Charles Vincent Corrado, 64, the longest-serving musician in the U.S. Marine Band whose keyboard skills tickled 10 presidents, died June 26 at his home in Potomac, next to his black baby grand piano and surrounded by photographs of his performances for world leaders.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Corrado died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, less than a year after retiring as the longest active-duty enlisted man in the history of the Marine Corps. He had served 45 years, 41 of them at the White House.
"Charlie was very diplomatic, so he always said his favorite was whatever president was in office," said Martha Corrado, his wife of 34 years. "But he really liked Kennedy and the Bush families."
At President Bush's inauguration in 2000, former President George H.W. Bush spotted Sgt. Corrado at the piano and called out: "Charlie! Are you still here?"
A working-class son of a Boston garage mechanic rarely expects recognition from presidents. Sgt. Corrado grew up in an Italian American family of six, playing the accordion, the electrified accordion and the organ. He taught himself to play piano and formed a rock-and-roll group with friends who played weddings in the neighborhood. He also helped in his father's garage.
When a buddy enlisted in the Marines on July 11, 1958, Sgt. Corrado went along and signed up, too. Coincidentally, his enlistment date was the 160th anniversary of the Marine Band's founding.
At basic training, the budding mechanic signed up for the motor pool, but in one of those twists of fate that can change a life, he was rerouted into his unit's band. A military band doesn't have much call for an accordion player, so Sgt. Corrado was also detailed cymbals and a bass drum.
He had served in Okinawa and at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and had played for a visiting President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he began thinking of leaving the military. But the call went out for a Marine musician who could play the accordion, because the incoming president, John F. Kennedy, liked polkas. Sgt. Corrado tried out with two others in the band director's office and became a member of "The President's Own" Marine Band.
He was always on call and, because he was self-taught, he was always practicing, his wife said. "He literally sat at the piano all day practicing. He was so adamant about being good," she said.
The presidents responded. President Bush invited him to the White House four times in the past year and spent 15 minutes alone with him, discussing the band and the war in Iraq. Sgt. Corrado played for a surprise birthday party for first lady Laura Bush; years earlier he was called to Kennebunkport, Maine, to entertain the senior Bushes and the prime minister of Japan.
He played at President Kennedy's last birthday party, which Leatherneck magazine said was a favorite memory, and he played for the third birthday party of John F. Kennedy Jr., shortly after the president was assassinated. The Carter family asked him to play for them on their last night in the White House. President Bill Clinton jammed on the saxophone with him and in the middle of a 1996 blizzard, when the Corrados' cul-de-sac was snowed in, the National Guard sent a Humvee to pick up Sgt. Corrado, because "the president wants music," Martha Corrado told the neighbors.
Sgt. Corrado spent two weeks in Hollywood as an adviser to "The American President," a movie about a widowed president, played by Michael Douglas, romancing a lobbyist, played by Annette Bening. The actors dance to the strains of a faux-Marine Band, and Sgt. Corrado's job was to advise the filmmakers about the details and timing of a presidential entrance, the particulars of a state dinner and to provide the authentic gold braid for the director's uniform. His name is the last credit on the movie screen, his wife said.
When he was off-duty, he had a small band called Picnic, and he enjoyed playing billiards. The former auto mechanic could fix anything around the house, his wife said. At his retirement party, Col. Tim Foley, the band director, said Sgt. Corrado was trusted to create the ambiance and choose the musical salutations for such important visitors as Nelson Mandela, Boris Yeltsin and Pope John Paul II. Jazz great Duke Ellington once sat in on a set with him, as did bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.
Sgt. Corrado played dinners, receptions and formal occasions. He played background music in the White House residence before presidents and diplomats went downstairs to sign treaties and agreements. He could become "invisible" at the family dinners, but he also could command the attention of an audience when appropriate, such as for White House weddings.
Survivors, beside his wife, include two children, Michael Corrado of Bethesda and Air Force physician Maj. Melissa Tyree of College Park; his mother, Catherine Corrado of Boston; a brother; and a sister.
He never intended to retire, his wife said, until ALS stole his strength. He stopped work in May 2003 but asked for, and was granted, an extension so that his official retirement date was July 11, 2003, the 205th anniversary of the Marine Band.