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A life in tune: Condeluci recalls glory days as a percussionist

Sunday, December 08, 2002

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's an early November afternoon in Stowe. William Condeluci, a show drummer and vibraphonist, leads his guest through his home and into the kitchen.

William Condeluci of Stowe played drums and vibraphone for nearly 70 years before illness slowed him down. "Music was my life. It's all I ever wanted to do," he says. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

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Another in an occasional series profiling longtime performers and aficionados to mine their memories and knowledge of a lifetime in music.

He slides over a circular tray of fruit -- grapes, bananas and oranges -- then offers to whip up a quick pot of spaghetti. "Won't take but a few minutes," he says.

Then something else catches his attention. He pauses for a moment, rummaging through photographs. Pictures of musical friends, such as Maurice Spitalny, Joe Wallace, Dom Trimarkie and others begin to emerge -- nice little windows into his musical past.

Condeluci, 83, hasn't touched the traps in two years -- not since the death of his daughter, Carol, and his series of abdominal operations for a burst colon forced him into retirement.

For nearly 70 years, though, he could be heard at the old Ankara night club on Route 51 or performing for the Civic Light Opera, Ice Capades, telethons and industrial shows. He even performed on the original Roth Rug (now Roth Carpet) and Dairy Queen commercials.

"Bill is one of the finest show drummers this town has ever seen," says trombonist Jack Purcell. "He did a lot of floor shows. We occasionally played together for private clubs and parties. He was one of the best, because he knew how to back up and act. He played the vibes very well, too."

In 1950, Condeluci joined "The Fort Pitt Supper Time" local television show at Dumont's WDTV, the forerunner to KDKA. The band was led by Spitalny and featured Condeluci on vibraphone.

"Maurice was extremely eccentric," says Condeluci with a chuckle. "He was like a Damon Runyon character. He was always doing things out of left field."

During one Thanksgiving show, Spitalny was invited on camera to be part of a holiday gathering. The scene was disrupted after a tablecloth accidentally caught in his belt, sending the entire table setting crashing to the floor.

The thought brings a smile to Condeluci's lips.

Crash. Boom. Bam. Sounds only a drummer could love.

Rhythm in his soul

William Condeluci was born in 1919 in a rowhouse on Young Street just down the hill from where he lives today. He didn't start playing the drums until he arrived at Stowe High School. The band director, Stephan Ambrits, gave him a pair of sticks that he used mostly to aggravate his mother by beating the arms of her rocking chair while listening to an old Atwater Kent radio.

Before graduating in 1937, he joined an Italian band in McKees Rocks that performed for the St. Anthony's and St. Rocco's celebrations and festivals.

"I got the best experience there," he says. "These were old Italian musicians who didn't fool around. They learned to read music and taught me. Drummers back then barely learned to read music."

Sometimes, the band from McKees Rocks and Norwood merged with other groups from around the area.

The group once joined forces with a band from Aliquippa that was directed by Quinto Mancini. Mancini's son -- perhaps you've heard of Henry Mancini? -- also was in the band, playing piccolo.

"Mancini and I didn't get to know each other too well, but his father was a musical disciplinarian, as were most of the older guys," Condeluci says. "The older guys would get into terrible arguments over musical passages. There was always something that pleased or displeased them."

Performing in marching bands really whet Condeluci's appetite for music.

After graduating from high school, he purchased a set of orchestra bells and started performing around town. He joined his older brothers, Sinbad and Frank, to form a trio called the Condeluci Brothers.

In 1940, he joined a band led by Curtis Arden and toured the country, doubling on drums and vibraphone. The group performed popular and cornball music such as "Tonight We Love," Harry James' "I Had the Craziest Dream" and Judy Garland's "You Made Me Love You."

One night after a performance in Chicago, he phoned his mother, Gennarina, to wish her a Merry Christmas, but she tearfully begged him to return home.


Condeluci asked his mother what was wrong and she responded in Italian, "You have to come -- you have to come home." And he said, "Mom, I can't come home. I'm in the middle of an engagement." To which she said, "If you don't come home they are going to arrest you."

The Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor, and Condeluci had been drafted into the Army.

"The military thought I was evading the draft, and my mother was unable to explain to them that I was a musician and was on the road. They didn't believe her. She was unable to express herself clearly."

So it was off to the Army in 1942, with service at Camp Lee (now Fort Lee) in Virginia.

While on leave that same year, he married Florence Watkins, a singer from East Liberty who possessed a mercurial voice. The couple met one night when Condeluci was performing at the Airways Tavern in Dravosburg with saxophonists John Walton and Flo Cassinelli. Watkins, who died in 1983, had been previously married and had a son, Robert Kenneth Tyson. In 1943, the couple's son, Bill Jr., was born.

Back at the base, Condeluci worked primarily as a medic, but he eventually performed again during the war..

"The chaplain came to me and asked me to play for an Easter service," recalls Condeluci. "He said, 'I need a harp so bad.' I said, 'Sir, it's not a harp, it's a xylophone.'

"So he asked to hear it. And after I finished, he said, 'It's beautiful. Can you play any religious songs?' I said, 'Not really. I wasn't exposed to much music like that.' But he just said, 'Play anything.' "

Condeluci's performance included Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade." Everything got real quiet.

"Everyone looked at me with this 'What the hell is that?' look," he recalls with a chuckle. "The chaplain thanked me nonetheless, and after that I was allowed to perform with a trio for the troops."

One night, he even performed on a national broadcast of "Okay, America," a show hosted by Red Skelton.

Still, the Army wasn't all rimshots and rolls. While at Camp Lee, Condeluci suffered a severe injury. He and several thousand others were attending a celebration when the bleachers at a high school stadium gave way. The event was a homecoming for actor Joseph Cotten, a Petersburg, Va., native who had many memorable star turns in movies such as "Citizen Kane," "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Third Man."

"The bleachers were made of wood, so me and a friend went to the celebration and sat at the very top, and it gave way," he says. "I broke both of my arches and he broke his back."

But Condeluci's spirit was intact.

'An excellent musician'

After his discharge from the service, Condeluci returned to Pittsburgh, built a home and started working at the Roosevelt Hotel with pianist and accordionist Dom Trimarkie.

"He was an excellent musician," says Trimarkie, 83. "We first worked together at the Fiesta Room. We worked well together. He loved playing music. We played a lot of show tunes."

But there were some sour notes elsewhere in Condeluci's life.

In 1946, wife Florence gave birth to their daughter, Carol, who was born with a cleft palate and bilateral hair lip. She spent her first four years at Children's Hospital, where she underwent several operations to correct the condition. During one of the operations, she literally "expired" for 30 seconds, suffering damage to the part of the brain that controls motor skills.

"She didn't develop normally until about the age of 9," says Condeluci. "We were eventually able to get her enrolled in a school for the mentally challenged, and she made great strides. We were later able to get her into the Clelian Heights School in Greensburg, and she became socially very exceptional."

His percussive career also blossomed.

Throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, Condeluci continued to perform at the Ankara and other venues, where he backed up everyone from Dean Martin and Zsa Zsa Gabor to Patti Page and Liberace.

He spent the last eight years of his career -- until his retirement in 1999 -- performing at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association.

"I had to retire because I could no longer carry my equipment after eight abdominal operations," says Condeluci. "Now, I enjoy sitting down at the piano and playing some of the old tunes that I came up listening to and playing.

"Music was my life. It's all I ever wanted to do. There's nothing better than making a good living at something you love."

And with that, the reminiscing stops.

Condeluci stands and walks toward the refrigerator.

"You sure I can't make us a quick pot of spaghetti?"

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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