Dick Contino walks onstage at a video-poker bar called the Arroweed Lounge on an Indian reservation in Nevada with a 30-pound accordion strapped to his hairy chest and the aura of 52 years of show business trailing behind him, an aura ignored by those dropping quarters in hopes of jacks or better. Time was, when the man stepped into the lights, legions of pre-Elvis, post-Frankie bobby-soxers would lose their minds, ecstatic over the sleek black hair, the Pepsodent smile, the 6-foot frame, and the way Contino played the accordion. No Myron Floren he, this was not tryptophan-laced Lawrence Welk noodling. No, sir.
Contino wrangled and humped his instrument, jammed on the thing like a stallion in heat, wrenching the box in and out, eyes shut tight and jaw muscles tensed, lost in the red-hot Italiano reverie of "Lady of Spain." For teenage girls in 1947, it was thrilling, it was obscene, it was Dick Contino.
In 1947, he was fresh out of high school looking down the barrel at an exciting career as a butcher. That year he auditioned for and won bandleader Horace Heidt's Youth Opportunity talent show on national radio. By 1950, he was 20 and making $4,000 a week, wearing a diamond pinkie ring that winked in the spotlight as his right hand sped across the keys of the black squeeze box that could belong to only one man: pearl-inlaid letters across its front spelled out CONTINO.
The liner notes on his Mercury LP, An Accordion in Paris, describe his early success as only '50s liner notes can: "Over 400 Contino fan clubs across the country drove disc jockeys out of their minds with requests for Dick's recordings. Mailmen grew round-shouldered under his fan mail. Veteran guards at the stage doors of America's leading theaters testified that they had never seen such adulation from fans as that for Dick Contino."
Then the Korean War came along, and the shoulders of all those mailmen began carrying a lighter load. In what he now refers to as "the Army beef," Contino got called up, wigged out, and bugged out the day before he was to be inducted into the service. Bear in mind, this was April 13, 1951, a long time before Vietnam, a long time before choosing not to go to war was an acceptable--if not even admirable--option.
In 1951, there were few things worse than being a draft dodger. Especially a draft dodger who happened to be a strapping 6-foot, 180-pound stud making more in a month than most guys made in a year, with countless sweet American frails melting at his feet. Contino went into hiding for a week. The FBI had a warrant out for him, and by the time he gave himself up, the headlines were bold and rampant, telling the tale in wicked shorthand for all to see:
"Mystery in Contino Case Deepens," "Surrender of Dick Contino Promised for This Morning," "Dick Contino Gives Self Up, Says Threat of Guardhouse Made Him Flee Fort Ord," "Contino Indicted as Draft Dodger," "Mentally Unstable, Contino Repeats at Second Hearing," "Contino Pleads Guilty; Jailed in Draft Case," "Contino Gets Six Months, $10,000 Fine."
All that fuss over an accordion player.
When the authorities got hold of him--the 21-year-old was reportedly cooling his heels at a Los Angeles "sanatorium"--Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Karesh told the press that "Contino will be handled just like anybody else, except his bail will be set at $5,000 instead of $1,000." Karesh went on to add--in perfect '50s noirspeak--"He skipped out once, and he might do it again."
Contino served six months at the McNeil Island federal prison in Puget Sound, and upon his release was immediately reinducted into the Army. He went on to serve 16 months in Korea entertaining troops, was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant with meritorious awards, and spent the next six years in the Army Reserves before being issued a presidential pardon by Harry Truman.
All of which did nothing to rejuvenate his career.
The label of draft dodger could not be so easily erased, though he tried. God knows he ate mighty helpings of crow.
"Dear Miss Hopper," went a 1952 Contino-issued Western Union telegram to all-powerful Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. "I hope you will come to my opening night at Mocambo. I am deeply appreciative of the tolerance of the press and the patience of the public. I pray to distinguish myself with dignity and honor in the near future. Thanks be to God for recovering me from my sickness and affording me once again this opportunity."
But despite constant onstage mea culpas, apology-laden interviews, and the humble covenant to distinguish himself with honor on the battlefield of the Mocambo, nothing could placate the public. Contino lost countless bookings, had film and recording contracts nullified, and was taunted relentlessly at the few appearances he could book--something that has amazingly followed him to this day from unforgiving vets with memories like elephants.
But as Howlin' Wolf once sang, "The little girls understand." Contino's fan base still pumped the love for the man who pumped the accordion. This from a special bulletin of the Contino Boosters Official International Fan Club, dated May 3, 1951: "This club as well as all the rest throughout the country are sticking by Dick in his hour of need. Why? Because he's stuck by us when we needed him. You ask, When did he stick by us? When did we need him? Well, let us tell you. We've needed Dick ever since we first met him and knew what a wonderful guy he is. We've needed his beautiful music ever since we heard the first strains of 'Lady of Spain' way back in 1948 when he was 'just another contestant.' We've needed his terrific personality to prove to us that it's possible to be nice as well as happy in the world of disaster in which we live. Oh, yes, we've needed Dick! And we shall always need him!"
Though that need dwindled considerably, Contino still wielded showbiz juice. He became a part of the late-'50s L.A. club scene, gigging at joints on the fabled Sunset Strip. He still had the looks and the pinkie rings, hung with wise guys, boffed starlets. He even landed the starring role in a low-budget 1959 hot-rods-and-teens-gone-bad epic called Daddy-O.
All of which would have relegated the man to a dusty corner of the where-are-they-now file, until James Ellroy stepped into the picture. The demon dog of American crime fiction who brought you L.A. Confidential had a long-term fixation with Contino dating back to '58. Ellroy's mother was murdered that year, which the author chronicled in the gut-twisting memoir My Dark Places, and the 10-year-old Ellroy watched Contino perform on some long-forgotten television show.
Ellroy hunted down Contino in Las Vegas, where he still lives. The accordion player spun tales of the underbelly of '50s L.A., and the author soaked it up. Ellroy wrote about Contino in a piece for GQ, which eventually became My Dark Places, then again in a novella called Dick Contino's Blues.
Ellroy took elements of the real Contino, added a dose of artistic license, and created a kind of L.A. noir ultrahipster, an accordion player living with the wretched hex of draft dodger who exists in the twilight Sunset Strip world of rogue cops, Hollywood sleaze-mongers, pneumatic starlets, pushers, and juiceheads--a guy who was there and did that.
And Contino is there again in "Hollywood Shakedown," a tale compiled in the author's latest work, Crime Wave. And there are more plans for the man who is Daddy-O: Contino says Ellroy has him hanging around with none other than Carousel Club owner Jack Ruby in his forthcoming book on the Kennedy assassination.
Yet these facts don't add up to much at the Arroweed Lounge on a Sunday at 7:30 p.m., where "World Renown Accordion Player" Dick Contino takes the stage for the last evening of his six-night stint. His hair is white, he's tanned, the face craggy-handsome in a way that Tony Curtis wishes his could be, the vest opened nearly to his navel, the chest a dense thatch of gray hair.
The bar patrons suck drinks and concentrate on giving up their retirement quarters to the video-poker games. The air is dressed up with cigarette smoke, and the casino sounds like a casino as Contino and his four-piece backup group dig into "Lady of Spain." He's smiling, looking damned happy to be here, then grimacing with eyes closed as he does a restrained yet passionate mating ritual with his accordion.
There are gray-haired ladies here with their gray-haired men, catching a bit of entertainment before the evening's gambling, before they head back to the RV for the night. And there's something in their eyes as they watch Contino. Their faces take on a glow that has nothing to do with golden years and senior citizen discounts. Nineteen ninety-nine be damned, these are the faces of 17-year-old bobby-soxers who don't care about draft dodging; they're watching a 20-year-old move them in ways better left unspoken. Although Contino is 69, he still has it. He will play three more one-hour sets tonight at the Arroweed Lounge.
And admission is free.
It begins with Horace Heidt.
Heidt was a big deal in 1947. His radio talent show drew millions of listeners coast to coast, and when he traveled to Fresno, California, in search of talent, he discovered Contino--"It was the mountain coming to Mohammed, baby." The kid went undefeated for 13 consecutive weeks. During the quarterfinals, he beat all contenders, including a young comic-magician from Nebraska named Johnny Carson.
"I came out of the gate by about 15 lengths. As a poet once said, there's nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come," says Contino. "It was just that kind of a thing, you know? I had an accordion, and teenagers were going crazy, like they did for Sinatra or Presley, really big-time. My fan club had about a million members. Kids just screamin', and here I am just playin' the box and doin' 'Lady of Spain.' But it wasn't the beat. What excited the kids was how fast you played."
Something to ponder here: It's 1947; postwar teens are hopped-up and ready for something. Who knows what? We're years away from Elvis, and most white kids don't know R&B from a hole in the ground. And we have Dick Contino, gyrating his way into the hearts and loins of girls nationwide. If it weren't for the Army beef, rock and roll as we know it may well have been accordion-based, while a young hick named Presley continued his career as a truck driver.
"Look, this is from a reliable source," says Contino, growing serious. "Colonel Tom Parker was a friend of mine; he used to come see me before he discovered Elvis. People that knew him told me that when he saw the way I was moving, that's what motivated him to coach Elvis. It was a natural thing for me. Teachers told me to keep my toes pointed, but I moved; it was innate, it was passion. I'm moving--pow, pow--and that last chord, bang!
I'm bent over backward. I wasn't trying to create something, it was a natural thing. I'm not trying to claim anything, I'm just stating a fact." He leans back and shrugs.
"People don't believe it. I don't give a shit."
The potential Contino influence never had a chance. We will never know whether the Beatles could have been a four-man accordio-pop phenomenon or whether Black Sabbath might have pumped out their hymns of evil rock powered by stomach Steinways, and all because of the Army beef. Contino explains:
"As a kid, I was very phobic, man. I had a lot of phobias. I didn't understand it. And being from an Italian upbringing, you know, you try and sit down and explain this to somebody. It was, 'Whaddya, nuts?' So when my induction came, what I tried to do was claim exemptions.
I figured I could beat it legitimately. I claimed anything I could think of. I was willing to go to a doctor and have him stick a nail in my eardrum, man."
Civilian shrinks diagnosed him with "severe neurosis," but the draft board wasn't buying and sent him to Fort Ord. "I said, Fuck you. I split. I went to San Francisco, called up my uncle from the highway. I was so paranoid they'd be waiting for me at every bus station."
After a week on the lam, Contino, accompanied by his parents, turned himself in. Also in attendance at the courthouse were a few hundred screaming girls unconcerned with their boy's military record.
"They gave me six months," he recalls. "Strange thing happened--I got to McNeil Island, and the phobias left me. I felt like King Shit. Nothing bothered me. So after that, they draft me again, and I almost split the second time. But, strange thing, we got on the ship, they pull up the gangplank, and the ship starts moving--the phobias leave me again. I'm 16 months in Korea. I'm like John Wayne, but fuck 'em. That's OK too. I know what I did in my heart.
"The fact is that I served honorable, but I'm still a goddamn draft dodger through the years." Contino exhales, shows those pearly whites again, touches me on the arm as he has been doing every third sentence or so.
"To this day--can you believe this shit?--to this day, man, I still hear it. There was a time I kept apologizing, tried to explain. Now I'm saying fuck you. I just closed in Palm Springs. Dig this--I'm selling out every show, playing to the snowbirds, then a cople military fuckers come in the place and ask the manager, 'What are you doing with this draftdodger in here?' Hey, I served in your fucking Army. That's been the story of my life since '51. OK, so much for my bitterness, but I don't live there, man. Since then, fuck them. I'm invincible."
Enough about the beef. In the mid-'50s Contino was trying to put all that behind him, working the L.A. rooms as the consummate Sunset Strip player.
"Back in the '50s, I knew a woman who wrote for movie magazines," he recounts. "So I'd go through the pages, look at the women and say, 'I'll date that one,' and she would fix me up. Sure, I'd end up in the sack, but it was a good political move for these little starlets, because Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons loved me. I dated 'em all, Petey. I dated 'em all." Contino continues, describing the '50s image: "What I did, baby, that's what made the girls go bananas. The black curly hair, the slim look, the this and the that, shaking the accordion. Back then, the girls were thinking, 'If he can fuck like that, this guy's gotta be dynamite!' "
Despite balls that are apparently the size of watermelons, Contino maintains that his charm is all about subtlety.
"I think what made it work was, I never had a false ego. I retained a shy quality with women, and they were attracted to that. If I was a finger popper--hey, baby, I'm where it's at--no way." He grows quiet, even somber for a moment.
"I've only had two love affairs in my life. My wife [actress Leigh Snowden, whom he wed in 1956 and who passed away from cancer in the '80s] and my current lady [a 36-year-old whom he met when she was serving cocktails at the Aladdin in Vegas]. Strange thing, 'cause I've had more ass than a toilet seat."
Ass wasn't all Contino was hooking up with back then. He met a lot of interesting folks in his line of work, not the least of which were organized-crime members. At one point, he says, he turned down the job of official accordionist to the mob.
"I found myself hanging out with wise guys, especially in the Midwest," he says. "I was asked to join the family in Chicago. Sam Giancana, you know. One day this guy approached me, says, 'You'll be taken care of the rest of your life. All you have to do is, you'll get a phone call, bring your accordion, go and play.' My father was for it 100 percent; he loved the romance of the mob. But my wife was against it, so I says, 'With all the respect in the world, I decline. You want a favor, I'll play at somebody's wedding, whatever.' With those guys, it's all about respect.
"I knew everybody," Contino continues.
"I don't want to drop names, but Sinatra did me a couple favors. He got me into the Mocambo. He says, 'You want to play this place, dago?' I said yeah. I got a call the next day."
And when TV spots were few, Ed Sullivan always gave Contino a break--"Sullivan, he had balls, baby!" Contino appeared on the show 48 times, and Sullivan even took him on tour to Russia, where he wowed a Moscow audience of 15,000. A week later he was gigging in Elko, Nevada.
It's this kind of fodder that Ellroy wanted from Contino and what drew the author to Daddy-O.
"What Dog writes--he likes to be called Dog--is what L.A. was like to me," he says. "He calls me up, we get together, and we sit around talking. No tape, no notes, but he's got a phenomenal mind. He shoots espresso, like triples--pow-pow-pow! I don't know how he ever comes down."
But where does Ellroy's Contino start and the real Contino end?
"It's a weird thing," explains the accordion player. "But if I didn't really say this particular thing that he writes, I came close to saying it or thinking it. For example, I played the Crescendo, and business was so bad the guy asked me to leave. No problem. In the story, the place is packed. A guy calls me a draft-dodger, and I walk up and say, 'Fuck you, fuck your mother, and fuck your dog.' That's close to what I thought many times."
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Contino says he's received about $15,000 from Ellroy, all on a handshake deal. He's flattered, he's happy with his depiction, and that's about as much as it has done for him.
"I don't know, a lot of people come up and say they read the story, but it hasn't brought in any phenomenal offers. But that's OK."
That last sentence--along with a shrug--pretty much sums up Dick Contino's philosophy of life. Bolstered by Ellroy's patronage, the career might be headed somewhere yet, out of the four-sets-a-night lounge gigs, maybe to audiences who barely remember Grenada, let alone Korea. After all, the man still puts on a hell of a show, and he's still at one with the accordion that broke him out in '47.
"All I've got to do is take care of my mind and body, my attitude, and my appearance, and just wait," he explains. "I'm a receiving station. I don't go after things. I don't know what's good for me, man. Something that seems like a nightmare might be a blessing in disguise. Luck favors the well-prepared, that's it. I'll keep my dick working, keep my attitude, and enjoy the simple things. By the grace of God, give me a little martini at the end of the night. That's it.