Rock Roundup

The Long Life of Dick Contino

The famed accordionist, 84, will play Festa Italiana, in a week that also features Jack White and Jackson Browne

By - Jul 14th, 2014 12:04 pm
Dick Contino. Photo from Festa Italiana.

Dick Contino. Photo from Festa Italiana.

Top Show: Dick Contino at Festa Italiana Friday, July 18, Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20

Dick Contino is 84 years old, a salient fact for Festa Italiana attendees because they cannot take his annual appearances for granted, and a salient fact for Contino because at his age he himself cannot take anything for granted.

If there is a living entertainer who symbolizes the cultural landscape before the earthquake of rock ‘n’ roll, Contino might be the guy: he rose to fame in the late 1940s, and by 1950 was reportedly commanding up to $4,000 a night, on the strength of being an amazing accordion player.

(And “strength” is the word: hoisting that instrument, he developed Charles Atlas arms and shoulders.)

Contino’s stardom didn’t last long enough for him to find out if Elvis Presley would’ve hurt his career. In 1951, called to serve in Korea, he acted in an odd and apparently unbecoming manner that eventually saw him jailed six months for draft evasion.

After doing his time, he enlisted and served and was honorably discharged; but neither those facts nor a presidential pardon completely erased the scandal. Subsequent attempts to become a crooner, an Elvis-style rock singer and an actor did not bring him near his previous and brief level of renown.

Vegas didn’t care, and he earned a decent living in the indecent town while occasionally resurfacing in the pop-culture consciousness: his 1958 B-movie Daddy-O was the basis for a hall-of-fame episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and hard-noir writer James Ellroy wrote Dick Contino’s Blues, an excellent novella, about the man.

Earlier this decade, Contino issued his autobiography, The Beauty of Imperfection, and received a kind letter from President Barack Obama, who was congratulating rather than pardoning him. Such laurels aren’t as fine as having a model of accordion named after him, or as profitable as appearing on Ed Sullivan’s variety show more than 40 times, but they ain’t bad.

This snippet is worth watching for the smoothness of Contino’s save after his accordion strap breaks and for the co-host’s alliterative description of him:


Tuesday, July 15: Boy & Bear at Turner Hall Ballroom

If you saw American Hustle, you might have been irritated at how insistently it reminded you that its narrative took place in the 1970s: bulky microwave ovens! Big cars! Aqua Net! Disco! A similar irritation can occur with modern bands reviving or simulating the mellow folk-rock sounds of the 1970s.

Boy & Bear, having formed in 2009, is among them and has toured with Mumford & Sons, yet seems to have more distance on the material than most of its peers, perhaps because of its Australian background. Its second album, last year’s Harlequin Dreams, hints at the possibility of musical progress.

Some of its songs are still pleasantly nostalgic mist:


Tuesday, July 15: Jackson Browne at Riverside Theater

There was a time when I believed Jackson Browne’s best contribution to music was his convincing David Geffen to sign Warren Zevon. If he hadn’t, the world might be without “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.”

Actually, I haven’t stopped believing that, which doesn’t mean I haven’t taken in the singer-songwriter’s other contributions, including his run of emotionally vulnerable, musically sturdy albums from 1972 to 1977. Browne’s later work has been frustratingly variable, which doesn’t mean he won’t put on a solid solo-acoustic performance.

Ten years ago:


Saturday, July 19: Foreign Fields at Club Garibaldi

Although the members of Foreign Fields currently reside in Nashville, they have never denied their Wisconsin heritage. The two main players,  Eric Hillman and Brian Holl, had been friends in West Bend for some time before recording FF’s debut disc, Anywhere But Where I Am, in a disused office building.

Issued in 2012 and offered as a free download, that debut and its wintry electronic-augmented folk music hold up better than most disused buildings do. Boll and Hillman have developed the FF sound further while working on a second full-length, and plenty of that material will be rolled out for the near-hometown crowd.

Foreign Fields near a field:


Monday, July 21: Jack White at Eagles Ballroom

Although this show has been sold out for some time, there is the possibility of some last-minute tickets being released to the public. And Jack White is as close to an important and pivotal figure as rock ‘n’ roll has in these late days.

Also a divisive one: there were critics and listeners who thought his duo, the White Stripes, was the biggest hype out of Detroit since the AMC Pacer, or that White’s anachronistic tendencies were just hipster extremism. However, his recent second solo album, Lazaretto, contains plenty of the old-fashioned racket that only White can seem to execute as if no one else is even trying.

That S.O.B.:

0 thoughts on “Rock Roundup: The Long Life of Dick Contino”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It was great how Dick Contino went from the strap breaking on his accordion to immediately walking over and playing
    amazingly fluid guitar riffs! (Jascha Heifetz has been quoted as saying that the audience won’t love you for your mistakes, but they will love you on how you recover from them, realizing that everyone is human.) I wasn’t aware of Dick Contino’s work but because of your article I’ll now try to go to Festa Italiana on Sunday to catch his performance.

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