by Salvatore Ala
|His accordion was inlaid
with diamonds he played for King Edward VIII
his fingers were insured. Windsor boy Orlando Bracci (left),
was The Accordion King.
was 1931 and a new king was about to be crowned. A wealthy,
mysterious New York patron had heard a talented Windsor boy play
his accordion in Detroit and decided to sponsor his education in
England. The patron remains unknown, though there is some speculation
that he was a New York underworld figure with Detroit connections.
The boy was Orlando Bracci, soon to be known as The Accordion
Orlando performed at public and private parties in both England
and Ireland, and was broadcast live over the British Broadcasting
System. King Edward stated he had never heard the accordion
played with such rhythm. (Orlando, on his part, thought, the
King was swell.) He also performed at the famous Savoy in
There was something wild about Orlandos playing, a hypnotic
gypsy-like character to his sound, as though he could make the accordion
sing. No one could move on stage like Orlando Bracci. He had a Jerry-Lee-Lewis
and Elvis-Presley charisma long before rock and roll, and was an
attractive, powerfully built man.
There were times, said Stan Jerovi of Windsor, also an accordionist
and proprietor of Rennies Music on Wyandotte East, when
Orlando played with so much passion he seemed to want to tear the
accordion apart. Orlando played at Windsors Elmwood
Hotel during its glory days, where he met many entertainers who
were to become stars, among them Jimmy Durante and Tony Bennett.
Among Windsors Italian community, Orlando Bracci was a legend.
Some of his most legendary performances were not in clubs, but in
the homes and backyards of his friends. Couples strolling down Erie
St. could hear the sound of what could only be Orlando Braccis
accordion drifting melodiously in the summer air. But there was
one house where he let the muse fully possess him, the home of his
friend John Gasparini, father of Windsor-born writer Len Gasparini.
Len was perhaps 14, but he remembers Orlando playing through the
night, his white shirt transparent with sweat, his body swaying,
playing the accordion on his lap as though he were making love to
the music. Those were summer nights of wine and roses and song,
and Len recalls being in bed, still hearing the sensuous notes of
Orlandos accordion long into the night. When he played Spanish
Eyes, the song most often requested of Orlando, it sounded like
the most romantic song ever written.
But with Orlandos talent came the eccentricities and excesses
of greatness, especially the rigours of a musicians night
life. Stan Jerovi recalled an incident when Orlando, in the middle
of a song, put down his accordion and walked off the stage of the
Elmwood, only to return two days later without any explanation.
Orlando attended the famous Pietro Deiro Piano-Accordion School
in Greenwich Village, New York. The very first school of its kind,
it was to produce many accomplished musicians. The late Pietro Deiro
and his brother Guido Deiro were considered the two greatest accordionists
of the century. Guido Deiro is famous as the composer of Kismet,
the theme song of a smash Broadway musical, and a song that was
featured in two Hollywood movies. His other claims to fame are that
he was one of the highest paid Vaudeville performers of all time,
making an amazing 600 dollars a week in 1910. And last, though certainly
not least, Guido Deiro was to marry Hollywood sex goddess, Mae West,
who might have at one time said to her husband, is that an
accordion in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.
Orlando Bracci could not have been in better company. Already a
precocious young talent in 1939, Orlando refined his technique with
the touches of master Guido Deiro. Another graduate of the Pietro
Deiro School, Carmen Carrozza, is perhaps the most celebrated classical
accordionist of the day. He has appeared as soloist with the New
York Philharmonic, under the direction of Andre Kostelanetz, and
with the Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Fiedler.
Ironically, Carmen Carrozza took his first accordion lesson with
Pat Ciccione of Windsor, and remembers Orlando Bracci from their
days together at the Deiro School. Orlando Bracci, he
said, along with Pixie Dean, were Canadas two greatest
Randy Bracci poses with his fathers
accordion diploma and a poster of Orlando playing at the Savoy.
was the son of Italian immigrants. His Venetian-born wife, Alice
Battagello, was a beauty. The September 6, 1939 Windsor Star pictures
a radiant Alice Battagello as Miss Windsor. Their son, Randy, was
only three years old when his father died on April 12, 1960, of
a heart attack. Though Orlando had immense strength, he was also
diabetic and the strenuous work schedule of a professional musician
took an early toll. He was only 41. A simple gravestone on the southwest
grounds of St. Alphonsus Cemetery marks his final resting place.
Alice Bracci, who died in 1985, ensured she preserved for Randy
the memory of his father.
Randy lives in Essex, with his wife Liz, and their two daughters
Ashley and Brianne. Though Randy was just a toddler when his father
died, he remembers his father waking him in the morning, which was
the only time the musician could spend time with his son. Then
one morning, he didnt come into my room to wake me up,
Randy said, but it was not until I was about five that I understood
my father had died.
Randy has many memories of his fathers legacy preserved in
boxes of photographs, newspaper clippings, and programs and
a Sonic 78 record on which his father performs Lady of Spain, Spanish
Eyes, and a virtuoso rendition of Cole Porters classic Begin
the Beguine. One poster bills Orlando as Canadas Greatest
Accordionist. There is not one picture where Orlando was not
happy and smiling. He never scolded me, Randy said.
I was his little prince.
Randy even has the bullet that field surgeons extracted from his
fathers leg when he was wounded during WWII when serving with
the Canadian Armed Forces. (Rather than return home, Orlando entertained
the troops with the Canadian Air Force show known as The Blackouts.)
can now only speculate how far Orlandos career would have
taken him if he had not died at so young an age. But just as in
all the arts, those who die young leave the legend of their talent
and the fire of their youth behind them. Long live the memories
of Windsors own Accordion King.