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In Fine Fiddle

Abandoning band tours and some renown, Bromberg now owns a violin store in Wilmington, Del., and jams with local musicians.
Abandoning band tours and some renown, Bromberg now owns a violin store in Wilmington, Del., and jams with local musicians. "It has given me back my chops," he says. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

But no one questioned Bromberg's mastery as a musician. He could play guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Unlike folkies penning sensitive odes to love, Bromberg could perform virtually any genre of traditional American music. "It made him a highly valuable sideman, someone who was instant authenticity," says Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone contributing editor. "What set him apart was his skill."

At the same time, DeCurtis says, Bromberg "didn't seem to need the success all that much. He was a player, he enjoyed it. But I don't think he needed to be a big star."

Peter Ecklund, who played horns in his band, says Bromberg has always had a pronounced sense of mission, whether choosing an eclectic set list or deciding to sell violins: "He always knows what's right for him."

* * *

On a quiet Wednesday, Bromberg is in his office, a few feet away from that vault with all the violins. He's dressed in a jacket and tie because, as he says, no one spending thousands on a violin wants to buy from a slob.

The conversation turns to his childhood in the New York suburbs. While most boys were following Mickey Mantle, he delved into the world of magic, riding the train into Manhattan to hang out at a Midtown cafeteria where a gaggle of adult magicians tested their tricks on each other.

At 13, he caught the measles and spent two weeks on his back with nothing to do but play his brother's nylon-string acoustic guitar.

It was love at first noodle.

The itch stayed with him at Columbia University, where he majored in musicology. His parents did not approve. They expected him to become a lawyer, a doctor -- anything but a musician.

His family was no stranger to accomplishment. A grandmother was a star of the Yiddish theater. His grandfather Baruch Charney Vladeck was a union organizer elected to the New York City Board of Aldermen. At his funeral, tens of thousands lined the streets, and the governor spoke.

Mention his father, and Bromberg's otherwise gentle gaze hardens. Norbert Bromberg, a psychiatrist who emigrated from Vienna, showed his son neither affection nor interest. Bromberg, the second of three children, describes his late father as cruel. "Whether he felt real love or not, I don't know," he says by phone a few days later. "He didn't express it, and he didn't show it."

He became a performer, he says, "so I could enjoy someone saying something nice to me. . . . I craved it."

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