"Papa Joe" De Clemente

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The Boy and His Box


I can recall some of my early years, as a child, with my dad taking me to see his Uncle Candido and our cousin Amedeo (Al) Iorio who lived on Clayton Street in Jamaica, Queens, New York. While there, we would go out back to the garage (which served as the Iorio Accordion shop) and see the men making and fixing accordions.

In late 1955, with Christmas approaching, and my 9th birthday a week later, I asked my parents for an accordion. Well, they did get me one, however, it was a plastic one from the toy store. When I opened the box and found that it was a toy, and a broken one at that, I explained to them that I wanted a real accordion. Finally, in March 1956, dad took me to Melody Music Store on Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont where we rented a 12 bass accordion and I started taking my first lessons. My cousin Bobby Timpone, also started accordion lessons there, so a competitive spirit started to develop from the beginning. When I entered fourth grade, and was 10 years old at the time, my cousin Bobby and I played a duet for my grandparent’s (the Leone’s) fiftieth anniversary party at the Elmont American Legion Post 1033, better known to us as the “Dugout”. “Drink To Thee With Only Thine Eyes” was the song we played. We agreed to play it two times before stopping, but looking over the old movies and remembering that day, Bobby kept on playing the song for the third time. I could see myself lost and trying to regain my composure (I didn’t know what that was at the time) by rejoining him to the end of the song. At Melody Music, I studied with “Manny” for about two years, before moving on.

In 1958, I began lessons with Mr. Springer in New Hyde Park, who taught more complicated arrangements. My cousin Bobby soon followed and the competitive spirit continued. By this time, my Nonna Gilda (Iorio) and Nonno Angelo De Clemente, gave me a bigger accordion of my own. It was a red and white mother of pearl Iorio accordion, made by my dad’s uncle Candido Iorio. As graduation from sixth grade was approaching, Mr. Springer taught me Charles Magnante’s arrangement of “Tea For Two” and “Dark Eyes” (the latter being the harder of the two songs). I mastered “Tea For Two” and planned to play for the graduation recital at Belmont Boulevard Elementary School. I remember being warned not to attempt to play “Dark Eyes” by Mr. Springer. When the time for the recital came, I played “Tea For Two” and got a tremendous applause. The audience wanted more, so I got up my nerve and played “Dark Eyes” and did it perfectly. With that, I received a standing ovation.

Between 1958 and 1959, I remember how my dad use to send me outdoors, to the street, to play for the workers, as they installed the new sewer system in our community. Once he also had me play for the men who were building a garage at our Elmont home. One thing I could say about my dad, he knew the right direction I should take. The workers would laugh, and yet, loved the fact that I would play for them. As for Mom, she always loved the song “Fascination” and wanted me to learn it. I soon did and even today, in her golden years, she still asks me to play it for her.

In 1959, I went on to Junior High School and later joined the dance band. However, reading piano music made my task difficult. During this same year, the Iorio’s had introduced the new “Accorgan”. There were special demonstrations of the Accorgan, with Louis Del Monte featured as the key accordionist, demonstrating the many features of this new accordion-organ. He became my idol, and I wanted to play like him. Trying to mimic his style, I learned the songs he played at the many demonstrations. On one occasion, as he played at the NYC Hotel New Yorker, I came out from the audience to try the instrument, and began playing Mr. Del Monte’s own arrangement. Unfortunately, I remember combining two songs into one, a slight error. At the Long Island Fair at Roosevelt Raceway, he also demonstrated the accorgan once again, and I came from the viewers and sat in.

Shortly thereafter I borrowed an Accorgan and auditioned for the Ted Mac Amateur Hour, a television show. They liked me, and asked me to learn “Tico Tico” and come back in two weeks. I had three sessions of music lessons during the following two weeks, and mastered the song. At the interview, I played the song perfectly, however, for some unknown reason I never heard from them again

Two years later, my music teacher, Mr. Springer moved, so I had to find another teacher. My dad located Mr. John Serry in Jamaica, Queens. Bobby followed as usual. First I was taught by his associate, Mr. Roy Appy, then later by John Serry himself. At that time, Dad bought me a 5 Star Philharmonic for me, as my fingers were outgrowing the red and white accordion.

I remember, on one occasion, the famous accordionist, Myron Floren from the Lawrence Welk Show, was doing a concert in New Jersey. Dad took me to see him. He played the “Tiger Rag” and took down the place with a standing ovation. Since I knew Mr. Del Monte, and he was sponsoring the concert, I was privileged to go backstage to meet Mr. Floren. A great experience and a signed photo to match. Changing teachers again, in the early 1960’s, I attended The Bolognese School of Music in North Bellmore. Of course, my cousin Bobby followed again. There, I studied under Lou Bolognese (formerly of the Biviano School of Music) and entered national competition. My first song was “Perpetual Motion”, a classical piece that was about fourteen pages long, which I had to memorize. I sat before a panel of judges as I played the song for them. I came in sixth place. No trophy, but a ribbon, because I had done well. In the jazz competition, I came in tenth place.

As I became of working age, I worked part-time at the Iorio’s, sending out advertising flyers about accordion shows and their products. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to work in a gas station, pumping gas. He would ask me why I wanted to do that and get dirty. Then he would go on by telling me to play the accordion and make money as a musician. Later on, I took his advice. In 1962, I attended Sewanhaka High School, and a classmate named Joe Carbone (a guitar player) asked me to join his band. Our first job on December 14, 1962, was a Christmas party. We played five hours earning $12.50. Two weeks later, we played the Dugout for New Years Eve, and made $25.00 for a five hour job. This was big money for a 16 year old. With time, I dropped out of Joe’s band, letting my cousin Bobby play with them.

Later in 1963, in the high school library, two students approached me. Vinny Carbone, a drummer (Joe’s cousin) and Tommy Palumbo, a guitar player, and asked me to join them and form another band. Ray DaNato, a sax player was the fourth man. We grouped and called ourselves the “Moonlight Quartet” . We played at fire houses and other local small places, but no one sang. Slowly, I made an attempt at singing too. Ray was eventually replaced with Bill Piemonte. Later on, we got an opportunity to play on the “Murray Morgan Show”, which was broadcast over radio on Sunday mornings. I still have the tape of that broadcast, playing Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” and “So Rare”.

My music career, as a side job continued through the sixties, finally getting my first steady gig at the Starlite Lounge in Hempstead. I was hired by a drummer and an upright bass player. The drummer sang and did a Louie Armstrong impression. This sparked my interest in singing Louie Armstrong style, memorizing more songs each week and slowly singing more and more. I played with the lounge combo for about a year or so, and continued to also work with the Moonlight Quartet whenever possible. In the mid-1960’s, I got hooked up with “Alex and Henry’s” a Catering House in the Bronx, and was part of the house band. With time, I met my wife to be, Janet Philips, and informed her, right from the start, that music was part of my life since childhood, and if she wanted to marry, she would have to accept that too. She did and in 1969 we got married. I continued to play at “Alex and Henry’s” through 1972, and in that year traded my Philharmonic model for a new Model “E” Accorgan.

Later that year, I quit the house band and decided to continue on my own. It seemed as though I always returned to the Moonlight Quartet, however the quartet was not a quartet anymore. Ray, Bill and Tommy had left the group. I always kept in touch with Vinny (Junior) and in time, I met Mat Fazio, a sax man. We started working together as a trio, and in 1973, used the name the “Joe Dee Trio” which later became the “Moonlighters”. I did not like my name as part of the band’s name. We stayed together as a trio until the late 1980’s when Junior moved to Florida. Mat and I continued using different drummers, but it was never the same. By the mid 1990’s, Mat and his family moved to Arizona, the band having seen its last. Good memories of the fun we had together remains.

As a soloist, I purchased an electronic drum machine to help provide me with the combo sound that I liked. I began playing gospel music and performed many solos as “special music” in church services in the mid-1970’s. “Amazing Grace” being one of my favorites, has become my way of expressing my faith to those who would listen.

The list goes on and on, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, and even parties for dogs, all solo. I play the usual three-four hour parties, with one party lasting up to seven hours, and all by memory. Preferring to see my listeners and play at the same time, I avoid the use of music sheets. Memorized music always comes out better, even with a few mistakes. All over Long Island, the VFW’s, American Legions, Masonic Temples, Churches, Synagogues and Knights of Columbus, have heard me play and sing my songs.

During the summer of 2002, I sold my Model “E” and purchased a MIDI-Accorgan, which is programmed to play digital reproduced sounds like trumpets, sax, piano, etc. This box has expanded my capability and makes me sound like I have a full orchestra behind me. It was a great investment. In 2014, I purchased a Bell MIDI Accordion which I use that on most of my gigs.

Today, I'm still playing my accordion, singing and making people happy. They dance to the music, romance to the music, sing to the music or just listen to it and enjoy it.  You might hear me playing my Hi-Tech MIDI Accordion in restaurants, nursing homes, senior citizens and for private parties.

To me, music has been a language that crosses all barriers, speaking to all people and bringing joy to those who listen. The box has been my pal for over 60 years and I am glad the Lord gave me this special gift