© Chicago Sun Times

Revered accordion, piano virtuoso
JOE VITO | 1930-2010: Sideman played with jazz and classical giants, maintained style uniquely his own

July 13, 2010
BY MAUREEN O'DONNELL modonnell@suntimes.com

After Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, author Tom Wolfe said all pilots began mimicking his unflappable West Virginia drawl.

Revered Chicago sideman Joe Vito had the same effect on musicians.

"There's several hundred 'Joe Vitos' out there in our music community. They've all got his voice down and his catchphrases," said Rich Daniels, chief of Chicago's City Lights Orchestra.

Mr. Vito, a pianist and accordionist who performed with some of the world's top singers, played classical music as expertly as jazz. And with a well-timed pun or joke, he cracked the band up while he was doing it.

He accompanied Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, as well as opera greats Placido Domingo, Catherine Malfitano and Luciano Pavarotti.

His fans include Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" band leader, who sought out Mr. Vito to play his accordion at Severinsen's Italian-themed shows on tour.

"With three notes, he could put you in Italy," Severinsen said. "He was such a delicate, gorgeous player. He was universally loved."

"He could play in the jazz clubs, and he could also play on the stage of the Lyric Opera," Daniels said. "He was a classically trained accordionist and an amazing pianist."

"He played music," said bass player Tom Beranek. "He didn't play notes."

"Joe had a way of saying things musically and emotionally -- it was just unparalleled," said Ed Ward, president emeritus of the Chicago Federation of Musicians. "Everybody could come in and play the same 28 notes and sound the same, and Joe could play the 28 notes, and it was a different song."

Mr. Vito, 79, died June 28 at his Northbrook home from cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts.

He was not only a star of the cabaret era, when clubs like the Blue Max and Mr. Kelly's ruled the Chicago night. He was an in-demand accompanist to the end. He played on countless commercial jingles, and he was a sought-after bandleader at corporate events for Florsheim, Whirlpool and McDonald's, whose founder, Ray Kroc, enjoyed tickling the ivories with him.

The Warsaw Philharmonic asked him to solo at a 100th anniversary bash. He performed at Holland's North Sea Jazz Festival and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Orvieto and Perugia, Italy.

On one memorable trip to Italy, he visited a museum devoted to Puccini, and he charmed the curator so thoroughly that he was soon allowed to play on the Steinway where the conductor composed "Turandot."

Mr. Vito was probably best-known for a long-standing gig at Toulouse with the late violinist Johnny Frigo, composer of jazz classics like "Detour Ahead" and "I told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out."

To watch the pair was to witness "musical telepathy," said Ward. "They were absorbed with each other, and what one would do, the other one would pick up on. Unlike most clubs in Chicago, you could hear a pin drop. When they played everyone paid attention."

Mr. Vito was born Joe Vitaterna. He grew up on Avenue N in the neighborhood near the Indiana border known as East Side. His mother was from Fondi, Italy, and his father was from Castro dei Volsci. His family didn't have much money. "He learned to play piano on a piece of cardboard that had keys," his wife said.

Mr. Vito graduated from Mount Carmel High and received a degree in composition from DePaul University. He never lost the Chicago in his speaking voice, and the many musicians who like to imitate him can sound like a nasal South Side chorus. During the Korean War, Mr. Vito was in the Navy Band.

He met Carole Marturano when they were studio musicians at WBBM. She was a Big Band singer and "He was like the class clown," she said. "If he hated the song he was playing, he'd look at the band, cross his eyes."

Recently, the Vitos recorded a classics CD that sounds like it was made by a couple still very much in love. On a Cole Porter song, Mrs. Vito croons with expert pitch and phrasing: "Every time we say goodbye, I die a little."

The CD was mastered just in time for her to slip it into the casket at his wake July 1.

Mr. Vito also is survived by daughters Amy Vitaterna-Krisolofsky and Julie Strasser; a son Joe; sister Jacqueline Pietrucha, and five granddaughters.

"The 3-year-old called me," Mrs. Vito said, "and said 'Grandma, all I want is Grandpa to come back from heaven and play the piano for me.' "

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