Gabriel Ricardo Fusco - November 19, 1911 - July 2, 1984
Gabriel Ricardo Fusco was my teacher and my friend. He was also a master musician whose story deserves to be told. I invite anyone who has a Fusco story to contact me, I'll be happy to add it. Pictures are always welcome. For now, I'm going with what I know and what I have.
G.R. Fusco was a world-class trombonist who picked up guitar as a second instrument after WWII. In his life, he did just about anything that could be done in the music business before settling down in the late 50s in Memphis, Tennessee, where I met him when I became his student in 1976.
He was born Nov. 19, 1911 in Hartford, CT, the son of an Italian father and mother, and was the oldest of their 9 children. He spoke fluent Italian but somewhere along the line he learned conversational Spanish and more than a little Portuguese. ("Not the Spanish they teach you in school," said someone from Spain who met him. "It's a gypsy dialect, like how they talk out in the country.") Because he often spoke Spanish to me, I always thought he had some Spanish blood in him. For someone who was such a marvelous musician to also have an ear for language is not hard to believe. But how he came by his musical ability is not known to me - his father worked for the Underwood Typewriter Company. I have no information regarding his mother. When he was 9, he told his father he wanted to be a musician. Okay, his father replied, "then you be the best," and arranged for him to study with a European conductor [name unknown] who lived in Hartford.
This gentleman taught Fusco in the old-fashioned way. For the first year he studied solfeggio - sight singing. It always amazed me, you would put a piece of music in front of him and he would sing it right off. I asked him why he always did that, he replied, "Can't you play something better if you already know how it goes?" [Took me a while, but I finally learned to sight sing also. Highly recommend it.]
Okay, so he learns to sight sing. Then he starts working with the instrument. Playing one note - probably the B flat - over, and over, and over. He said he did this for a year, that he asked the teacher, when could he play a song, a scale, something else? "When you can play that note correctly," the teacher responded, "we will learn other notes." Now, maybe he did this for a whole year, maybe not, but, let me tell you, his tone on the trombone was absolutely gorgeous, like warm liquid gold. So good, in fact, that he went on the road as a pro at the age of 15, in 1926 or so, and left Hartford never to return. Here is a picture from that time:
At the bottom of this photo is the note "15 years old" and on the back it says "Bosch Armed Forces Radio Band." I can't find any info on that organization. I do remember he told me that the the leader of that group had to become his legal guardian, so he could travel on the road.
Along the way, before the war, he was in New York for a while and played with Tommy Dorsey, also with the NBC Radio Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He played in the pit for Broadway musicals, and for the circus. He played for a while, not sure when, with the Chuck Foster band, also with the Clyde McCoy Orchestra, whose hit "Sugar Blues" was one of the first million-selling records in America. According to his niece Dina, the last group he played with before settling in Memphis was the Ina Ray Hutton band.
Fusco served in the Navy during World War II; Dina tells me he joined before Pearl Harbor. He told me once, he thought he better enlist in the Navy before he got drafted into the Army. It is interesting that a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, "the Clyde McCoy band was playing at the Peabody Skyway in Memphis, when several U.S. Navy officers were seated at a table. They asked Clyde to join them for a talk during an intermission. The recruiting officers persuaded Clyde and his entire 15 piece band to enlist en masse in the U.S. Navy. That began a tour of naval duty that took Clyde and his boys to a long list of military installations and hospitals." (That information from I don't believe, given the time frame, that he was playing with the McCoy group at that time - he was already serving. He did often mention how much he enjoyed playing at the Peabody; back in those days the shows at the Peabody Skyway were quite well-known, and broadcast nationally on CBS radio.
Fusco played music in the Navy. I believe he became the conductor of the Navy’s 5th Fleet band, along with various other groups along the way. Check out this picture from an Armed Forces Radio Band performance:
Recognize any of those people? Let's see...front row, far right - that would be Bob Hope. Next to him, Bing Crosby. Far left, with the moustache, who else but Jerry Cologna? That woman in the flowered dress is Judy Garland. Behind her, back row, with a trombone (in the dark shirt) is Ricardo Fusco. Now, that's what I call a good gig.
I am pretty sure this event was a celebration of the end of World War II. I have obtained a copy of the script from this show that I will be putting up shortly (4/21).
After the war he settled in the LA area as a studio musician for Warner Brothers. I don't have a lot of info about that, but this is when he decided to learn guitar as a second instrument. To do this he traveled to Mexico City once a month to study with a Professor Aloriaga. Sometime during this period he became friends with the great Brazilian guitarist, Laurindo Almeida. And then, in the 1950s, he got a gig playing at the old Silver Slipper nightclub outside Memphis. That gig "was supposed to last 4 weeks but instead it went on for 4 years" he said. When the nightclub burned down, he stayed put, telling me he "always liked Memphis" and was tired of traveling.
Here he is with his wife Georgia upon landing in Madrid in 1966:
With all that background, the thing that impressed me the most was not his musicianship, though they don't come any better. It was his humanity. He got along with everyone. He treated everyone he met - young, old, rich, poor, famous or not - with courtesy and respect. He was known for his sense of humor. "Hey," he'd say, "I'll make you laugh." And then he would do just that. He was absolutely the most comfortable man in his own skin I ever knew. "If I had my life to live over again," he told me once, when he was about 71, "I'd do it just the same! Every minute!" He was a pretty cool guy. He was much more than a teacher - he was my friend.