I read that Johnny Frigo died this week. He was 90 years old, so I guess it wasn’t unexpected. Don’t worry if you don’t know who he was. I didn’t either, until he showed up to perform for us a couple of years ago in one of my live sound classes at Columbia College.
Johnny played a number of instruments. He was a first-call bass player in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. He eventually hung that up because he didn’t feel he could compete with the youngsters anymore. At that time, he returned to his first instrument, the violin, and basically made a whole new name for himself at an age when many of his peers were moving into retirement homes.
When he visited my class, he told a story about performing in a dance hall when he was just a teenager. At that time, he was playing upright bass, and he would carry this giant instrument on the bus to the club where he was working on the north side. If he played well, patrons would tip him by throwing coins in the f-holes of the bass. When he got home, his brothers would help him shake the bass to get the coins out.
One night, someone inserted a bill in the f-hole. Johnny didn’t remember if it was a five or a ten, but either way it was a lot of money for a teenager back in the ’20s. He told us that he and his brothers had a terrible time trying to get the bill to fall out. The next night, when he went back to the club, he told the owner about how someone had given him such a big tip. The owner replied, “Yeah. That was Al Capone!”
Johnny played with just about everyone from his era, including the Dorseys and Chico Marx and Frank Sinatra. When he died, he still had gigs scheduled.