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Johnny Frigo, 90; Jazz Violinist and Bassist

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.

One of his more memorable assignments came in 1941, when he was asked to join the touring big band of movie comedian Chico Marx, the Marx Brother who specialized in ludicrous Italian accents.

They worked out a recurring gag where Marx would say, "Aye, Johnny, bringa da violin down. Do you know 'Gypsy Love Song?' "

Mr. Frigo: "I don't know the verse; I know the chorus. If you play the verse, I'll noodle on the violin."

Marx: "Okay, you noodle on the violin, and I'll spaghetti on the piano."

Decades later, Mr. Frigo called the bit "ridiculous. But, little by little, it became a good routine. Every theater we played, it would extend itself. I would play a beautiful crescendo and slide down, and he'd say, 'You'd better pull up to a gas stand. You've got a slow leak.' "

During World War II, Mr. Frigo served in the Coast Guard and formed a band with several others stationed on Ellis Island, including such leading bebop musicians as pianist Al Haig, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff and trombonist Kai Winding.

After the war, he spent two years with Dorsey and appeared in the biographical film "The Fabulous Dorseys" -- about the rivalry between bandleader brothers Jimmy and Tommy.

As a bandleader, Mr. Frigo recorded one album in his prime, "I Love Johnny Frigo. . . . He Swings" (1957) featuring his Soft Winds guitarist Ellis as well as bassist Ray Brown, pianist Dick Marx and trumpeter Cy Touff.

Although he recorded regularly, Mr. Frigo did not enjoy much recognition as a leader until the late 1980s, when he started making several well-received jazz albums that featured, among others, father-son guitarists Bucky and John Pizzarelli.

After one of Mr. Frigo's engagements in Southern California, Los Angeles Times music critic Don Heckman wrote that the musician "made a convincing case for himself as the premier violinist in contemporary jazz."

About that time, Mr. Frigo appeared twice playing violin on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. When the host asked why Mr. Frigo waited so long to become famous, he replied, "Because there won't be enough time left for me to become a has-been."

In 1995, he orchestrated a Soft Winds reunion on a jazz cruise aboard the S.S. Norway that included Ellis, Carter and Washington-area bassist Keter Betts. They subsequently released the album "Soft Winds Then and Now." Mr. Frigo remained a vital figure at jazz summits and other musical gatherings.

His marriage to Dorothy Hachmeister Frigo ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Brittney Browne of Chicago; a son from his first marriage, jazz drummer Rick Frigo of Chicago; a sister; and three grandchildren. A son from his second marriage, rock guitarist Derek Frigo, died in 2004 of an apparent drug overdose.

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