Plotka & his sons all played regularly at the LIBS, along with siblings including Dennis & Doreen Metzler. It was great to share this bonding experience between family members having fun together musically.
DOUBLE-THREATS: Several members of the LIBS could play multiple instruments, but there are two of special note. Pam Gordon is a solid chord player, but she can take charge as leader or insure against the thin sound of a band without a bass. Phil Pfersching is a straight-ahead chord man on banjo, but his piano playing is well-known in the banjo community. For years, he brought his own upright piano in a specially-equipped van with his ever-supportive wife Marilyn and their kids, then played an endless variety of tunes till everyone else collapsed from exhaustion, making him a legendary figure.
DIRECTORS/PROMOTERS: Two members of the melody section, Tony Bee and Oscar Moe, each served long terms as president and musical director of the LIBS, and the group produced albums under their leadership which exemplified the group’s sound at its best. Two of the great promoters of the LIBS and banjo social culture were chord players Frank Rossi and Frank Barry. Frank Rossi (with then-director president Oscar Moe) helped promote the LIBS and produced banjo shows before he moved. He then founded the Pittsburgh Banjo Club and continued to encourage new players and the preservation of banjo music. For many years, Frank Barry organized a social banjo gathering in the Catskill mountains of upstate New York, “Barry’s Banjo Bash”, a friendly gathering for players throughout the northeast US without the pressures of scheduled shows or performances…just lots of jamming opportunities for players of all levels. It would be impossible to thank each of these men enough for the countless friendships and musical development opportunities they created for many like myself over the years.
The Long Island Banjo Society played many high-profile performances over the years, including the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and a summer-long engagement at the Schaefer Beer Tent as post-show entertainers at Jones Beach. They continue to perform frequently at public parks, senior facilities and community events in addition to donating tens of thousands of dollars to charitable causes. You may find their website at www.libanjosociety.org. I will always be proud of my association with them.