By Paul V. Palange
During a chat a few months ago with co-workers about favorite movies, someone mentioned that the accordion player in the band that’s in the wedding scene in the “The Godfather” is from Rhode Island. Naturally, I asked for a name and was told the musician is Angelo Di Pippo.
I tracked down his telephone number and finally gave him a call one recent Sunday, and we had a delightful conversation. The fact that he told me I’m “just a child starting out” has everything to do with that conclusion.
Even though Angelo stated a few times that his mother always told him to never disclose his age, he had a weak moment and said he turned 90 on Sept. 6. “Everybody I know is dead, and I’m getting close,” he quipped shortly before the big reveal. However, his quick wit and seemingly strong cognitive skills didn’t leave me with that impression.
One impression he did make is that of being a no nonsense type of guy. Asked what it was like filming “The Godfather” and if he met any members of the star-studded cast, he scoffed and said, “I wasn’t interested in that. I got the job, I got the money and I got home.” Besides being in the film, Angelo played on the soundtrack for the movie.
Di Pippo was born in Providence and grew up on Federal Hill, where his father operated Silvio Di Pippo & Sons, a jewelry and musical instrument store on Atwells Avenue. He graduated from La Salle Academy in the Capital City and Holy Cross College in Worcester. He earned a master’s degree from Long Island University in New York and received an honorary doctorate from Five Towns College in Dix Hills, N.Y.
Angelo didn’t major in music at Holy Cross, and credits his success as an accordion player and musical arranger to some really good instructors he started studying with as a teenager. When he was 14 and 15, he would take the train to New York City for lessons with Joe Biviano – “the best music teacher” — and in Providence, he was schooled by Ernest Pagliarini and Salvatore Fransusi.
After graduating from Holy Cross, Di Pippo went to New York City, got his union card and embarked on his journey as a professional accordion player. He played at the Plaza Hotel and became a staff musician at WOR-TV. Angelo did shows for the ABC and NBC networks and for various local stations. He formed a jazz group, featuring Sam Most on flute and Tommy Potter on bass, and they appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, Birdland Jazz Club in Manhattan, Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village and several other venues. The trio, which twice appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, also recorded an album on the Apollo label titled “The Jazz Accordion.”
Angelo played accordion on Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Carnival,” “Irma La Douce” and “The Zulu and the Zayde;” and was assistant conductor of the Broadway play “Poor Murderer.”
He’s done “a ton of recordings,” playing with artists such as Randy Newman, Peggy Lee, Jonathan Tunick, Toots Theilemans, Eddie Daniels, Harry Belafonte, Theodore Bikel, Don Sebesky, Alan King, Max Kaminsky, Judy Collins, Jimmy Dean, Jerry Vale, Al Martino, Jackie Gleason, The Ramones, Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops, Gilbert Becaud, Buddy De Franco, Connie Francis, Jimmy Roselli, Claudio Villa, Lester Lanin and Raymond Scott.
The accordion was once a popular instrument. He said thousands of people used to play it, but that “when The Beatles became popular,” everyone went to the guitar.”
“To learn the accordion you have to study,” he said, while someone can get away with mastering a few chords to play the guitar.
“The accordion is dead. It’s a dead issue. It’s been phased out,” he added, which is why he has been making a living writing and producing hundreds of albums for artists such as Billy Eckstine, Enzo Stuarti, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, La Tayna Hall, Mary Duff, the Four Lads, Connie Haines, Bob Hardwick, Lynn Roberts and Ansy DeRose – a very popular Haitian singer.
“I’ve done so many things. It’s stupid,” Angelo said as he told me about a career that also included being the conductor and arranger for the Metropolitan Opera baritone star Robert Merrill for 23 years; doing extensive arranging and conducting for Roberta Peters, another Met standout; and arranging and conducting a concert at the Lincoln Center that featured James Earl Jones.
Di Pippo has appeared on the “Today Show,” the “Regis Philbin Show,” “Sesame Street,” the “Jackie Gleason Show” and the Sammy Kay Show.” He played with the New York City Ballet, and wrote a five-part fusion album set that celebrates the music of American theater composer Jerome Kern. Among the singers on the set are Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Kenton, Nancy Wilson and Anita O’Day.
In addition to “The Godfather” soundtrack, Angelo has played on the soundtracks of many other films, including “Wise Guys,” “Lovers and Other Strangers,” “Johnny Skidmarks” and “Almost You.”
Furthermore, Angelo, who was voted best accordionist in the prestigious Keyboard Magazine poll and was honored at the 2011 Las Vegas International Accordion Convention for contributions to accordion music and culture through artistry and performance, wrote and recorded some of the music for the Woody Allen film “To Rome with Love” and the Clint Eastwood movie “The 15:17 to Paris.”
Questioned about the secret to longevity, Di Pippo said he doesn’t think about that. Claiming he is “old as hell,” and that he still works because he needs the money,” he told me that he is a traditional Catholic that attends the Latin Mass and “hopes for the best.”
Don’t we all?