The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

"Who Was First?" and the Recording of "Vaudeville Accordion Classics"

by Henry Doktorski
November 2004

Doktorski Plays Deiro The diatonic button accordion was invented in 1829 in Vienna and was introduced into the United States probably in the 1830s. By 1843, it had become popular enough that one music entrepreneur and publisher (Elias Howe, Jr.) had published in Boston and New York a 40-page method book titled The Complete Preceptor for the Accordeon, which included 86 popular tunes of the day, such as Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself, The Hay Makers, Old Zip Coon, Irish Washerwoman, and Auld Lang Syne.

The piano-accordion was probably invented in France around the mid-nineteenth century. The first patent of an accordion with a piano keyboard was made by Philippe Joseph Bouton of Paris in 1852. In 1880, piano-accordions with sixty-four bass and chord buttons for the left-hand were built by Tessio Jovani in Stradella, Italy. In 1890 a deluxe piano-accordion was built by Mariano Dallape and Company, also in Stradella, which featured a right-hand keyboard of three octaves and 112 left-hand buttons.

But few instruments found their way across the Atlantic ocean to the United States. The "accordeon" which Americans knew was the one- to three-row diatonic button accordion, which was sold by the Sears Roebuck Company through their mail-order catalog.

Who was the first musician to play the piano-accordion professionally in America?

This question may never be answered, as I have seen photographs from around the turn of the last century depicting unidentified professional piano-accordionists in the United States playing with various dance band ensembles.

In addition, Biaggio Quattrochiocche (1882-1955), who emigrated from Italy in 1907, and worked for the Iorio Accordion Company in New York City, claimed that the two brothers, August and Amedeo Iorio, toured in France and the United States playing their piano-accordions during that same year.

However, there is no doubt that Guido Deiro(1886-1950), and not his younger brother Pietro (1888-1954), was the first person who became an internationally-renowned musician to play the piano-accordion in America (1908). Guido not only was the first to play it, but he also named it; he coined the term "piano-accordion" (1910). Guido also was the first to play the piano-accordion on the Vaudeville stage (1910), make recordings with it (Edison Wax Cylinders - 1911), play it on the radio (1921 or 1922) and in film (1928). These facts are well documented and indisputable.

Yet many people erroneously believe that it was Pietro, Guido's younger brother, who was the first to play the piano-accordion in the United States. Let us examine the documented historical facts:

Pietro, came to the United States in 1907 to work in the coal mines in the state of Washington where some of his relatives had already immigrated. (Pietro previously had worked for a living in the coal mines of Germany.) He lived in the town of Cle Elum with his uncle Frederico (I believe) & family. After a while, he apparently decided that 16 hour days in the mines were not his idea of a good time, so Pietro started to play a 3-row button-box accordion (accompanied by a pianist) at the "Idaho Saloon" in Seattle where he earned $18 per week. He played only by ear.

Pietro's older brother, Guido, began playing the button accordion in 1897, at the age of nine. In 1903, Guido began playing button professionally in Metz, Germany. 1905, he acquired his first piano-accordion from the Ronco Vercelli Company, and began playing it professionally in Italy, Switzerland & Germany. In 1908, after serving some time in the Italian army, twenty-two-year-old Guido, who had already made a name for himself as a professional accordionist in Europe, came to the United States to seek his fortune. He was encouraged, if not assisted, by the Ronco-Vercelli accordion company to demonstrate their product at the Seattle World's Fair of 1909 -- the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Guido told the story, "In the fall of 1908, I arrived in the City of Seattle, and State of Washington, my brother at this time was playing at the Idaho Saloon where he had been for about two months. He was playing the three row, sixty bass semi-tone accordion that I had traded with my brother in Germany. He was playing by ear, accompanied by a pianist. His salary was $18.00 per week. The owner of the saloon was Frank Butti. Mr. Butti gave me a position in his other saloon, called the 'Jackson Saloon.' He also paid me $18.00 per week. I played alone. My repertoire consisted of a very large collection of grand opera pieces, including fifteen waltzes by the Greatest Composer in Europe, Waldtenfel and Strauss. I played the famous Tesoro Mio Waltz, and the Sharpshooters' March, the first time it had ever been played in this country."

Guido continued, "At this time my brother and I were living at the Idaho Hotel. My brother at that time did not know anything about the piano accordion. He had a piano accordion but he could not play it because the instrument was then unknown, and no teacher could be had to teach him on it. Naturally, I had to teach my brother how to play the piano accordion."

Soon after, Guido ordered a 41-key piano-accordion from Italy, but when it arrived it was damaged. On the advice of a friend who played a button accordion, Guido took his instrument to the Guerrini Accordion Company in San Francisco for repairs. This was the first time the piano-accordion had ever been seen in San Francisco.

Before Guido returned to Seattle, he played a public concert. Guido wrote, "The day before returning to Seattle, I gave an open-air concert, standing on a stool in front of the Guerrini Manufacturing Company, before a crowd of hundreds of people. The police had to be called to maintain order. This concert was very highly complimented by such enthusiastic accordion players as Dave Rossi, Adolfo Mosconi, Genio Gannarini and Joe Valle. These men were then the greatest chromatic accordion players on the Pacific Coast. After this concert I returned immediately to Seattle. This was in February, 1909."

In 1910, Guido was discovered by a talent scout for the Orpheum Circuit and began playing legitimate Vaudeville shows. By the end of the year, his popularity became so great that he had become a "headliner." His name, "Deiro," was THE featured attraction among perhaps a dozen other lesser entertainment acts, such as singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, animal trainers, etc.

Pietro followed his brother and also began playing on the Vaudeville circuit. However, Guido was the better musician & entertainer and many newspaper articles compared the two brothers. Guido was always praised as the greater. He used to make sometimes $600 per week. Guido didn't sing, or tell jokes, or act. All he did was stand or sit and play the accordion. This was amazing; he was so popular. He made so much money (at that time a frugal man who earned perhaps only $5 per week could raise a family of six children) that he only ate at the finest restaurants, stayed at the finest hotels, romanced the most beautiful actresses and models (including Mae West, whom he married), and drove the finest automobiles, such as a brand-spanking-new Duesenberg. One time he wrecked a Cadillac when he raced a speeding locomotive and lost. (Remember in those days the roads were only dirt or gravel and had many potholes.)

Guido Made the First Piano-Accordion Recording

Peter Wyper (b. 1861) from Lanarkshire, Great Britain, is believed to have made a button-accordion recording on a wax cylinder in 1903. John Kimmel (1866-1942), a Brooklyn-born Irish American, may have been the first American button-accordionist to make a recording, American Cake Walk, on a two-minute wax cylinder by Edison 9341 (September 1906). Guido's first piano-accordion recording was recorded in 1911, also on an Edison wax cylinder.

First Radio Broadcast

Guido Deiro was the first accordionist to play on radio (piano or chromatic). He did this between 1921 and June 1922, on America's first commercial radio station, 8MK of Detroit. The only nationally-known professional accordionists besides Guido who were active at this time were Pietro Deiro and Pietro Frosini, and neither of them claimed to make the first radio broadcast. Anthony Galla-Rini and Charles Magnante were only teenagers. In 1922 Galla-Rini was still performing as a clown musician in his father's "Palo and Palet" act and Charles Magnante was playing on the Staten Island Ferry for tips. Although John Buday claimed that Magnante "was the first accordionist to play on experimental radio in 1923" (Golden Age of the Accordion, 124), Guido Deiro's Detroit broadcast clearly predated Magnante's radio debut by a year or two.

Charles Magnante himself confirmed that he didn't begin working in radio until 1923. In 1938 he wrote, "It was just about fifteen years ago that I began to work with the National Broadcasting Company and at that time its 'studios' consisted of one little two by four room." ("Background for Success," Accordion World, August 1938)

The Demise of Vaudeville

However, when the stock market crash of October 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, Guido lost his considerable fortune in stocks. Even worse, the vaudeville shows closed down and the once-famous headliner was out of work. Although Guido tried teaching, it was not in his heart. He was a great performer, accustomed to entertaining crowds of adoring fans and swooning women, not a teacher.

Pietro, on the other hand, was a shrewd businessman and started a successful accordion music publishing company. On his method books he had something printed like "Pietro Deiro: the FIRST to play the piano-accordion in America." Some books also boasted, "Pietro Deiro: The INVENTOR of the piano-accordion." (The piano-accordion was actually invented some 36 years before Pietro's birth, and, as explained earlier, his brother Guido predated his playing the piano-accordion.)

Guido was upset about this, but was powerless to do anything. In 1935 the controversy came to a head and several heated articles and letters were printed in Accordion News & Accordion World magazines. Pietro claimed that he had played the piano-accordion in 1907 in San Francisco, a year before Guido arrived in this country. Pietro also claimed that he "introduced my brother Guido on the American stage." (In all likelihood, it is probable that Pietro introduced Guido to the owner of the "Jackson Saloon" in Seattle when Guido first came to this country.) Several older accordionists testified that it was Guido, not Pietro, who introduced the piano-accordion in America.

But the damage had already been done, the truth was obscured and history rewritten. After 1935, Guido, who was performing less frequently, faded away into oblivion and passed away in 1950, penniless and nearly forgotten. But Pietro, due to his powerful publishing empire, bolstered by fraudulent claims, became famous throughout the world as the "Daddy of the Accordion." By Pietro's exaggerations, clever posturing and the resultant association in people's minds, he stole everything that Guido had accomplished.

Guido Deiro Returns

Then, some 50 years later, Guido's son (from his father's fourth wife), Count Guido Roberto Deiro, decided it was time to vindicate his father and reestablish his father's rightful claim as the first and greatest (at least from 1910 to 1930) piano-accordionist. Guido Jr. met Peter Muir, a scholar of early American music, who subsequently wrote several academic articles about Guido & Pietro, which were printed in the "Free-Reed Journal," published by The City University of New York's "Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments," directed by Dr. Allan Atlas. Guido also donated the vast collection of his father's memorabilia to the "Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments" at CUNY.

Guido's claims are not spurious boasts, but are documented by source materials such as newspaper reviews which are preserved in the Guido Deiro Archives at CUNY. On the other hand, Pietro, for some reason or other, did not keep any of his playbills or Vaudeville contracts, newspaper reviews or interviews. Nothing. And for good reason: he was the lesser accordionist and had fraudulently capitalized on the name "Deiro," which Guido had made famous.

Actually, during the height of Vaudeville, Guido was known by the stage name "Deiro," and Pietro was known as "Pietro." (Pietro Frosini was known as "Frosini.") Even during the 1910s and 1920s, sometimes people accidentally thought that Pietro was really his more famous brother. Some newspaper articles refer to the name of "Pietro Deiro" but clearly show the photograph of Guido. It was easy for people to confuse them, as they both had the same last names.

Years later, when Vaudeville had long died, many people recognized the name "Deiro," but Pietro accepted their accolades, when actually the praise was meant for his brother Guido. In this way he stole the achievements that his brother had worked so hard to accomplish.

I Record Guido's Complete Works

In 2001, on the invitation of Dr. Atlas, I performed a recital at CUNY, and included two pieces by Guido Deiro. Guido Jr. was in the audience, and was thrilled by my playing; he invited me to form a partnership with him: I would record his father's complete works and Guido Jr. would pay for the recording studio fees. (Guido Jr. also commissioned me to create a website for his father at GuidoDeiro.Com.)

Recording Guido Deiro's complete works took over two years. I had to first find the sheet music to Guido's compositions. Accordionists all over the world helped me by sending me music. Some even sent me original sheet music from the 1910s and 1920s which I donated to the "Guido Deiro Archive."

Then I had to listen to all of Guido's 78-RPM recordings of his music. I found dozens and dozens of mistakes in the printed music, which I corrected. About a half-dozen of Guido's compositions were never published, so I had to painstakingly transcribe the music note by note from my ear to paper.

I would go into the recording studio usually once or twice a month; sometimes as often as once a week. During my spare time, I would listen to Guido's recordings to absorb his playing style, study the scores and practice, practice and practice. We usually recorded on Tuesday afternoons for several hours, maybe 3 or 4 hours. We recorded in Bjornson Hall, a spacious medium-size room with beautiful oak paneling, excellent acoustics, and just the right touch of reverberation.

We would set up the three microphones, one for right-hand, one for left, and one situated in front about 10 feet away for room ambiance. Then I would record each song over and over and over and over again until I thought it was as perfect and as exciting as I could make it. Guido's compositions are not easy. Some of them are devilishly difficult. He was, after all, a virtuoso accordionist. No one could compete with him, even his brother, during his heyday of two decades.

Then I would go into the control room and listen to the result, and find little things I was not happy with. I would make marks in my score, and go back into the studio and do it over again. Then I'd go back into the control room and repeat the process until I was happy.

Then I'd take a CD of the day's work home with me and listen to it. Invariably I would find more imperfections during the week that I did not notice at the recording studio. Then during my next session, I would tighten it up just a bit. This seemed to go on forever.

Squeezebox Player

The Price of Perfection

I couldn't believe how many hours it took. I was such a damn perfectionist! Sometimes the sweat soaked my shirt, even though the studio was air conditioned! Guido was such a great player, and his rapidly repeated notes and chords are very difficult to execute. He didn't use the bellows shake; he didn't need to. His wrists must have worked like the muscles in a woodpecker's neck. * My hands and arms never got such a workout! Once I collapsed on the sofa in the control room, completely exhausted after repeatedly playing a particularly diabolical passage.

After two years of this strenuous endeavor, I sometimes felt like quitting; the recording process was so tiresome. But of course, I couldn't quit, and I'm glad I didn't! I am extremely happy with the result of my hundreds of hours of work and it seems so is everyone else also!

We finally finished the master recording in June 2003 and I sent it out to several commercial record labels. After hearing back from the various companies, Guido Jr. & I decided that Bridge Records, an internationally distributed label with a catalog of over 100 titles (which includes classical and early American popular music) would be our best option. After working out the details, we signed a contract in September.

In the meantime, after listening to the master CDs for some time, I decided that a half-dozen songs needed just a few minor tweaks. So back I went into the recording studio!

I sent Bridge Records the "final" version of the master, and they were so excited that they pushed to get the printing, manufacturing and distribution finished early so the CD set could be released in November. They also told me that they wanted to send me to perform in Orlando Florida in February for a big National Public Radio convention.

I feel very fortunate to have the honor of recording Guido Deiro's complete works and it is my fervent wish that the world will come to recognize some of his genius and accomplishments.

My next project with my partner, Count Guido Roberto Deiro, is to publish "The Complete Works of Guido Deiro Music Anthology" -- sheet music to all of Guido's compositions. We have already found a commercial music publisher that wants to do this. With some luck, the anthology might be released late in 2004.

For more information about my recent CD anthology, Vaudeville Accordion Classics: The Complete Works of Guido Deiro, including track list and downloadable sound samples, Click Here.

* Guido Deiro's son, Count Guido Roberto Deiro, confirmed this in an e-mail letter to the author dated February 19, 2004: "You are correct, Henry, my father abhorred the bellow shake and made a point of telling me not to use it. He had me listen to the Horace Heidt amateur hour on radio when Dick Contino played and remarked negatively on Contino's use of the technique. I have photos of Dick, his late father, my late father and myself having dinner at the Paris Inn in Los Angeles in 1947. I would have been close to ten years of age."

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