High school prom season’s pretty well over, at least where I live. It looks like the local newspapers have squeezed out their very last prom photo galleries.
(I used to work for a chain of weekly papers in Massachusetts that considered local proms to be a big annual rite of passage and a must-cover. I escaped having to cover my town’s prom by the simple method of getting married and going on my honeymoon at the right time. Worked like a charm. I could only play that card once, of course … but by the following May, I’d gotten another job. That worked too.)
I don’t mind writing about proms, if I don’t actually have to go stand around and ask teenagers mushmouthed questions.
So this week, I’ll finally write about a prom … but from a different angle than I would have taken as a journalist.
This week, the story’s not about the kids. It’s about the grown-ups who pick up a couple bucks making their big night special.
Just a year removed from high school himself, my dad got hired to play the Darien High School prom, Darien being the town just to the east of Stamford.
The concept of live musicians at a high school prom seems alien to me. In my youth, the soundtrack to prom was provided by a DJ spinning the hits of the fortnight, just as they were heard on the radio.
(The local morning-radio jock who spun at Penfield High’s proms a quarter-century ago is apparently still on Top 40 radio in Rochester. Wonder how many proms he’s been to.)
My dad says the musical menu at Darien High was a mix of swing tunes (i.e., “Satin Doll”), standard ballads and waltzes (think “Blue Moon” or “I’m In The Mood For Love”); a few of what he calls “ethnic” Italian and Polish tunes (I’m guessing the Tarantella, but I might be wrong); and a couple of rock n’ roll instrumentals.
Now, the members of the Darien High Class of ’62 probably didn’t spend a lot of time listening to “I’m In The Mood For Love” of their own accord.
But swing and standards were seen as posh, and well-suited to a big occasion. In my dad’s words:
It doesn’t surprise me that the Darien prom committee chose standard swing and old dance music for their prom. That was normal; although we listened to rock ’n roll 24/7 and loved it, many high school proms featured big bands covering the swing music of the 30’s – somehow that was “special.” It does surprise me that Darien, being a good bit tonier than Stamford/Hope Street, would hire the Joe Denicola Quintet for their prom.
So who was the Joe Denicola Quintet, you might be asking?
Apparently they worked regularly around the Stamford area back in the early ’60s. The band was usually a quartet, but sometimes hired my dad when they needed a sax player.
Their roster, as my dad recalls it:
– Joe on bass. Joe was 2 years ahead of me at Stamford High, and we played in the jazz band together one year. And because of my natural ear I could fit in with his band pretty readily, there being no music, ever!
– “Shaves” on drums (perhaps he was a barber? Dunno). He was a very good, tasty, natural drummer who swung and kept great time.
– A solid trombonist whose name escapes me. He was a cobbler (shoemaker and fixer) by trade, who played basic stuff and played it well. Iron trombone chops; great tone and endurance!
– Rudy on amplified accordion (!!!). Rudy was a little headstrong but did what he did well. And sometimes played too loud. But then again, “audible” is too loud for an accordion!
None of these guys ever went to college. But they had played together for quite a while and did what they did well. None of them sang; they may have hired a vocalist for a bigger gig.
I can just about see these guys in my mind — Shaves the Drummer, in particular. What a great nickname. That guy deserves a larger chapter in the history of American music than has thus far been granted him.
Also, I wonder whether any American accordionist of the past 25 years has gigged on prom night. Now that’s an anachronism, even more so than the idea of swing music and standards on prom night. It would take a prom committee with cojones of iron to hire an accordionist in the Age of Auto-Tune.
Anyway, my dad’s memory suggests that the Joe Denicola Quintet might only have been an intermission band. He thinks Darien High hired a singer and full orchestra to provide the bulk of the music, and hired these local guys just to fill in the breaks. (In his words: Smart money would say that the Joe Denicola Quintet was NOT the headliner at the prom.)
That seems to me like quite a length to go to. But Darien was (and is) a pretty well-heeled place, and if they wanted two bands at prom, they could probably have afforded it.
(I also find it droll to think my dad entertained those hardcore few who refused to stop dancing just because the orchestra wanted a break. “Not done shaking ass, kids? Here comes the Joe Denicola Quintet. No parking on the dancefloor!”)
My dad doesn’t seem to remember anything unusual, regrettable or embarrassing about the gig.
So I’m guessing the Darien High ’62 prom went as intended; the kids got all the music they could hold; and Shaves the Drummer picked up a little extra beer money.
As it should be.