Bellowing out loud
Silver State Accordion Club is trying to save their beloved instrument, one ringing note at a time
There’s a baseball game winding up inside the small, slate-blue house off Clemson Street. Or maybe it’s a carousel, with indifferent pink horses carrying ice cream-sticky children up and down a golden rail. Then again, there could be a screening of The Godfather going on or a rollicking polka dance.
This house, pumping away with the happy rhythm of carnivals, must be the home of the Silver State Accordion Club.
Members of the group sit knee-to-knee in a circle around Mary Poe’s living room, music stands before them, accordions on their laps. Poe, a club member herself, hosts this shindig every Monday morning so the group can gear up for its performances at Pierino’s Ristorante, where they work for tips the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
Fresh doughnuts sit on the kitchen table; someone has brought food for lunch. But it’s mid-morning now, and the group is just hitting its stride two hours into a five-hour practice session.
There are about 600 years of musical experience in this room. The youngest member is Maureen Kody in her mid-50s; the oldest is Rollie Pagni at 86. Most are in their 60s. About half come from professional music backgrounds, and half are Italian. There are elementary school teachers, cake makers and retired music store owners, engineers, technical writers and secretaries here. Many of them played accordion in their youth and dropped it when they got married or joined the workforce. Most picked it up again in retirement, often after reading about this group in community ads for their Pierino gigs.
“There’s a lot of old accordions in the closet,” says club president John Covarelli, resting between sets in his bright white socks and black shoes.
Someone calls out a tune, and the room becomes a chorus of accordions—some take the lead, others form the bass. The musicians wink and smile as they play, arms fanning the bellows in and out slowly, fingers emphatically hitting chords on the keyboard and buttons, all accompanied by a rhythmic shrugging of the shoulders.
They needle each other between songs. They laugh about inside jokes and talk about the old days, old bands and history. In this room, time slips backwards, which is one reason they’re here. They revere Dick Contino—the “Elvis of the Accordion,” who made “Lady of Spain” famous in the 1950s. Poe’s fingers fly across the keys as she demonstrates the fast and furious novelty tune of her musical hero. They go around the room with solos, showcasing each members’ abilities and the accordion’s versatility with styles—classical, jazz, boogie, polka, musette, waltz, country and western.
With a gentle smile and a tapping toe, Rollie Pagni plays “Tag-a-Rag” as Poe breaks out singing and clapping her hands. Pagni started playing 80 years ago at age 6. He was a butcher for 35 years, a job that scarred both his hands. He cut the tip off the finger of one hand in the hamburger machine. While he was making a veal pocket, a delivery boy hit him in the arm, cutting his other hand so badly it required a nine-hour surgery. “It doesn’t slow me down,” he says with a grin.
Each member takes turns calling out a song to practice. Larry Stegmiller calls for “La Española,” and dramatic, passionate minor chords infuse the room with a Bah-pa-pa, Bah-pa-pa.
“Just like on the record!” says Covarelli at the end of the song.
“I think it was tight as hell that time,” says Stegmiller.
But for all of the encouragement this group gives to its members, it’s not a place for big egos. There seems to be a respect that allows them not to have to mince words, which Poe shows at the end of “La Española.”
“I don’t want to embarrass you,” she says to Covarelli, “but you didn’t do it right.” She says it with a smile, but she’s also serious. She was an accordion teacher for 25 years, after all, and this group is trying to improve itself. She noted a slight difference in the way Covarelli was playing compared to the rest of the group, and she demonstrates the right way on her accordion. He fixes the mistake, and the band plays on.
It’s Covarelli’s turn to pick a song, and he selects “Fantasia.” A few measures into it, Nash D’Angelo stops the group, saying, “Who’s hitting all the wrong chords?”
The group looks around. Covarelli says, “Let’s not point fingers; let’s just play it again.” This time, it was Poe’s mistake, and she admits it.
Saving the accordion
The accordion’s beginnings date back some 2,000 years to an ancient Chinese wind instrument called the Cheng or Sheng. It represents the free reed part of the accordion. A German instrument maker put expanded bellows on a portable keyboard in 1822, and a Viennan modified it and patented the name “accordion” in 1829. Most accordions now are made in Italy, which exports about 75 percent of the accordions made there.
The reeds, bellows, keyboard and bass section make up the accordion’s main parts. Switches can change the instrument’s tone to resemble a bassoon, piccolo, clarinet, violin or oboe to be more characteristic of the tune. For example, the bassoon switch creates a more romantic sound, whereas the organ or full accordion switches would better suit a polka. Roughly 130 little black buttons make up different chords. The fanning bellows are used for expression—the harder you pull, the louder it plays.
While the accordion has been heard backing up people like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, modern music has generally pushed the instrument aside. Its rather unfashionable reputation is alluded to in common descriptions of its sound—"nostalgic,” “Old World music,” “the sound of a simpler time.”
“Accordions were very popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Then guitars came in,” says Jeannine Ernst, a club member with well-coiffed blondish-gray hair and bold pink lipstick. Jeannine played professionally years ago. Then she met her husband at a nightclub and quit playing music in order to raise her family. Now that her kids are grown, she’s back at the accordion.
Covarelli adds that many accordion factories closed down with the onset of rock ‘n’ roll. He says accordion making, as well as playing, is generally passed down from generation to generation—many in the newer generations would rather play something else. “We’re just holding our own now,” says Covarelli.
There are exceptions to the idea that the accordion is only for the above-50 set. Covarelli’s grandson plays the accordion as well as the bass and guitar. And it’s not unusual to see 300 teenagers playing “Lady of Spain” together at the annual Cotati Accordion Festival in California.
But, for the most part, the accordion-playing demographics look much like the musicians in this room.
D’Angelo, who’s known to play a mean “Dizzy Fingers,” learned the accordion from his father when he was 5 years old, and he’s passed it down in his own family. “At this point in time, it’s becoming a lost art,” he says.
But the group hopes to change that in their own small way. Poe says that since the club started a couple years ago, more people have been dusting off their accordions and stepping into her living room. The Silver State Accordion Club began with five regular members and now numbers just about a dozen. “We’re hoping we’ll save the accordion,” she says.