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Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.
It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies--and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.
Contino's father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn't really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt's "Youth Opportunity Talent Show." Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through "Lady of Spain" (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night's show. He returned to win the show's grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he's never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the "draft dodger" label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, "Dick Contino's Blues," which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.
Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, "Daddy-O." Playing a badass rock 'n' roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. "Daddy-O" is certainly not great cinema ("That thing was like a class Z picture," Contino said), but it ranks up there with "The Wild One" as piece of 50s rebel iconography.
Contino also cut a swath through his share of Hollywood starlets before settling down with actress Leigh Snowden. Contino had three children with Snowden, as well as two from her previous marriage, and the couple were together for 26 years before she died in 1982. Today, Contino still tours and he's not shy about showing off a tanned and buffed chest and a girlfriend half his age. "After you've paid a few dues, y'know, sometimes you do build up a sense of invincibility. Like, c'mon, I gave you all this time to destroy me, man, and you didn't destroy me. So c'mon. Let's have some fun."
Contino's records don't show quite the same sense of adventure as his life. The best are his Mercury albums, most of them made with David Carroll, and of these, the best are the trio of "holiday" albums. Hawaiian Holiday, in particular, is worth looking for just for that special space age pop thrill of hearing "Quiet Village" on the accordion. It may not be first-rate exotica, but it's certainly not "Lady of Spain"-sville, man.
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