Buffalo native Joseph Guercio, who led bands for Elvis and other major stars, dies at age 87 - The Buffalo News

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Buffalo native Joseph Guercio, who led bands for Elvis and other major stars, dies at age 87

Very few musicians from Buffalo – or any other city – experience the career that Joseph Guercio enjoyed for nearly seven decades.

He was a close friend and orchestra leader for Elvis Presley from 1970 until the superstar’s death in 1977.

He accompanied Patti Page – his former fiancee – on her 1953 Number 1 hit record, “Doggie in the Window.”

He toured with Diana Ross. He performed with Barbra Streisand and Diahann Carroll.

He played all over the world, including at Vatican concert with blues star B.B. King for Pope John Paul II.

Not bad for a kid who grew up on Baynes Avenue on Buffalo’s West Side and graduated from Lafayette High School.

Mr. Guercio, a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, died Sunday, Jan. 4, in a Nashville, Tenn., hospice facility, following a short illness. He was 87.

“We were all so proud of him,” said his sister, Sandy Gerace, a retired school teacher who lives in the Town of Tonawanda. “He knew all these famous, talented people, played with all these people, but he never forgot his roots in Buffalo. He kept in close touch with the family, and he’d come by and visit any time he came through this area.”

Probably best known for his work with Presley, Mr. Guercio became music director at the International Hotel, later the Las Vegas Hilton, a year after Presley began his famous engagement there, and soon was drafted into leading the singer’s rhythm section and 26-piece ensemble.

In fact, Mr. Guercio composed the grandiose horn fanfare that heralded Presley’s entrances and exits. For the introduction to his concerts, Mr. Guercio also adopted the theme from Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” after hearing it on the soundtrack for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“My wife and I were in the movies,” he once told an interviewer. “This Strauss thing started. And she said, ‘Don’t you get the feeling Elvis is about to walk out?’ ”

“Joe loved Elvis and was very proud of all his work with Elvis,” Gerace said. “I was with Joe in Las Vegas on the day Elvis died. They announced on a loud speaker at a mall where we were shopping. Joe was very upset. He went straight home.”

After that, Mr. Guercio rushed to Presley’s hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he arranged and conducted all the music for his memorial service.

“He would always become annoyed when interviewers would ask him about Elvis’s drug problems,” his sister recalled. “He would say, ‘You don’t realize what a nice man this guy was, and how much fun it was for the people who worked with him.’ ”

When he wasn’t traveling on Presley’s tours, which would involve as many as 160 concerts a year, he would resume his role as musical director at the Hilton. He also led the orchestra for Elvis’ “Aloha from Hawaii” TV special in 1973.

In 1997, Mr. Guercio became the conductor for “Elvis: The Concert,” a touring show that blended live music with Presley’s recorded vocals and film footage from his concert specials.

He once described leading an orchestra for the spontaneous Presley as “like following a marble down concrete steps.” He later found the pockets of his tuxedo stuffed with marbles and a few hundred more on the floor of his dressing room, along with a note: “Follow the marble. – E.P.”

Born in Buffalo on July 16, 1927, Mr. Guercio took piano lessons as a youngster, at the strong urging of his father, James, who was a talented drummer, and mother, Theresa, who sang in a church choir.

“We grew up in a musical family. Music was a priority in our family,” Sandy Gerace said. “My mother had Joe take piano lessons, and oddly enough, she had me taking saxophone lessons.”

Mr. Guercio graduated from Lafayette High School, where he played in his first band, the Jive Five. He also started playing piano in the Town Casino, the city’s premiere nightspot. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Navy and played saxophone in a traveling Navy band.

After completing military service, he got a job playing in the band of singer Billy Daniels, one of the first African-American singers to successfully cross over into the white mainstream entertainment world.

Mr. Guercio later caught the attention of Patti Page’s manager and was hired as her piano accompanist. He moved to New York City, where he switched to conducting and arranging. One of his first big successes was working as an arranger and band leader for the late Julius La Rosa, a huge star in the 1950s.

“I asked a friend of mine in the music business why I should be a conductor,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “He told me, ‘Because the guy standing up in front of the orchestra makes twice as much as the guy sitting down at the piano.’ ”

He settled in Las Vegas in 1967 and was the house bandleader at a casino where he worked with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Florence Henderson, Connie Stevens, Carroll, Knight and other stars.

While working with Carroll, Mr. Guercio traveled with her in 1967 to Paris, where he arranged and conducted the music for a television special featuring Carroll and French star Maurice Chevalier. He also went to New York City with Carroll to arrange her music when she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

His work with Streisand included her 1972 hit “Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead,” which was based on a live medley that he arranged for her.

He also persuaded Natalie Cole to sing accompanied by a video of her late father, Nat King Cole, in her stage shows, which inspired their hit duet on “Unforgettable.”

After Presley’s death in 1977, Mr. Guercio toured with Ross from 1978 to 1984. He then returned to the Las Vegas Hilton as entertainment director, arranged music for other Las Vegas showrooms and was an entertainment booker for several years for the casino Arizona Charlie’s.

For the past 15 years, he lived in Nashville and designed stage shows for a number of aspiring artists. He also accompanied blues guitarist King to Rome to meet Pope John Paul II and perform in the Vatican’s Christmas concert.

Mr. Guercio was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

His first wife of 30 years, Corrine “Corky” Wolfram, a dancer and choreographer he met while they both were working at the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City, died in 1986. He was remarried in 1998 to Penny France, a British singer-dancer and clothes designer. She died in 2005.

Survivors include a son, Jimmy, a drummer from Santa Monica, Calif.; and Gerace, his younger sister. A memorial service will be held in Nashville. Obituaries appeared in newspapers in Nashville, Las Vegas and London, England.

Until he became ill a couple of months ago, Mr. Guercio was still involved with music, including some Elvis-related projects.

“Right now, he’s supposed to be over in Europe,” his sister said, “conducting a lot of Elvis’ old musicians in a tribute show to Elvis.”

A memorial service will be held Feb. 28 in Nashville Palace, 2611 McGavok Pike, Nashville.

Includes reporting by News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson. email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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