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The Accordion King

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”.

 

It 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 King.”

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 London, England.

There was something wild about Orlando’s 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 Rennie’s Music on Wyandotte East, “when Orlando played with so much passion he seemed to want to tear the accordion apart.” Orlando played at Windsor’s Elmwood Hotel during its glory days, where he met many entertainers who were to become stars, among them Jimmy Durante and Tony Bennett.

Among Windsor’s 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 Bracci’s 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 Orlando’s 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 Orlando’s talent came the eccentricities and excesses of greatness, especially the rigours of a musician’s 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 Canada’s two greatest accordionists.”

Randy Bracci poses with his father’s accordion diploma and a poster of Orlando playing at the Savoy.

Orlando 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 didn’t 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 father’s 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 Porter’s classic Begin the Beguine. One poster bills Orlando as “Canada’s 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 father’s 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.”)

We can now only speculate how far Orlando’s 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 Windsor’s own “Accordion King.”


 

 

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