From Being Thrown out of kindergarten to composing his own version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, Brooklyn native Roger Rossi has been a successful concert pianist and band leader in Florida.
By Palmer Hasty
Pianist, vocalist, composer and author, Roger Rossi grew up in Bay Ridge. His real name is Roger Rossito. Rossi, 75, and his long time wife and partner Sally (“Sal”) currently live in Palm Beach, Florida. During his life as a band leader and musician performing in nightclubs and high end hotels around the country – particularly in Florida – Rossi has rubbed elbows with some of the 20th Century’s greatest musicians, entertainers, and sports figures. In 2000 he published a book, From the Piano Bench, in which he details his encounters with (to name just a few) the legendary Tony Bennett, crime figure Jimmy Hoffa, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, jazz great Chuck Mangione, movie star Shelley winters, and renown violinist Itzhak Perlman.As a young studio musician he helped write the piano part and performed on the famous 1960s hit single Leader of the Pack by the Shangri Las.
Rossi also wrote his own version of the Schubert classic Ave Maria, which he says came to him in a dream, sung note for note by angels. In 2009, New York Metropolitan Opera star Susan Neves sang what was promoted as Rossi’s World Premier of Ave Maria at the Vero Beach Opera, accompanied on the piano by Rossi himself. (You can hear Rossi’s Ave Maria sung by Neves at this link: http://www.newavemaria.com/).
In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Rossi talked about his Brooklyn background and his life as a musician and band leader.
BE: Where and when were you born in Brooklyn?
RR: “I was born in 1940 at Holy Family Hospital on Bay Street. My uncle was a surgeon there. When I was five years old my family moved to 72nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues in Bay Ridge.”
BE: What schools did you attend?
RR: “As a six-year-old, I was not a good kid. Another boy had ‘stolen’ my fire engine, and when I took it back and he came at me, I hit him on the head with it! He had to go to the hospital. I was just a kid, I was only six years old. Additionally, they threw me out of kindergarten. My parents followed the suggestion of the Pastor at St. Ephram’s Catholic Church in Bay Ridge, and enrolled me into the church’s school. I’m still amazed at how I flourished as a student under the school’s strict discipline policy. I even skipped a grade. The Nuns there loved me because I was such a good student, which goes to show you what some discipline can do to eliminate a kid’s disruptiveness. They changed me for the better. Albeit, I still have a touch of Sicilian temper in me.”
BE: What are some of your memories from Bay Ridge?
RR: “One immediately comes to mind. It was about 1945-46, WWII had just ended and I was five years old. I remember my mother balled me out. I had seen all of the wreaths on the neighborhood doors, honoring the families at those addresses who had lost loved ones during the war. I didn’t realize they were honoring soldiers who had died, I thought they were simply beautiful decorations. So, innocently, I got some branches from a tree and made a wreath and put it on our door so we could have one too. My mother hit the ceiling. She ripped it all up and told me: ‘Never do that again!!. I didn’t understand why she was go angry until later, when I had grown up.”
BE: After you moved from Bay Ridge to Babylon, Long Island, how long was it before you revisited Brooklyn?
RR: “It was slightly over 50 years. My family moved from Brooklyn in 1949, and I visited in 2004. I told my wife I wanted to see Brooklyn again, so we drove a rented car there. Sal, who grew up in London, England, thought Brooklyn was terrific!
I wanted to see my old stomping grounds: McKinley Park, St. Ephrams, 72nd Street, all the things I remembered from my childhood. I was impressed with St. Ephrams. It’s like a small replica of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. As a kid, I never realized how beautiful it was. It was very emotional recalling the wonderful memories I had there as a youngster.
BE: 50 years is a long time?
RR: “Yes, it was a powerful experience for me. I’ve always been proud to say that I lived the early, impressionable days of my life in Brooklyn! By seeing my family’s 72nd street home 50 years later, I realized nothing had changed. I could visualize playing with young friends there, games like: kick the can, hide and seek and stick ball in the streets with my friends. It was a very special visit.”
BE: Can you tell us something about your experience playing backup piano in the hit song “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri Las?
RR: “As ‘Staff Pianist’ I had previously played recording dates for Ultrasonic Studios, so they called me in 1963 to play for Leader of the Pack. George (Shadow) Morton co-wrote the song and produced it. He didn’t know what he wanted for the piano part, so I showed him my ideas. I convinced him. However, the recording itself took 63 ‘takes.’ I still think that was pathetic. For example, Dean Martin went into the studio, did one take, got up and walked out. That was it!
Nevertheless, Leader of the Pack become a #1 hit on the charts in America. The recording was initially banned by the BBC in England, because it was considered immoral for the young girl in the song to be hanging out with a motorcycle pack. Eventually, it was a hit in England too.”
Note: Interestingly, in Rossi’s book he characterized the song this way: “Because of my background, I can’t get too impressed with any piece of ‘music’ that unnecessarily centers its composition around the sound of a motorcycle revving its engine, leaving a strip of rubber on asphalt and eventually crashing. This cacophony of abhorrent sounds is the focal point of “Leader of the Pack” and I find it an assault on my hearing.”
BE: When did you move to Florida?
RR: “We moved to Boca Raton in 1972 and lived there for 7 years with our three children and two dogs. However, Sal and I had to travel too far north to our gigs in West Palm Beach, and North Palm Beach. Sidestepping our driving woes, in 1979 we built a house in Wellington and lived there for 18 years. Although we were closer to our gigs, years later, I took an offer I couldn’t refuse back in Boca; a long term contract with the Boca Raton Hotel and Club, which was one of only two 5-star hotels in Florida. So for many years we ended up driving even further back south to Boca.”
BE: Are you still performing today?
RR: “Yes, I’m a workaholic. Sal doesn’t perform that much anymore, but I perform all the time. I still perform twice every week at various retirement communities. I play the organ and piano at the local Lutheran church every Sunday. I direct the Devonshire Choir, Palm Beach Gardens. I’m paid for three weekly rehearsals and 3 performances a year. My 9-piece big band plays 6 gigs a year at John’s Island Club in Vero Beach. I end up doing about 275 gigs a year.
When I was younger the orchestra sometimes traveled like a rock band on tour but back in 1982 I changed everything. I started my own music company, Roger Rossi Music, and since then we only play one-time gigs. It meant, less gigs, less traveling, and more money.
BE: At 75 do you think about retiring?
RR: “We’ve done well and feel blessed. We could’ve retired probably 12 years ago, but we’re still enjoying it all. Why retire? Life is grand.”
Photo courtesy of Roger Rossi Music.