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Copyright © 2004 The News-Enterprise

picozziAN ACCORDION OBSESSION: Don Picozzi is living the dream,

BY JERIANNE STRANGE

Don Picozzi knows he could have been an OK bricklayer, just not a very happy one.

When he was 18, he lived with his parents in his hometown of Cleveland. During the day, he worked with his father as an apprentice bricklayer.

At night, he donned a tuxedo and stepped out on the stage with The Velvatones Four — a group of older, seasoned musicians that had steady dates at many high-profile supper clubs in and around Cleveland. It was at night that Picozzi would shine, his heart really into what he was doing.

And what he was doing — and still does — is play the accordion.
"I started playing the accordion when I was 7," he said. "I knew I wanted to be a musician the day I started accordion lessons. It was my passion then and it is my passion now."

Picozzi owns First Line Specialty Advertising in Elizabethtown and publishes the FunFacts paper, a monthly newsletter of "amusing bits and pieces for the heartland of Kentucky."

But it is on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as on Sunday afternoons, that the musician wears his most contented smile, for it is then his fingers caress the keys of his accordion. He and guitarist Cleon Jenkins are the featured entertainers Fridays at the Schnitzel Barn in Vine Grove. On Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, they play for the pleasure of diners at The Coffee Tree Restaurant at the Holiday Inn in Elizabethtown.

"My folks always had music in the house," Picozzi, 59, said of his childhood. "I was born and raised in a little Italian neighborhood and the accordion was the main instrument. In the '40s and '50s the accordion was more popular than the guitar."

He spent seven years as a student of Joe Trolli, a talented musician and composer who, in 1948, established the Collinwood Music Center. Trolli later collaborated with Frank Yankovic and others to create some famous Cleveland-style music. (Trolli was inducted to the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in 1989. Yankovic, named "America's Polka King" in 1948, also is a member and, in 1986, was the first performer to ever win a Grammy Award for polka music.)

At 14, Picozzi found his toes tapping to a different type of accordion music. He began lessons with another talented teacher who was focusing "on the music of the day … original rock of the 50's & 60's, jazz and pop dance music," Picozzi said.

His internal struggle hit a high point as he was entering adulthood. He was playing with The Velvetones Four and was enrolled in the jazz music program at the Modern Music School. His dad, a bricklayer, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.

"So I did it," Picozzi said. "I went to work as a union apprentice bricklayer."
While he toiled through the day, he thought of taking to the stage at night. A phone call changed the direction of his life.

"When I was eighteen years old, Mr. Al Petromilli, the owner of a well-known music school and where I obtained most of my musical education, called my father and in typical Italian fashion asked for his permission to talk to me about teaching at the school," Picozzi said. "When my father told me about it, he knew he had lost me then, that the accordion had won."

For the next several years he taught six days a week, providing guidance to about 70 students. Four or five nights a week he and The Velvetones Four provided entertainment at various venues.

Another major decision came when he was asked to join the Frank Yankovic Band and tour with them through Europe and across the United States, ending the run with a long stay in Las Vegas.

"I didn't want to be known as a polka player … and I knew that once I got to Las Vegas, I'd get with a comedy show group I'd be more comfortable with," Picozzi said. "But at that age of my life, the bright lights of Vegas could have been detrimental to my remaining faithful to my religious beliefs. And it would have been a great disappointment to my father. So I had to make a decision."
He decided to focus his talents and attention as a fulltime representitve of his religious affiliation, Jehovah's Witnesses. In was in this capacity that he came to Elizabethtown in 1969.

"I've wonder a time or two what might have happened if I had followed the other road," he said.

He and his wife, Susan, whom he met in Cleveland, settled in Hardin County. Picozzi still played an occasional party or wedding reception. Then Ed Drake, who owned the Holiday Inn North in Elizabethtown at the time, approached him about playing at the hotel's restaurant.
"It started out I was just playing for the Sunday buffet," Picozzi said. "It quickly turned into three, sometimes four nights a week. I did that for many years."

As Elizabethtown expanded, he said, the music stopped. "Mr. Drake had passed away, and there was no real interest in having an accordion player play. Again, I was at a crossroads with my music. I decided I had had a wonderful run, had great memories. And I decided to hang it up and not play anymore."

His accordion lay silently tucked in a closet for the next 16 years.
As he went about his daily business, he often ate lunch at Backstage Café, where owners Bruce and Carla Riggs-Hall Caldera, along with regular performers at the café, would talk about their musical endeavors.
Several years ago, the Calderas asked Picozzi to perform during a special "Little Italy" night.

"I asked for a month to practice and get ready," Picozzi said. "Agreeing to do it was a wonderful decision. It jump-started my musical career again. I realized how much I had missed it."
Shortly afterward, management from 3 Putt Willie's asked him to play there. Picozzi teamed up with Jazz guitarist Cleon Jenkins and soon the pair were playing regularly at area eateries.

"Thus, I was back in the music business and loving it," he said with a contented smile.

After Cleon Jenkins retired, Picozzi formed a partnership with an extremely gifted musician, Jazz Guitarist Mike Biggs. Biggs has performed with many top entertainers in the county including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Herb Ellis, Billy Vaughn, Bob Hope, Perry Como, Jerry Read, Rod Stuart to mention just a few.

As a team, Don Picozzi-Mike Biggs and Company are very much in demand and stay busy entertaining in high-profile restaurants and venues throughout the state.

He now plays a MIDI — a Musical Interface Digital Instrument that he describes as a computerized accordion that is also capable of adding a wide repertoire of background music.

Does he ever think of hanging it up again?

"Nope. I'll never quit," he said. "I'll do this forever."


Jerianne Strange can be reached at 769-1200, Ext. 236, or by e-mail at

 

 

 
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