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August 10, 2013

It takes a village to raise a showman

By Tommy Joy
The Daily Star

---- — Just last night, after singing my last song, a charming 8-year-old girl came up to the bandstand and asked if I would sing one more song.

After telling her that I would be more than happy to, my mind was racing to come up with something that she might enjoy. Without hesitation, she requested “I’ve Got the World on a String,” that great Harold Arlen classic that, among others, Frank Sinatra had recorded.

Needless to say, that I was shocked and thrilled at the same time. After I sang the song (much to her delight), she proceeded to tell me that her favorite music is from the Great American Songbook. What a wonderful way to end my evening.

As I was driving home, thinking about this enchanting young lady and her loving family, I was reminded about my beginnings in music, and growing up in Oneonta.

My first memory of music was watching and listening to my dad playing the mandolin. He noticed that it caught my attention, and before I knew it, there was an electric keyboard in the house.

There were three things that he immediately taught me. Pick really good songs. Keep your tempo steady. And always sing and play on pitch.

With that basic knowledge, we had many great jam sessions for many years. Adding to his mandolin skills, my dad has become a crafty organist as well.

My mom had an equal but more subtle role. I needed an audience! She was my biggest fan. But beyond that, she brought home records that I could listen to and learn from.

Going shopping with Mom was always an adventure in sneaking record albums (remember those?) into her grocery cart. I never got turned down. I was very lucky to have such supportive parents. I’ll never be able to thank them enough.

There was a time when music was part of the “standard equipment” in our public schools, as was the case when I was growing up in Oneonta. At the grade school level, the music teachers were coming by once a week. 

That was fine, but I just wanted more. On my first day of the sixth grade, I knew I was about to have a happy and important year. My teacher was Mr. Joe Campbell. Little did I know that for the next 40 years, he would still have an impact on my singing career. Although not a music teacher, no one was more appreciative or more knowledgeable about the Great American Songbook. He never missed an opportunity to encourage me to play the piano for the class, and even sing a couple of songs. Years later, on his famous radio show, he would put some of my recordings in the mix. His “Sentimental Journey” is missed. Thanks, Mr. Campbell, for all your support.

By the time I got to high school, my interest in academics was definitely waning. I got lucky enough to get into a music theory and appreciation class taught by Mr. Richard Picolla. No one could ever make learning a more enjoyable experience than he did. Going to school was fun again! The sound advice he shared with me gave me the added confidence I needed to pursue my dream. Later, he moved on to become the principal of Riverside Elementary School. The education and music worlds are lucky to have him.

Great musicians were always around for me to enjoy and learn from, too. Early on, my mom and dad would take me to hear some of the local bands headed by the likes of Linus Houck, Jack Stahl and Louis Colone.

Houck, in addition to having a fine band that played private parties, weddings, and hotels, was the owner of Oneonta Music Center. In fact, he sold me my first professional sound system.

He also helped me to join the Musicians Union. He was a good friend who was always there for me.

Stahl is simply one of the finest pianists ever. I have performed all over this great country with hundreds of incredible musicians, and Jack is at the top of this list. When I listen to him I hear shades of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. But make no mistake, he is one of a kind! One night I asked him to play his favorite song. This is a tough request for any working musician because their choice might change every night. That night, he performed a 10-minute rendition of “Deed I Do” that I will remember forever. I was so inspired I started singing it in my shows.

Colone has as much fun as anyone I’ve seen, or performed with. One reason is that he has totally mastered the art form of rhythm and percussion. I’ve had the privilege of sharing the bandstand with him on several occasions, and it’s been educational and fun. He set very high standards and still does. Rarely have I seen any drummer reach his level of perfection. He’s also one of the best storytellers on the planet. I’m still laughing, 30 years later, at some of his wonderful anecdotes.

There are some truly magnificent artists, musicians, and educators in Oneonta. I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with the best of them. What an honor!

I have been singing the songs from the Great American Songbook for over 40 years, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding or fulfilling life. Anyone who can achieve their dreams — or even a part of them — had some help along the way. I was lucky. Educators like Mr. Campbell and Mr. Picolla and musicians like Houck, Stahl and Colone were so inspirational. But of course most important, a mom and dad who supported my musical ambitions every step of the way.

Tommy Joy is a singer, pianist and Oneonta native. His website is www.tommyjoy.org.