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by Mick Archer
Arrivederci Nick Russo
Master piano bar entertainer passes away at 63
In September, Chicago lost possibly its best singing pianist working in what
could loosely be defined as “Rat Pack Jazz,” though he played a lot more than
that. Nick Russo (1953-2016), veteran entertainer and bandleader, passed
away at the age of 63. Though I only knew Nick from a few encounters when
we were both working on Rush Street, he made a big impression me. I envied his
skill and finesse as a musician and entertainer, and his huge repertoire of
“mob hits.” The last time we met was when we were both involved at the very
beginning of The Redhead on Ontario back in the mid-‘90s. That was before it
turned away from swinging jazz standards in favor of some of the more rock/pop
approach almost every piano bar now employs. On an off night I went in with some
friends and threw Nick $10 bucks to play “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,”
a very complicated piece. I admit I was trying to stump him, but that was impossible—
Nick could play anything completely off the cuff. He sight-read a sensational version of it. I was astounded and humbled.
Some 20 years went by, and I was writing this column dedicated to the piano bar artists who help keep jazz alive by performing from The Great American Songbook. Many of these performing artists are part of a dying breed and ignored by most of the media, so my continuing mission to bring long overdue attention to worthy practitioners made me think of Nick.
I asked him for a bio via Facebook.
Here’s what he sent me:
"Nick Russo has been a Chicago favorite for over 40 years. He brings a new meaning to jazz entertainment. He provides a big band sound all alone. Nick has played at The Redhead Piano Bar, Jilly’s Piano Bar, Rosewood Banquets, and most recently, Zeal Restaurant. Nick loves to perform so please have him at your next event. Nick’s repertoire ranges from Sinatra to Big Band to Latin to Motown and any hits from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Nick is available for parties, weddings, or any important events as well as bars and restaurants.”
That, I pointed out in frustration, is not a bio, but rather a press release—and not a very good one. I asked him for a real career bio, and suggested that if he found this too difficult, to produce one himself or consider hiring a professional publicist to do so. I gave him some names and that was the end of the conversation. I figured Nick was just not that interested in being recognized for his achievements.
But now that’s he’s gone his devoted family and friends did manage to gather enough facts for me to present this brief tribute:
“Born on 08/25/53 to Italian parents, Nick and Theresa Russo, he grew up in the Belmont/Central area. He started accordion lessons at age 7, then went on to piano while attending St. Viator’s, then St. Francis Borgia, Holy Cross High School, and eventually to DePaul University, where so many great Chicago musicians got their education. It was there that Nick studied with Alan Swain, the great jazz piano teacher who taught a whole generation of Chicago pianists (ask Judy Roberts about him). Though not really presenting himself as an organist, Nick effortlessly played two keyboards at once while operating bass pedals with either foot, while singing. His sound was so big, at first listen it sounded like he was using tracks. But all that massive orchestration and melody was coming out of his body.
His bread and butter repertoire consisted mainly of standards made popular by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and all the other songs that made wise guys and wise-guy wannabees open their wallets. But Nick was not limited to that genre: the hipper side of his set list included works by Josef Zawinul (he did a stellar version of ‘Birdland’), Weather Report, Joe Sample and the Crusaders, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, and Al Jarreau. His favorite band was Tower of Power, and he always ended his lounge act with his trademark closer, Sunny King’s, ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home.’
He played at numerous places around the city and suburbs that were ignored or avoided by the jazz cognoscenti, but were favorites of the cigar and martini crowd, like Gianotti’s in Norridge, and Jilly’s in the heart of Rush Street, across the street from Gibsons.
During his career numerous celebrities, such as Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé, Billy Eckstine, Vic Damone, Buddy Greco, Billy Joel, and Frank D’Rone, sat in with him. And countless other celebrities (Steven Van Zandt, Sean Penn, Michael Bolton, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Burt Reynolds, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, to name a few) enjoyed the lively ambience he provided while they experienced Chicago’s demi monde of late-night saloons.
His last concert was at Ron Onesti’s Arcada Theatre in St. Charles on April 4, 2016 with his trio, Tight Fitt. The trio included George Aparo on drums, and Mitch Straeffer on bass.”
George Aparo later said this:
“Nick just had this personality that was bigger than life. He was a perfectionist, who knew exactly what he wanted in every song. He would encourage and push me to do things on his arrangements that made me a better player. He would amaze me the way he mastered two keyboards while singing at the same time. I can’t count how many times people thought it was sequenced music. He kept the dance floor at the Drake packed with his vast knowledge of songs: anything from Sinatra to Earth, Wind & Fire. Nick usually liked to end a gig with ‘Birdland.’ As much as I loved his playing, it was the times off the bandstand I will truly miss the most. So many laughs, he was such a wonderful friend. And musically, he will never be replaced.”
Bassist and writer Steve Hashimoto was on the bandstand with Nick at what turned out to be his very last gig, and sent in this comment:
“Nick was swinging player and singer. Though we’d met briefly, this city is so big that we had never worked together before, even though we sort of traveled in the same circles. I got a call at the last minute to sub for Nick’s regular bassist, Mitch Straeffer, at The Drake/Palm Court on Saturday Sept. 24, and I was open and happy to take the gig. Although there were some glitches on the Drake Hotel’s part (they had booked a wedding into the Palm Court without telling Nick and we started an hour and a half late), I think I can safely say (both drummer George Aparo and Nick’s wife Edie confirmed) that Nick’s last gig on Earth was a fun one. His last words to me were ‘Steve, you just moved up to number 2. Are you okay with that?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I was very much looking forward to working with him in the future. Not only did he have A terrific swinging feel, but he was also a very good leader, extremely well organized and professional. Like I say, I only knew him briefly, but I’ll miss him greatly.”
One of the things I admired most about Nick was his work ethic and devotion to his family, which consisted of six children, two grandchildren and his beloved wife, Edie. Having a huge family is not easy for anyone, but it’s almost impossible for a full-time musician. Nick was not interested in fame; he just wanted to be a man who could take care of his family while being true to his art.
I’ll let Edie Russo have the last word:
“As far as a quote goes, I don’t know what to say. All I could tell you is no matter what Nick did he was a perfectionist. As a husband, a father and friend, and especially as an entertainer, he was the best.”
Singers and pianists of all styles are welcome to join the class Piano Bar 101, taught by Mick Archer on Fridays 8 p.m.-9:20 p.m., at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Call for availability (773) 728-6000 or visit OldTownSchool.org