The King of Guitar: An Interview with John “Bucky” Pizzarelli
Volume CIII, No. 4April, 2003
How did Bucky Pizzarelli get his name?
Bucky’s dad was totally captivated by the lure of the West, and at age 16 decided to become a cowboy.
He landed in Odessa, Texas, and proceeded to learn the craft. After returning north, he married and settled in Paterson, N.J., where Bucky was born in 1926. Dad, still the cowboy, nicknamed his only son “Buckskin,” later condensed to Bucky, as he’s called to this day.
Bucky not only has a great sound, but also a great look. The look is what I get when I jokingly greet him as “John’s father.” The truth is that Bucky’s son, John Jr., may be the prince of the guitar, but in the Pizzarelli family, the king is still Bucky, and rightfully so. While I was interviewing Bucky, John called and hired his dad for an upcoming engagement in Japan. Bucky couldn’t be prouder of John’s commercial success, and I thought to myself what a lovely legacy Bucky has generated.
Bucky came from an extended musical family, and both his uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, were fine professional guitarists, playing gigs locally but also travelling with some of the name groups and bands of the day. One of the great musicians of the day was Paterson musician Joe Mooney, a pianist and organist, who was playing at a local pub called Club 35. Both Uncle Pete and Bobby played with him from time to time, and one of Bucky’s biggest thrills was being asked to sit in. He played well enough to become a welcome guest anytime he wanted. Bucky considers Mooney one of the major musical influences in his life.
These were the war years, and Bucky was a senior in high school when he received a call to join Vaughn Monroe, a major band of the day, for a short tour during his Christmas break. Bucky recalls that as being one of the most exciting few days in his life. “There’s no thrill like there is playing with a big band,” states Bucky.
In April 1944, Bucky was drafted into the army as an infantry man in the Blackhawk Division. He fought his way across Germany into Austria, where the European war ended, but, of course, there was still Japan. Bucky’s division was shipped to Manila to prepare for the big push to the Japanese mainland when the A bomb was dropped and it was all over.
Within two weeks after discharge, he was back with Monroe, and toured with the band for the next five years, gathering invaluable experience in all venues of the commercial music business.
Many of the guitarists of Bucky’s era began their careers as banjo players in Dixieland groups, playing strictly rhythm backgrounds. When the switch to guitar happened, most of them adapted by becoming rhythm guitarists, the most famous of whom was Freddie Green with the Count Basie Orchestra. When they soloed, it was usually a chordal rhythm chorus, with very little, if any, single string work. This influence still permeates Bucky’s solos, although, of course, over the years, he’s developed a wonderful single string technique.
When George Van Eps arrived from the West coast, he was playing a seven-string guitar, and Bucky fell in love with the instrument, bought one, and proceeded to learn how to play it on the job. He felt that low “A” string opened up whole new vistas in playing the instrument, and, now, when playing the conventional six-string model, feels extremely limited.
The business changed radically in the 50’s as rock and roll took over the industry, and Bucky, now married and starting a family, went with the flow and became one of the busiest recording guitarists in the New York area, sometimes doing three or four dates in a day. “The money was there, but the music wasn’t,” states Bucky, so he continued to chase his dream by sitting in at whatever jazz venues were happening, and accepting more musical dates whenever possible. It all paid off, as Bucky became first-call guitarist for some of the top artists in the business, as well as working the most desired venues in the studios. He became a partner with George Barnes in one of the greatest guitar duos ever, joined NBC staff as the Tonight Show guitarist under the baton of Skitch Henderson, and became Benny Goodman’s favorite guitar player for his groups or big bands. This was just the tip of the iceberg, and to try to list all of Bucky’s credits would take up most of the rest of Allegro. Terence M. Ripmaster wrote “Bucky Pizzarelli: A Life in Music” (available at www.melbay.com), which includes most of Bucky’s playing credits as well as a complete as possible discography of his accomplishments.
Bucky has made three command performances at the White House, two for President Reagan and one for President Clinton. The first appearance was with the Benny Goodman quintet, featuring Hank Jones on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Buddy Rich on drums. The guest of honor was King Hussein of Jordan. The next engagement was to honor the President of the Republic of Italy, Sandro Pertini, and the guest artists Bucky accompanied were Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. The other musicians were Tony Mottola, guitar, Vin Falcone and Nick Perito on pianos, Gene Cherico, bassist and Irv Cotler on drums. On this occasion, Bucky and Tony Mottola performed their own solo duet spot. When asked to play for President Clinton, he was part of the Claude “Fiddler” Williams trio, with Keter Betts on bass. Bucky was also invited to play for Richard Nixon’s wife Pat’s birthday party at the Nixon family home.
At the conclusion of our interview, Bucky showed me around his gorgeous home situated on the bank of the Saddle River, overlooking a waterfall. His house is filled with his paintings, a major hobby for him. Jerry Bruno, bassist, arrived for a gig they were doing that evening, and wife Ruth brought in four snifters of 100-year-old brandy for a final toast, bringing to a climax one of the warmest days of my life spent with a delightful man of extraordinary talent.