JoeMc on 02/18/2010 at 09:00AM
One of the all-time great artistes of the accordion was a diminutive Sicilian immigrant with bad eyesight and a bum lip named Pietro Frosini. Although he was barely five feet tall, he stood head-and-shoulders above the players of his day. Even today, among accordionists, he is considered to be one of the greatest players who ever hoisted the instrument. He lived up to his renown as "The Wizard of the Accordion."
What made him so special? Well, technical facility for one thing. The dude could play rings around just about anybody. He wasn't just fast, but flawless, his playing almost liquid in its sure and smooth motion. Not only that, but he was doing it on a chromatic accordion, a beast harder to master than the standard piano accordion. Chromatic accordions rely on a button system instead of a keyboard system, with more complicated fingering patterns and other arm and wrist gymnastics. The buttons are set up on the chromatic scale of half-step intervals instead of the standard major and minor scales most employed by musical instruments. Frosini made playing this challenging instrument sound easy.
Frosini was indeed technically accomplished, but what makes him such a master is that he also had taste. His playing is rarely busy. Take a listen to his version of "Wedding of the Winds" and see if you don't agree, and then read on below for more about the "Wizard of the Accordion."
Pietro Giuffrida was born in Sicily in 1885 and had a somewhat bizarre childhood. At the age of 3, an attack of the measles left him nearly blind; he recovered his eyesight somewhat, but it was never the same. At the age of 6, he was kidnapped by a neighborhood weirdo who imprisoned the boy for six months, leaving authorities perplexed as to what happened to him. Pietro was recovered once the truth was discovered, but it must have caused the boy to turn inward. Not long afterwards, after toying with a child's accordion for awhile, Pietro immersed himself in the instrument, soon playing his father's full-size chromatic accordion by the age of 8.
Clearly a prodigy, Frosini was entered into the local conservatory of fine arts at age 10. He had to put aside the accordion, however, since it was not an accepted instrument. Instead, he mastered the cornet, studying music theory and composition. He finished his studies at the prestigious Milan Conservatory before shipping out to Malta with the British Navy Band, who needed a good cornetist. In Malta, he contracted malaria, which permanently messed up his lips, affecting his ability to play. The cornet's loss was the accordion's gain as Frosini returned to his original instrument.
Frosini, not even 20 years old, made the trip to the new world, landing in San Francisco. He wasn't there very long when he was spotted by a vaudeville agent who quickly snatched him up for the high-profile Orpheum circuit of vaudeville houses. Accordionists from Italy were already popular attractions, including the famous Deiro brothers, who popularized the piano accordion most of us recognize today. They created such a vogue for the instrument, in fact, that Frosini felt compelled to disguise his chromatic accordion with a fake keyboard panel so as not to limit his bankability!
Record companies came calling, and in 1907 Frosini began to record for Edison. "Wedding of the Winds" was, in fact, Frosini's very first Edison cylinder recording, although the version we hear here is his longer 1913 remake. This waltz was hugely popular in its day, and other accordionists, including Pietro Deiro, recorded versions of it, but Frosini's is the smoothest and surest. Recording popular songs like this was a departure for Frosini, who had spent most of his time mastering operatic overtures and other classical pieces. Not immune to the appeal of three-square meals a day, however, he soon made the leap and recorded a mix of classical and popular pieces for the remainder of his career.
Frosini continued in vaudeville until about 1925, when the form was already giving up the ghost. He started to teach and got a job with WOR radio in New York, where he eventually settled with his wife. Along the way he made many records (including my personal favorite for Decca, "Accordiomania" b/w "Hot Fingers") and performed all over the world, even giving a command performance for King George V of England. He also composed tons of his own material, and by the time of his death in 1951, he had written over 200 original pieces for accordion, many of which are still practiced today by aspiring accordionists.
Unfortunately, there isn't any Frosini available on CD (except a poorly mastered one that came out in 2001 and is probably long gone). Hopefully some company will follow the lead of Archeophone, who have been doing right by Frosini's contemporary Guido Deiro and pull some Frosini together. For now, his legacy lives on in the form of the International Frosini Society, who operate out of Sweden. You can also find a Frosini track here and there on the Interweb, including at least one more (for now) on the FMA.