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Joe Rico, 96, legendary deejay who celebrated jazz

Joe Rico, 96, legendary deejay who celebrated jazz

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RICO, Joseph

July 9, 1924 – Oct. 10, 2020

Joe Rico, who had a 50-year career as a radio personality, built such a towering reputation in the 1950s that major jazz musicians wrote and dedicated songs to him. From Stan Kenton, there was “Jump for Joe,” which became his theme song.

The jazz magazine Downbeat honored him as Top Jazz Disc Jockey of the Year in 1954. Billboard magazine proclaimed him Top Jazz Personality in the United States.

He hosted sell-out Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall, booked other artists into rooms all over the city, promoted dates in Niagara Falls and Toronto and joined with promoter George Wein to bring the touring Newport Jazz Festival to Offermann Stadium for a three-night stand.

“He did more than Norman Granz, George Wein and John Hammond to promote jazz because he used every venue there was,” his wife, Sharon Fischer, said. “He even once had a music store. The reason that he wasn’t so well-known is because he didn’t do it for himself. It was all about the music.”

Mr. Rico was inducted into the Western New York Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2000.

He died Oct. 10 in Buffalo General Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 96.

Joseph Amedeo Rico was born in New York City to Italian immigrants and spent his early boyhood in Italy with his mother, Julia, who went there on advice of her doctor to treat her tuberculosis.

She died when he was 5. Five years later, his father, Emelino, landed a radio job in Rochester and brought him back to the United States.

His father then came to Buffalo to work at WEBR, where he and his second wife, Mary, had an Italian-language radio show.

“Joe started in radio when he was 10,” his wife said. “His father would do the show in Italian and Joe would do the commercials in English.”

Occasionally, she added, “he would do his father’s show and sneak in jazz.”

He was a 1943 graduate of Grover Cleveland High School, where he played on the football, tennis and basketball teams. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, was stationed to Panama and was due to be deployed to the Pacific when World War II ended.

Returning home, he attended the University of Buffalo, served in the Marine Corps Reserve and sold commercials for his father’s radio show.

“My first jazz show came about when I convinced the owners of WWOL to let me play jazz records for a couple hours a day,” he told Buffalo News TV Topics editor Jim Brennan in 1984. On every show, he featured an up-and-coming artist named Stan Kenton for half an hour.

“He was so new, so different. He didn’t swing like Basie, Herman and Ellington,” Mr. Rico told Niagara Gazette reporter Denise Stary in 1982. “He had a very brassy, almost jazz-classical sound. I was so fascinated by it.”

After a few months, he got a 45 rpm record in the mail from Kenton. It was “Jump for Joe.”

“It said, ‘Dedicated to Joe Rico,’ right on the label,” he told Stary. “I almost went through the floor.”

Other songs followed – Count Basie’s “Port of Rico,” Don Elliott’s “Rico Jico Joe,” Mike Vax’s “Joe’s Inn,” Louis Belson’s “Buffalo Joe.”

Mr. Rico went on to host late night shows on WGR, WHLD and WEBR, charming listeners with his rich, deep voice.

“I wrote him fan letters when I was 16 and he was on WHLD,” his wife said. “You didn’t have to be a jazz person to love Joe Rico.”

In the 1960s, he joined with George “Hound Dog” Lorenz in a pioneering a syndicated radio service that was played on stations abroad.

“The Hound did R and B. Joe did jazz,” his wife said. “His voice was heard all over the world.”

“One of my greatest pleasures,” Mr. Rico told Brennan, “was being the first deejay to play recordings by George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Mark Murphy and hundreds of other aspiring jazz artists.”

He broadcast live from jazz clubs such as the Royal Arms and the Copa Casino. He set up his microphone in the front window of the Town Casino in the early 1960s at the invitation of club owner Harry Altman and did live interviews with the stars performing there. Sammy Davis Jr. became a close friend.

“I would take him home for dinner,” he told Brennan. “Sammy used to say my mama’s spaghetti sauce was better than Frank Sinatra’s.”

“The musicians liked him as a person,” his wife said. “They knew he loved the music.”

His wife noted that he played tennis with Michel LeGrand, dated two of the McGuire Sisters and went shopping for shoes with Miles Davis at the Florsheim shop in downtown Buffalo. When Count Basie’s wife was stranded without cash in Toronto, she said, the bandleader called Mr. Rico to wire her $200.

He never aspired to be a musician himself, he told Buffalo News reporter Jane Kwiatkowski in 1986, because he didn’t have the patience. He took piano lessons when he was 13, he said, but “after two months, I still couldn’t play like Oscar Peterson, so that was it.”

In 1965, he moved to Miami, where he hosted a jazz show for five years on WGBS-FM. Then, he was general manager for eight years at another Miami station, WBUS, where he introduced a contemporary jazz format.

He also ran a jazz club, Rico’s Room, in a hotel near the airport and teamed with Wein again to bring the Newport Jazz Festival to Miami.

In 1978, when new owners changed the radio station format and the lease ran out on his club, Mr. Rico declared his retirement.

“I was pretty exhausted and burnt out from 12 years of radio, night clubs and concerts, so I went down to Isla Morada in the Keys to play tennis,” he told the Niagara Gazette’s Stary.

He bought a houseboat and lived on it for a year, but didn’t retire completely. He continued to do a nightly show on WXOS-FM in Plantation Key. Then he came back to Buffalo to visit his parents.

“One thing led to another,” he told the Gazette reporter. “I ran into a lot of old friends, like Rick Azar, who I started out in radio with, and they all encouraged me to stay.”

He returned to the airwaves here in 1980, first on WADV, then WFXZ, WBUF, WHLD AND WUWU. Sharon Fischer, who was working as a paralegal, wrote him another fan letter.

“He told me, ‘That was the greatest fan letter I ever got. I want to take you to lunch,’ ” she said.

They were married in 1983, the same year he presided over the first jazz festival in Niagara Square. For a brief time in the mid 1980s, he also had a jazz club – Joe Rico’s Milestones – in the basement venue where the Tralfamadore Cafe began.

In later years, he coached tennis at high schools – Canisius, Sweet Home, Kenmore West. He also helped establish free summer tennis clinics for youngsters in Buffalo and the City of Tonawanda, where he lived.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a sister, Claudia Rico Maviglia; and a half-brother, Emelino Jr. “Lenny.”

Services were held Oct. 16 in John O. Roth Funeral Home, 25 William St., City of Tonawanda.

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Dale Anderson has been a Buffalo News staff reporter since 1968. He was the chief rock and pop writer for 20 years and helped establish the weekend entertainment magazine Gusto.

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