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Johnny Frigo, 90; Jazz Violinist and Bassist

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

Johnny Frigo, 90, a highly respected jazz violinist and bassist who helped start the Soft Winds Trio and co-wrote such standards as "Detour Ahead" and "I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out," died July 4 at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He suffered complications from a fall.

After playing in Jimmy Dorsey's big band, Mr. Frigo formed the Soft Winds jazz trio in 1947 with two Dorsey colleagues, guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter.

The Soft Winds was not a major commercial success during its five-year existence, but the trio recorded many songs and developed a fine reputation in later years among aficionados.

The members co-wrote "Detour Ahead" and "I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out," both of which have been widely performed by other artists.

In 1969, Mr. Frigo also wrote "Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel" to honor the Chicago Cubs during their promising but ultimately ill-fated championship run that year. Even after the team lost to the New York Mets, the Frigo tune remained a popular chant at Cubs games for years.

Mr. Frigo spent much of his career in Chicago, his home town, as a backup bass player on radio and studio bands as well as on commercial jingles and in nightclubs, especially Mister Kelly's. Starting in 1951, he was a fiddler for 13 years on the country radio program "National Barn Dance," backed by his band, the Sage Riders.

He accommodated a variety of musical styles, performing with such strikingly different jazz entertainers as clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, guitarist Charlie Byrd and bassist Oscar Pettiford as well as singers Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, Helen Merrill and Mahalia Jackson.

John Virgil Frigo, the son of poor Italian immigrants, was born Dec. 27, 1916, on the south side of Chicago.

"The ragman would come around every Saturday, and we'd sell him stuff we'd found in the alley during the week," he told the Chicago Tribune. "His son played violin, and he gave me my first lessons."

He taught himself the upright bass to improve his chances of getting more professional assignments -- and meeting girls -- during the Depression. After the 1960s, he learned the electric bass to keep in demand.

As a teenager, he sat in with boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons at the Club DeLisa and also sang at the Drake Hotel in a group misleadingly called the Four Californians.

His singing career ended abruptly when his voice cracked one night while in the middle of a high note in the ballad "One Minute to One." When Mr. Frigo tried to repeat the song the next night, a bouncer took him by his neck and dragged him offstage.


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