The Troy Street Observer

Don Alessi and Guitar Spectacular!

Guitarist Don Alessi, once an ubiquitous presence on Boston’s music scene, was 100 years old when he died on Nov 3, 2018. His prolific career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s. He was everywhere then—in clubs, on records, on radio and television. There was a time when it seemed like you could not pass a day living in Boston without hearing Alessi’s guitar somewhere.

Photo of Don Alessi in 1944
Don Alessi in 1944; trumpet player unknown

Alessi was a jazz man at heart, but he played all styles of music in every imaginable setting. Fred Taylor told me that “Don was the utility infielder of Boston guitarists—whenever anybody came to Boston and needed a guitarist, they called Don Alessi. Any kind of music, he could play it.” On top of his daily radio and TV appearances, trio engagements, and studio work, he backed the likes of Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Bennett, and Jerry Vale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Don Alessi owed his first big break to another Bostonian, the bandleader Vaughn Monroe. Monroe organized his first big band in 1940, and based it in Boston during the war years. During that time Alessi was working in the jazz spots around town. The photo of him here was taken at a jam session at the Hop Scotch Room, in the Copley Square Hotel, in 1944. Perhaps someone from Monroe’s band heard him there. Perhaps Vaughn himself did. Someone brought Alessi to Monroe’s attention, and when Bucky Pizzarelli, Monroe’s guitarist, entered the army in late 1944, Don Alessi replaced him. Monroe recorded some of his classic early sides during Alessi’s tenure, including “There, I’ve Said It Again” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Pizzarelli resumed his career with Monroe after his discharge, and Alessi returned to Boston.

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April 20, 1954: Everybody Loves Mambo!

On April 20, 1954, Tito Puente and the Mambo-Rhumba Festival came to Symphony Hall.

In America, 1954 was the Year of Mambo, the year the dance craze peaked in popularity. That was the year of Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo,” Rosemary Cloony’s “Mambo Italiano” (she hated it), Les Brown’s “St. Louis Blues Mambo,” and yes, Duke Ellington’s “Bunny Hop Mambo.” The top bandleaders—Pérez Prado, Machito, Tito Puente—were on television and radio, and in all the magazines. The October 6, 1954 issue of Down Beat included a Tito Puente feature by Nat Hentoff, “The  Mambo!! They Shake A-Plenty With Tito Puente,” and no, Nat didn’t write the headline.

Of course, jazz knew what was happening underneath the commercial fluff, and had for years. There’s no need to recount that story here.

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