Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Joe Vito: An Appreciation

Joseph Vitaterna was the name given to him by his parents, but among at least three generations of Chicago musicians he was known simply as Joe. He was like Prince or Madonna in that regard; no last name required.

One doesn’t acquire that kind of recognition easily, especially among working musicians – we’re a tough crowd. Joe Vito was a truly larger than life character, evoking a smile or a chuckle whenever his name was mentioned in conversation. He was much more than an excellent pianist, accompanist, accordionist and arranger. He had a long and very successful career in a business that can eat you alive. Joe accomplished so many things with grace, effortlessness and one of the most wicked wits I’ve ever encountered.

There are a thousand stories. There’s the long collaboration between Joe and violinist Johnny Frigo, his legendary capacity for liquor and long monologues, the many cornball jokes, the high profile gigs with Luciano Pavarotti, the Chicago Symphony, countless theatrical and corporate shows, recordings etc etc.

But I’ll mostly remember the man who treated me with the utmost kindness and professional respect - way more than I ever deserved. Joe hired me to play the memorial concert at Symphony Center for his beloved pal Mr. Frigo – that was a high honor. I played his “return to action” gig after some fairly serious surgery a few years ago. The two of us carpooled up and back to a very goofy duo gig at the Kohler compound in Wisconsin (yes, I did have to drive home). Joe was the most frequent visitor at the Chicago Hilton and Towers when I was working there in the late 80’s with my dear friend Peter Polzak and John’s son Rick Frigo.

Many of us who knew him have favorite Joe lines. Mine was more of an admonition: “Never try to bullshit a bullshitter.” And, of course, the infamous “You don’t know…” followed by a long story.

Joe Vito left us on July 28, 2010. He had long suffered the pain and indignities of cancer. One of his final projects was a recording he’d been working on for a long time with his wife Carole March Vito, an amazing musician and woman in her own right. I’m sure it’ll be outstanding, just the way everything else Joe ever touched was.