John: I have with me today Tony DeCaprio. Tony, you are being featured in the Long Island Portfolio magazine this month. Congratulations!
Tony: Thank you.
John: You’ve been nominated to be featured because of your legendary performances and amazing background in music. Can you share with our audience a little about your background in music?
Tony: Well I’ve covered a lot of territory over the years. I’ve been playing professionally, behind celebrities since I was fifteen, and I’m now at seventy. So, it’s been a long, long strange trip, so to speak, as the Grateful Dead used to say.
John: What inspired you about music at the age of fifteen?
Tony: I was inspired before that because I was already good enough to play professionally at fifteen. I can remember imitating Elvis Presley for show-and-tell when I was a little boy, so I guess perhaps Elvis and maybe the Beatles. Then I got interested in blues. When I got serious, I was studying with a jazz guitarist and started learning Jazz from the get-go. But you have to understand in the sixties. It was a crazy, crazy decade – a kind of a renaissance in a sense. It was a double-edged sword because there was a lot of negativity going on. In the sixties we had the Vietnam War, racial riots, but parallel to that were the Beatles and the British Invasion, and Blues. Older Blues musicians began to resurge due to a guitarist named Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He admired the blues and was a great blues player.
So you had a lot of things going on, and what I’m trying to say is that it all caused me to want to play everything I could. I studied with a jazz guitarist, and then I was able to study with probably one of the greatest jazz guitarists of his generation, or even any generation, Jimmy Raney. You may never have heard of him, but Jimmy Raney was Wes Montgomery’s favorite guitarist. Any jazz readers out there would understand how great this man, this player, must have been. I was very lucky because I was part of an R&B group, and the bass player lived right next door to Jimmy Raney, and he introduced me. I was about sixteen when I first met Raney.
The R&B group I was in was called The Notations. We won all kinds of awards on Long Island back then. I was only fifteen when I was in that band. The father of the rhythm guitarist Jeff Rosen, was Arthur Rosen. Arthur was fantastic. He was our manager, and he taught me professionalism at that early age. He gave me a foundation for my professional development and from there on I maintained that professional attitude throughout my life from that initial teaching, tutoring so to speak. I owe a lot to Arthur Rosen. Anyway, Arthur got us with King Broda, which was a big agency back then, and that’s how we started backing up Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lenny Welch, The Shirelles, and a few other people. I can’t quite remember right now. It was too long ago.
John: Those are really iconic bands, come on.
Tony: Yes, it was interesting. I was able to develop a good sense of rhythm playing. There are a lot of great players that play notes and all that, but they’re not very good at rhythm guitar. For example, parallel to what I’m talking about, Jimi Hendrix played great rock guitar and played fantastic rhythm guitar because he was an R & B player. He played behind a lot of the same people, like the Isley Brothers and people like that.
I came up with a viable rhythm concept. Plus, I was studying with a jazz guitarist, so I was able to comp within the jazz idiom. I was also into rhythm and blues and hard rock at the time. That really helped me years later when I was part of the orchestra in Las Vegas. But before we get into that, I was so hungry my friends called me a sponge because back in Manhattan in those days, a good many of the great guitarists, the greatest of the world in every genre, were living in Manhattan. When times were tough, they were always teaching. So I got to study with Jimmy Raney and Jim Hall, another famous icon, and another famous guitarist, Barry Galbraith..
I studied classical guitar with a man named Bill Matthews. I was also fortunate to study flamenco guitar with one of the greatest flamenco players of the day named Mario Escudero. Because of the Beatles I guess I got interested in Ravi Shankar and Indian music. I didn’t formally study Indian music, but I listened to it intently. I was able to train my ear in an enhanced way by listening to that music. As an American, I couldn’t anticipate hearing the direction of the notes being played, especially at the time. It’s a different way of thinking/hearing. You can’t fortell the notes. You really have to listen. I was trying to cop Ravi’s lines from the sitar to the guitar, and in so doing I really trained my ear well. It made me more ambidextrous because you have to play with a different fingering, which really helped me later on when I was coping all the bebop lines from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. The lines are different, and I was able to play them closer to how the horn players played it. Why? Because I managed to adapt an additional technique to the usual guitar technique. .The sixties was a real mecca for all kinds of music and really helped develop me. Here I am rambling.
John: No that’s alright. So, over time you played with Tom Jones and some really iconic performers.
Tony: Here’s the funny deal. We had long hair in those days. My parents were very strict. They did not want me to be a musician. They were a typical Italian family. So, on Long Island we had a split-level, and I walked downstairs in the den where everyone was watching television. It must have been 1969. Well, you jumped to Tom Jones. It was circa 1969, but prior to that I was already doing studio work in Manhattan. I was hired by a man named Tom Malone, who later became a musical director and trombonist. He was a multi-instrumentalist and later became the musical director for David Letterman for years. But that was years later. He was also in the Blues Brothers and was arranging a lot of music for that movie.
So I started doing studio work with him and he said, “So Tony, I have a friend who’s leading the band for Tom Jones in Vegas and they need a guitarist. I don’t know if you want to go out there or not.”
I shouldn’t have gone out there, but to tell you the truth, I was running away from home, so I took the gig.
John: I totally get it. I ran away from home and moved into the city with my photography.
Tony: There you go. Okay, just before Tom Malone recommended me to work with Tom Jones, I was walking by the TV set in the den and saw Tom Jones on the TV and had a premonition that I would be working with him. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
This was 1969, and close to a year later I’m at Caesar’s Palace playing with Tom Jones. Not only was I doing that gig, but I was on the live album when he was doing “What’s New Pussycat”, “Delilah”, and “She’s a Lady”.
John: Iconic songs.
Tony: So dig this. It was the first time I was ever out of New York. As soon as I landed in Vegas, I saw all this damn sand. It seemed like Coney Island without the water.
It was so damn hot it was like putting your head in an oven. I thought I was going to die with the heat. I got there in the summer. Actually, I got there in March, and it was still hot as all hell. It was very hard for me to deal with all the heat, but after a while I got acclimated.
Something very similar happened like when I walked by the TV set. Here I am working with Tom Jones playing in full orchestra, the violin section to my right. I had really long hair which was in stark contrast to the conservative look of the violinists.
John: You were a rebel hippy!
Tony: I wasn’t really a hippy, but I had the long hair.
John: As far as they were concerned, you were.
Tony: There you go, that’s right! So, I’m here, I’m at the rehearsal, and I’m reading the music.
The violin players are looking at me, staring at my hair. I’m looking at them, and they look like a bunch of damn penguins. I’d never seen that before; it was so bizarre. They were so “ square.” I was soaking all this in, and it was all new to me. So one night I was one of the last guys to leave the stage because they had the rhythm section up high in the rafters. It took a while to get down from there. I make my way down, and I’m walking by the curtain. It is pitch-black in there and all of a sudden Elvis Presley is right in my face, right in my face! I go whoa, and he said, “You guys were great.” I just froze, but I felt in that one moment, the same kind of premonition from the TV in the den and Tom Jones.
After the Tom Jones engagement, I segued to touring with Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders and then the jazz rock band CHASE. The rest of 1971 through ’72 I worked with Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders and then in part of 1973 I worked with CHASE. After CHASE, I returned to Vegas and did some recording with Paul Anka. In 1974, Elvis is featuring me in his Vegas show at the Hilton because I copped a gig at the Las Vegas Hilton Orchestra, which was one of the most coveted gigs in the whole town at that time. I was the youngest guy in the band, and it was like Merlin the Magician was pulling the strings for me. It felt so surreal I could write a book about it.
John: Maybe you should. So bring us forward now. You’re growing up. You’re a teenager from the sixties, and now it’s the seventies. You had all these opportunities. Can you give us some highlights?
Tony: It’s all a blur.
John: That’s okay. It can be a blur. Brag a bit. Give us some iconic names.
Tony: You have to understand that as a result of working with a vast number of celebrities, also working TV shows broadcast from the Hilton, and the pressure involved in that high profile situation, my musicianship kept improving. You can’t get an education like that even in a music college because you’re in a kind of artificial situation.
John: It’s all theory, but there’s nothing like hands on stuff.
Tony: School alone could be like a pilot practicing in one of those automatic pilot machines, but it’s not like flying, or a military man who never sees combat.
I recall studying with the orchestra leader of the LA Philharmonic. He was teaching sight reading to many of the studio players. Honing my skills was vital because I was working with some of the most well-known celebrities in the world. I worked with Ann-Margret for about six years. Everything about that gig was first class. The six years included working with Ann- Margret outside of the Hilton Orchestra in other hotels. At the Hilton there were additional celebrities I worked with like The Four Tops, Manhattan Transfer, The 5th Dimension, Pearl Bailey, Shirley Bassey, Eddie Fisher, Connie Stevens, Erroll Garner, Liberace, Donna Summer, and Natalie Cole. Because of The Four Tops at the Hilton, I got to work with Diana Ross.
At first, I turned down a gig with Diana Ross because I didn’t want to leave town. But then, when it was offered again, maybe one or two years later, I decided to take the gig. I toured with her for about three and a half years. While I was at the Hilton I was also working many jazz concerts with small groups and Big Band gigs after hours.
I have some great stories, but I’m going to save my inside stories for a book.
John: Tell me what you do these days with your music? At this age, I imagine you are not touring around the world.
Tony: I wouldn’t go around the world unless they paid me a lot. It’s too tiring. Although back in the eighties, nineties, up until recent years, I have performed and taught jazz throughout western Europe. As a matter of fact, I lived in Paris for several years, and I enjoyed the interaction with musicians there.
John: Yes, it’s exhausting. I know what it’s like. I’ve had to travel around as a photographer with artists and models and actors, all over the world. It’s exhausting. So much more work to travel. So what are you doing these days?
Tony: I’ve been mostly teaching, and now I have a business partner. We are forming an online music school, Tony DeCaprio’s New School of Music, because so much is going online these days. I just video recorded a session, and I hired one of the best bass players in the world to play a tune in the video. He goes by the name Harvey S. That was a lot of fun. I’m almost certain that particular students will find the content invaluable.
We’ll be offering master classes online, in half hour and hour segments. Not just guitar though. I’m going to hire some of my peers, and we’re going to offer lessons for just about every instrument, including piano, bass, trumpet, saxophone, and flute. We will also be presenting lessons in classical guitar and piano. Additionally, we’ll have vocal and choir coaching.
These lessons will hopefully help people who don’t have teachers readily available in their area, particularly in light of this pandemic crisis.
John: Understood and that’s a very worthy cause. Music does change people’s lives.
Tony: Definitely, especially now. It’s a mainstay, and it’s really needed now. I think this is a terrible crisis. We don’t know when it’s going to end, and there are so many conflicting theories, it’s hard to know what’s happening. Although the school is in its early stages of development, any personal inquiries can be directed to my at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John: Tony, thank you for sharing your story. I know our readers will enjoy this story.
Categories: Model Citizens Magazine