Sometimes, spheres collided.
It's no secret James Ellroy is an inspiration and influence of my own fiction writing.
Accordionist Dick Contino was someone my mom dug, back in the day.
When those two worlds collided, and I saw Dick was going to be appearing near the Mistake on the Lake here in my native Buckeye State, I headed north with my (cassette) recorder and Dick and I chatted for a good time before his concert that night.
In its original form, this Q&A appeared on a James Ellroy tribute site I ran back in the early days of the internet (a result of an attempt to teach myself html) called "James Ellroy's World."
Dick passed on April 19, 2017. In tribute to the man and his myth, this "lost" interview, re-presented here after many, many years off the web...
It’s been a long strange road to Dick Contino.
First there was James Ellroy, and his novella, Dick Contino’s Blues.
I read Ellroy’s intro — revised from an earlier GQ essay I had somehow missed — deeply dismayed to learn that Contino was a living historical personage (Ellroy once boasted, "When they die they are mine!").
Oddly intrigued by Contino, I hit a second-hand record store and bought three or four LPs.
My mom was of the right age to have been a possible first-wave Contino groupie. I asked if she had ever heard of this accordion virtuoso named "Dick Contino." Enthusing ensued.
There were more LP’s in her record cabinet in the basement.
I scrounged up a VHS copy of Daddy-O.
I vowed if I was ever in Vegas, I’d try to look the man up… at least catch a matinee.
Summer, 2002: Surfing the web, I found a teaser for a Christmas dinner show just outside Cleveland, Ohio: "An evening with Dick Contino and the Four Lads."
"Dangerous Dick" was headlining a little over a hundred miles from my home.
I secured my tickets and an interview...
Dec. 4, 2002: Carrie Cerino’s Ballroom is a posh dinner theater in North Royalton, a suburb of Cleveland. Cerino’s specializes in shows aimed at older audiences with (disposable) fixed incomes who are in search of good food, a little booze, and entertainers who loomed large in the LP age (at 40, I’ll eventually emerge as maybe the youngest male, paying-audience member; my wife will prove to probably be the youngest member of the audience, period).
We make the drive through road salt-glazed, snow-mound bounded roads.
We marvel at Carrie Cerino’s, wondering why we don’t have a place like this where we live. We find my contact.
We are led through a sprawling, serpentine kitchen to a meeting room with roll-away walls temporarily converted to the shared dressing "room" of Dick Contino and the Four Lads. (Actually, the Faux Lads — an elderly aficionado eventually will confide that only one of the no-longer Lads is an original member).
The "dressing room" is filled with empty tables and chairs.
There’s a rolling wardrobe stand, filled with matching tuxedos (The Faux Lads favor formal) and sleeveless shirts that don’t button above the navel and rhinestone-studded jackets (these are Contino’s togs).
I search the room for Dick Contino.
These sneakered-feet are projecting from behind a table littered with empty food containers, glasses and cups.
Dick Contino is flat on his back on the floor.
I put out my hand. Jet-lagged Dick Contino takes it and rises.
Quick impressions: A good tan (he still lives in Vegas). A careless white mop of snow white hair. Jeans. A close-fitting short-sleeved shirt. His left ear is pierced — a small gold loop earring.
He still has that wide white smile.
He also still has his famous biceps, which he’ll expose a few minutes into the show, pulling off his shirt to reveal a black tank top before huskily crooning charming and disarmingly ironic ballads about the ravages of time: "My love is just the same/As the day I changed your name," and, "Sometimes when I’m afraid/I think of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life."
His chiseled chin is intact.
He wears his shirt open (it’s maybe 25º in and around the Mistake on the Lake), exposing a thatch of unruly gray chest hair.
Introductions are made.
We grab some chairs.
I turn on the tape recorder; I pull out a couple of pages of prepared questions.
I’ll get to pose maybe one.
Dick Contino begins.
The questions go out the window: you don’t really interview Dick Contino — you prime the pump and sit back and let him tell you stories.
I had promised myself to steer clear of what Contino has come to call "The Army Beef."
Unbidden, Dick Contino starts there and heads elsewhere: philosophy, the music industry, the changing face of Vegas. Mobsters. The Rat Pack. Films. And author James Ellroy who, Dick confesses with real regret, has been out of touch with the accordion virtuoso for "maybe three years" to Dick Contino’s chagrin: It’s not the cessation of the Ellroy-penned novellas about the accordion sensation (which, Contino will confess, many around him, including his musically-inclined children, strongly disapproved of) but rather, the loss of connection: he counts Ellroy among his friends.
He enjoyed their conversations and book tours together.
Dick misses the Dog.
It’s just one of a number of eventual revelations.
Dick (born Richard Joseph Contino) speaks his mind and doesn’t self-censor at his own peril.
Dick ("by the Grace of God") will be 73 on January 17, 2003.
Maybe there are five Dick Continos. There’s that good-looking Italian kid who won the contest on the Horace Heidt show in the 1940s and unwittingly jumped aboard the Rocket to Stardom.
There’s the "Army Beef," tabloid punching bag that a generation of American men spent years ignorantly, stubbornly despising despite Contino’s eventual (lauded) military service and an unsolicited Presidential pardon from (Give ’Em Hell) Harry Truman.
There’s the cult B-movie star who swaggered through black and white films with hot busty blondes like Sandra Giles and Jayne Mansfield: A self-assured Italian guy with a shiny black pompadour, biceps-enhancing, fitted short-sleeved shirts and 1950s-style pants that anticipated 1990’s-era elderly-men and their tendency to embrace in-your-face, belt-buckle-closing-on-pecs, high-rise waistbands.
There’s the latter-day, post-Korea, tuxedo-clad Vegas-version Dick Contino who cropped up on variety shows and Jerry Lewis MDA telethons, living in Las Vegas, married to actress Leigh Snowden and raising a family (Snowden succumbed to cancer in 1982. Contino says of his late-wife: "I was married to her for 23 years and she gave me beautiful kids and grandkids").
More recently, there’s novelist James Ellroy’s, blood and thunder, noir take on Dick Contino.
Then there’s the apparent, REAL Dick Contino ("What’s the truth?" will gradually emerge as a kind of rhetorical, existential mantra of the man’s as the evening wears on).
The real Dick Contino doesn’t put music first, although he is a consummate professional and leaves the stage bathed in sweat and exhausted from full-throttle performing.
The real Dick Contino is in the 12th or so year of a long-term relationship with a woman less than half his age who makes and markets her own jewelry.
The real Dick Contino is a proud father and a deeply spiritual man.
He knows his audience.
He has a firm grip on his stature as a star. He still knows how to work a room, before, during and after a performance: firm handshakes for the men, kisses and hugs for the women who still swoon for him.
Women, old and young, are drawn to him. During a moment of his show, between songs, after wrapping a rendition of "When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New," Contino remarks upon his current relationship with a woman many years his junior. Sensing a backlash, Contino says, "Please don’t get offended ladies, I feel I’m with family, and we’re just talking." They bend to his will.
His sense of spiritualism runs deep and undepicted by James Ellroy — he claims to be constantly meditating and can discourse on theology with the breadth and width of an accordion-proficient Joseph Campbell.
He’s buried, beaten down, or won over his harshest critics: A dinner theatre full of perhaps 300 or more World War II and Korea War-era veterans never produced a single snide call of "Draft Dodger" and gave the man a standing ovation after a full-throttle, sweat-soaked, bare-armed blow-out the evening of Dec. 5, 2002.
I have three big revelations watching the REAL Dick Contino work the crowd through surprisingly affecting-accordion renditions of "Dixie" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic":
• REVELATION #1: James Ellroy was a genius for finding Dick Contino and moving him front and center as a literary character.
• REVELATION #2: James Ellroy screwed up letting Contino languish so long in literary limbo in recent years: They have no contract or written agreement — in theory, any writer can have at him, provided Dick consents.
• REVELATION #3: James Ellroy has in no way depicted the real Dick Contino. He never conveys the warmth and personability of the man. To be fair, such an accurate depiction of Dick Contino — portrait of a truly nice guy — wouldn't square with Ellroy's literary needs. The real Dick Contino never engaged in murder and mayhem with Oscar Levant...but he knew Sammy, Dean and Frank.
As we talk, various of the Faux Lads come and go, frustrated by my wife's presence in their desire to don their matching tuxedos. I mention to Contino that perhaps we've overstayed our welcome; he waves it away. He's the headliner: the Faux Lads just give the Blue Hairs and the Vets who have either forgiven or forgotten time to digest their chicken cordon bleu and steamed vegetables before the "Valentino of the Accordion" steps to the mic.
McDonald: You got your first accordion at the age of 7, but then, you’ve said, you "let it sit for a few years." What made you pick it back up?
Contino: I’ll be honest with you — I was pretty much a nerd in high school. I was pretty much off to myself, honest to God, Craig and Debbie, I had two dates. The first one, the girl asked me out — her name was Rita Hill. I asked Rita Hill for my second date, because I didn’t want to get rejected. I let the accordion sit, but then I learned I could say things with the accordion. I could express feelings. And that’s why I went back to it and begged my dad to give me lessons.
McDonald: Your father ran a butcher shop.
McDonald: Where’d he learn to play the accordion?
Contino: He was a natural musician. He played by ear. Just picked it up. He played guitar by ear. He sang. He came home with it (the accordion) when I was seven years old and said, "I want you to play it." I didn’t know what it was. Like I said, when I was 12 years old, I could say some things. Whatever I could feel, I could actually express through it. I’ve never thought of the accordion as something separate from myself. I don’t know, to be honest with you, how much I truly "love the accordion," per se, as it is an instrument through which I can say things. It’s an extension that way. That’s one of the things I’ve talked about with other accordion stars who have wanted advice. I always say, "Don’t play it like it’s something out here. Let it be an extension of what you have to say."
McDonald: I know you have several kids. Do they play?
Contino: Yeah, my oldest daughter sings and she was first runner-up in the Miss U.S.A. competition back in 1977. I have another daughter who sings. They are both beautiful girls. My son, Pete, he was my drummer for 15 years, then he went out on his own. He took up the drums so he could travel with me. Then he realized his great love was the accordion. He presently has a group that is working the Orleans in Las Vegas. He doesn’t do the things I do — he does his own thing. I can’t imagine a son having more love and respect for a father like he has for me. I’m very very proud and fortunate. But he wants to do his own thing: he plays a lot of Zydeco, blues and sings. So they all are musically inclined.
McDonald: You still live in Vegas yourself?
Contino: Oh yeah.
McDonald: Has it been better or worse having it move from kind of the "Rat Pack," Howard Hughes’ Vegas, to the Disney-style Vegas? You’ve been there through the whole transition.
Contino: Being a male animal, I liken show business and show business places to the female. Vegas, she’s very, very fickle. Very fickle. She very seldom falls in love. She likes to spend weekends with different people. Once you understand her, you let her do her own thing. I like her. Vegas has no culture, but she has this personality. It’s cool.
McDonald: Any culture they have, they bulldoze down.
Contino: She ain’t sentimental.
McDonald: They blow up the Flamingo — it’s gone.
Contino: GONE! Yeah, man. When they imploded the Dunes, the guy who has Treasure Island, with the pirate ship, simultaneously he had the pirate ship shoot the canyon in the direction of the Dunes. He was quoted as saying, "Bye-bye Dunes." And people were crying, "We love the Dunes," and everyone is like "Get out of here! There’s money to be made." The first time I played there was 1950 at the old original El Rancho. All the Wise Guys were out there, then. They were very personable and they liked me a lot. So I got into a heavy gambling thing (laughing). Back in those days, they didn’t check your bank account: if they liked you, they’d say, "What do you want?" And you’d say, "Give me five thousand (in chips)," and they’d say, "You got it." It was a lot of fun. I don’t like to be one of those who says, "Well, the past is where it is, or where it was." It was exciting, but today…I try to be more contemporary and go with what is happening now. And what is happening now is far different. I’m sure it has it’s own excitement. But just for a moment, back then, it was very different, definitely. The Rat Pack, of course, they were highly reputable. I knew all of them, fairly well. I didn’t hang, because I’m very sensitive to different things, still: Maybe the possibility of being rejected. Or problems. Like, Frank was very temperamental.
McDonald: He had that reputation of just kicking the hell out of you, if you crossed him.
Contino: Frank was powerful, quote/unquote, because he was so popular on the supper club scene back then. Just incredible. But also, because he had influence with some of the guys.
McDonald: Like Sam Giancana.
Contino: Giancana was his godfather. He used that. I knew Sammy (Davis) — kind of grew up with Sammy. Dean (Martin). Back in 1948 or ’49 I was playing the Capitol Theatre in New York. I had never been out of the state of California. At that time, I was hotstuff. I came out of the gate at 15-lengths. It was like a lottery ticket. I graduated high school in June of ’47. In December of ’47 — I call it, "the lines cross" — like wham! Like, when one little sperm makes the contact, out of millions. The "lines crossed." I was in the right place at the right time. On radio, or television, with an accordion, at that time, well, like that great poet once said, "There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come." So that was it. I don’t advocate competition, I truly don’t, although I got my start that way (on the Horace Heidt show). Because, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Everybody has their self-pride and it’s tough to think about that being destroyed because somebody says somebody else is the best.
McDonald: Then you didn’t get caught up in the whole American Idol frenzy, recently? That didn’t stir up any memories for you of your own competition on Heidt’s show?
Contino: No. I’m not a fan of all that. Although I did get my start on a contest, I got to know all the other contestants I went up against. I got to know them and I was just thrilled that I could be there. Really, I was locked into Fresno, California and my family. All of the sudden, I’m on this show and they heard me all over the country…Chicago, New York. And I thought, "That’s great." Then Heidt said, "Well, you’ve got to compete again next week." And I kept winning. Even a couple of times, when I thought I had lost, I was prepared to get back on the plane and just go back home and go on with my life in another way. I was never obsessed. But, the thing is, from the nerd in high school, for some reason, I realized that all of the sudden every teenager was going crazy because I had this accordion. They were screaming and carrying on. They wanted to tear you apart and I’m going, "Oh, geez." I had movie contracts. I was on RCA Victor, and Paramount Pictures asked Horace Heidt, "How about if he plays Rudolph Valentino?" And Heidt says, "He’s bigger than Valentino!"
McDonald: And cost you the role?
Contino: (Laughing) Yeah! But then, as life would have it, this passion, this sensitivity is what you are, but it’s a two-sided coin. With me, it was a lot of phobias and anxieties that I couldn’t cope with. I guess it was tough for people to realize it, because there’s a guy, making all that money, good-looking guy with all the girls going crazy, why would he want to go into the Army? It was during the Korean War, about 1950, and I got drafted. Swear to God. For years, people would say, "I don’t blame you for being a conscientious objector." I would say, "No, I’m not that." Others might say, "Boy, you’ve really got balls to stand up and tell the government where to go." I even had Greg Morris, formerly of Mission Impossible do that. When my daughter was competing for Miss U.S.A. and ended up being first runner-up. She lost by a quarter of a point to Miss Texas. Greg was a judge, and he told her he had to disqualify himself because, "I love your dad for what he did." She said, "What’s that?" He said, "He’s the first man to ever tell this country to go fuck itself." So I went up to him, and I said, "Greg, I love you for your feelings, but what’s this got to do with my daughter?" Because that wasn’t it, either. I wasn’t telling anybody to go jump in the lake.
McDonald: It wasn’t a political motive on your part.
Contino: It wasn’t political, it wasn’t religious. I was just a guy who needed to be understood. I was of an Italian upbringing, where if you said to your folks, "You know, I have this terrible anxiety of going to the top floor, or, I feel like I’m alone if I’m away from my family — I feel like I could cry, I feel panicky, like I’ve got to run to be back with my family," and with an Italian family, they say, "What, are you crazy?" It’s goes back to the first grade of school, long before the Horace Heidt Show. This was what I was all about. I tried to look for a reason to get a deferment. I had all kinds of phobias. I couldn’t stay in a place higher than the fourth floor. I was afraid of fires. I couldn’t wait for an elevator. I had to be near the stairs. I had to have access to the stairs to get to the ground floor. It was phobias, anxieties. Nervousness. Based on what, I don’t know. Because of that, because of not getting to the underlying reasons, the real reason (for the fear) I got shafted, big time.
McDonald: There was paperwork, wasn’t there, that should have secured your deferment?
Contino: Oh yeah. I was in Minneapolis, man, at the Nickolite Hotel, and I got my papers for induction. My folks were there and a guy named Leonard Rome, my manager at the time. I said, "I’ve got to see a psychiatrist." They said, "What’s wrong?" I said, "I’ve got to talk to someone." So they took me to a guy in Minnesota, the dean of psychiatrists in 1951. I told him about all of these fears I had had since I was a little boy. He said, "Son, you have what we call a severe case of neurosis." He said, "You’re not fit for duty." I started crying. I said, "You understand me?" All this torment, for 20 years. He said, "Yeah. You’re not fit for service. Let me compose this letter and you take it to the induction center." So I got back there, and here’s a kid trying to claim that he was afraid of the knife, because they had discovered a pilonidal cyst, and they said, no, he doesn’t want to have surgery because of that fear. Here’s a kid who claimed dependence, and when that wasn’t working, now he’s come up with the ace-in-the-hole (the psychiatrist’s letter), see what I mean? They called in three of their own psychiatrists. I could have cried: "I thought, I can talk. I can talk about it, and they’re listening. It’s all based on such truth, best as I can recall, since the first grade of school." When I got through, they composed a letter and said, "Take this to Fort Ord with you." I went there, but I had this apprehension. They started testing me for insanity there, for six or seven hours. My mother and father were outside. Finally, there was this guy, Major Duncan, the son of a bitch, who came in and said, "Let’s cut out the bullshit, Contino — you’re in the army." Well, I just fell on the floor, crying, in a panic. My dad picked me up off the floor. If that wasn’t humiliating. Then a strange thing happened, Craig. People with phobias will understand what I’m about to say. It seemed to me, maybe that’s what I needed. I felt good. I felt okay. I wanted to go back and thank this Maj. Duncan for saying, "You’re in the army, cut out the bullshit." My folks said, "Well, maybe you’ll see him tomorrow and you can thank him." Well, that night, it came over me like a fog comes into San Francisco, man.
Contino: That fear. They promised me I could stay in Fort Ord the whole time. They promised me I could stay in California, let alone go to Korea. It came over me and I had to run. I felt like a fugitive. I hadn’t even been sworn-in yet. I got very paranoid. I had a buddy of mine, a guy who's now dead, he helped me. He took me to the Greyhound station where I saw some M.P.s (military police). I was totally paranoid and told him, "They’re out to get me." I got on a bus to go to San Francisco to see my uncle and aunt. I got off on the highway and got to a phone to call my uncle to come pick me up and thought, "They’re out to get me." Long story — I’ll make it a little shorter. I got to L.A. and heard on the radio the F.B.I. had a warrant out for my arrest because I hadn’t reported (for service). Everything went wrong. Everything went so wrong. It was so sad the way it went wrong.
McDonald: Eventually you did serve in the military after…after….
Contino: After I did the time. I was lucky I got six months. I was lucky I got six months and a $10,000 fine. It was minimum security and it wasn’t tough. The only tough part, really, was I had never had incarceration. I had never been incarcerated. I was in a county jail at San Bruno, in a cell by myself. The strange thing about phobias like this — it’s a funny thing, man — when I was sent to McNeal Island, I felt like King Kong, man. I felt like I was on top of the world because I was able to be by myself. For some reason, when I got out and I came home, I got into the old environment, and something triggered it.
McDonald: That familiar environment?
Contino: Familiar environment. Family, mother and father, who knows? Something triggered it. Then they drafted me again. I almost took off the second time. A guy, a comedian, he called my folks, and said, "He’s going to do it again, he’s going to do it again." So they drove to San Francisco and said, "Don’t do it, don’t do it." Funny thing, I went in, and did my basic training. They wouldn’t let me practice the accordion. They wouldn’t let me touch the accordion. I was trained as a rifleman. They were having a big variety show, and I said, "Gee, can I get in the show?" The guy says, "What can you do?" I said, "I play the accordion." The guy says, "You play anything like Contino?" I said, "I am Contino." He says, "Oh wow!" Everyone was mad at him for using me.
McDonald: They weren’t giving you a break at all, were they?
Contino: Not a break, at all, man. I left there, and everyone seemed to like me. My commanding officer said, "I wish you had orders cut to go to Europe, but they’ve got orders cut for you to go to the Far East. I hope you can go over there and leave all the chickenshit back here. Well, I got on the Gordon to over there man, I go to Tokyo, and, honest to God, I thought, "This is probably what I need." I felt like I was independent, and this is what I always wanted to be. The thing with the Horace Heidt Show, the so-called "fame" seemed to be being done for everyone else…my family…everyone seemed to be happy for me, but I was very tormented. So I got to Tokyo, on the train, and somebody had an accordion I picked up and started playing, thinking man, "Here I am, man." I thought, "Maybe when I get to Seoul, Korea, they’ll put me in special services." But then this guy says, "Is your name Contino?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Your ass has had it." I’m wondering, "What the fuck am I supposed to do now — run across the ocean, or something? ‘My ass has had it….’" Well, I start partying, drinking and partying with all the guys, and the NCO guy, said "Dick, we’re having a party, will you play?" I’d say, "Yeah, get me an accordion and I’ll play."
Well, after about two weeks of that, this one Master Sergeant, he says, "Listen, you know who really runs this Army? The NCO. We like you, you know, we’re going to get you orders cut so you don’t have to go to a front-line outfit, but you’ll go to Special Services in Korea." I thought, "This guy’s kidding." That night out, in the yard, man, that guy’s calling out names, and he says, "Special Services, ‘Contino, Richard J.,’ I’m telling you…. So I get on the ship to go to Inchon, and a guy picks me up in a jeep, It was like M*A*S*H that Special Services — everyone is wearing their hats all screwy, their shirts open. But, here it is again, I get off the ship, I get in the jeep, and this Italian guy, from Chicago, he says, "I’m a big fan of yours." We’re about the same age. He says, "Whatever you do, don’t fuck up." I said, "I just got here, you know!" He says, "Don’t. They’re laying for you. You mess up one time, and you’re going to go to a front-line outfit." Well, I get to my outfit, and we’re doing shows, and there is still heat. So my commanding officer, Captain Conrad, says, "Contino, I like you" — everybody ‘liked’ me — he says, like Garrison’s Guerillas, "pick out six or seven guys, get a three-quarter ton and a jeep and get the hell out of here." He says, "I’ll cut orders for you, TDY anywhere in Korea — ‘Temporary Duty Anywhere in Korea'" — go to all the outfits and do shows. Just report, maybe once a month, just to let me know you’re still in Korea.
McDonald: Just so they would know you hadn’t snuck back to Fresno.
Contino: Yeah. So I went from, like, a private, to staff sergeant, because I was running the group. But, none of us wore stripes. We wanted everyone to think we were USO. While I was over there, I thought I had my phobias beaten forever. Thought they were gone. I’d wait for USO shows to come over and try to impress the girls. We’d get drunk all night and watch movies. They never made us get up early — we could sleep in until noon, because everyone thought we were USO. We’d just go to different outfits and battalions doing shows. We got shelled a couple of times. One time, as a matter of fact, I saved my outfit. I really truly did. One guy got a Purple Heart — he got hit, but not bad. I threw myself in front of a three-quarter ton, not because I wanted to be a hero, but because I was scared as hell and wanted him to stop. We were being shelled. He had taken a wrong turn. We all piled in. The guy who got the Purple Heart got wounded in the chin. The Million Dollar Wound. When I finally, left Korea, man, Stars and Stripes were instructed not to even mention it beyond this one line about Dick Contino returns home. So, I got home, and a year later, I met my wife. She was the one who kept saying, "Get on any show you can get on." Guys I knew like Dean (Martin), who I had met back in New York when he and Jerry (Lewis) had just gotten together, he had a show, but I had this stigma, and he got a little scared. Glen Campbell, he used to play guitar during my recording sessions, and he had a show and his manager was one of my friends, but he wouldn’t put me on. The only guy who had the balls was Ed Sullivan. He’d always introduce me as "Sgt. Richard Contino." He used me a lot.
McDonald: What do you attribute that to? Why’d Sullivan use you where others wouldn’t?
Contino: Sullivan was a hard-nosed Irishman, man, that nobody could tell what to do. I loved him. I loved Ed. He had a lot of character and he projected it. He took me to Russia with him. Even that hurt me. They even played that. (Laughing)
McDonald: They played you as some kind of Communist sympathizer?
Contino: The Russians picked out the delegation. They looked at about 50 shows and picked the artists, and this article comes out and says, "The Russians like Contino" and all this shit. It was really something. It was a great trip. I enjoyed it. It’s just been that kind of a thing. I tried to go on more shows. I learned a lot. Listen: Whatever I’ve done, I feel grateful for, good or bad. It’s all made me what I am today, and, what I am today, well, I feel good about myself. I find myself being every empathetic and very sympathetic about things and people. I have a great love for people. I thought I did before, but now, I really do. An understanding. At McNeal Island, I met different guys. I met one guy who committed a murder, robbing a train. We were digging a ditch together, on minimum security and I said, "You don’t seem like the type of guy who would kill somebody." He said, "Did you ever get to the point where you think you’re desperate enough to maybe rob a bank because your family is starving, but you don’t get to the edge, you don’t go over the top? Well, I went over the top." You learn things like that. Korea. Music is my love, but it is not my great great love.
McDonald: What is?
Contino: My great great love is metaphysics. I love the study of the metaphysical aspect of life. Even now. Every waking hour, I’m contemplating truths and meditating. Not in a position necessarily (laughing and gesturing at the floor where we found him when we came in).
McDonald: I was going to ask….
Contino: No, that isn’t one of my positions. No, I love it. I want to understand. That’s what life is. I’ve come to know that. Life is either extinction, or it’s a learning experience. I say metaphysics, because if you say "mysticism" people mistake it for a cult. I don’t belong to any organization. I’m a follower of one teacher who never has had an organization, but he’s a great teacher, who left books and tapes, like "Living the Infinite Way" — Joel S. Goldsmith. I wish I had met him. I was told by his daughter that, when I used to play on the Ed Sullivan show, he’d say, "Be quiet, I want to hear this guy play." Whatever he's saying, it's not organized and there's no criticism for any other religion. He says if Jesus Christ, or anybody, for instance, is telling you anything, don't believe it because he's saying it, believe it because it is what you know. The knowledge is already there, you just open it for the imprisoned splendor to escape, so to speak. I learned that, and, as a result of learning through the years, I learned other valuable lessons, too. Unless life is a learning experience, I would rather have extinction than the payoff being a heaven somewhere where you sit around listening to some angel playing music, or some fucking stream that is supposed to be so goddamn beautiful. Because you're only going to eat so much apple pie, man. Pick out your greatest love, and, after a while you go, "Holy Jesus — eternity?"
McDonald: Any view pales, in time?
Contino: There's the joke about the guy who went to hell, and he says, "It's not too bad, all these great musicians are here, you know." And they're playing a riff, and the guy says, "This is great, can I sit in?" and they say, "Yeah man, yeah, sit in." They're playing along and the guys asks, "Where's the coda?" and the other guy says, "There is none." It's that repetition, man. Unless it is a learning process, that learning and learning and learning to gain greater awareness...to me, that's the beauty and possibility of eternal life — that you keep learning and learning. That's why I love the Goldsmith teachings. What he's saying is that God, in manifestation, is what all things are. That's the only God there is. Theism is a God that creates something separate and apart from itself. Pantheism says that all things are God in their expression, but as you see them, but these things you see, they're born and they eventually die. Pure mysticism is a misconception of the reality that is there. Being a musician, the soul of music, the substance of music, isn’t discipline. As you contemplate the music, and you realize the principle — at least to a certain degree — it begins to take form in your mind. When this begins to take form — like, you’re taking notes, writing the words — that is a manifestation of your consciousness. The paper is your thing on the surface, but the truth that you know — that you are, the substance is never touched. That is reality. That is God. We’re brought up in theism, and I don’t mean this as criticism, but it is the problem, I think. Man will never love his brother as long as he sees colors. As long as you base it on what you’re seeing, hearing and tasting, There is a realm, I believe, beyond the senses. With that in mind, there is that very very strong possibility that that’s what life is — it’s untouched. And, with this, you are able to see how the mind works, too. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned. With all of the problems I used to have, years ago, I used to close my show with Joe South’s "Walk a mile in my shoes/Walk a mile in my shoes." Because no matter how much I would tell people what really happened, they’d say they know, but they didn’t know. So, Mac, it was one of the great lessons I learned, at great expense, but a great experience: I’d sing that song, every time, over and over, "Walk a mile in my shoes," before you accuse, criticize and abuse, "Walk a mile —"…then, WHAM! A revelation. So I stopped singing, and I said, "I got a revelation" and told the folks, I said, "Something came to me."
McDonald: You said this in the show?
Contino: Oh yeah. I stopped singing, I said, "I’ve got to tell you: I’ve been singing this song for a couple of years now, because I’m telling you to walk a mile in my shoes before you criticize me." I said, "I realized something. I’ve got to learn to walk a mile in your shoes so I can understand why you’re thinking this way." That was revelation number one. Revelation number two was, they’re looking at me, thinking, "Fuck you." (Laughing.)
McDonald: Never have an epiphany out loud.
Contino: Yeah! Sing the goddam song! It would always happen: great reaction, then someone yelling, "Draft Dodger!" So, one time, after the show, I walked down toward a guy who yelled that. I saw where the guy was, down toward the bar. I walked toward him. He thought I had a beef and said so. I said, "No, I don’t have a beef. I want to ask you something." I said, "You know, I went in the Army. I served six years in the reserve. I was discharged with a Presidential pardon as a staff sergeant. I did serve honorably." He said, "So what?" What a great realization. I realized then people have to have scapegoats and you’re it. I used to apologize, then I thought, "I don’t give a shit about all that. I went in the goddamn Army, I served honorably. What am I apologizing for? It’s all temporary. If I make some kind of a huge comeback, some kind of great hurrah, what the hell is it going to mean? It’s temporary anyway."
McDonald: So how many accordions do you have?
Contino: Just the one. They gave me a spare, but I gave it to my son, who also plays the accordion. Since I was 17, through the years, I’ve been in a position where I get ’em on consignment. They keep repairing ’em until they can’t be repaired.
McDonald: Through the years, you’ve gone through, what, hundreds?
Contino: (Smiling) Dozens. They just fix ’em up. As long as they’re solid, they’re fine. The one I have now retails for about $11,000.
McDonald: Now your music is on CDs . I don’t want to date you, but you started out recording on 78 rpms, right?
Contino: Yeah, the breakables, man. In 1948. I’ll be 73 next month (January, 2003).
McDonald: You’re in terrific shape. How do you do it?
Contino: I work out every day. Go to the gym and do weights, Stairmaster. My girlfriend is 40 years old, and I’ve known here since she was 28. I told her my age when we first met, and she said, "I love you and to be honest, that’s part of the attraction (age)." Maybe it was a maturity thing. Again, there is a kinship. If you’re supposed to stay together, you’ll be together. I love her. I’m happy. She satisfies me in every way, and I’m cool.
Contino: You know James Ellroy. Dog. I call him "Dog." Eccentric guy. Hard to get to know. A very great talent. He likes to howl like a dog, go out there in the yard and go at it. He didn’t finish high school, by the way, but he made it as a writer. You know the story. He’s a kid, and his mother is murdered. When he wrote the piece, Out of the Past, for GQ, he came back and said, "I want to write a piece about Dick Contino as a character and mix truth and fiction: can I get your approval?" I said, "Yeah." Ellroy said, "Do I have to send it to you for approval?" I said, "Dog, just turn on the burners," because I’m through with trying to make people understand. As a result, when Dick Contino’s Blues came out, John L. Smith, out of Vegas — nice guy, I love him — he had never written but two lines on me over the years, and he was a big huge Ellroy fan. The story came out, and he said, I have to have an interview with you. We met at this delicatessen. He said, "I don’t want to know what was truth and what was fiction. I don’t want to know, because he (Ellroy) put it together too beautifully."
McDonald: I read somewhere that you never signed any agreements with Ellroy. No contract. Why’d you do that?
Contino: I guess because it gave me satisfaction. I was also curious to take on the excitement. He was the first person to tell me, Dog said, "This could change a lot of things in your life." I said, "Think I should get a P.R. person?" He said, "No, fuck it," he says, "Dick, do me a favor: Let this thing live it’s own life." I liked that. He said, "Let’s sit back and don’t worry about it." We were very close for a while, and then something happened. I don’t know what. He wrote Hollywood Shakedown and got pretty bizarre with that. Did you read it?
McDonald: Sure. You and Oscar Levant were killing people.
Contino: Yeah, we were killing people (chuckling). I said, "Holy God, this guy’s got me doing everything." I didn’t mind that.
McDonald: What’s a murder or two between friends?
Contino: Yeah, yeah. The thing that I felt like, at the end of the story, well…after Dick Contino’s Blues and the first piece he did for GQ, he had me going on. I had the feeling in Hollywood Shakedown he wrote my epitaph. Like he’s sitting around in Vegas and doing time….He (Ellroy) is a good example of what interests me now and why I’m doing what I do. It thrills me to study and to try to understand human nature —more so than getting a standing ovation or whatever. I love trying to understand more deeply, because human nature interests me more deeply — what causes people to do what they do and act the way that they do — myself included — the fears. I have a feeling he was influenced, because, when Dick Contino’s Blues came out, it was the lead off story in his book of short stories, and in France and Germany, the book itself was called "Dick Contino’s Blues."
McDonald: Right. Different title in the U.S. — Hollywood Nocturnes.
Contino: Yeah, yeah. He’d send me money — he’d send me a couple of thousand for this or that. But when the publisher in New York picked it up, he was advised to call it "Hollywood Nocturnes." Know what I mean? I think it may have been a little like the case of Horace Heidt. See, Ellroy had never written about anybody living. It’s always been somebody fictitious or dead. I was the only person alive that he has ever written about, and I think maybe somebody cautioned him that I was getting too big. We did a tour in L.A., and every bookstore was packed. I’d bring the box and took my son along to play drums. Every bookstore was just packed. Even better, we’d get there, and I’d be in the audience and they wouldn’t know. James would get up there and read the first chapter of Dick Contino’s Blues, then he’d finish and say, "I want to introduce you to Dick Contino," and it was startling. On the other hand, like in Hollywood Shakedown, any girl he’d have me balling, he had to make sure they were dead.
McDonald: Joi Lansing….
Contino: Yeah, Joi Lansing. I think he originally wanted me to be with, man — but she’s still alive — was Julie London. He said, "Next book I write man, you’ll be balling Julie London."
McDonald: Every woman Ellroy wanted, but couldn’t have?
McDonald: Every woman Ellroy wanted, but couldn’t have?
Contino: Exactly. He used to rob girl’s houses to steal their panties…a real freaky guy. I just think somebody advised him it was getting too big.
McDonald: There was talk of a movie.
Contino: Yeah, they flew me in three or four times. The guy who had been doing Crime Story on TV, to this day, he still thinks they are going to do Dick Contino’s Blues.
McDonald: Do you have a preferred actor to play you?
Contino: Yeah. No. Let’s see. They mentioned John Travolta. They mentioned the Mexican guy who did the cop thing…what the hell is his name? A horrible actor….
McDonald: What was he in?
Contino: The motorcycle thing….
McDonald: Not Erik Estrada.
Contino: Yeah! Erik Estrada. So I said, "No, no, I can’t see Erik Estrada." But it didn’t get that far, either. It seemed like they were going to do it, but it didn’t happen. That could have been a real kick, because, on the book thing, Ellroy would read and then say, "Here he is." I’d get up there, and I wouldn’t try to be that character. He’d have a lot of Hollywood people at those readings, like actors, because they love Ellroy. It’s like a cult. People would say, "Are you this guy? Did you really do this or that?" He (Ellroy) made me promise I wouldn’t say what I did or didn’t do. The strangest part is, that he made it like it was very possible I could have said and done those things. Very much so. Maybe because he was so tuned in to me that he figured he knew what I would say if I had the chance to, or to act. So, rather than having me apologize all over the place for the Army thing, he just had me being a tough guy.
McDonald: How was he so in tune to you?
Contino: I don’t know. Maybe it was that kind of spiritual kinship type thing. But, something happened. I don’t know what…I don’t know what. I don’t like to force things. It seemed like he was drifting.
McDonald: When was the last time you talked to him?
Contino: At least three years. Yeah, yeah.
McDonald: He’ll pop up?
Contino: I hope so, you know? Because I think he’s a great talent. There was something about Ellroy…I liked him. Fun to be around. The guy shoots espressos like they’re candy. And he talks so openly. He could be in front of the Pope and he’d say, "I don’t give a fuck, man." He’s got this way of delivery and I’d go, "Yeah Dog, yeah." When we’d hang out.
McDonald: Have you noticed a blending of your audience — those who come to you through the books mixed with your musical fans?
Contino: Yeah. I get a few younger people in who know me through Ellroy and have read the pieces.
McDonald: Let’s take a fan who has been with you since the 1950s or 1960s…would you steer them toward the Ellroy novellas?
Contino: I’ve had my own family, like my brother Pete, who said, "I don’t like what he did." But I don’t care. I said, "Look, I’ve spent too many years trying to tell people what I thought." My first question is, "What is truth? What is truth?" I’ve been trying to tell people…back in the Army Beef, my mother and father used to invite the press over for Italian food dinners and say, "Look, you should understand our son, he’s not that kind of a boy and ba-ba-ba-ba-bah." And they’d still write what they wanted to write. Or, you tell somebody something and then you’d read it and you’d say, No, I didn’t say that." So, when Ellroy said, "Can I do it?" I said, "Turn on the burners." I said, "I don’t even want to look at it for approval, because, whatever you say is cool, because I am invincible, man. After a while, you build up this wonderful sincere sense of invincibility, you know. I gave ’em all this chance to shoot me down, and maybe I’m not setting the world on fire, but I’m still burning a little flame here. They haven’t killed it. So, write whatever you want to write, Dog. Like, even with Hollywood Shakedown, I didn’t even look at that until it came out. They called me from GQ and said, "Whoa, he’s got you doing some pretty wild things. And I said, "I don’t care."
McDonald: Weren’t you surprised they didn’t try to get you to sign off on things earlier?
Contino: What with Dog — Ellroy? I think they didn’t realize at the time — same thing as with Horace Heidt — that certain thing. See, with Horace Heidt, he had my name up on billboards when I was 18 or 19: "Horace Heidt Show, featuring Dick Contino." But I think I got too big for him. According to his P.R. person, the guy who, by the way, was responsible for getting me Daddy-O, said, "Heidt’s been holding meetings and saying we have to get your name off the billboards, because you’re getting too big." I think maybe in calling it Hollywood Nocturnes in this country in lieu of Dick Contino’s Blues, and maybe his wife, or someone, was justifiably trying to protect him. But, something happened, because, when we were touring with Dick Contino’s Blues, he would tell interviewers or whomever, "I think there will never be a year when I’m not writing something about Dick Contino." Something happened, and, rather than trying to seek him out, if we’re in kinship, so to speak, then basically, whatever temporarily derailed us, we’ll cross again. Not that I want another book. I think he’s a great guy and a great talent and I don’t care one way or another. It’s a nice place to be. A nice place to be. You’re not obsessed. Ellroy was fascinated — fascinated by and wrote about Daddy-O, which they gave me a thousand or so dollars for. I’d have given them a thousand dollars to play the part, because it was a Class-B movie. Now it’s a cult thing.
McDonald: Okay, legend time: They say you actually drove the car during the famous jump scene….
Contino: No, no.
McDonald: That’s apocryphal?
Contino: I just drove up to the ramp and stopped: "Okay (to the stuntman): You get in…" Then they show me driving away. I did my own stunt driving otherwise, through Laurel Canyon. I did my own driving, but I didn’t do that jump. You know, I saw what’s her name, man, Sandra Giles, just recently!
McDonald: She was hot.
Contino: Yeah, she was pretty hot stuff. It was wild, man. You know, see, Elmer Rhoden was her man — the guy who produced the movie. So Howard, okay, I’ll tell you the truth now, man, because I don’t care what anybody does — if they want to date chickens, dogs, goats, or whatever, it’s not any of my business — I let life live itself. Howard was gay, and he had this boyfriend he wanted to get into the movie. In order to get his boyfriend into the movie, he had promised he could deliver Dick Contino to play "Daddy-O." So he said, "I’ll give you a thousand dollars to show up and be Daddy-O" and I said, "Okaaaay…." So, one day I’d show up and felt like John Garfield — you know, my heroes back then — another day like Alan Ladd, or George Raft. Never felt more like singing in my life. To this day, you can rent Daddy-O in some video stores. It’s like a cult film. In Australia, they’ve had three or four editions of Dick Contino’s Blues. So, I’ve never pushed too hard. Even my girlfriend, Tonia, said, "You should have gotten a P.R. person," and I say, "Naw, I’ve got to go with my promise to Dog and his advice to let life live itself," because I don’t give a shit, because I’m a firm believer too, that you’ve got to be careful what you pray for because you just might get it. I’ve seen too many things where people are desperate to get certain things and, well, talking of Vegas, a girl won $13 million on the Megabucks and now she’s crippled for life. Paralyzed from the neck down. She split the money with her boyfriend and as a result of the money bought a new car, wrecked the car, and, as a result of the money, her life went in another direction. I just enjoy life. If it comes my way, I love it. If it doesn’t, that’s cool too.
© Craig McDonald, Dec. 4, 2002