No regrets: a guitarist looks back on life and music
Frances Beatrice Piccirilli’s collection of dolls and other knick-knacks are safely arrayed on shelves and they greet you at eye level when you enter her home. Nat Piccirilli’s guitars are in danger of someone walking into them, not because he’s careless but because there seems to be one in every room in the house.
“I have ten guitars, three banjos, a mandolin and three violins,” said Nazareth Piccirilli, the 92-year-old musician who has been making money with his music since he was a teenager. “When I was 16, I was on the radio [the former WEAN in Providence] and the host said, ‘Nazareth? What kind of name is Nazareth for a musician? You’ve got to change that.’ Then he suggested I use ‘Nat’ and it has been Nat ever since.”
Actually, Nazareth Piccirilli started playing violin at the age of seven and picked up the guitar in his early teens. He says it was because he fell in love with it but, as a kid growing up in the 1930s, it was probably because the guitar leant itself to jazz more readily than the violin.
“One of my heroes was Django Reinhardt,” he explained. “He just blew my mind. It was amazing what he could do with his guitar. Charlie Christian was another big influence. And Tony Mottola.”
However as much he loved his music, it was the Great Depression after all and even the youngest kids had to chip in to help the family. Nat went to work with his father in the cement business and relegated music to a sideline. When World War II reared its ugly self, he was a natural for the Seabees, the engineering and construction arm of the United States Navy, and a less convivial spell building a military infrastructure in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska.
“It was a dismal, cold place,” said Piccirilli, “where it rained and snowed sideways.”
But Piccirilli made the most of it and also learned that being able to make music and entertain people was a very valuable skill in such a forlorn landscape.
“It meant that you got things that wouldn’t be available to everyone,” he said. “Like whiskey. You have no idea how expensive whisky was. A bottle cost $50 and, in those days $50 was a lot of money…I got to use a darkroom, where I put together photographic Valentines, with hearts on them, to send to Frances. We still have one that I was looking at the other day.”
As the war progressed, the Seabees worked their way across the Pacific, building airfields and hospitals as the allies slowly closed around the Japanese homeland.
“We built a 3,200-bed hospital on Guam and we returned 3,200 men to their units,” he said, with understandable pride. “We were working on Okinawa and islands, getting ready for the invasion of Japan when Harry Truman dropped the A-bombs. People have no idea how many lives were saved by that.”
Being a musician also meant that Piccirilli got to play with the USO shows as they island-hopped across the Pacific. Each military base had a core of servicemen who could form a band to back the likes of Bob Hope and his tour mates.
“Bob Hope was a nice guy and he was always cracking jokes with the men, whatever he was doing.”
After the war, Piccirilli was back in Rhode Island, reunited and then married his beloved Frances. They both knew that was inevitable, if he returned from the war.
“Our parents thought it was wiser to wait until he got home before we married,” said Frances.
“If I got home,” interjected Piccirilli. “There was no way of knowing whether I would.”
After a brief stint with his father’s cement business, Piccirilli applied to be a letter carrier for the Postal Service. He liked the work and it gave him time to play and teach music, until he retired at the age of 52 to devote as much time to music as he wanted. He came to forge some musical connections that got him gigs all over the country. He was a sideman for a number of people not necessarily famous for music, like Jack Lemmon and Robert Montgomery [father of Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame]. He has played for George H.W. Bush in his Kennebunkport home and for the Walker branch of the Bush family in Connecticut.
In between, Piccirilli took up winemaking:
“I make about 100 gallons of wine a year...I was on my way to a gig and wearing a tux when I dropped in on a wine competition in Sakonnet and found out I won first place.”
“I have a 15 by 30 foot plot in the yard…I plant garlic in November…I hang a bag of tomatoes on my doorknob so my neighbors can take some.”
“I play golf three times a week…I had a handicap of 11.”
Piccirilli continues to be a valued sideman and soloist for Lloyd Kaplan and the Aristocats and plays as often as he can. He likes the interaction with the audience and has designed a guitar with a built-in amplifier and speaker being marketed by the makers of the Pignose portable amplifier that allows him to be heard by everyone as he roams around a room [There have been other similar designs in the past, most notably the Kay “Busker” in the 1980s but they weren’t much better than toys and can’t match Piccirilli’s for power and clarity].
During all of that, the Piccirillis managed to raise three kids; the twins, Robert and Ralph [Ralph suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 58] and Michael, who is a former guitarist for the Guy Lombardo Orchestra and the only son to be a professional musician, among other things, like teaching and politics.
For all the nostalgia a conversation with Nat Piccirilli induces, he is not an overly sentimental man. Frances certainly has adjusted to his love affair with the guitar and credits the instrument for its therapeutic value, even if it does send her husband of 66 years into another world.
“If I do come back in another life, I’d like to come back as a guitar,” she said, somewhat wistfully.
As for Nat Piccirilli, he remains a more worldly personality than his wife and the “hep cat” from the swing era still maintains his aura of cool.
“You have to face facts,” he said. “I’m 92 years old. This is the end of life…but I’m not complaining. I’ve had a good life. I have no regrets.”