Five Questions: Tom Torriglia

Tom TorrigliaWe’re launching a new feature today called “Five Questions” — a series of brief interviews with notable personalities in the accordion world.

Our first subject is San Francisco accordionist Tom Torriglia. Tom has been in the music business since the late 1960s and has been an incredible accordion promoter over the years. He was an original member of Those Darn Accordions, is responsible for making June “National Accordion Awareness Month,” and campaigned to make the accordion San Francisco’s official instrument. Today, you can catch him playing a variety of gigs around the Bay Area, often with his retro-Italiano band, Bella Ciao.

When and why did you start playing the accordion?

I started taking lessons in 1962 at Theodore’s (Pezzolo) House of Music on Union St. in San Francisco. This was at the famous “accordion house.” My teacher was Theodore Pezzolo and I was his last student. I studied there for about eight years. When I left, he gave me all his original hand-written sheets of music, which I still have.

Before starting with the accordion, I had taken a year of piano but that didn’t work out and then one day, an accordion player came to the house to rehearse with my father who played sax and clarinet, and I was very taken with the instrument — with all the buttons and bellows and such — and I asked my parents if I could give it a try. Also, I think I was fated to play the accordion because, as everyone knows, there has to be one accordion player in each Italian-American household. And since I was the youngest child…

Well, you’ve stayed true to your Italian roots — starting Bella Ciao, playing at Italian-themed events, and making pilgrimages to the Italian accordion mecca, Castelfidardo. What was it like going there for the first time?

Going to Castelfidardo for the first time was really exciting. I went with Those Darn Accordions to perform at the International Accordion Competition in 1990. We competed in the Rock category. Even though there were only two bands in that category, the judges didn’t award either band first or second place and we ended up coming in 4th.

Also, it was at that competition where we met accordion impresario Ulrich Schmülling, who came up to the girls and said, “I didn’t see you perform, but I like your outfits. Would you like to come to Lithuania and perform?” …which we did two years later.

How did you get involved with Those Darn Accordions?

I was freelancing as an on-air entertainment reporter for a local radio station (KNBR) and a large part of my job was reviewing live entertainment. I went to the old Vis on Divisadero St. to review Asleep at the Wheel and one of the bands on the bill was called Thee Hellhounds, which included Big Lou. After the set, I went backstage to say hi and Lou saw the accordion pin I had on my jacket. She asked if I played and I said yes and she said she was putting together an ensemble of accordionists to perform one night at the Paradise Lounge and would I like to be part of the ensemble. I said sure and the rest is history.

How did you make the case to get the piano accordion named the official instrument of San Francisco?

In 1989, I met San Francisco Supervisor Willie Kennedy at an event, told her of my intent to make the accordion the official instrument and asked her how to go about that and would she help me.

She guided me through the process. The first step was to write a support paper talking about the history of the accordion in San Francisco and how the piano accordion got its start here and why it should be the city’s official instrument. After reading the piece I wrote, she felt my request had merit and she then introduced a measure to the full Board of Supervisors asking that the accordion be named the city’s official instrument. The supervisors then held a public hearing on the issue. A lot of people showed up to City Hall to speak for and against.

The Board of Supervisors passed the measure and the measure then went to the mayor’s office for his signature. Realizing what a hot-button issue this was, the mayor, Art Agnos, decided not to act and the measure became officially approved by default.

A hot-button issue, indeed! Finally, what advice do you have for someone just starting to play the accordion?

The only advice I have for someone starting out is, the only thing that matters is that you always have fun.

A big thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer our questions. Watch this space for more interviews soon!

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