Rocky Tatarelli

Rocky credits his parents with giving him his first opportunities in music. Immigrants from Lenola, Italy, with very limited financial resources, Anthony and Francesca Tatarelli made it their top priority to invest in their children’s future, managing to give them all private music lessons and to send them to parochial schools. Rocky and his sister and brother, Maria and Frank Tatarelli, studied with one of the most prestigious teachers in Detroit at the time, Gasparo Pellegrini, a professor from La Scala Music Conservatory in Milan. Professor Pellegrini had recently relocated to Michigan, where he became friends with the children’s father, Anthony (“Tony”) Tatarelli, who was also a musician. In his early days in the U.S. Tony Tatarelli performed for many years with the nine-piece swing jazz band of the 1920s, the Capstan Orchestra, which toured up and down the East Coast and often was featured on the radio. In the Detroit area he performed regularly with the Italian Colonial Band, led by his old friend Guido Fucinari. Professor Pellegrini took only a limited number of private students (most of whom were headed for symphonic careers), but he took great interest in his friend’s talented children. Thus Rocky’s first formal introduction to music was at the age of ten, with his study of solfeggio and classical clarinet with Signor Pellegrini. He recalls that he was about fourteen when he began to become aware of other forms of music besides classical–notably jazz. The first turning point was an invitation by friends to attend his first live jazz concert, featuring the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Chet Baker Quartet, and Woody Herman and his “Third Herd,” at the Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit. After that transformative experience he began tuning into the local jazz station at every opportunity, becoming particularly fond of the big bands of the time: Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Ted Heath, Buddy Morrow, Les Brown, Artie Shaw, Harry James, and others. A key moment around the same time was when younger brother Frank, a budding alto sax player, brought home a copy of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” a recording that Rocky credits with further changing his life musically. Besides being a member of the Detroit Junior Police Band at the ages of thirteen and fourteen, Rocky played clarinet for several years in his family’s SigTatarelli Band, which included his sister Maria Tatarelli on piano, his brother Frank Tatarelli on alto sax, Bob Saelem on drums and Marcy Mastrantoni on vocals. They played frequently at weddings and parties of multiple ethnicities—Italian, Jewish, German, Polish, and Irish, for instance—in the very diverse Detroit of the 1950s. His enterprising father would accept the gigs, purchase the appropriate music, and have the young musicians learn the music, sometimes in a week or less. Rocky also remembers his excitement at a concert that his family band put on at St. Anthony’s High School, when he was a sophomore, Maria a freshman, and Frank a seventh-grader. Even more exciting was a concert at St. Anthony’s where his family band backed up famed popular singer Frankie Castro. Significantly enough, right around the same time he became friends with several young musicians in his neighborhood and began playing with their teenage jazz group, led by the great Louis Hayes, then an unknown young drummer, who first encouraged Rocky to start playing tenor sax. He also began rehearsing regularly (and playing jazz parties) with the Hayes band, featuring an ever-changing cast of great young players, including George Bohannon on trombone, Will Smith on upright bass, several pianists: Kenny Cox, Teddy Harris, Alice McLeod (later to become Alice Coltrane), and several other young tenor players, as well as another young jazz group led by John Trudell (later the lead trumpet player with Motown). As the members of the family band went their separate ways, Rocky left the clarinet completely behind in favor of the tenor sax, although he also played baritone sax, flute, electric flute, and alto flute, as the occasion demanded. However, tenor sax was to be his major instrument, with his earliest musical influences being John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, and Booker Ervin. Rocky had started playing professionally with his family’s band at the age of fifteen, and it was at seventeen that he began playing the Detroit club circuit. Given his size (5’11” and 195 pounds) and his mustache, he says that “no one ever bothered” to check his age. By the time he was In his 20s, he was being asked to play by a number of well-established Detroit musicians, including Joe Messina (of the original Funk Brothers, of Motown fame), for over a year at the Metropole in Windsor, Ontario, as well as famed trumpet player Markus Belgrave and vocalists Ping Spells, Orthea Barnes, Debbie Owen, Shahida Nurullah, Kris Peterson, and Kim Weston (big Motown hit with “It Takes Two”). During his many years in Detroit, Rocky led various bands under his own name, as well as one called Sack Full of Dreams, named for his earlier recording project. This was a fusion jazz group consisting of Rocky on tenor sax, Craig Koss on violin, Leonard Moon on piano, Ray Goodman on guitar, Ron Pangborn on drums, and Jim Banner on bass, which enjoyed tremendous sell-out success for months on the live music scene in Detroit. In great demand by some of the most prominent bands of the era, one of his favorites was the Chisel Brothers, a band that in 1990 won the prestigious “Rhythm & Blues Group of the Year.” He also played regularly with several successful jazz groups, starting with Tony Suhy’s King Sweat Band, playing R&B and jazz, and Secret Life, playing original instrumentals. The group was made up of Tony Suhy, bass (earlier had played for over a year with Mitch Ryder, recently with the Lynn LaPlante Seven); John Ruff, drums; Dennis Moon, piano; and Gordy Maslowski, guitar; and on keyboards, Charles Green, with whom he also collaborated on many subsequent projects. They packed clubs and also played as an opening act for well-known bands, such as those led by Billy Cobham (featuring brothers Michael and Randy Brecker); Larry Coryell, and John Scofield. Among his favorite collaborators in the jazz scene were (in no particular order) drummer Tony Robertson (well-known for playing with Gary Bartz and Earl Klugh, among others); saxophonist Marty “Saxman” Montgomery (American Music Award winner and Grammy nominee with the groupWild Cherry, also known for his performances with Patti LaBelle, Little Richard, and Sly and the Family Stone); Jo Town, guitarist, vocalist, and producer (musical director for David Ruffin [one of the Temptations], and guitarist for the Floaters, Spanky Wilson, Chuck Jackson, and the Spinners); Bill Cairo, drummer (Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall, Groove Holms); Gene Dunlap (former drummer with Earl Klugh); drummer Ron Pangborn (Was Not Was, Elvis Costello, Sackfull of Dreams); Emmanuel Riggins, organ and piano (formerly with Grant Green); David Reinstein, multi-reed player; Gary Kwek, multi-reed player; Doug Brown, keyboards; Michael Talley, pianist; Peter Reuter, pianist; saxophonists Nick Palise and Bob Scarff; guitarist Corey Catalano (the Temptations); vocalist Kris Peterson; guitarist Duffy King; guitarist Al Ayoub; guitarist Bruce Miller; guitarist Mark Wolak; guitarist Joe LoDuca; flautist Susan Barba Ayoub; flautist Alec Zonjic; the late drummer Mike Adams; drummer Jimmy Ryan; drummer Dave Marcaccio; drummer Ken Evert; the Mike Breen Quartet; bassist Paul “Tango” Finazzo; percussionist Larry Fratangelo (on multiple gold, platinum and Grammy award-winning albums); vocalist Thornetta Davis (won over 30 Detroit music awards, including two 2014 Best Female Blues/R&B vocalist; Speq Colden, multi-keyboards, vocalist); pianist Mark LoDuca; pianist Ron DiPalma; and the late great Latin pianist Lynn LaPlante (The Lynn LaPlante Seven, including Lynn LaPlante, Tony Suhy and Dave Marcaccio, among others). Rocky also played with bands led by Gary Haines, Troy Maddox, Donna Marie, and Bob Bedard, as well as groups headed by Bugs Beddow (R&B and jazz); pianist and producer Randy Leipnik (the Temptations, the Inkspots, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells); famed vocalists Jack Burningtree (blues and rock) and Pamela Ransford (jazz), in addition to the bands Solar Flare (jazz) andCoplanar (jazz); Paul Kingery (longtime guitarist and vocalist withThree Dog Night). Other favorites were vocalist Andy Alonzo (Latin Counts, Martiniques); vocalist Tom Brzezina; drummer Tom Starr; pianist Gary Crista; pianist Paul Isaacson; pianist Mike Talley; pianist Stephen Kugaruga; the multi-talented drummer and artist, Ron Gianola; and vocalist Evelyn Martin (Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, and Dennis Edwards). In nearby Windsor, Ontario he played with guitarist Joe Messina (as mentioned above) and jazz organist Ken Chrome at the Metropole Supper Club in the famous “Olde Walkerville” neighborhood. In Windsor he also played with Lepa Marentette, vocalist and artist, and with vocalist Angie Tintinalli. Upon some of his occasional trips to Detroit in recent years, he has continued to play with a number of his former band mates, including Tony Suhy, Randy Leipnik, Marty Montgomery, Ping Spells?, Freeman Spells, Ray Goodman, Andy Alonzo, Paul Kingery, Ron Chester, as well as some exciting new collaborators, including guitarist Dan Hively (Tony Suhy Band, writing member of Detroit Ohm), vocalist Shirley Hayden, vocalist Stuart Skaggs, pianist Kevin Crosby, drummer Jim Pryor, drummer Eric Wilhelm and drummer Glenn Giordano. Rocky also performed with a number of major Detroit rock bands, for example, the Vineyards (including Bart Fiori, vocals and bass; Jimmy Roberts, organ; Joey Finazzo, vocals and guitar; Steve Fava, trumpet and guitar; Vince Carlesi, trumpet, and Joe Rosanova, drums). He played with this group for a year, six nights a week, including the famous Monday Motown Show, a weekly event where they backed up a constantly changing cast of the great Motown artists of the time. Another group he played with regularly on electric flute was Boone’s Farm, featuring Dan Raines on bass and vocals; Tom Neme on piano, guitar and vocals; Ron Blight on guitar and vocals; Al Bernetti on drums and vocals; and Jerry Shereda on organ and vocals. Three other of the many rock bands he played with were Free Beer, with John Harden and Diz Putnam, the Naked Lunch, and Jack Burningtree and the New World Symphony. A highly entertaining time was the month he spent playing in Chicago with world-renowned “singing impressionist” Bob Anderson, who later went on to great popularity in Las Vegas. A notable honor was being chosen to play in three major concerts with the Guitar Army Band, a large all-star group of Detroit’s finest rock musicians featuring, among many others, Charlie Martin, (drummer from the Bob Seger band); Rob Tyner (voice of the MC5); and many others. Appearances were at the Fox Theater and Harpo’s in Detroit, and the California Room in Windsor, Ontario (Canada). During this time he recorded a well-received sax instrumental version of “Best Friends,” a song written by Errol Starr (famous as the Canadian Juno Award Winner of the best R&B/Soul recording, for his song “Angel”). One of his favorite venues was Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (still going strong and perhaps the oldest jazz club in the country). Rocky played there on many occasions, but he is fond of recalling his gig with Steve “Muruga” Booker’s famous band featuring Muruga on drums and percussion, Peter “Mad Cat” Ruth on harmonica; pianist Harold McKinney (John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery); and Rocky on tenor sax. Very memorable during that engagement was the night when Dizzy Gillespie, who was a good friend of Harold’s and was to begin his performances at Baker’s the following week, came into the club and sat in with the group for an evening. Another favorite venue was Cobb’s Corner, a “Cass Corridor” night spot across from the Wayne State University campus, where he performed with the great jazz vocalist Betty Carter, along with Bugs Beddow, trombone, and the Lyman Woodward Trio.

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