A bassist's bass player with a storybook career
Played jazz, country and wroteJohnny Frigo, a musician's musician who co-wrote such standards as "Detour Ahead" and "I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out," has died in Chicago after a fall. He was 90.
Frigo, a versatile jazz violinist and bassist who toured when young with Jimmy Dorsey, died July 4. He spent much of his career in Chicago, where he was born on the South Side, as a backup bass player on radio and studio bands as well as on commercial jingles and in nightclubs. For 30 years, it was said, he played on more commercials than any bassist in the world.
His range was extraordinary, enabling him to play with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, guitarist Charlie Byrd and bassist Oscar Pettiford as well as singers Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, Helen Merrill and Mahalia Jackson. Starting in 1951, he played fiddle for 13 years on the country radio program "National Barn Dance," backed by his band the Sage Riders.
In 1941, Chico Marx hired him to tour with his big band, and they worked out a recurring gag where Marx would say, "Aye, Johnny, bringa da violin down. Do you know 'Gypsy Love Song?' "
"I don't know the verse; I know the chorus," Frigo would say. "If you play the verse, I'll noodle on the violin."
"OK," Marx would say, "you noodle on the violin, and I'll spaghetti on the piano."
In 1947, Frigo formed a much-admired but publicity-challenged jazz trio, the Soft Winds, with two Dorsey colleagues, guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter.
That year, he wrote the words and music to "Detour Ahead," splitting the royalties with Carter and Ellis for helping him to polish it. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans and others recorded it and a Holiday version was used on a Lexus TV commercial during the 1952 Winter Olympics in Norway.
The trio followed that with "I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out," which was recorded by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Anita O'Day and Cybill Shepard, who sang it in a season's opener of "Moonlighting."
During his years backing pianists on Mondays and Tuesdays at Mr. Kelly's on Chicago's Rush Street, he shared the bandstand with such stars as Holiday, Vaughan and Streisand, spending his days at Universal Recording Studios doing commercials and playing bass on record dates like Washington's. Nights, he played concerts starring Frank Sinatra or Julie Andrews, did shows like "The King & I" with Shirley MacLaine and Yul Brynner and found time to write and record the Chicago Cubs' official song, "Hey Hey, Holy Mackerel!"
In the mid-80s, when Frigo was in his 70s, critic Leonard Feather caught him at the Loa in Santa Monica recording some tracks for Concord with Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Ellis. Feather raved about Frigo in a long feature in the Los Angeles Times, and soon the producers of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" booked him for a spot.
So a new career was born that had some critics hailing the septuagenarian as the world's greatest jazz violinist, featured as he was on Concord's "Triple Treat II" and "Triple Treat III" CDs; his two Chess CDs, "Johnny Frigo: Live From Studio A in New York" and "Johnny Frigo: Debut of a Legend"; Chiaroscuro's "Live at the Floating Jazz Festival"; Arbor's' "Johnny Frigo's DNA Exposed!"; as well as a newly remastered, digitally enhanced 1985 recording titled "Renaissance Man."