Part III – Sing-Along Days & The Banjo-Aires
The 1960’s and 70’s brought many changes to culture and society. Middle-aged Americans of the time had been born in the earliest period of American popular music. As radio, records and TV propelled rock music to dominance, there was a lingering sense of old-time values and sentimental appreciation for a bygone era. The last of the jazz clubs were still operating, and I was lucky enough to have my Dad bring me to both Jimmy Ryan’s and Eddie Condon’s NY clubs before they disappeared. But there were plenty of other clubs, too…Your Father’s Moustache, Red Garter, Red Blazer, Gaslight, and Earthquake McGoon’s to name a few. On Eastern Long Island, we had the Red Onion – an old potato barn decorated by a biplane fuselage “crashed” through the roof – as well as Allan Doxsee’s Gaslight Square in Westhampton Beach. “Mickey Finn” and “Sing Along with Mitch” brought classic tunes into peoples homes via TV each week while entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Peabody became revered American icons on variety shows. Disneyland and Disney World each featured the style and music in an idealized Main Street, USA. Shakey’s Pizza built a brand associated with banjo music on the West Coast as amateur banjo clubs proliferated across the country.
Long Island had its share of banjo entertainment beyond the LI Banjo Society. The Long Island Mummers patterned themselves after the classic Philadelphia string band. The All-Americans and Long Island Banjo Society appeared in TV ad campaigns. Venues like the Gaslight Square, Bourbon Barrel, and Milleridge Inn all featured regularly scheduled banjo bands such as the Banjo Rascals, the Alley Cats and The Banjo-Aires.
I first heard the Banjo-Aires when I was given a copy of their album in the late 70’s. The 5-piece group on that recording included 2 melody players, 2 chord players and a tuba. While the lineup was similar to other banjo bands, the Banjo-Aires’ album and sound was different to me – very crisp and clean. They played a more diverse catalog of tunes than the large groups, mostly because of their better-than-average reading and structured arrangements.
Around this time, I had begun taking banjo lessons with Mike Currao, who was a featured soloist with the LI Banjo Society. Mike had joined the Banjo-Aires replacing Julius Cook, who had retired from the group and moved upstate. Mike taught using feature solo pieces as a fast-track to learning a variety of techniques – a method which could be very effective, but also very demanding. After about a year of lessons and practice, Mike told me that he expected to be accepting a transfer at his job which would take him off Long Island. To help me advance as quickly as possible while he was still living here, he intensified the rate of songs even further to where I was working on a completely new solo every 1-2 weeks. While this required more frequent and intense practice, it unquestionably raised the level of my playing a great deal in a relatively short period. When the time finally came for Mike to move, he kindly recommended me to the Banjo-Aires for an audition. This began my association with the Banjo-Aires which lasted over a decade.
The core players of the group were Tony Bee and Bart Gallagher on melody and Frank Tessitore on tuba. Tony had been responsible for the Banjo Society’s first album as both President and Musical Director. Bart was an exceptionally strong and accurate melody player, a great sing-along vocal leader, and always works hard to master complex passages such as Irish reels. Frank Tessitore discipline and organization came through at all times – it seemed he almost never hit a wrong note.
The chord and rhythm duties were filled by several players over the years. Ed Becker had been a student of the legendary banjo virtuoso Harry Reser. Julius Cook was an Akwesasne (Mohawk) Indian Chief, master jeweler and artist, and worked as a steel worker on the Twin Towers. Walter Becker (no relation to Ed) was a second-generation banjo performer in the classic rapid-fire 1920’s style. Gloria Tessitore (Frank’s daughter) was a student of Walter’s and a very capable rhythm player.
All told, the Banjo-Aires entertained audiences on Long Island for over 25 years! While there were many typical private parties, clubs and political rallies we played together, the group also played a lot of parade events across Long Island. The band played regularly on the Port Jefferson Ferry during the summer season as part of a Long Island tourism promotion for many years. The old wooden boat for many of the early trips was named the “Martha’s Vineyard” – it bobbed like a cork many times out there, but the band played on in spite of foul weather! Another favorite annual engagement was each Christmas season at the Bethpage Farmers Market, where the band would play for families of shoppers at various locations including an old carousel. We also played several times a year at Ramann’s restaurant in East Seatuket, particularly around holidays when we would often alternate sets with a local dixieland band, the Isotope Stompers. Shortly before Ramann’s closed, it was where I first performed (as a substitute) with the Stompers – and began another long musical association.