After moving to Pittsburgh in 1975, I would occasionally go out on my second floor apartment balcony and practice saxophone. Standing in my underwear one afternoon, I heard a voice from the street. Below was a short rotund man of middle age. I put on some pants, went downstairs and made the acquaintance of Larry Pannunzio.
Larry was a fellow saxophonist residing on nearby Winebiddle St. living with his immigrant Italian parents. Hair styling and barbering were Larry's main hustles. On the weekends, Larry booked and played weddings. I had mentioned to Larry that I was mainly a keyboard player and was soon on his list of freelance musicians. The basement of Larry's house had a tiny practice space carved out for his music stand, tenor saxophone and clarinet. Doo-Wop, polkas and Italian music were Larry's musical influences. For spectacle and amusement, Larry became Captain Sticky. Donning a cape, he would jump up on the bar and honk away, believing himself to be a master of the tenor saxophone.
One night Larry went to Sonny Daye's jazz club in Oakland and heard Eric Kloss, an accomplished jazz prodigy. The experience was a humbling jolt. Larry wanted to sell his sax. The Captain Sticky routine was abandoned for an exploration of jazz study. We explored the recordings of many black musicians such as Oliver Lake, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. It should be noted that Bloomfield in the 70s was heavily racist and did not welcome African Americans. This has been reduced somewhat but still continues in Pittsburgh today. Sometimes music can be an opportunity to shed racism.
One memorable gig was in the 70s at the basement social hall of Immaculate Conception. Larry hired Emmett, Jimmy Sapienza and his cousin Al to play for relatives. At this time Al was drinking heavily and loudly proclaimed: "We are artists. We will play what the people need to hear, not what they want to hear!". Needless to say, this did not please many of the guests in attendance especially with Al's swearing added to the mix. After about 30 minutes of this behavior, the bride's grandfather approached the bandstand. The grandfather was a small man, opened his coat and pulled out a Saturday Night Special (handgun). Speaking loudly in broken English he declared, "You will play what my granddaughter wants to hear". Al continued with his abusive language. Unfortunately, the grandfather kept the gun pointed at Jimmy Sapienza, the singer. As Jimmy Sapienza tried to move away from the gun, the grandfather's wrist followed him. In a very cool response, Jimmy Sapienza turned to the band and said, "Gentlemen, 'Just the Way You Are', 2, 3, 4". The music immediately began and disaster was averted.
As the years passed, Larry confided in me that he had been bullied in his childhood. Some older kids once decided it would be great sport to dangle Larry off the Bloomfield Bridge by his ankles. Larry's brother Lenny did not experience the same trauma. Larry supported his brother after his parents died. Lenny's main artistic achievement was the writing of 47 humorous limericks. Lenny spent most of his days greeting citizens of Bloomfield beginning at Ritter's diner and ending up on Penn Ave. where the current Children's Hospital is located. He was one of Bloomfield's many unofficial mayors.
Larry continued barbering and saving his money and built a new home in Franklin Park, a Pittsburgh suburb. One of his favorite activities was sitting beside his wife Bernie in their overstuffed chairs and singing karaoke. He had purchased a special machine for this purpose. At one point he called me up and said, "I just got these new hearing aids. My hearing is so improved! I can hear everything now, no wonder my wife was always taking the mic from me....... boy, do I SUCK at Karoake! "
Larry died on December 22, 2016 at the age of 74. A little bit of the old Pittsburgh faded away.