A musician in downtown Suffolk

Published 10:21 pm Wednesday, May 14, 2014

By Frank Roberts

Folks in Suffolk know Andy Damiani as a no-nonsense booster of the town, particularly the downtown business district where he rents spaces to several businesses.

Damiani, one of eight children born to a Corsican mom and an American-born dad, was raised primarily in Richmond.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

In years past I have written about the genial gent and his efforts in behalf of Suffolk. Today, I want to revisit his music career.

In Switzerland he recorded on the Mercury label and, in France on the Selma label.

“I did six albums — all 33 1/3rd,” Damiani said. “There have been re-issues on the Knap label, but I haven’t been able to get any of them. Some of the old ones I played, but they’re scratchy.”

Several moons ago he loaned me a couple of those albums, and my first reaction was, “That’s very good.” They were as good as any of the jazz albums by small groups making the rounds in those days, usually under the heading “Continental Music.”

Damiani also recorded radio transcriptions in Norway, “which used to play all over Europe,” and he made V-Discs, the records made as freebies for armed forces radio stations during and after World War II. When I was a DJ for Armed Forces Radio Service in Nome, Alaska, they were stock in trade.

Damiani began playing violin when he was 14, but the junior high band was up to its musical ears in violinists, so he changed to string bass, joining a dance band at the tender age of 16. Was he good? You don’t get into Juilliard just by — excuse the country expression — pickin’ and grinnin’.

“I went to New York by myself and lived with my brother, Samuel,” he recalled.

There, he worked with several famous jazz musicians such as Tony Mottola and Muggsy Spanier, at first playing in a studio upstairs from Jack Dempsey’s restaurant and later hitting the Catskills circuit with his own band. That was followed by two weeks on Broadway.

His next step was a “hup-two-three-four” affair. His Uncle Sam asked him to don a U.S. Army uniform, and he wound up in Europe, where he performed with a military band that played throughout France.

When he donned civvies he stayed in Europe, living and performing there for nine years, part of the Trio Francois Charpin. Mr. C was a blind pianist. The other musician was Pierre Cazalli, a Swiss guitarist. The three met in Paris just after the war.

One of their gigs took them to a downtown Oslo hotel during the ‘51-’52 Winter Olympics. One member of the audience was Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren. When Andy wasn’t performing he was studying at the conservatory in the Sorbonne.

His next stop was Richmond, then Suffolk and entry into public service.

Andy is still on the air, hosting a weekly show on Charter Cable, “Round Table Talk.” While mayor he also did a radio show, and, he remembered, I played Santa Claus. “We had some good times,” he said. The two of us also hit the stage a few times, yours truly emceeing and Andy, of course, playing his music. We also traveled to a peanut festival in Georgia, along with a few other townsfolk.

Andy met his wife, the former Mary Manos, a Suffolk native, thanks to an introduction by a fellow musician. Like her hubby, she was a downtown enthusiast, often visiting the city center to join him for a meal.

Andy Damiani — what a great life and what a great guy.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.