For years I have been impressed by Ron Richardello’s “After Hours” album — which I picked up at the local Goodwill — and his visionary, exceptional accordion playing.
I knew little about Richardello until this summer, when his obituary appeared in the Transcript. Shortly after that, I got an email from Richardello’s son, Rick, in regard to a blog post I wrote about his father’s music.
Rick agreed to an interview about his dad, a good opportunity to find out more about Richardello’s work and introduce him to newer residents of the Northern Berkshires who had never heard of him.
Rick says that his dad started playing accordion when he was about seven, picked up from Richardello’s Uncle Alfred. He grew up in a volatile environment and found peace with his instrument.
“That was part of his reasoning for sticking with the instrument,” Rick said. “He could lock himself in his room and practice for eight hours.”
As Richardello continued, his parents sent him around for instruction. Once he would tap one teacher out of his expertise and knowledge, Richardello moved onto the next, and this required a lot of travel.
“He very obviously had a gift,” Rick told me. “He excelled at it. Almost prodigy type excel at it. Dad was doing classical pieces on the accordion. He didn’t have the have sheet music in front of him. He’d learn it and replay everything note for note, just from memory. He could visualize the music in his mind and that would translate to playing.”
Richardello began performing for audiences in his teens, in the late ’50s. There was an appearance on Major Bowes Amateur Hour with an all-accordion band. He opened the Philharmonic Studio in 1958 and performed with the studio orchestras sometimes.
In an interview with the Transcript on March 29, 1962, Richardello told reporter Richard G. McGurk, “I want people to accept the accordion as a serious musical instrument, and take the music played upon it seriously.”
The early ’60s saw him tour with Carmen Carrozza and his Accordion Symphony Orchestra, and study under Art Van Damme, but 1965 was the year that promised to change his life when actor/comedian George Jessel approached him to come on tour in Vietnam with the USO. Richardello taped an appearance on the brand new Dean Martin Show before leaving with Jessel.
During one flight in the tour, his jet was fired upon by the Viet Cong.
Richardello would go on nine trips to Vietnam with Jessel, a point of pride for Richardello that had a dark side.
In 1989, Richardello told Transcript reporter William Sweet, “I remember swimming with George, when a three- or four-year-old child came down with a grenade, the pin pulled out. Our security guard had to shoot him. I didn’t eat for three days.”
Richardello’s time with Jessel yielded lighter stories, too, with frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, and parties with the Hollywood elite. He played Tahoe with Sammy Davis, Jr., and met General Douglas MacArthur.
“He told me a story of when he was 18 years old and traveling with Jessel,” Rick said. “He was at a party in Beverly Hills with Jessel and Ann-Margret hit on him. He told me how scared to death he was. Ann-Margret was probably one of the hottest redheads who ever lived, and he said all he could do was stand there with his mouth on the floor. He couldn’t say anything, he couldn’t do anything.”
Richardello began suffering more from chronic back pain, related to scoliosis that he had lived with, and which had been made worse by heavy accordions played with no accordion stand.
“The problems would cause numbness in his hands and extreme pain,” said Rick. “He went through chronic pain from then until the day he died. He refused drugs, any kind of pain meds, and he would play through the pain. He was never the type to rely on prescription medications for anything. In his later years, he had no choice, his problems got so bad.”
In 1967 he fell down a flight of stairs and cracked a disc in his back, which set off an endless series of surgeries over the next couple decades. This was also the year his first album, “After Hours,” was released. Richardello was backed up by a 27-member band, including members of the Tonight Show Orchestra.
His second and last album, “Brand New Bag,” came out in 1969, and featured a stellar jazz line-up: bass player Milt Hinton, trumpeter Ernie Royal, trumpeter Snooky Young and tenor saxophonist Seldon Powell.
The same year, Richardello married Susan Spada.
In the early ’70s, there was a brief stint living and touring Canada, with his band of North Adams musicians, Poor Richard, which existed in different configurations over the next 15 years.
Rick was born in North Adams shortly after that. Richardello made his living partly with a shop called New Photo and Camera on Eagle Street, and partly by playing music locally.
“Back then, there were quite a few venues for local jazz bands,” Rick told me. “Dad was out playing every weekend and did the photo shop during the week.”
During that period, around 1978, Richardello also had a band called Ma’s Chops, played gigs at the British Maid in Williamstown, at least once with Milt Hinton.
He also did studio sessions in New York City, including some for George Benson and Wes Montgomery.
“Dad did some recording for James Brown at one point and they became really good friends,” Rick said. “I remember being five or six years old and going to one of James’ shows in Albany. We would go back to James’ trailer and him and dad would sit there and talk for a couple hours, and James is bouncing me on his knee.”
Rick also met stars like Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart and Sting thanks to his dad and his studio work with his accordion synthesizers, the Cordovox and the humongous, MIDI-capable Synkord.
“He could play horns, he could play regular keyboard sounds,” Rick said. “He didn’t have to use the bellows, he could leave it shut and use it as an electronic keyboard.”
In the late ’80s, Richardello worked for General Electric in Pittsfield, but layoffs in 1987 sent him to Tennessee for work, during which time he did not perform. After a divorce in 1989, he was eager to play music again. In December, Richardello returned to North Adams to play at the Mohawk Theater for a high school music program benefit. It was the first time Rick played on stage with his father.
In 1992, Richardello was arrested for assault with intent to murder against his mother. Rick says that the whole thing was a misunderstanding between his father, grandmother and police, but it was the beginning of a spiral from which Richardello never recovered.
“During that time period, my dad went through a lot,” Rick told me, “and going through what he went through, he made a lot of bad decisions and hurt people.”
Richardello got three-years probation and returned to Tennessee, hoping to get back into music. He announced a Nashville recording project with Rick that was to include former Elvis and Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton, as well as a documentary about his own life. Neither of those ever happened.
“Years upon years of abusing his body playing accordion and the surgeries, it finally took its toll, it finally finished him at being able to perform,” Rick said. “He took some stabs at producing, he took some stabs at playing a regular keyboard, which he was very good at, but it was never the same for him. As time progressed, he was getting more and more crippled.”
By 2000, things looked bad for Richardello. Personal and family tensions saw him cut himself off from loved ones. Money problems hounded him, resulting in the loss of his home and a move to public housing in 2007. And the physical pain got worse.
Richardello had a heart attack in May of 2012, then further problems with arthritis. He died in July.
During his father’s demise, Rick carried on the family tradition in his own way as a keyboard player, guitarist and singer. Starting in the late ’90s, he performed and recorded in the Christian music industry. He currently heads up the rock band Plan of Action, after leaving Christian music in 2008.
“My faith has always been there,” he said. “It’s one of those things where the Christian music industry is run just like the secular music industry, there is no difference. As a matter of fact, it’s probably more cutthroat, and I got fed up with it.”
Upon his father’s death, a pile of memorabilia was found in the house, and Rick and his sister are currently sifting through it all — photos, clippings, sheet music, records, even the master tapes for Richardello’s two albums. His plan is to try and digitize all the paper media and photos, but hopes that someone out there might be interested in his father’s seminal recordings as he tried to change the world’s perception of accordion forever.
Perhaps some small label somewhere is interested in preserving the positive side of his father’s legacy for current and future audiences.
“I look at all that stuff and then I think about the life my dad led from 1987 forward, and I think to myself, what the hell happened?” Rick said. “Was the divorce from my mom just so traumatic for him that it did this to him? I don’t think so.”
“He did a lot in his lifetime and he was a typical musician. Dad was eccentric. My mom has a joke. ‘Your dad thought he was eccentric. I just thought he was weird.’”