Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Anecdotes from Jim D'Addario #1

Jim D’AddarioAnecdotes
My second father Mario Maccaferri

They say timing is everything in life and surely for me I have been blessed with being in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion. As a child I loved to tinker. I had a work bench in our basement with my own tools where I tinkered with building amplifiers, speaker cabinets, amateur radios and countless other do-it-yourself projects.

Attracted to music more and more, first the piano and then later the guitar in the early 60’s, I got more and more interested my family’s string business. My grandfather and Dad worked out of a tiny shop in the basement of my grand parents’ home in Jackson Heights, NY. I loved to go there in the evenings or on Saturdays with my Dad. There was always an extra machine or tools to tinker with. I recall dreaming of building automatic machinery so that my Dad wouldn’t have to work so hard hand winding strings.

Many times on a Saturday I would tag along when Dad made deliveries to his customers. My favorite place to go to with him was Mastro Industries, Inc. in the Bronx. Mastro seem like a gigantic enterprise to me and in actuality it was; a full city block in size it was the brain child of luthier, guitarist and engineer Mario Maccaferri, famous to guitarists for his Selmer Django Reinhardt guitars.

Most of the trips I tagged along on to Mastro were to deliver ukulele strings for his plastic TV Pal ukuleles. Ukulele strings are monofilament nylon with a knot on one end. With the help of TV celebrity Arthur Godfrey’s endorsement Mario made and shipped nearly seven million TV Pal ukuleles from 1949 (the year I was born) into the 1960’s. At four strings a uke, that is 28 million strings, if anyone is counting.

Our entire family knotted ukulele strings while watching TV or in between homework and chores. You really weren’t allowed to just ‘sit’ around. On those delivery trips, Mario used to stop whatever he was doing to sit down for a cup of coffee with my Dad. On most visits he would take out a classical guitar and play something he was transcribing or practicing.

Early in his career Mario was one of the most successful touring classical guitarists in Europe. He had a sweetness of tone, a romantic flare for phrasing and musicality that was truly unique. I was always mesmerized when he played for us. But even more exciting to me was walking around his monstrous factory; seeing the huge molding and packaging machines, an office full of engineers and draftsmen designing products and molds, and hundreds of workers in constant motion.

If you are interested in learning more about Mario read some of the articles on the web like these:
http://www.lutherie.net/mario_en.html
http://www.harpguitars.net/history/maccaferri/month-player,macc.htm

From those early visits a bond was formed between Mario and me that would grow and grow as each year passed. As his business career ebbed and mine started to get traction he took a personal interest in what we were doing at D’Addario. He would take trips to visit to see what new machines or products I was working on and he would offer some of his expert advice.

He was an old school guy and did not get along with his son Marco in business. He was not an easy person to contradict, but for some reason I was able to get away with more than he accepted from his son. After his visits I could expect daily phone calls with new ideas about everything I showed him upon his previous visit. His mind was amazing. It was my first experience getting to know a true genius. Sometimes I didn’t take his advice and pushed back. He would continue to come back at me each day until I either tried what he suggested or convinced him that his approach was not feasible. I loved the dialog even though the two Italians disagreeing can be a little volatile at times.

Many times my wife Janet and I would take our three children to his home in Rye Beach for Maria’s homemade lasagna. Both Mario and Maria were originally from Bologna; I don’t have to tell you how delicious those dinners were. Our children still talk about them today.

On one occasion we were sitting around his dinner table and of course after dinner, out comes the guitar. Mario serenaded us with some beautiful classical pieces and then thrust the guitar into my hands insisting that I play something. A folk-pop-guitarist, with no classical technique whatsoever Janet and performed a folk song of the period finger picking like Bob Dylan or Peter Yarrow. I thought it sounded pretty good. When we finished, there was silence. He looked at me and said, “You should be shot.”

This was Mario’s way of saying, ‘how could you waste your talent and not learn how to play properly. It was a classic Mario moment. We all laughed.’

In 1980 Janet and I started running a concert series at NYC Merkin Concert Hall called Debuts and Premieres. The premise of the series, sponsored by our newly formed foundation, was to debut upcoming classical guitarists and to premiere new works for the classical guitar. Mario loved to come to these concerts and because we didn’t want him driving at night, we used to pick him and Maria up at their home. We met some of the greatest guitarists and composers during this period.

One particular concert, he got the date wrong and thought it was a week earlier than it really was. Dressed in his suit and tie pacing back and forth for an hour, we never showed up. He was depressed for a week, but his Italian pride wouldn’t allow him to call me to ask what happened. On Friday the following week I called him to confirm that I would pick him up Saturday at 6 PM for dinner and the concert. Maria later told me about his sulking for a week and how his face lit up when he realized we hadn’t stood him up the week before. Of course he couldn’t confess that HE got the date wrong – again classic Mario.

On another occasion we were having a dinner party at our home with a handful of the great guitarists that either played or were going to play on our concert series. Ben Verdery was there, as was Elliot Fisk, Alice Artzt, Jorge Morel and of course I invited Mario. After dinner the guitars came out and we were treated to some great performances. Elliot, Jorge and Alice played first, and then the guitar was passed to Mario. At age 83 he just finished transcribing the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique for classical guitar. Written in Ab he transposed it up a half step to A for this transcription. Needless to say, there were a few clinkers in there but his tone was incomparable. Our mouths dropped. Out of respect, Ben refused to play after the master finished.

There is a wealth of information on Mario Maccaferri out there. I could write pages and pages of anecdotes and stories about him and our relationship. He was truly a master musician, a brilliant inventor, a talented luthier, a reed maker and plastic industry pioneer. To me he was a second father.

Jim D’Addario

11 comments:

  1. Such a cool story and a great mentor!

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  2. What a precious relationship. We need to keep in mind, who it is that we are influencing.

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  3. Wow. Got something in my eye all of a sudden...

    Keep the stories coming!

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  4. What a great story! And you must have learned something from Mario and your family, you do make great strings.

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  5. What a fabulous reminiscence!

    I've used D'Addario strings for over thirty years now, XL's back when I played steel string electrics, and EXP's now that I play nylon. I've experimented with just about every brand out there, but I always come back to D'Addario for one reason or another (That EXP coating really is miraculous for keeping the basses bright for a long time).

    Consider your blog bookmarked and cheers,

    George

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  6. Truely an apostolic story. Thanks so much for bringing that connection forward, as a history of American industry as well as a great musical tale.

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  7. Thanks for taking the time to share such wonderful memories. I am a devoted D'Addario string user (banjo) and it's lovely to get to know a bit about the family behind the product. Thanks again.

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  8. Great stories. Keep them coming. BTW I love my extra light EXPs.

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  9. Mr. D'Addarrio,you have shared.Some very intimate stories,of American(Italian)and the world Music history.That is enlighting and funny.That I will share with musicians and the people I perform for.An example of what it takes too be able to play our instuments well.And the dedication envolved in that process.By the way I,use your strings with exclusive pride.For over 15 of the 30 years of playing.On all my guitars.6-12 steel or nylon.And they hold up the best.I have not had one string break.And I play very hard most of the time.I have one guitar,I had your strings on it for 1-1/2 years.Playing at least 2-4 hrs per day.And that in itself,impressed and sold me on them.
    And for that I Thank all of you@ D'Addario.
    B-BLASS aka Patrick A. Middleton
    3-23-09

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  10. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Ruth

    http://pianonotes.info

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  11. Jim,

    Thank you for the post on my grandfather(Nonno). Really enjoyed it. Hope to run into you soon for more stories.

    Thanks
    Gene Reese

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