Tommie Rizzo

Tommie Rizzo

BMHOF Class of 2002

Tommie  Rizzo came from a musical family;  his father Sal was a guitarist and president of the Buffalo Musicians Union Local #43 and #92.  

His father discouraged him from becoming a drummer, saying he would have to carry too much equipment to jobs, and recommended he take piano lessons. Tommie admitted he was not a good student and since his piano teacher was his next door neighbor, the teacher knew Tommie was not practicing that much.

When he starting attending Lafayette High School, he asked the band director Mr. Henry Jocoy if he could play drums.  No percussion position was available (the director probably knew his father), and the director suggested he play bass. The first time his father knew about the bass was when Tommie brought an upright home for practice during Christmas vacation.  His father’s initial comment was “I told you not to be a drummer, so you take up the next biggest instrument.”

Tommie became proficient on bass and at 17 auditioned to join the Musicians Union, obtaining his union card.  There was a shortage of musicians in Buffalo because so many musicians were being drafted.  So in early 1943, while still in high school, Tommie was offered a job with the Harold Austin Band at the Dellwood Ballroom. This included playing at The Crystal Beach Ballroom and on the Crystal Beach boat.  That job did not last long; Tommie himself was drafted in December 1943.

Upon returning from the service in late 1945 he got his job back with the Harold Austin Orchestra.  Since he was attending college, this was the perfect job.  During the winter he played Friday, Saturday and Sundays at the Dellwood Ballroom.  During the summer, six days a week he played the 8 p.m. Crystal Beach boat cruise. When they docked at the Crystal Beach pier all the musicians rushed through customs, carried their instruments through the park and relieved the Bert Niosi or other bands at the Crystal Ballroom.It was “Park Plan” dancing, where the music never stopped and the dancers paid 10 çents for each dance. After completing their second set at the ballroom, they reversed the dash through the park for the 11:45 p.m. last Crystal Beach boat cruise back to Buffalo.  On Sundays, with the Crystal Beach Ballroom closed because of the Canadian blue laws, they played the afternoon and evening lake cruise on the Canadiana.

In 1948 Bobby Nicholson was the leader of the Harold Austin Orchestra.  Bobby was offered the job as music director at WKBW Radio.  When Bobby resigned to take the radio job, Tommie took over the band at The Dellwood, Crystal Ballroom and Crystal Beach Boat. Additionally Tommie was offered a position with the WBEN Radio studio orchestra, directed by Max Miller. This resulted in busy times for a 23-year-old who was still attending college. He also performed on the inaugural telecast of WBEN-TV and was a member of the band on two regular television shows:  Club Canandaigua on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and One Chorus Only on Saturdays at 10 p.m.  Tommie also represented Buffalo as a bass playing vocalist on two nationally broadcast talent shows: the Adam Hats Big Break in New York City and the Horace Heidt Show when it was done from Shea’s Buffalo.

Tommie was one of the busiest musicians in WNY, and then in 1949 Harold Austin decided to return as leader of his band.  That did not slow Tommie down;he formed the Tic Toc Timers with Russ Messina (accordion), Vince Brundo (guitar), Dick Fadale (drums and vibes) and Tommie (bass/vocals).  Messina and Brundohad appeared with him on the Club Canandaigua television show.  The quartet performed at the Anchor Bar, Foster’s Supper Club, Peter Stuyvesant Room, Toronto’s Town Tavern and they were the intermission band at the Town Casino.  When the regular Town Casino MC, Lenny Paige, had a day off, Tommie filled in as the MC for the floor shows.

In 1953 he joined the Harry Stern Orchestra, with violinist Harry Stern. They became one of the most popular society bands in the area, performing at many of WNY’s premier events through 1964.  

When Tommie was 55he decided to go to Law School.  UB Law School put him on the waiting list, but he said due to his age he couldn’t wait.  He attended one year of law school at Nova University in Florida, got top grades in his class and transferred to UB, where he received his Law Degree in 1983 He is still a practicing attorney, sharing offices with another musician/attorney, Stuart Shapiro.

His son Tom Rizzo Jr. is recognized as a world class guitarist.  He toured with Maynard Ferguson and Doc Severinsen for almost 10 years and currently works as a television series composer in Los Angeles.  In 1998, Tom Jr. put together a LA studio band and recorded "Tommie Rizzo – Then & Now,” a collection of jazz standards that Tommie sang in the 40’s and 50’s.

After releasing the CD, Tommie played dates at private parties, WNY Senior Centers and residence homes to promote the recording.  He was also featured in the Buffalo-produced PBS special “Things That Aren’t There Anymore.”

-- Bio by Rick Falkowski

Video at top - Things That Aren’t Here Anymore (PBS Special)

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