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BUFFALO MUSICIAN PLAYED MAESTRO TO THE KING

One night during the early '70s, Joe Guercio went with his wife to see the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Guercio, a Buffalo native who was musical director and conductor for Elvis Presley, sat back to enjoy the film.

It began with a classical music theme, Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Moved by the majesty of the music, Guercio's wife leaned over to her husband and whispered: "You'd think Elvis was about to enter."

A light went off in Guercio's head. The next day he talked with Elvis during a rehearsal at the Las Vegas Hilton.

"I told him it would be a dramatic entrance," Guercio said. "He looked at me and said, 'Maestro, that's a great idea. Let's see if we can get the record.'

"I said, 'No, Elvis, let's do it with a live orchestra. It will be a bigger sound and effect.' Elvis smiled and said, 'Go ahead, Maestro.'"

Thus was born Presley's signature entrance song for the last few years of his life. Guercio worked with Presley from 1970 until his death in 1977.

Joe Guercio, who grew up on the West Side and graduated from Lafayette High School and the musical college of hard knocks known as the Town Casino, was inducted at the Tralf last Thursday into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.

The honor wasn't just because he worked with Elvis. Guercio also was a conductor and musical director for Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Diahann Carroll, Rod Stewart, Natalie Cole, Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and more.

Guercio was a mainstay in Las Vegas as musical director at the International Hotel. Most of the big stars went through there and would work with Guercio.

It's a long way from Buffalo, where Guercio's love affair with music began.

He played in bands while at Lafayette, and after graduating landed a gig at the Town Casino's piano bar.

"It was a tough job," Guercio said. "You'd sit there with three girl singers, trying to attract people and playing what they wanted to hear. You had to know a lot of songs, or be able to fake them."

One night, around 1950, the manager of singer Patti Page happened to drop by the piano bar. He was so impressed with Guercio that the manager offered him a job playing piano on the road.

Guercio left Buffalo, and his career took off.

"In Buffalo I was Mr. Big, but when I got to New York City, I found out I was just another piano player," Guercio said.

That realization led him to try something different: conducting.

"I asked a friend of mine in the music business why I should be a conductor," Guercio said. "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.' "

Eventually, Guercio became one of the most sought-after music directors in the business. He worked on such television specials as, "Elvis," "Streisand at the Forum," "Diana Ross in Central Park" and "BB King at the Vatican."

The biggest break in his career came in 1970, when Presley came to the International to make a concert movie called "Elvis, That's the Way It Is."

"The first time I met Elvis was backstage at rehearsal," Guercio said. "I always carried a baton, and Elvis saw it and started calling me Maestro. He always called me by that name."

Until they met, Guercio had not been a big Elvis fan, but he came to appreciate Presley's talent and musical knowledge.

"Most people don't know that Elvis was a major opera fan," Guercio said. "He loved Mario Lanza."

Presley also had a sense of humor. Guercio was once quoted as saying that conducting for Elvis was like "following a marble down concrete steps." Elvis read those remarks and soon after, when Guercio arrived in his dressing room, the floor was covered with marbles, his stage tux was jammed with marbles and on a dressing room mirror was this note: "Follow the marble -- E.P."

Over the years, Guercio developed a deep admiration for Presley.

"Elvis was for real, a down-home kind of guy. He could be a pain, but he had respect for the people he worked with."

Barbra Streisand was the same way, Guercio says.

"People say she's tough and demanding, but one thing about Barbra: She's always right," Guercio said. "I never had a bad moment with her. She's who she is, and she deserves everything she has earned."

Guercio was less enthusiastic about Diana Ross.

"I worked with her for five years," he said. "I think I was the first conductor she never fired. She is a great talent."

So is Guercio.

"When you look at what this man has done and the people he has worked with, it's amazing," said John Riggi, a local musician who inducted Guercio into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.

Guercio now lives in Nashville and also has a home in Las Vegas. He has his own music production company and works with country artists on the H2E record label.

He has toured the world for the past few years with an orchestra appearing with an "Elvis -- the Concert" production. It shows a movie of Elvis performing, accompanied live on stage by many of the musicians who toured with Presley. The show is called a "virtual" concert, with Elvis on film and the musicians performing live.

"It's strange because it's been 25 years since we did it with Elvis, but the people love it," Guercio said. "They just lock into the screen and wave and scream. It's kind of scary because it seems so real."

Guercio enjoyed being back home last week for his hall of fame induction.

"Joe hasn't changed," said his sister, Sandy Gerace. "He loved music when he was a kid and he still does."

He also never lost his passion for Buffalo.

"This city means everything to me and it always will," he said.

Buffalo has something even that Nashville and Las Vegas lack.

"You know the best part of being home?" Guercio asked. "Going down to Connecticut Street and buying some Italian sausage."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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