Chicago musician also played background for commercials, co-wrote songs and penned 'Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel' in honor of '69 Cubs
Johnny Frigo, 90, a musician whose skill, encyclopedic song recall and late career switch from bass to violin made him a legend in jazz joints from Chicago to Europe, died Wednesday, July 4, of complications related to a fall, his family said.
Born on Chicago's South Side, Mr. Frigo took up the violin as a kid at the suggestion of the local junkman, whose son taught the instrument for 25 cents per lesson.
It turned out to be the first step on a serpentine musical path. In a 1992 interview with the Tribune, Mr. Frigo said his junior high orchestra was filled with violin players, so he had to switch to the tuba. He changed instruments again in high school, taking up the string bass so he could attract girls by playing in dance bands.
It turned out to be a shrewd decision -- as soon as he graduated he found work playing the bass in clubs across town. He sang too, though one of his bosses might have had a different word for his vocal ability.
We were on radio, and one night while I was singing the song 'One Minute to One,' my voice cracked as I hit a high note," Mr. Frigo had recalled. The owners apparently didn't like what they heard, because the next night I went on the air and right in the middle of my song, one of the bouncers grabbed me by the neck and dragged me off by my heels."
He went on to play with the big bands of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and with an orchestra led by Chico Marx, one of Hollywood's Marx Brothers. After serving in the Coast Guard in World War II, he returned to Chicago and became a specialist in the burgeoning field of background music for radio and TV commercials.
He was the kind of musician that people in the business look for -- somebody who can improvise a little jazz, read around corners, play anything that's put in front of him," said Dick Buckley, a longtime jazz radio host in Chicago.
Mr. Frigo was at a casting call for a commercial in the 1960s when he met the girl who would become his third wife. Brittney Browne, then a teenage aspiring actress, said they married a few years later and maintained an unusual long-distance relationship: She pursued her career in Los Angeles and New York and he stayed in Chicago, busy with his gigs and studio work.
Mr. Frigo also co-wrote such songs as Detour Ahead" and I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out!" But his best known tune was probably Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel," a novelty piece he wrote in honor of the 1969 Cubs -- before they collapsed.