Backstage with Ron Onesti:

When the accordion was bigger than the guitar

Oh boy, another musical soldier has left us. His name was Dick Contino, and he was a true “rock star” of his day.

Many times in this column, you have read about ’60s folk icons, ’70s classic rockers or ’80s hair band heroes. Not this time, however. This time, it’s about a guy who made his way to superstardom with an accordion strapped around his neck, and chest hair protruding through his shirt.

Dick Contino was a West Coast heartthrob after he won a talent show in the 1950s. He then went on tour, piling up swooning female fans along the way. While appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” about 50 times, he became a national sensation, selling out concert halls all over the country.

I first met Dick as he accepted an invitation to play at a family fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in 1987. He ever so graciously donated his services for an event hosted by my wife, Elena, a cancer survivor. Once he heard the event was to benefit children, all talks of fees and expenses simply went away.

It is no secret I am a rocker, through and through. But also, as someone who tries to appreciate all music, I opened up my mind to what this accordion concert could be like. His square-chin smile was ever-present. He was always humble and always appreciative of his fans. I can now proudly say I am a fan of the instrument, and a huge fan of Dick Contino.

He opened with “Lady Of Spain,” his signature song, and it blew me away! The way his whole body became one with the instrument was inspirational! Every time he would pull the accordion apart and then push the air through, it was almost as if HE was breathing though it, with the air coming from his own lungs.

Each year, I produce several Italian festivals. One of my pride-and-joys is the Little Italy Fest-West in Addison in August. Last year I brought Dick to the festival to perform his incredible show, as he has several times before. But this time, it was a little different presentation.

I brought Dick’s daughter, Diedre, who is a vocalist, and his son, Pete, who is a drummer, in to surprise him. This was a very rare occasion when the Contino family actually performed together. It was magical! The sheer pride on his face was infectious. And the crowd loved being a part of this special family reunion.

Many times at these festivals or at Italian restaurants, you will find and elder gentleman, in a hat, striped shirt and scarf, playing the accordion. I just love those guys, many of whom have long been playing, before there were electric keyboards and pianos. I have often wondered how such small-framed musicians could support the weight of that oversized instrument hanging from their neck.

Well I invited every one of those local guys I could find to come to the event and join their hero, Dick, on stage! Joe Martino, Joe DeLuca and several other “Joe’s” took me up on my invite, and joined their hero on stage. Again, magical.

After it was over, I spent a few minutes with Dick in the dressing room trailer. “This was a special night,” Dick said to me. “These guys called me their hero! Can you believe that? THEIR hero! What happened here tonight hasn’t happened to me since the 1950s when I would literally play on a street corner and kids would come out with their accordions and play along side me, saying they wanted to be just like me. I never realized there were guys out there still playing. Ya know what? Those guys are MY heroes!”

That was a special moment for me. Dick Contino represented a simplicity that was pure music, pure passion. I witnessed and enabled what could be perceived to be a “passing of the torch” of sorts.

As long as “Lady Of Spain” is still playing on my festival stage, the memory of Dick Contino will also remain as the early rock star he was.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email