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Squeeze This!A Cultural History of the Accordion in America$

Marion Jacobson

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780252036750

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252036750.001.0001

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Advent of the Piano Accordion

Advent of the Piano Accordion

(p.15) Chapter One Advent of the Piano Accordion
Squeeze This!

Marion Jacobson

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the piano accordion and explains its modern evolution from earlier free-reed instruments. It explores the development of the modern piano accordion through a look at its European roots, then provides a discussion of its evolution as a uniquely American instrument, setting the stage for discussions of the accordion's emerging social capital—its capacity to express social status and power, and what accounted for its increasingly visible role in popular culture. Finally, this chapter sheds light on vaudeville star Guido Deiro's (1886–1951) pioneering role as a popular culture figure and his significant role in cementing a place for the accordion in American musical culture.

Keywords:   piano accordion, social capital, popular culture, Guido Deiro, American musical culture, free-reed instruments

THE LUSHLY SYMPHONIC SOUNDS of the accordion filled the parlors, salons, and concert halls of nineteenth-century Europe. Accordion scholars generally trace the beginnings of their instrument’s history to the “Demian,” a new free-reed instrument patented by Austrian organ builder and inventor Cyril Demian in 1828.1 These diatonic button accordions were equipped with two, three, or four rows for a variety of harmonies, and could create multivoiced textures and simple rhythms suitable for folk and traditional dance music. Demian brought about the first significant transformations with an instrument he called the akkordeon, from the Italian word accordare (“sound together”), a name he chose shrewdly. “Sounding together” implied that it could play chords—glorious harmony. The button system with its preset chords enabled the player to produce multiple harmonies without the need for a band. The patent stated that it could play rhythm (waltzes, marches, and polkas)—a small orchestra substitute. The neologism akkordeon highlights the instrument’s novelty appeal. The wording of Demian’s patent implies that it was conceived as a convenience for travelers and a portable substitute for other instruments.2 The Demian was the instrument that would ultimately evolve into the modern piano accordion and serve a broader range of constituencies than its inventor had imagined. But at the time of its invention, other inventors were hoping to profit from the new free-reed instruments. Only a month after the Demian was patented in May 1829, Charles Wheatstone followed with his concertina, which drew an enthusiastic following in the United Kingdom and beyond.3 There were German, French, Russian, Swedish, and American versions of Demian’s accordion as well, varying in size and numbers of keys.

(p.16) After 1914, the accordion underwent another dramatic transformation: global sales and marketing. That would not have happened were it not for the plastics industry, advances in manufacturing, and the development of many features of the accordion—new arrangements of keyboards and buttons that made an expanded range of notes accessible to the fingers and ultimately more suited to the needs of solo virtuoso artists. Changing tastes and the rise of radio and sound recording played a significant role in bringing the accordion to wider attention. Nevertheless, the familiar piano accordion design that became standard by the mid-1930s—as well as its playing conventions and repertoire—is a direct descendant of what Paolo Soprani and the Italian accordion industry developed. The Italians were significant in the popularization of the accordion, with their vision not only of how to design and perform the accordion artistically but also of how to get large numbers of them into the hands of Americans. The story of the accordion after 1908 is about people who at critical moments redefined the technology of the instrument as well as the culture surrounding the instrument. In so doing, they opened for it new markets, new repertoires, and a new place in the social order.

The early Italian firms were the first of many who would effect such transformations. They took an expensive, fragile, and exotic instrument and with the cooperation of manufacturers turned it into a product that could be mass-produced and sold, if only in limited quantities at first. Italians made the first mass-produced accordions, and American firms followed with scores of others that came to surpass the Italian ones in ingenuity and sophistication. The Americans’ timing was excellent. Turn-of-the century vaudeville, the subsequent jazz craze of the 1920s, and the emerging role of the accordion in dance bands all helped to pave the way for the accordion’s wider popularity. The era witnessed the first (and only) accordion-playing vaudeville celebrity, Guido Deiro, whose career is discussed in this chapter. With remarkable self-confidence and musical acumen, Deiro transformed the accordion into a tool with which to enrich one’s musical tastes and sensibilities and set the stage for the accordion’s “golden age.” This golden age was not just invented by a single artist; it was willed into existence by a broad constituency of people. This process of reinvention and redefinition is still going on. To account for the incredible success of a single free-reed instrument—the piano accordion—one must also understand how the descendants of the Demian, the diatonic button accordions, were used and how their limitations were understood. It was these limitations that made room for the piano accordion, which broke with past practices in many ways.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the age of Romanticism in Europe, the most popular type of free-reed instrument in circulation—and the one (p.17) pioneered by Demian—was the diatonic accordion, which produces two notes on a single button upon the opening and closing of the bellows. These were manufactured throughout Europe and circulated to the United States; by 1902, Sears Roebuck was featuring European accordions in its retail catalogs.4

Italian makers developed the Demian prototype—flat and no larger than a harmonica—into its iconic shape and gave it protection from dust and moisture, extending its life span.5 Italian makers offered many choices of models with highly ornamented, elegant, and allegorical case designs. On one of Dallapé’s earliest models, neoclassical muse-like figures float in midair, holding lyres. Skilled craftsmen carved shimmering mother-of-pearl (abalone) embellishments for the grilles, working through the standard visual vocabulary of neoclassicism and Art Deco: grapevines, flowers, naked cherubs, and scantily clad Greco-Roman Muses. These alluring (and sometimes erotic) images not only provided eye candy but also served a practical function: covering the screws and joints and concealing the instrument’s otherwise boxy shape. Such iconography, rendered in expensive materials, suggests that the some of the accordion’s early makers wished to present it as a “classical” or “high-class” instrument, worthy of the salons of Europe in which it was circulated.6 Such designs would later leave their iconographic traces on the much fancier accordions developed by Italian immigrants for the American vaudeville scene.

The names of manufacturers always appear on the grilles, helping to identify their dates and places of origin. The fronts of the grilles feature ornate hand-cut covers. The buttons on the right-hand keyboard are arranged in rows of ten, containing a major scale. The push of the bellows produces a major triad, and the pull produces the other tones of the scale (the left-hand buttons sound the bass notes). The number of rows and the tuning system used often reflect the unique characteristics of the musical genre deployed.7 Although popular in many ethnic and traditional musical styles, diatonic button accordions could only produce a limited number of bass tones, and hence they were not seen as complete instruments in their own right.8

In 1850, the Viennese musician Franz Walther built an instrument with forty-six buttons arranged in three rows of minor thirds, each row a half step apart. (The bass section was a diatonic row, divided between single bass notes and two-note chords). In this three-row chromatic pattern, the two additional rows duplicated the first two rows to provide alternative fingering (only one finger pattern was necessary to play all the keys). To change to another key, the player shifted the finger pattern across the keyboard and began another note, as one might do on a guitar fingerboard. On a chromatic keyboard, the hand can span two and a half octaves, as compared to a single octave on a piano keyboard (p.18) prior to the introduction of treble shifts. Another feature that distinguished this accordion from the earlier diatonic button box was its ability to produce the same note upon different directions of the bellows. These instruments came to be called chromatic accordions.

In Paris, a few years after Walther’s invention, Viennese and French makers experimented with chromatic free-reeds named accordion-orgue, flutina, or harmonieflute, accordions with a piano-like keyboard in the right hand. Busson’s accordion-orgue caught the Parisian public’s attention with its single-action reeds and a reservoir bellows that could be pumped, while placed on a stand, with a foot pedal. This exotic free-reed instrument had no bass buttons and a rather soft—but richly nuanced—tone. It marks the piano accordion’s beginnings.9

Popular demand established a transnational market and the establishment of firms such as Hohner in Germany (1857) and Soprani (1872) and Dallapé in Italy (1876). To succeed, however, the dispersed armies of accordions spreading across Europe needed a command center—and it was Castelfidardo, Italy. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of these instruments were massproduced by the large companies based in Castelfidardo.

Castelfidardo, located between the Aspio and Musone river valleys, is a scenic Italian hill town of the type that attracts tourists from England, the United States, and the rest of Europe. The town’s handful of historic sites and markers evoke the glories of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement. There is the Collegiate Church with its onion-shaped bell tower, a Renaissance-style palazzo, and a grandiose (twentieth-century) equestrian monument to the fallen in the Battle of Castelfidardo, in which the town prevailed against the imperialist papal army. The town is also a draw for accordion fans, collectors, and serious players who can afford to commission a fine custom-made accordion from one of the thirty or so remaining family-owned factories or to make a once-in-lifetime pilgrimage. Not far from the grandiose statue is a monument visiting accordionists probably regard as equally significant: a bust of Paolo Soprani, founder of the accordion industry in Italy, who began his distinguished career by pirating the Demian.10 His brothers Settimo and Paschale then began producing their own accordions in the wine cellar of the family’s farm, expanding to an outbuilding on the farm. The first accordions were sold in the fairs and marketplaces of the nearby regions, especially Loreto, a meeting point for religious pilgrims, travelers, and traders. Paolo traveled with his products on horseback to the busy city center of Castelfidardo; in 1872 he decided to open a factory in Piazzetta Garibaldi there. When the factory began receiving orders from abroad (France and the United States toward the end of the nineteenth (p.19) century), Paolo, now in partnership with his sons Luigi and Achille, opened up a new factory on the elegant, tree-lined Avenue Umberto. In 1900, following the Sopranis’ success displaying their wares at the Paris Exhibition, they became members of the Academy of Inventors of Brussels and Paris and were received at the Élysée Palace by Emile Loubet, the president of France. As early as 1899, observers noted the accordion’s potential to become a more “elevated” instrument in the salons of Europe.11

The accordion had arrived—it had risen above its humble rural origins to become the darling of the salons of Europe. But the Italian pioneers of the accordion had even bigger plans for the instrument. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a rapid growth not only of the Soprani enterprise, which employed as many as four hundred workers, but of other workshops, including the Scandalli brothers in Camerano and Antonio Ranco in Vercelli, whose firm would later help to launch Guido Deiro’s virtuoso solo career in the United States. Soprani’s brothers branched out to set up their own workshops—Set-timo’s in Via Cavour, Castelfidardo, and Paschal’s in Recanati, which also became a center for accordion manufacture. All these workshops produced the simple, inexpensive 2-bass diatonic accordion, an instrument that enjoyed instant and outstanding success. It was widely copied by scores of accordion firms hoping to cash in on this success.

The production data from the late nineteenth century are astonishing. No other industry had seen such a rapid rise in Italy. According to an exhibition of industry products from the Marche region, the accordion industry employed five hundred workers in fourteen factories.12 The rosters of accordion factory workers with common last names suggest that the industry relied on entire families working on the factory floors as well as in their home workshops. This tradition afforded the accordion industry a great deal of flexibility, as workers could be hired and fired to meet ever-fluctuating demand. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Soprani family shifted from fully handmade production to a fully integrated production line, with electricity powering the machinery to fabricate reeds. This allowed the Soprani firm to substantially increase its profit margin in that same decade.13 The Sopranis celebrated their success by erecting an enormous neoclassical factory building adjacent to the town’s center between 1907 and 1909. They were soon joined by dozens of competitors: Enrico and Paolo Guerrini, Piatanesi, Serenelli, and Sante Crucianelli, creating a construction boom along Avenue Umberto—renamed “Dollar Street.”14

Shortly before the onset of World War I, a major market shift occurred in the industry. In 1907, the data show that only 690 accordions were exported. (p.20) In 1913, that figure rose to 14,365—an impressive figure when one takes note of the many accordion-producing nations in competition with Italy: Russia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and France.15 The accordion’s rise to popularity and its potential in the field of classical music were noted even by Italy’s most famous composer, Giuseppe Verdi, who may have put forth a proposal to the Italian National Conservatory for the study of the accordion.16

Although Castelfidardo was the center of Italian accordion production, the town of Stradella in Lombardy played a decisive role in the development of the piano accordion tradition. There Mario Dallapé developed an expansive new system for the bass side of the accordion, with 120 bass buttons arranged in six rows of twenty, with each row staggered diagonally from its neighbor, as the bass button chart shows. The first row of twenty buttons nearest the bellows (the counter-bass row) produces tones a major third above the bass tone; the second (the fundamental row) produces the bass tone; the third is the major chord row (indicated with the capital letter M); the fourth is the minor chord row (lowercase m); the fifth is the seventh chord row (7); and the sixth is the diminished row (d). Ten buttons from the bottom of the accordion in the fundamental row is the button producing the note C—often marked by an indentation or an inlaid rhinestone.17

Advent of the Piano Accordion

Bass button chart for the Stradella accordion system, developed by Mario Dallapé in Stradella, Italy, in the late nineteenth century. The 120-bass configuration is currently the most common system employed in modern piano accordions. The arrangement of buttons was conceived to give the player’s left hand access to the most commonly played bass root notes and chords in Western music (note that C is in the center of the row of root notes, second from top).

(p.21) We can see, through the Stradella system, why the accordion was so appealing to novice musicians, for the ingenious arrangement of the basses made it so. It was through this system that the developers of the accordion conceived of something that had a universal appeal, at least in Western folk music. The easy harmonic transitions (from major to minor, from tonic to dominant) available through the Stradella system reflected the harmonic progressions of many European and New World folk musical genres, such as the waltz, tango, and mazurka, that were on the rise in Italy and central Europe in the late nineteenth century.

Although the Stradella was not the first piano accordion—that distinction belonged to Busson’s accordion-orgue—the Stradella system was key to the piano accordion’s ultimate popular and commercial success. It allowed Dallapé and all Italian firms to build accordions that had “universal” qualities, at least in Western classical and popular music. It led to the establishment of a common knowledge bank, a kind of musical programming, as something both independent of and important to the folk music repertoire. By providing a bass line, and rhythmic accompaniment, these instruments could take the place of a piano, a bass, or even an entire band. It was the accordion’s “one-man band” versatility—and its ability to handle music in any key—that demonstrated its commercial potential and its promise in the field of American popular entertainment. The accordion was now ready to ride a new wave of popular culture sweeping across America of the early twentieth century.

Between 1840 and 1940, one of the most significant population movements occurred between Europe and the Americas. Estimates of the number of Italians who crossed the Atlantic converge at around sixteen million.18 Among the pioneers of this movement in the early nineteenth century were artisans and craftsmen who perceived demand for their products and services far from Italy. Among these were hundreds of skillful accordion makers, technicians, and salesmen riding the wave of immigration to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco—the cities with large immigrant populations and the key cities in which the American accordion industry established itself. These men hoped to market the accordion not only to fellow Italians but also to immigrants from eastern Europe, Poland, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, and other nations that had experienced the accordion craze in Europe. While many of these nations launched accordion industries of their own during the same period,19 Italy virtually controlled the export market, particularly in the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, the factories of Castelfidardo produced 90 percent of the accordions played by Americans.20 In the earlier age of emigration, the accordion traveled (p.22) with Italian immigrants throughout the Americas, becoming the defining instrument in a variety of folk and popular musics.

The accordion had practical advantages for Italian immigrants (as it did for other immigrant communities). First, an accordion was more affordable than a piano.21 It was sturdy, portable, relatively easy to learn to play at least on a basic level, its sound carried very well, and it could be adapted to play a wide range of musical repertoires. With the ease of playing chords with the left hand, the accordion was readily adaptable to a variety of dance rhythms played at social dance events. One account by an Italian historian suggests how the accordion may have been perceived within the Italian diasporan community: “The large Italian populations who had emigrated to the Americas eased their homesickness with the sounds of accordion music. For those forced to leave their place of birth to earn a living in a foreign land, the accordion became a standard part of their luggage, a piece of home that they brought with them.”22 Bugiolacchi’s account of accordion-playing immigrants implies that the instrument’s appeal was instantaneous and automatic. Yet the Italians’ dominance in the field was carefully calculated. Along with other tradesmen and traders—ink vendors from Parma, child street musicians from Genoa, and figurinai sellers from Lucca, the musicians and entrepreneurs from Italy were active participants in the mass labor migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.23 When accordion craftsmen journeyed from Castelfidardo to America to sell their wares, they tested the market, following the routes and methods of other diasporic tradesmen. Accordion factories and retail businesses focused their efforts on cities with large immigrant populations, locating their factories and shops in Italian neighborhoods. Accordion players and enthusiasts came to admire, above all other models, the instruments of Soprani, Serenelli, and Dallapé as the world’s finest, citing the quality of their reeds and their workmanship. Italy’s leaders eagerly supported the industry in their efforts to advance the nation’s productivity and economic prowess.24 Beginning in the early 1900s, relatives of the Italian accordion makers brought their ingenuity and their passion for accordions to America, establishing the first American outpost of the Italian accordion industry in San Francisco. The ideas and innovations of these immigrants would prove significant for the development of the accordion as a uniquely American instrument.

For most American accordion enthusiasts, 1908 marks the beginning of their history—the first time a piano accordion was performed in the United States and the beginning of the accordion craze. The first two decades of the twentieth century, until America’s entry into World War I, marked a prosperous (p.23) social climate during which the United States demonstrated its political and economic might to the rest of the world. Among America’s middle class, optimism prevailed about their economic future as the nation bounded ahead in productivity and economic momentum. This was the climate in which late-nineteenth-century urban Americans witnessed the development of vaudeville, the cultural phenomenon that first brought the accordion to widespread public attention. The vaudeville theaters offered a never-ending variety of acts to a diverse, mobile, working-class and lower-class audience that was increasingly in pursuit of leisure and eager to spend its disposable income on entertainment. It was also during this period that the accordion itself became a constituent of a national American commodity market.25

The vaudeville tradition developed from a number of existing musical and nonmusical institutions, especially taverns and saloons in the rough-and-tumble entertainment districts in San Francisco’s and New York’s seaports. Some of these districts were infamous for prostitution, organized crime rings, kidnappings, and extortions. There was San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast, a nine-block area of numerous saloons, dance halls, and brothels. Until 1917, when San Francisco’s police commission closed down the district, a good accordionist could find regular employment in the Barbary Coast district. The young virtuoso accordionist Angelo Cagnazzo, an immigrant from Italy who became a prominent figure in the accordion industry, played tangos, mazurkas, and fox-trots at Barbary Coast bars and “ten cents a dance” establishments. He later taught Dick Contino, the accordion icon of the 1940s and 1950s.26

In an effort to provide “cleaned-up” or more decent entertainment for middle-class audiences, variety and vaudeville theaters opened up in cities across America in the late nineteenth century.27 Vaudeville’s complex formula that drew talent from immigrant ethnic performers, cobbling together dialect songs, slapstick skits, and crass ethnic stereotypes of Jews, Italians, Germans, and Irish, has been well documented by historians. However, vaudeville was also a source of more “elevated” forms of musical entertainment: sentimental songs, light classical music, and “refined” and “cleaned-up” versions of European and American folksongs.28 In that capacity, music—serious music in particular—was an indispensable, if often overlooked, component of vaudeville. As the vaudevillian memoirist Joe Laurie, Jr., has put it, “from the first days of the honky-tonks to the time when the last exit march was heard at the Palace, music played a very important part in vaudeville.”29

Vaudeville required a diverse array of musical skills. The musicians in the pit orchestras needed to master cues and sound effects along with classical (p.24) overtures, marches, and sentimental songs, with little or no rehearsal time. The musical acts that performed onstage had to maintain the audience’s attention between the dog act and the acrobats. “Novelty” musical acts featured musicians performing on musical rattles, farm implements, bones, vegetables, gobletphones (water glasses), and bells (handbells, Alpine bells, and sleigh bells). Musical clowns specialized in balloons, saws, washboards, bottles, and “trick violins.” Concertina-playing clowns, a phenomenon that originated in London music halls, made occasional appearances on the American vaudeville stage.30 “Straight” musical acts showcased xylophonists, brass bands, violinists, ragtime pianists, banjo players, and piano accordionists. Accordionists often appeared in ethnic vaudeville sketches featuring Irish, African American, Italian, and Chinese ethnic humor, whether or not accordions were part of a culture’s traditional music style. Founded by an aspiring Philippine concert pianist who emigrated to San Francisco, the Chinese act “Ming and Toy” were fixtures on San Francisco’s “Chop Suey” circuit in the 1920s and 1930s. Ming (the erstwhile pianist) played piano accordion and ukulele and also juggled.31

Whether they were part of “straight” or “novelty” acts, all vaudeville musicians had to face the considerable difficulties in breaking into the business. The vaudeville shows were controlled by a handful of companies (Orpheum and Keith) that controlled regional touring circuits. A performer had the best chance of entering the business through family connections, or joining a “family act,” as Anthony Galla-Rini did at the age of seven when he joined his father, John Galla-Rini, a euphonium and guitar player, and two older sisters in their family’s musical act. The family also appeared as an accordion quartet. After the sisters left the act, John and Anthony formed a clown duet, Palo and Palet, which Anthony found to be a degrading experience. Anthony attributes to that experience his emerging ambition to shed the trappings of theater and become a respectable solo artist.32

The standardized format of most vaudeville shows allowed for only one serious musical act. Theater managers booked all of their acts (musicians included) for fifty-week runs, and available slots were hard to come by. At any given time, thousands of musicians were competing to be the sole musical act in a vaudeville program. Once they had broken into the business, most musicians confronted the fact that they occupied the bottom rungs of a rigidly hierarchical professional world. At the top of the vaudeville hierarchy and pay scale were acrobats, comedy acts, and dancers. Next came musical acts featuring singers, and following those, instrumentalists. Underage musicians with desirable talents could sometimes find themselves indentured by their own families as (p.25)

Advent of the Piano Accordion

Ming and Toy’s vaudeville act made regular appearances in San Francisco’s “Chop Suey” circuit in the 1920s. “Ming” was the stage name for the Philippine émigré (and classically trained pianist) Jose Paguio.

slave labor. Until he formed his own solo act, Anthony Galla-Rini never saw a dime of compensation from his father, with whom he was required to perform for ten years—until his seventeenth birthday.33

Musicians needed to double as stagehands and support personnel. Another famous accordionist who got his start in vaudeville, Lawrence Welk, traveled the Keith circuit. He appeared in the Irish entertainer George T. Kelly’s act featuring ethnic stereotypes of Germans and Dutch that were wildly popular (p.26) with midwestern audiences. As Kelly became increasingly incapacitated by alcoholism, Welk was also expected to move equipment, help with publicity and bookings, and run rehearsals, which later proved to be significant for his later career as a bandleader and producer.34 Only on very rare occasions would a very prominent musician be the headliner on the vaudeville stage, and only one accordionist, Guido Deiro, was ever featured as a headline act, at New York City’s Palace Theater in 1913.

Advent of the Piano Accordion

Pietro Frosini with chromatic accordion.

(Source: Guido Deiro Archives, Graduate Center, City University of New York)

(p.27) For most early vaudeville accordionists, the instrument of choice was the chromatic button accordion, a double-action free-reed instrument developed by F. Walther and widely circulated in Europe and America throughout the nineteenth century. Pietro Deiro, Pietro Frosini, Suzette Carsell, and the three Marconi brothers—all luminaries of the piano accordion in vaudeville and beyond—got their start playing the chromatic button accordion and later switched to the piano accordion. Accordion virtuoso Pietro Frosini was one of the early “stars” of the accordion, traveling extensively on the Orpheum circuit and in Europe. He also made the first cylinder recordings of the accordion for Edison, in 1907.

Heralding the movement toward the piano accordion, and the accordion craze in America, was Guido Deiro.

Guido Deiro (1886–1950) experienced the most dramatic rise to success in accordion history, leading him from an existence as a itinerant musician in Europe to the most coveted distinction in the American entertainment world of the time: a vaudeville headline act. Apart from his brother and rival Pietro Deiro (1888–1954; see chapter 2), Guido did more than any other accordion artist to establish a glamorous, high-class image for the instrument. The Italo-American Company’s accordion advertisements in the early 1930s proclaimed that Guido Deiro was the “first to introduce the piano accordion on stage, in concert, in records, in radio and film.”35 Guido was not only the first to play piano accordion in America—a distinction also claimed, spuriously, by Pietro—but also the first to become a vaudeville headline act and the first to enjoy a full-time career playing the instrument. His headline-making appearances and his romantic misadventures and marriages to Mae West and four other women offered titillating material for the gossip columns.

Guido Deiro was born to a prosperous family of grocers in the town of Salto Canavese in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. The family patriarch, Carlo Deiro, intended for his sons to follow him in the family business and forced them to work “like serfs” in his stores.36 He strongly disapproved of his sons’ interest in the accordion, and nine-year-old Guido had to play his accordion in secret. To escape his overbearing father and the prospect of an arranged marriage, Guido ran away from home at age fourteen and traveled over the Alps to Germany. Toiling in the iron mines near Alsace-Lorraine, he saved enough money to purchase a chromatic system accordion from Ranco Antonio, an early Italian accordion manufacturing firm in Vercelli. The day the new accordion arrived, Guido quit the iron mines and found a position playing resorts in Turin’s Lake District, branching out to cafés in Metz and resorts in (p.28)

Advent of the Piano Accordion

Guido Deiro.

(Source: Guido Deiro Archives, Graduate Center, City University of New York)

Switzerland. He also found a teacher, the pianist and accordionist Giovanni Gagliardi, with whom he worked to develop “a very artistic style of playing which was original.”37

As his reputation and stage presence grew, Guido entered into an agreement with Ranco to perform their instruments in various venues in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. At some point in his travels, he spotted one of the new accordions with piano keys in the right hand and decided he had to have such an instrument. Ranco built him a piano accordion, and Guido gave his (p.29) three-row button accordion to his brother Pietro. Inspired by Guido’s success in Europe, Pietro—who had immigrated to the town of Cle Ellum, Washington, to work in the coal mines—decided to make the leap to a professional musical career in America. In 1908, two months after Pietro began playing at the Idaho Saloon in Seattle, Guido, having decided to emigrate to America, arrived in that city.

Guido’s first appearance in the United States was as a demonstrator of accordions at the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909.38 This regional world’s fair, designed to showcase Seattle as an ambitious port city and the emerging commercial center of the Pacific Coast, featured exhibits built by Alaska, the Canadian Yukon, Japan, and the Philippines.39 The fair may have provided the ideal moment to highlight the accordion as evidence of American technological and musical ingenuity to the rest of the world—just what the Panama-Pacific Exposition succeeded in doing seven years later, in 1915. Guido surely appreciated the power of the piano accordion as a technological wonder fit for a world’s fair, as did his audience at the Pavilion.

On his arrival in Seattle, Guido found a position performing piano accordion as a soloist at the Jackson Saloon, at the salary of $18 per month. He was neither daunted by the prospect of playing for crowds of inebriated miners nor inclined to compromise on his choice of robust, romantic repertoire. “My repertoire consisted of a very large collection of grand opera pieces, including 15 waltzes by the greatest composers in Europe—Waldteufel and Strauss. I played the famous ‘Tesoro Mio Waltz’ and ‘Sharpshooter’s March,’ the first time it had been played in this country.”40

Evidently, Deiro proved his talent to be big enough for vaudeville, which was drawing hordes of working-class immigrant audiences in Seattle and San Francisco. Together with an Italian singer, a “Mr. Porcini,” Deiro first appeared on vaudeville as half of a duet, the Milano Duo. Dressed in elegant white suits and straw hats, the Duo was booked on the Orpheum circuit, touring Salt Lake City, Spokane, and Seattle. Returning to the City by the Bay, Guido met a Mr. Grauman, father of Sid Grauman, the famous manager of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Grauman suggested that Guido part company with his singer and perform as a solo act. In 1910, the American Theatre in San Francisco booked Guido as “the Premier Piano Accordionist,” the first piano accordionist to appear onstage—a designation generally seen as correct by historians and Guido’s family members.41 The program consisted of Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture,” “Dill Pickles Rag,” “My Treasure Waltz,” and “I Got a Ring on My Finger.” Guido wrote: “There was the time and the place to show what could (p.30) be done with this instrument. It’s now or never, I told myself.… My heart was full of melody and I wanted to show the people in the theatre how beautiful that melody was.”42 Around this time as well, Deiro was the first to call the instrument a “piano accordion,” a translation from the Italian armonica systema piano.43

What was so appealing about the piano accordion? From the perspective of the audience, the appearance of the right-hand piano keyboard was novel. From the perspective of the performer, the piano keyboard made rapid-fire virtuoso playing and changing keys easier. And since there was a left-hand accompaniment, a piano accordionist would not have to share the take with a pianist or orchestra musicians. Indeed, Guido’s handsome looks, impeccable sartorial style, dynamic stage presence, and rhinestone-bedecked accordion reflecting the stage lights must have made a quite an impression on the audiences. He perhaps went a bit too far in exploiting the novelty value of the accordion by claiming to have built one himself, according to a spurious account by the Pittsburgh Post.44

In 1913, billed simply as “Deiro,” Guido performed at New York City’s Palace Theatre, a distinction claimed by no other piano accordionist. Reviewers heralded Guido as “delightful,” a “white-flanneled genius,” and a “master.”45 They praised Deiro for transforming the piano accordion into an instrument worthy of comparison to the mighty pianos and the organs of the Western classical tradition: “He plays trills, runs, cadenzas, and even glissando effects—high-brow for running the fingers quickly over the white keys—as if he were seated at a big Mason-Steinway, and accomplishes a swell and diminuendo that one has a right to expect only from an organ pumped either electrically or Africanly” (the author probably meant “manually”).46 Some time in 1910–1912, another reviewer said: “Deiro gives to the accordion the sonorousness of the organ and at the same time, the exquisiteness and subtleness of the violin.”47 It is no wonder that critics who had heard the piano accordion before were impressed by the sound of Guido’s instrument. This particular one, built by the Guerrini firm in San Francisco, had some unique features that enhanced the player’s speed and tone (discussed later).

Like many popular artists of the day, including his brother Pietro, Guido composed his own original works. Beginning in 1916, the accordion publisher Biaggio Quattrociocche began to publish Guido’s compositions. He was the author of nearly fifty known pieces: marches, rags, waltzes, mazurkas, quadrilles, and an extended work, Egypto Fantasia.48 Without formal musical training, Guido relied on his publisher to transcribe his performances (live!) to music staff paper. According to some of his fellow accordionists, his genius was his gift for (p.31) crafting melody. Galla-Rini noted: “Guido had a very fine touch with his hand on the keyboard, so much so, that a simple melody would sound like a sublime inspiration! Someone said, rightly so, that he had a million dollar touch.”49

Guido used his good looks and charm not only onstage but in real life, not always making the wisest choices. He became known as a womanizer who “could never let a pretty ankle go by without serious consideration.”50 His first wife, seventeen-year-old Julia Tatro, forced him to the altar by threatening him to take him to court for statutory rape (Guido was later arrested on the stage of Chicago’s Palace Theater under a warrant for lack of spousal support). His second marriage, the most famous, was to the voluptuous, bawdy stage star Mae West, with whom he appeared as a variety duet.

West abandoned Guido after two years; she wrote in her autobiography that she had had no choice but to leave him, as he was drinking heavily, flying into rages, and threatening her.51 He had a reputation for lavish and reckless spending—behaviors that no doubt were, like his excessive drinking, triggered by his ever-fragile emotional state. Following the stock market crash of 1929, in which he lost significant investments, he fell into a downward spiral from which he never recovered. After the collapse of vaudeville, Guido failed to

Advent of the Piano Accordion

Advertisement for Guido Deiro and Mae West’s variety act, late 1920s.

(Source: Guido Deiro Archives, Graduate Center, City University of New York)

(p.32) make a transition to a profitable teaching career as his brother and some of their fellow luminaries in the accordion world had done, although he established a chain of two dozen studio franchises in towns and cities where he performed. These studios and retail businesses did not flourish, perhaps because of the difficulties of running them as an absentee owner (Guido would turn over the management of his studios to an assistant as soon as possible) or because his heart was not in teaching. “Giving lessons is poison for me,” he was reported to have said.52 In 1948 Guido suffered a nervous collapse most likely due to overwork and exhaustion and was hospitalized at a sanitarium in Loma Linda, California, where he died on July 26, 1950. By the time of his death, he had logged hundreds of stage performances and the first accordion performance on film, released by Vitaphone in 1928.53 He issued 112 three-minute sides for the Columbia record company beginning in 1911; his output included selections from Italian operas; Neapolitan popular songs like “O Sole Mio”; patriotic marches like “Stars and Stripes”; and waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, and dances with ethnic references. He also included his own compositions written in many of these styles.

In 1936, Accordion World revisited the rival Deiro brothers’ claims to have been the “first” to play the piano accordion. Although Pietro also claimed to be the first to have introduced the piano accordion on stage, in concerts, on radio, and on records, it was Guido’s claim that was found to be legitimate.54

The exposure and, ultimately, fame bestowed on the Guido and Pietro formed a pivotal moment that launched the piano accordion’s ascent in American popular culture and its wide acceptance by the public in vaudeville and beyond.55 Accordion stars were not the only factor in the piano accordion’s rapid rise. Reception from critics suggests that the appeal of the piano keyboard was essential in vaudeville, a medium that emphasized novelty. An admiring 1911 review of a Guido Deiro performance in the Pittsburgh Post marveled that the accordion combined the tonal qualities of five distinct instruments: the violin, flute, cello, bass, and piano. “In the hands of a master, it is a wonderful instrument capable of playing the most involved symphonies and at the same time, the simplest harmonies.”56 Indeed, ambitious vaudeville accordionists like the Deiro brothers may have needed to earn public admiration as “real” artists, capable of playing beautiful, “refined” music, or else face scorn from critics who would dismiss them as just one of many novelty acts cluttering vaudeville stages.

The piano accordion may have found favor with vaudeville audiences for a number of reasons. It was well suited for accompanying other instruments and singers. Only the other keyboard instruments, the guitar, and the harp (p.33) could offer this facility. A piano accordion might be welcome where an orchestra was unreliable or nonexistent. The accordionist could add dramatic visual emphasis to his own performances (and those of others) by playing one of the new eye-catching “theatrical” accordions (discussed later). This was highly significant in the larger halls, where each performer needed to make a visual statement that projected to the back rows. I would like to suggest that accordion players were theatrical performers, not just musicians; they engaged their whole bodies in producing sound and engaging audiences, just as many contemporary pop singers might make use of a microphone or electric guitar for added dramatic effects.

Although they were not clowns or comedians, accordionists made ample use of their instrument’s possibilities for visual and sonic expressiveness and for evoking a wide range of orchestral and comic effects that were used well beyond the age of vaudeville. Guido Deiro’s Royal Method for Accordion, published in 1936, instructs the student on how to reproduce the sounds of not only the violin, the piano, and the organ but also the “laugh.”57 The key factor in accordion performance was the bellows, which received considerable attention in Deiro’s method book (and that of his brother Pietro, published in the 1950s). Comprised of eighteen folds, the bellows requires physical agility and strength. Properly handled, it can deliver accents and dynamic and dramatic effects and provide visual interest. Among the notable accordionists to display a high degree of bellows control were Pietro Deiro and Anthony Galla-Rini, whose written descriptions of proper bellows techniques laid the groundwork for accordion pedagogy.

Not all listeners were favorably disposed toward the instrument, and not all critics were prepared to receive it as a welcome addition to the Western classical instrumental tradition. Not all critics heard in the accordion the sound of “chiming bells ringing out in a carillon of joy.”58 A critic for the Minneapolis Journal wrote: “a fearful instrument that looks like a cash register, and sounds worse, produces gasps of pleasure at the Orpheum this week. It is called a piano accordion and its behavior is shameless.”59 Such stinging portrayals of the accordion in early reviews must have made a strong impression on its earliest exponents and audiences. I would argue that the “accordion movement” (discussed in the next chapter) constituted an effort to neutralize these criticisms and to elevate accordion culture.

Evidence from photographs, advertisements, and programs shows that at least a half dozen other prominent accordionists joined the Deiros in the vaudeville circuit: the Marconi Brothers, Santo Santucci, Pietro Frosini, Phil Baker, Anthony (p.34) Galla-Rini, and Lawrence Welk. Accordion playing, like most other forms of “serious” music making, was primarily a male occupation, but female players appeared in vaudeville: Suzette Carsell, Helene Criscio, and the “romantic and delightful Spanish accordionist Opalita.” All three played as part of duet acts: Suzette with her sister, Criscio and Opalita with their husbands. Nine-year-old Shirley Temple look-alike Clarice Ralston charmed vaudeville and radio audiences with her accordion playing, dancing, and singing in five languages.60

During the vaudeville period and beyond, many accordion bands were organized. The size of these groups ranged from five players to fifty. In 1932, the accordion virtuoso, teacher, and composer Caesar Pezzolo and his forty-one-piece accordion band played at two theaters in San Francisco—one was the Fox, a $5 million building considered one of the world’s finest.61 The members of an accordion band would play four- and five-part arrangements made by their director. Owing to the lack of appropriate material for these bands, conductors found it necessary to arrange most of their own music.62 An accordion band series published by O. Pagani in 1935 features arrangements of “Dark Eyes,” the popular Russian song; “In a Gypsy Tearoom,” a fox-trot arranged by Pietro Deiro; “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”; and “Trieste Overture.” As the accordion is a “one-man band” instrument, accordion bands tended to sound like one accordion amplified many times.63 To add more richness and depth to the sound, accordion bands made use of bass accordions—larger, louder instruments equipped only with a bass section. Accordion bands appearing in the 1920s and 1930s were sponsored by music companies, including Jolly Captain Nick Hope and his Accordion Mates, Edna Berryman’s Girl Accordion Band, and the Angeleno Accordion Band.64

The City by the Bay proved uniquely hospitable for amateur players and accordion playing as a hobby. The passion for outdoor entertainments in the Bay Area developed in response to the temperate climate and a strong focus on outdoor recreation. The nation’s first accordion club was founded in San Francisco in 1916 and continues today. Beginning in the 1920s the club sponsored an annual accordion picnic in Marin County’s California Park that attracted over ten thousand people. Prior to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936 and the resulting building boom in Marin County, the site offered city dwellers a pastoral retreat by the San Francisco Bay, accessible only by ferry. This event was a draw for not only local accordion enthusiasts but also the local Italian community, whose heritage culture it succeeded in celebrating.65 The two main events of the day were performances by noted accordionists (p.35) (Pietro Deiro and Frank Gaviani), followed by a dance and the raffle of a new $500 Guerrini accordion. Ronald Flynn estimates that the 1933 picnic was attended by over ten thousand people, making the event a touchstone for the city’s accordion culture.

The music of accordion performers in the first two decades of the twentieth century reflects the people, cultures, and institutions that shaped their development. The programs of accordion soloists, duets, quartets, and bands shared a common repertoire with one another and with the programs of other instruments: material from Italian opera, sentimental songs, salon music, anthems, and all of the panethnic dance genres (fox-trot, waltz, mazurka, and polka). A key component of accordion performance was the instrumental solo, which was consistently the subject of admiring commentary by critics and audiences. As this kind of showy virtuoso playing was being dropped from the high-status concert, it was finding a welcome reception by popular audiences in the theaters.66 Accordionists shared in a common language of vaudeville by the turn of the century. Elements of “art” music remained (overtures and operatic selections), along with some elements of ethnic traditional music, such as the Neapolitan song and northern Italian regional music, in the repertoire of Italian accordionists.67

Although the accordion’s visual and sonic uniqueness had helped it find its place in the entertainment world initially, the piano accordion’s status as a novelty instrument faded in the 1920s. The hundreds of surviving theater contracts for the Deiro brothers—and the proliferation of competing vaudeville accordionists—suggest that the instrument had received such wide national exposure that as early as 1928 every American living near a large town or city would have had the opportunity to see or hear a piano accordion. The piano accordion is generally seen to have become widely accepted in the music industry by 1928.68

As the 1920s came to a close, the vaudeville theaters began to suffer from competition from other fashionable American forms of entertainment. Accordionists would have to find other venues and other sources of work. They would need to sustain their popularity following the devastating economic collapse of 1929, which shattered many Americans’ livelihoods and shook their confidence in the future. Four successors to the vaudeville accordion phenomenon gained momentum in the 1920s and continued to shape accordion culture throughout the Depression years: dance bands, radio, recordings, and the American accordion industry.

(p.36) Accordion in Dance Bands

The introduction of talking pictures in the 1920s helped bring about the end of the vaudeville era. Even before Hollywood and the big screen captured the imaginations of the wider American public, theater owners and managers grasped the fact that showing films could be a more profitable proposition than booking live acts. No more would they need to negotiate with unions and performers or work through the lengthy set of logistics that constituted a vaudeville show, which could consist of dozens of different performers arriving to rehearse and set up at different times of the day.69 According to Anthony Galla-Rini (and other observers) the closing of New York’s Palace Theater in 1932 marked vaudeville’s demise. In the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, performers might appear in variety acts in vaudeville-style reviews, and there were various attempts to revive vaudeville. But scholars generally agree that the circuit had ceased to exist by the mid-1930s.70

Most vaudevillians, and musicians in particular, faced slim chances of making a successful career transition into the movies. However, many accordionists faced the 1930s with the feeling that their instrument was unique and special and that they belonged to a unique musical fellowship that could offer mutual self-help. In 1934 the magazine Accordion News, written and edited by “accordionists, for accordionists,” was founded with the intention of providing self-help and career advice beyond the world of theater.71 The magazine contained employment leads, news about the accordion industry, profiles of players, and many reminiscences of the vaudeville world. There was even an accordion gossip column penned by “Walter Wincher.”

For an aspiring accordionist in 1934, nightclub and hotel work could be the key to a regular paycheck—particularly in Chicago and New York. Most of the career advice articles in Accordion News (and its post-1936 successor, Accordion World) focused on the need to master the new style of music popular with audiences of the day—jazz and Latin music. In his article “The New Four-Piece Combination with Accordion,” Russell Brooks noted: “The accordion has found its way into a new type of dance combination; this being the popular four-piece cocktail lounge outfit, now being used by the very finest spots around the country: the Glass Hat Room at the Congress Hotel, the Empire Room in the Palmer House, and Hotel La Salle, all located in Chicago. New York’s leading cocktail bars have also gone in for this type of band in a big way.”72 Professional accordionists would often find that the bandleader (p.37) was in the dark when it came to their instrument, relegating it to the rhythm section without appreciating its versatility. Enoch Light, a former orchestral leader at New York’s Hotel McAlpin, said: “the accordion does not belong in the rhythm section. It gives color to other instruments, especially to the sub-tone clarinet or muted trumpet, which sound good with an accordion background.”73 Like vaudeville musical acts, dance bands drew on a wide range of musical forms—ragtime and syncopated music, sentimental songs, ethnic favorites, and so on—but specialized in improvisation and the display of soloistic virtuosity. Musicians had more opportunity to become the focus of a performance and play for discerning adult audiences than they did in vaudeville just by working to improve their skills. But club audiences were more sophisticated than those of vaudeville. “The accordionist should have a perfect knowledge of all the chords, passing tones, blue notes, glissandos.… The players that are able to do these things are the ones who will be cashing in on the big money,” Light noted.74

In the early 1920s, audiences in American cities began to discover an exotic and provocative new genre of music created by Harlem blacks and white Jews on Broadway—jazz. Both black and white audiences and musicians in the 1920s made a distinction between “sweet” and “hot” styles of jazz.75 “Hot” jazz, with its pronounced syncopations, was seen as exotic, thrilling, and stylish.76 This new style would be built on the talents of brass and woodwind players, but a few accordionists were eager to make their mark on this dynamic musical subculture. Accordion World critic Hilding Bergquist devotes several pages to the best of the “hot” jazz accordionists: Felix Papile, Charlie Magnante, and Anthony Mondy. “Breaks, runs, fill-ins, hair-raising syncopation—thrilling and beautiful; interpretive variations galore! Style that would knock your socks off,” he writes of Papile.77 Although Bergquist said he hoped that aspiring accordionists would extract inspiration from these recordings, hot jazz was—from the perspective of most accordionists, who were white and wanted to work in mainstream show business—a marginal music. It had been driven underground into speakeasies and rent parties by the mainstream audiences who rejected it for fear that jazz music would ignite anarchy and sexual promiscuity. White audiences and bandleaders tended to prefer the smoother, more “refined” sound of sweet jazz, which prevailed in society bands, the groups claiming a musical monopoly in prestigious, whites-only hotel ballrooms and nightclubs aiming to please their upper-class patrons.78 Bergquist’s enthusiasm for hot jazz aside, white accordionists needed to learn a more conventionally pleasing style in order to fit into a (p.38) society orchestra. In an article for Accordion News, bandleader Light described how the accordion needed to contribute to a sweeter and more refined texture by blending with the muted trumpets and strings.79

In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, society bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman, Dick Gasparre, Russ Colombo, Erno Rappe, Charlie Previn, Ray Ventura, Joseph Litau, Freddy Martin, Ina Ray Hutton (leader of an all-female band), and Enoch Light hired accordionists to perform regular hotel engagements with their bands.80 Accordionist Vincent Pirro performed with Paul Whiteman’s band in the 1930s.

European bands touring the United States, such as Hakan von Eichwald from Germany and Frankie Witkowski’s orchestra from Warsaw, also contributed to public presentations of accordions. The success of these groups—the all-white, high-society bands—helped to launch a number of prominent accordion solo careers, to link them with ideas of Euro-American refinement and legitimate music making, and to set accordionists apart, visually and sonically, from the more “controversial” strains of African- and African-American-influenced jazz. Whether or not white accordionists and their bandleaders harbored racist sentiments, jazz accordionists were a phenomenon of segregated white society bands.

Accordion Recordings

In 1878, the introduction of Edison’s phonograph was a pivotal moment for accordionists, opening up multiple possibilities for the consumption of their music beyond live theater venues. Home phonographs allowed audiences to bring their favorite stars and musical genres into their parlors. Early recordings of John J. Kimmel on the instrument were made on Zonophone (1904) and Edison cylinders (1906). Victor recorded Kimmel in 1907, followed by several other accordionists; their 1917 catalog shows about seventy accordion items by Guido Deiro, Pietro Deiro, and Pietro Frosini, as well as Kimmel.

In the 1920s, particularly following the establishment of immigration quotas in 1924, ethnic recordings became an important conduit for transmitting memories of the old country and the sounds of the mother tongue. Immigrants from eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland turned to recording artists who could fulfill their need for inspiration, humor, and edification. The two major recording companies, Victor and Columbia, promoted ethnic or “foreign language” recordings by parceling out such offerings in catalogs devoted to Irish Italian, Polish, German, and Scandinavian recordings.81 Kimmel, who was of German extraction, was famous for his performances of Irish dance music.

(p.39) Solo accordion recording artists, whose repertoire was stylistically and culturally diverse, showed the potential to be marketed across ethnic lines and hence be more profitable for the record companies.82 In 1912, RCA listed Pietro Deiro’s recordings of “Stradella Overture” and “Bridal Overture” in catalogs for the Italian, German, and Spanish markets. In 1919, about a hundred of Guido Deiro’s recordings for Columbia, ranging from “Dill Pickles Rag” to the Russian song “Dark Eyes,” were listed in catalogs for the Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, and Latvian American markets.83

Deiro’s version of the rag “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” appears as both an ethnic issue (“En Espera” for the Spanish market) as well as in the company’s mainstream domestic catalog.84 The accordionist’s eclectic repertoire, its novelty appeal, and its emphasis on light classical repertoire—all features of the vaudeville tradition—continued to shape the musical choices made by artists and repertoire during the early days of recording.

In the later 78 rpm era (the 1930s and 1940s), the accordion was featured mainly in dance orchestras. The dance band phenomenon and the jazz craze were boons to the accordionist’s career in the studio; early accordion artists incorporated many jazz and ragtime numbers in their repertoire. The accordion was also a familiar member of ensembles playing “Continental” music, such as French popular song, waltz, and tango, and smoothly arranged polkas and Italian tarantellas. Charles Magnante, possibly one of the most famous exponents of this hybrid repertoire in the 1930s and 1940s, was featured as accordion soloist on more than two dozen albums released by Columbia, Decca, and other labels. His compositions and arrangements stretched across ethnic music, light classical, jazz, and ragtime.85

Early recording technology gave accordionists an advantage over other instruments. In a recording studio, sound had to travel through an acoustic horn that then etched the sound waves onto a cylinder or disc. Sound sources that were weak and sounds in the high registers could be difficult to capture on recording. Sound engineers often had difficulty capturing banjos, guitars, mandolins, and other light-textured string instruments and with ensembles playing music with multiple voices or parts.86 Accordionists proved ideally adaptable to the recording studio. They produced a depth of sound in the middle registers and rich harmonies. Accordionists did their part for the expansion of the new technology, a technology that—like the instrument they played—opened up new possibilities for transforming people’s tastes and their recreational choices.

Deprived of the visual dimension afforded by the stage, the Deiros (and successive recording artists) evidently focused on the technical aspects of accordion (p.40) playing and the ideal of aural perfection. As Pietro Deiro pointed out later in an article for Etude, recording and radio artists are judged “solely by what is heard.”87 Indeed, Pietro Deiro, Guido’s younger brother, was the first to record on the accordion and the most prolific accordion artist of his day. His output of 147 sides for Victor suggests that he aimed to represent the accordion as a versatile instrument that could represent the popular genres of the day: waltzes, marches, fox-trots, mazurkas, pasodobles, rumbas, Spanish dances, boleros, characteristic dances, and preludes. Pietro composed three concerti for the instrument (his classical compositions are discussed in the next chapter). He recorded over twenty-four polkas of his own composition. The titles of these pieces, “Twinkle Toe Polka,” “Polka Bohemienne,” “Pasta Fagioli,” and “Vivacity Polka,” evoke the pleasures of vaudeville and its aim of instant gratification, which these recordings evidently delivered to the living rooms of many delighted American listeners. Deiro’s recordings highlight the polka not as a folk dance idiom but as a more “refined” genre. One is struck, however, by Pietro’s desire to convey a variety of moods and ideas that can come across in up-tempo duple meter, from the sunny and cheerful “Caresse Polka” and the lyrical “Celestina Polka” to the humorous “Mother’s Clock Polka” and the all-too-short “Rhapsody Polka.” Several of these pieces were taken from Pietro’s method books: The Master Method for the Piano Accordion (1937), Bellow Shake for the Accordion (1937), and The Little Accordionist, volume 3 (1937).88 By reintroducing his listeners to the polka and encouraging them to play them on accordions, Deiro not only entertained but “elevated” his audience as well.

The introduction of electric recording technology in 1924 expanded the range of what could be captured on recordings. The new condenser microphones could capture the sounds of accordions more effectively, and some of the new aspiring artists attempted to refine their technique in the studio.

The Accordion on the Airwaves

In the late 1920s, the recording industry began to slip, and radio became a force in the entertainment industry. The economic structure of radio, with its reliance on advertisers, proved more robust than that of records, a consumer product. After 1924 and the closure of immigration, the ethnic recording market was seen as unreliable. Radio also helped to fill a void created by the closure of vaudeville theaters in the 1930s. Like other unemployed vaudevillians, accordionists hoped to showcase their talents on the airwaves. The artists who (p.41) played these live studio performances needed not only staunch self-confidence in their technique but an elusive talent—connecting with unseen audiences. Pietro Deiro was often heard on the radio, and he devoted a column in Accordion News (January 1938) to the art of playing on the air. The radio station KGO hired a staff accordionist, Henry Sinigiani. He performed both with the thirty-five-piece Walter Beba band and with two other accordionists, Johnny Toffoli and Louis Allarra, as a trio.

The popular NBC radio show Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour staged regular competitions for accordionists and hence was particularly important in exposing them to the kind of virtuosic playing to which they would then aspire. Accordionist Myron Floren, who became a regular on the Lawrence Welk Show, recalled: “One thing I noticed was that accordionists almost always won the competition, and this seemed to further reinforce my love and admiration for the accordion.”89

The accordionist who appeared most regularly on this show was Charles Magnante, who also held the distinction of being first to play the accordion on the air. He was a Tin Pan Alley song plugger and a busker on the Staten Island Ferry who had played in dance halls as a teenager. One afternoon in 1923, a year when radio was still in its experimental stages, he received a phone call from the musical director of the weekly Bell Telephone Hour. Although Magnante did not have a piece prepared and did not know what he was going to play, the announcer told the national audience that Charlie (and another accordionist who would play with him) would “play something of their own.” His elaborate, improvised version of “Sweet Sue” launched his long series of appearances on radio and inspired the careers of other accordionists, who turned to him for advice for “making good on the airwaves.”90 In 1938, his regular appearances on the air included the daily Coca-Cola Show on WHN, Lorenzo Jones weekdays on NBC, The Schafer Review Thursdays on NBC, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade Saturdays at 10:00 A.M. on WABC, Major Bowes’ Capital Family Hour Sundays on WEAF, and Manhattan Merry-Go-Round on Sundays.91

As Magnante’s career illustrates, the accordionist could find a promising post-vaudeville niche on the airwaves. The rich sounds of the accordion, its wholesome image, and its versatility could impress audiences in living rooms throughout America, while contributing to the shape of entertainment on the airwaves. All of the performances discussed in this chapter so far—live theatrical shows, recordings, and radio broadcasts—helped to sell the accordions themselves, increasingly seen as products of American know-how and ingenuity.

(p.42) The Accordion Industry

San Franciscans played a significant role in the development of accordion culture. The Gold Rush drew hordes of immigrants (as well as native-born Americans) eager for the prospect of instant wealth. The Fisherman’s Wharf district is a lasting symbol of the Italian influence on the city, as is North Beach’s Little Italy district, where many Italian immigrants had settled after 1849. From the beginning of the 1900s to the 1950s, the city of San Francisco was home to eight accordion manufacturers, most of them in North Beach. Their names and dates of operation were as follows.92

Louis Miller


Galleazzi & Sons


Guerrini Company


Paul Greub


Colombo & Sons








In 2008, I visited the site of the Guerrini factory at 277–279 Columbus Avenue and Broadway. A visitor to that location in 1954 might have picked up the scent of glue and celluloid in a busy accordion workshop with a dozen craftsmen at work. In 2008, I smelled pan-fried noodles. The building had been torn down, and the address no longer existed. On that site, I found a Chinese restaurant, one of many in that area. The expansion of San Francisco’s Chinese population—as well as the expansion of the city’s financial district into North Beach—had forced accordion makers (along with many other shopkeepers and small manufacturers) to relocate. Many accordion makers moved to the Mission District.93 Paul Guerrini once worked for the San Francisco firm Galleazzi & Sons. In 1903, he started his own factory, the Guerrini Company. In 1907, he sold the business to Pasquale Petromilli and Colombo Piatanesi, who operated the Guerrini firm. The company employed thirty-nine workers, all from Italy. Craftsmen would come to the United States for two years, return to Italy for six months, and return again. Guerrini ultimately returned to Italy, where his descendants continue to manufacture accordions in Castelfidardo.

Indeed, a driving force behind the early accordion industry in both Italy and America was a network of skilled craftsmen who grew up in their families’ accordion businesses and married within these families.94 Emil Baldoni, (p.43) a brother-in-law to John Piatanesi (Colombo’s son), was a master accordion craftsman in New York City who has over the years been connected to all the accordion companies in that city: Ace, Bell, Pancordion, and Titano; he is now the principal of Baldoni Accordions, based in Milwaukee. The strong family connections underpinning the accordion business helped to establish a unique pattern of innovation and secrecy. Although many manufacturers attempted to conceal their innovations or to restrict their spread through patents, ideas spread quickly through the close family ties that accordion manufacturers shared.95

The first piano accordions made in the United States were manufactured by the Guerrini Company in 1908.96 The models shown in the Guerrini catalogs of the 1910s and 1920s reflect an obsession with novelty and “features.” A catalog of the late 1920s introduced the treble switch—or reed coupler—on Model No. 26, “an instrument of refined elegance,” listed at $575. This switch allowed the player to play in the first, second, third, and fourth octaves, “to obtain four different tonalities,” without weighing down the player with additional keyboards (the early accordions had as many as three rows of piano keys). The catalog describes No. 26 as follows: “A player may use it without fear of his being compelled to stretch his arms awkwardly or to waste an excessive amount of energy, which might impair the complete enjoyment of the artistic effects. This latest innovation is especially useful to ladies, to youngsters who have not acquired their full strength, to grown persons of a delicate constitution and those with arms shorter than the average.”97

Having reduced the size and weight of the piano accordion without limiting the player’s range, the Guerrini Company developed refinements in the sound. Vincent Cirelli, an octogenarian accordion repair technician who worked on the first Guerrinis at the tender age of eleven, credits the firm with inventing the tone chamber (cassotto), a cavity in the internal structure of the accordion through which the sound from selected sets of reeds must pass. The tone chamber gives the accordion a tone Cirelli describes as more blended, refined, and mellow.98

The construction of the reed blocks, which hold the reeds inside the accordion, was an ongoing challenge for early accordion makers. Like the cases, fashioned of African mahogany, the reed blocks had traditionally been made of wood, but a less expensive three-ply veneer. Guerrini, Colombo, and other American makers developed reed blocks made of more lightweight aluminum beginning in the 1920s. These reed blocks could be molded or die cast in lieu of wood fabrication processes.99

A look through Guerrini’s catalogs from the 1920s confirms that these innovations were available to consumers willing to spend $400–800 on one of their (p.44) thirty models. The choice of case designs and colors beyond the traditional black and white dazzle the modern eye, accustomed to black and white accordions. Model No. 22 ($525) was finished in green celluloid; No. 16 in white mother of pearl, with silver and blue ornamentation; model 14 in lavender. In addition to the standard Stradella 120-bass models, Guerrini offered 140-bass models and switches in the bass—the first accordions to offer such features. Noted Guerrini Company employee Henry Sinigiani stated that Guerrini “could put things on an accordion that no one else could think of. When you bought a Guerrini accordion, it was like buying a Steinway piano.”100

Of Guerrini’s many admiring customers, no two were as significant for shaping the company’s high-class reputation as the vaudevillian virtuoso brothers Pietro and Guido Deiro. Ten years after Guido appeared as a performer and demonstrator of Guerrini accordions at the 1916 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego, Guerrini crafted for him a custom 140-bass model, adorned with gold flowers and an eagle insignia (on display at the World of Accordions Museum in Superior, Wisconsin). This accordion, built in 1926, was equipped with several new features: a left-hand mute operated by the left-hand thumb that opens or closes a set of round portholes on the back panel. Mutes would have been ideal for accompanying singers and suppressing some of the volume that could potentially cover a solo voice—exactly what Guido needed to bear in mind as he began his vaudeville career as part of a duet with singers. At either end of the bass panel, Guido had access to two air-release buttons so that he could take in or blow out extra air through the bellows. A Guerrini accordion designed for Pietro Deiro was equipped with an even more accessible brass air-bar, making it possible to reach the air release from any point on the left-hand button board. These buttons provided the potential for more coordination and control of the bellows, a fundamental of modern accordion performance.101

Although no sales figures survive from this period, there is evidence to suggest that the endorsements of two major artists, Guido and Pietro Deiro, encouraged further innovation and competition among accordion manufacturers. When Petromilli and Piatanesi dissolved their partnership in 1927, Piatanesi started a new factory with his son in North Beach—the Colombo factory—and acquired a building. He attempted to compete with Petromilli by incorporating some of his former partner’s ideas into his own designs. For example, the treble switches introduced by Guerrini appeared on Colombo accordions and were available in various types and positions: the hinged lever type, atop the keyboard; a position atop the cover plate; and a third type forming a fingerboard in (p.45) front of the keyboard. The latter two are operated by a finger.102 The palm shift, a half-inch protrusion from behind the keyboard that could be depressed by the palm without removing fingers from playing position, eventually replaced the thumb slide shift in the Colombo accordions of the 1920s.103

Colombo “X” accordions were possibly among the earliest to incorporate five treble reed banks: two at midrange, one that extended the range an octave higher, another that extended an octave lower, and a quint-reed bank. The quint reeds offered an added fifth interval on one shift, and an octave and a fifth on another shift. Because it was not possible for the player to know the number of reed banks engaged without sounding tones, the addition of a retrofit device with an electric bulb indicated whether the accordion was set to play with or without the lowest octave. The catalogs advertised the indicator light as “of great value to the accordionist in radio, vaudeville, or orchestral work.”104 Colombo advertised their new system of welding as a “major structural innovation” in the accordion, following Guerrini’s push toward more lightweight instruments. “This in itself is a major improvement since it lightens the weight of our new instrument about three pounds or more. Because of these new methods, our late model is very easily managed and its response is quick and accurate.”105

The opening of the Standard Accordion Company in 1933 added a third major manufacturer to San Francisco’s North Beach accordion district. Their (1930s) catalogs feature models designed for broadcasting (the “Radio Model Supreme”) and the dance orchestra (“the Cosimo Model, designed to stand hard usage and handling”). Standard Accordion reintroduced features and options that had been patented in the 1920s, such as the indicator light. No doubt the most unusual model introduced by Standard was the 1935 harp-shaped keyboard, which offered a visually striking variation on the piano accordion’s traditional straight keyboard: the keys gradually decrease in size from the bottom to the top. The smaller keys at the top helped to decrease the instrument’s weight but required hours of practice for the player to adapt to it. The data shows that only six of them were sold, and the company was out of business by 1937. But during their four years of operation, they served prominent players in San Francisco’s dance hall scene: Gino Enrico, Peter Comparino, Romy Avivano, Virginia Deromeri, and Angelo Cagnazzo—of Barbary Coast fame.

As the piano accordion caught on with consumers, the accordion industry expanded eastward to Chicago and New York City. With accordion retail stores and businesses crowding Mulberry and Grand Streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York’s Little Italy became an “accordion district” in the 1930s. Excelsior and Acme accordions were made in New York as well. The (p.46) “vaudeville style” persisted in accordion designs through the late 1930s. Manufacturers tried to outdo each other. Accordions from the period, embedded with abalone, rhinestones, and colorful semiprecious stones, were designed for maximum visual impact on theater stages, where they might catch the light (and the attention of viewers in the back rows).

Accordion design in the early twentieth century was a constant struggle to balance aesthetic concerns with the functional requirements of the instrument. Ornamenting accordions added bulk and weight. The new designs added bulk and weight to the accordions, which weighed twenty-five to thirty pounds. For a working accordionist who regularly performed standing up, this could result in extreme discomfort or even injury (the average height and weight of a man in 1900 in the United States was five feet nine inches and 160 pounds). Manufacturers tried to offer a solution. Engineering the keyboard to conform to the natural curves of the human body, Petosa, Scandalli, Hohner, and a handful of other accordion companies in the 1920s and 1930s developed instruments with curved keyboards—perhaps demonstrating that the accordion, with its reputation for clunkiness and bulk, could be a truly “ergonomic” musical instrument.106 Expensive to produce, these models failed to find a market, and manufacturers abandoned them. Tastes would change as well.

Some players of chromatic accordions, which prevailed in the vaudeville scene through the 1910s, were taken with the novel look of the piano accordion but were reluctant to learn the new system or to sacrifice the range of notes offered by the chromatic system. These players could opt for an unusual new model of chromatic button accordion. Its right-hand button board was adorned with squared-off shanks that were made to resemble piano keys. These instruments were advertised as “imitation piano accordions.” Pietro Frosini may have invented the idea when he glued a dummy piano keyboard over the buttons on the left side of his chromatic accordion to make vaudeville audiences think they were seeing a performance of the more novel, hence more desirable piano accordion.

All of the accordion factories in San Francisco shared several significant features that helped to shape the industry from its beginnings: they (1) specialized in high-end, custom-built accordions; (2) relied on pre-mass-production techniques—each accordion was made by a single craftsman from start to finish; and (3) sought out input from well-recognized local accordion artists, who were featured in their ads.107 San Francisco’s industry catered to artists, not the everyday consumer; the city’s manufacturers were focused on “theatrical accordions,” not on the everyday player. Had it not been for the city’s accordion (p.47) club, an Italian community that was so admiring of the accordion, and a favorable year-round climate for outdoor events, the accordion might have had a more limited reach in the Bay Area and beyond.

I have discussed the function of the accordion in Italy’s manufacturing industry. Bugiolacchi argues that the accordion was promoted as a symbol of Italy’s ambition to industrialize, highlighting local common sense, ingenuity, and know-how.108 There is evidence to suggest that San Franciscans may have perceived the accordion similarly in the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake. Just nine years later, San Francisco staged the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal and demonstrating to more than eighteen million visitors that it remained “the city that knew how.”109 Just as the building of the canal was seen as a Herculean feat, so was the construction of the Exposition, with its three hundred thousand cubic yards of landfill reclaiming land from the San Francisco Bay. The Exposition featured an actual Ford assembly line, which turned out over four thousand cars; the Machinery Palace; and various displays of technology from diesel engines to typewriters to moving picture machines. Guido Deiro was said to have demonstrated Guerrini accordions at that company’s booth, along with over a dozen accordionists from the vaudeville circuit.110

Although the accordion had been introduced to San Franciscans seven years earlier, this fair was the first public occasion at which the instrument was presented as evidence of American engineering and manufacturing know-how.

While San Francisco’s entrepreneurs developed high-end—and exotic—accordions in the 1910s and 1920s, they were not inclined to produce accessible, affordable instruments for the mass market. The accordion in San Francisco became a quintessential vaudeville instrument, offering social capital to its immigrant audience and players. After the Great Depression hit in 1929, the industry began making different kinds of accordions, and the locus of the industry shifted from the cosmopolitan City by the Bay to America’s heartland (a story continued in the next chapter).

In 1934 the editor of Accordion News, the new monthly magazine “of accordionists, by accordionists, and for accordionists,” wrote optimistically about the potential of “accordion culture” to thrive.111 The accordion not only had survived the collapse of vaudeville and the Depression but also had become an integral part of mainstream popular culture. American factories had an “ever-increasing amount of business,” because the new models were serviceable to the everyday player.112 The accordion was regularly featured on radio broadcasts, and great artists of the day, such as the Deiro Brothers, Anthony Galla-Rini, (p.48) Charles Magnante, and Pietro Frosini, had recording contracts and lucrative deals with accordion companies whose products they endorsed. A network of accordion schools, bands, and clubs was thriving throughout the United States, and “social events in connection with them become continually more interesting and important.” As the editor observed, the accordion world was strengthened by the unique fraternal ties developing around the instrument and “the three great interlocking branches of the profession, the accordionist, the manufacturer, and the publisher.”113

For over fifty years, the accordion factories of Italy had provided instruments for domestic and public performances of popular music. The new American firms challenged that hegemony by first providing high-end artists with models such as those crafted by Guerrini and Colombo in San Francisco. The Chicago and New York firms—Italo-American, Iorio, and Excelsior—departed from this model by mass-producing accordions for amateur players. The popularity of radio and the increasing taste for musical recordings intensified interest in the accordion. One of the unintended effects of this early twentieth-century accordion recording boom was that it served to preserve a canon of work that accordion virtuosi in subsequent decades could emulate and reinterpret. In the area of accordion music, the popular music industry, at first fueled by vaudeville, did not displace amateur and recreational performance—a type of displacement that was a familiar pattern in mainstream America for other instruments—but absorbed the energy of the club and band movement. Although the accordion phenomenon may have been fueled at first by demand for novelty, it reached new audiences and found new modes of transmission beyond the vaudeville circuit in the late 1920s. The decline of vaudeville, the advent of the electric microphone, the immigration quotas of 1924, and the renewed significance of ethnic musical recordings all contributed to the development of accordion culture as a reflection of the changing sensibilities of American audiences.

During this formative era, the older diatonic button boxes and chromatic accordions declined in popularity among Americans. The “theatrical” piano accordions advertised by the San Francisco firms had their heyday. Colombo, Standard, and Guerrini had competition, from the Midwest and the East Coast, from newer accordion firms who wanted to cash in on the vaudeville market and the trend toward flashy, expensive instruments. After 1935, accordion makers—led by Excelsior in New York City—focused exclusively on manufacturing uniform-looking, unadorned black-and-white piano accordions. During this period, the piano accordion displaced the chromatic button accordion in popular culture, receiving its designation as “the accordion” and its current (p.49) status as a visual and sonic icon. Ironically, this status was bestowed on it by generations of immigrant Americans whose forebears in Ireland, Italy and eastern Europe had played the diatonic button accordion. While some writers have highlighted the nostalgic yearnings associated with accordion playing in immigrant communities, the “standardization” of the accordion could be seen to reflect a different and opposing idea: the “assimilationist” aspirations of white ethnic Americans observed during the first decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, the accordion filtered into public consciousness at the turn of the century as a result not of its traditional ethnic associations but of its visibility in commercial popular entertainments of the day. It is fair to say, as one observer of the period did later, that in spite of its popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century the accordion was generally shunned by serious musicians. Accordion music was confined to vaudeville and variety shows, dance halls, and ethnic folk contexts. Accordion concert artists and radio “staff accordionists” would play transcriptions of popular classics or original compositions by Pietro Frosini and Pietro Deiro and Italian-American favorites. It was music that existed in popular entertainment and was very rarely performed as part of formal concert programs.114

Intent on changing this perception, a rear guard of accordion teachers, performers, and publishers increasingly emphasized a more elevated accordion repertoire. Accordion music compositions from the turn of the century, and onward, came to be seen not as a fad or an expression of ethnic heritage but as part of the timeless heritage of Western classical music. This repertoire served as a canon for the accordion movement, led by virtuoso performing artists. Another concern was improving the design of the piano accordion and seeking more uniformity in keyboard design and tuning. The sober, dignified accordion artists of the 1940s and 1950s, sporting their sleek black and white Excelsiors and Titanos, bear only a superficial resemblance to the popular and flashy vaudeville performers of the 1910s and 1920s. The accordion’s ties to old Europe, to Italian heritage, and to ethnic folk music were severed—at least in the mainstream accordion world.


(1.) There is still some uncertainty about the “oldest accordion.” The two contenders are Friedrich Buschmann’s “Hand-Aeoline” (Berlin 1821) and the Lohner (Sweden c. 1816). See Henry Doktorski, “Birth of the Accordion,” CFR, www.ksanti.net/free-reed/history/birth.html, accessed January 10, 2010; and Doktorski, “Interview with Friedrich Dillner, Owner of What May Be the World’s Oldest Accordion,” www.ksanti.net/free-reed/index.html, accessed March 2, 2010.

(2.) Demian’s accordion patent, May 23, 1829, available at CFR, www.ksanti.net/free-reed/history/demian.html.

(3.) Paralleling the rise of the piano accordion in the United States was the popularity of the English concertina, which found a home in London music halls. See Allan Atlas, “Concertina,” in New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Grove’s Dictionary of Music, 2001), 4:236–240; and Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 12–15.

(4.) Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1902, 10, WOA.

(5.) An expert accordion repair technician notes: owing to the corrosive effects of dust and moisture, as well as dryness (producing cracks and leaks in the bellows), most accordions are only playable for about fifty years (Helmi Harrington, personal communication, June 11, 2005).

(p.224) (6.) See Beniamino Bugiolacchi, A Man and His Dream: An Illustrated History of the Accordion (Castelfidardo, Italy: Loreto Cassa di Risparmio Foundation, 2005).

(7.) The one-row Cajun button accordion adopted by bayou musicians necessitates frequent bellows changes, which players exploit and incorporate as elements of their percussive and syncopated musical style. Players of the Irish traditional music favor the two- and three-row B/C melodeons, which can play more notes on a single draw. See Graeme Smith, “The Irish Button Accordion,” World of Music 3 (1) (2008), 285–311.

(8.) Harrington, personal communication, June 11, 2005, Superior, Wisconsin. The Anglo concertina and the bandoneon featured in Argentine tango are diatonic members of the accordion family.

(9.) Ibid., 18.

(10.) The circumstances of the accordion’s dissemination to Italy remain mysterious. Several Italian historians state that young Paolo Soprani received a Demian-like instrument from an Austrian pilgrim, either as a gift or in exchange for lodgings at the family’s farmhouse in Castelfidardo, but there is no evidence to support these claims.

(11.) Report of the Italian Academy of Industrial and Exhibiting Inventors, 1899, MDF.

(12.) Production data provided by MDF.

(13.) Beniamino Bugiolacchi, “Castelfidardo: International Centre of Accordion Production in Italy,” available at the website of MDF, www.accordions.com/museum, accessed July 2, 2008.

(15.) MDF.

(16.) According to Bugiolacchi, “Castelfidardo.” I have yet to track down the definitive source for this proposal.

(17.) The button in the major chord row (the third row) diagonally adjacent to the C in the fundamental row is a C major chord. When this button is pressed, a coupling mechanism inside the accordion produces a C major triad (the accordionist plays a whole chord with the touch of one button). Diagonally adjacent to this C major chord, in the minor chord row, a C minor chord button sounds the C minor triad. In the next row is a C seventh chord, and in the last row is a C diminished chord. Above the C fundamental button is the G fundamental with its diagonal row of major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords. This pattern of fundamental with its own row of major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords is found up and down the whole bass section. Although the sight of 120 bass buttons on the accordion’s left side appears daunting to the uninitiated, most accordion players only need to learn several finger patterns in order to master it. The so-called alternating bass—with the major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords on C—can be repeated throughout the whole bass keyboard. In addition, the finger pattern needed for playing a C major scale in the bass can be replicated on any fundamental tone, to play all twelve major scales. Among the various sources of information on this topic, Donald Balestrieri’s representation of the registers, switches, and buttons of the standard Stradella keyboard is useful: it appeared in Accordion Quarterly 1 (2) ([1940s, 1950s?]), reprinted in Accord (January-February 1979).

(18.) Donald Tricarico, The Italians of Greenwich Village (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1984), 78.

(p.225) (19.) The Hohner company began making accordions at the turn of the century. Their instruments are also well regarded for tone quality and durability. See Martin Haffner et al., Legende Hohner Harmonika [Hohner: The living legend] (Bergkirchen, Germany: Edition Bochinsky, 2006).

(20.) Marion Jacobson, “Searching for Rockordion: The Changing Image of the Accordion in the United States,” American Music 25 (2) 2007: 216–243.

(21.) Although the Guerrini company in San Francisco’s catalogs advertised high-end artist’s models in the range of $500-$800, a basic “starter” accordion could be had for $75–100 (ibid., 218).

(23.) For an exploration of the Italian labor migrations to the United States and Argentina, see Patrizio Audenino (1986), and especially John Zucchi’s study of the Italian child street musicians in the nineteenth century, Little Slaves of the Harp (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), whose instrument of choice was the harp.

(25.) See Alan Trachentenberg and Eric Foner, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

(26.) Ronald Flynn, Edwin Davison, and Edward Chavez, The Golden Age of the Accordion (Schertz, Tex: Flynn, 1990).

(27.) The term “vaudeville” (from the French term voix de ville), first used in 1883, is generally translated as “voice of the city.” See F. Cullen, F. Hackman, and D. McNeilly, “Vaudeville History,” in Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America (London: Routledge, 2007), xi–xxxii.

(29.) Joe Laurie, Jr., Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace (New York: Holt, 1953), 29.

(30.) These small free-reed instruments were handy for tucking away inside a bowtie, or for special effects, such as water-squirting concertinas (see Stuart Eydemann, “The Life and Times of the Concertina, with Particular Reference to Scotland” (Ph.D. diss., Open University, Edinburgh, 1995), available at the website of Robert Gaskins, www.concertina.com/eydmann/life-and-times/, accessed June 1, 2010.

(31.) Information about Ming and Toy is available at the website of the vaudeville scholar “Trav S.D.,” http://travsd.wordpress.com/, accessed June 10, 2010.

(32.) Ove Hahn, Anthony Galla-Rini:On His Life and the Accordion (Nils Fläcke Musik, Stockholm, 1986), 38.

(33.) Ibid., 38.

(34.) Lawrence Welk with Bernice McGeehan, Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall), 59.

(35.) Italo-American advertisement, 1930s, available at www.guidodeiro.com, a website devoted to the life and works of Guido Deiro, owned and operated by his son Robert Deiro, accessed January 2, 2010.

(36.) Guido Deiro, “My Life Story,” unpublished manuscript, GDA.

(37.) Ibid., 5.

(38.) Robert Deiro (Guido’s son), personal communication, January 18, 2011.

(p.226) (39.) Undated Des Moines newspaper clipping, ca. 1911, GDA.

(41.) Guido Deiro, Royal Method for Accordion, 2 vols. (n.p.: Nicomede, 1936).

(43.) Guido Deiro biography, available at www.guidodeiro.com, accessed January 15, 2011, and Robert Deiro, personal communication, January 21, 2011.

(44.) “Deiro Plays Unique Instrument,” Pittsburgh Post, May 11, 1911. Both Deiro brothers claimed to have designed their own accordions, contributing to the hype surrounding the accordion in the vaudeville era.

(45.) Buffalo Courier, April 16, 1912; undated review, GDA; Pittsburgh Post, May 11, 1911, respectively.

(46.) Undated review, GDA.

(47.) Undated, unsigned review, GDA.

(48.) New York: Biaggio Quattrociocche, n.d. [1930s].

(49.) Anthony Galla-Rini, letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” August 10, 2001, GDA.

(50.) Robert Deiro (Guido’s son), quoted in Henry Doktorski, “The Brothers Deiro and Their Accordions,” unpublished manuscript provided by Doktorski, 46.

(51.) Mae West, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It (New York: Belvedere, 1981).

(53.) Guido Deiro: The World’s Foremost Piano-Accordionist, Vitaphone no. 2968. Filmed at the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, California, in 1928, the film has been restored and is housed in the UCLA film archives.

(54.) “Who Was First? The Deiro Brothers Controversy,” Accordion News (August 1935), 4–10, available at www.accordions.com/index/art/who_was_first.shtml, accessed November 9, 2008.

(55.) Peter C. Muir, “Looks Like a Cash Register and Sounds Worse,” Free-Reed Journal, available at CFR, 86–129.

(56.) Unsigned review, May 11, 1911, GDA.

(57.) Guido Deiro, Royal Method, 14.

(58.) Unsigned review, n.d. [c. 1916], GDA.

(59.) Minneapolis Journal, December 16, 1912.

(60.) Accordion News (June 1935), 10.

(62.) Frederic A. Tedesco, “Organizing an Accordion Band,” Accordion News (January 1937), 10.

(63.) “The Accordion Band,” Accordion World (February 1937).

(64.) Harrington, personal communication, August 11, 2008.

(66.) Middleton, Richard. Voicing the Popular: On the Subjects of Popular Music (New York: Routledge, 2006), 89.

(67.) The “Italian” repertoire and playing style that influenced Italian-American accordionists, and the status of the accordion as “Italian icon,” are explored in Jacobson, “Valtaro Musette: Cross-cultural Musical Performance and Repertoire among Northern Italians in (p.227) New York,” in Italians in the Americas, ed. Joseph Sciorra (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

(70.) Ibid., 39.

(71.) Louis Siquier, “Your Paper,” Accordion News (October 1934), 5.

(72.) Russell Brooks, “The New Four-Piece Combination with Accordion,” Accordion World (1939), 11.

(73.) Enoch Light, “The Accordion in the Big Band,” Accordion News (December 1936), 4.

(74.) Ibid., 4.

(75.) See Louis Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(76.) One of the unintended effects of the attempt to promote accordion culture was that it encouraged the appropriation and distillation of black and ethnic music that could be reinterpreted, arranged, and performed by white accordion artists. Accordionists, who were white without exception, worked within a racially segregated music business.

(77.) Hilding Bergquist, “The Hot Accordionist,” Accordion News, n.d., n.p., personal collection.

(80.) Vincent Pirro, “The Orchestra Job,” Accordion World (March 15, 1936), available at www.ksanti.net/free-reed/essays/pirro.html.

(81.) A complete discography of early accordion recordings is beyond the scope of this book. However, detailed information on many of these recordings can be found in Peter C. Muir, “The Deiro Recordings: Italian-American and Other Ethnic Issues, 1911–1934, With a Complete Discography of the Recordings of Guido and Pietro Deiro,” Free-Reed Journal 4 (2002). The Wikipedia article on Charles Magnante offers a comprehensive discography of his records in a wide range of styles: “Charles Magnante,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Magnante, accessed June 17, 2010. Several publications have addressed, more broadly, the significance of ethnic recordings: Judith McCullough, Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage (Washington, D.C.: American Folklife Center, 1982), and Richard K. Spottswood, Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893–1942 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 7 vols.

(83.) Ibid., 190.

(84.) Ibid., 8.

(86.) Gage Averill addressed a similar problem in early recordings of men’s quartets. See Averill, Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony (New York: Oxford, 2003), 61.

(87.) Pietro Deiro, “The Accordionist on the Airwaves,” Etude (January 1938), n.p.

(88.) All three volumes were published by Pietro Deiro Publications, New York.

(p.228) (89.) Myron and Randee Floren, Accordion Man (Brattleboro, Vt.: S. Greene, 1981), 112.

(90.) Charles Magnante,” Background for Success: Making Good in Front of the Mike Requires Skill as a Soloist and Orchestra Accordionist,” Accordion World (August 1938), 10.

(92.) Ibid., 2. Cirelli moved to San Rafael in the 1980s.

(93.) Flynn et al. also mention John Anconi, Alfred Alemstad, John Pezzolo, Reno Pucci, and Michael Parti (ibid., 3).

(94.) Ibid., 116.

(95.) Helmi Harrington, personal communication, June 11, 2005.

(97.) Guerrini Catalog, c. 1920, 53, WOA.

(98.) Vincent Cirelli, interview by the author, August 25, 2008, Cotati, California. Cirelli, age eighty-eight at the time of our interview, repairs and collects some of the earliest Guerrini accordions. His shop, Cirelli Accordion Repair Service, was located in the Mission District until the 1980s.

(99.) Palmer patent, 1925, Patents file, WOA.

(101.) Ibid., 26.

(102.) Colombo Catalog, 1920s, WOA; also cited in Flynn et al., Golden Age, 74.

(103.) I am indebted to Helmi Harrington for this explanation of the evolution of these early accordions.

(104.) Colombo Catalog, 1920s, WOA.

(105.) Ibid., 74.

(106.) Harrington, personal communication, June 11, 2005.

(107.) Standard’s catalog advertised the fact that all its models were custom made by a single craftsman (Flynn et al., Golden Age, 97). Vincent Cirelli confirms, in addition, that Guerrini only made custom instruments; Cirelli himself made many instruments from start to finish (Cirelli, personal communication, August 25, 2008).

(109.) Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, “The Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915,” www.sfmuseum.org/hist9/ppietxt1.html, accessed November 7, 2008.

(110.) List of Guerrini Accordions at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, available at the website of H. A. Layer, http://online.sfsu.edu/~hl/a.html, accessed November 9, 2008.

(112.) Louis Siquier, “Looking over 1936,” Accordion News (December 1936), 2.

(113.) Ibid., 3.

(114.) “Meet Stanley Darrow: Director, Westmont Philharmonic Accordion Orchestra,” Accordion World (September 1958).