Remembering Delaware’s Al Santoro

Saxophonist played more than 2,500 weddings and one famous funeral.

DT: Would you mind sharing a little background?
AS: I was born in Wilmington at 304 N. Union St. across from the old Park movie theater. Of course, back then you didn’t go to hospitals. There was a lady who delivered me at 10 pounds, 7 ounces. My mother said her eyes almost popped out when she had me. That was in 1935. Then I moved to Third Street, between Lincoln and Scott. I lived there until I was 21. I played Wildwood [N.J.] and different places for a couple of summers back in the ’50s. I played with Doc Starkes & his Nite Riders. They had that song (he sings), “Sweet apple cider … turn golden brown.” My band played alongside their band. And I’ve played with a bunch of other people.

DT: When did you become interested in music?
AS: In 1943, I was 8 years old. A guy who was a couple years older than me, when I lived on Third Street, he said, “Why don’t you come up to St. Anthony’s [of Padua Church]. We’re starting a band.” My mother said, “OK.” So I walked up to St. Anthony’s. The old Italian professor said, “What do you want to play?” I said, “I want to play either trumpet or drums.” And he looked at my teeth—he spoke broken English—and said, “Teeth are good. You play clarinet.” Well, I didn’t want to play clarinet. I went home and cried, “They want me to play clarinet.” Anyway, I took a few lessons from this guy. He smoked Italian stogies. (He laughs.) Once in a while, he would take the clarinet and say, “Let me show you how it’s done.” And then he’d hand me back the clarinet [which tasted of the stogie]. I said, “This isn’t for me.” To make a long story short, he ran off with the money the band had and went back to Italy. I stayed in the St. Anthony’s band, and the first job when we made money was on Good Friday. We used to play the processions in Little Italy. We got a dollar. You know, a dollar back then—you could go to the movies 10 times. I took lessons for eight years and then I switched to saxophone. My cousin got back from the Second World War about 1945, and I switched over to him. He was an excellent teacher, who also taught music theory. I started a band in Wilmington in 1951, and I’ve had a band ever since.

DT: Sounds like you were pretty popular.
AS: I’ve played many, many weddings and dances, formals, class reunions and proms. I remember playing the William Penn prom and any number of the schools back in the ’50s. And I still have a band, and we’re still playing. I’m not getting calls for weddings too much anymore. I know I did well over 2,500 weddings in my life. I was playing two or three weddings a week from the 1950s into the ’90s. I play sax, and I sing. I have three other guys in the band. Two of the guys have been with me since the ’70s. The guitar player, John Kay, he was with Bill Haley and he came with me in 1972. Stan [Kay], from Chester, Pa., he’s the drummer. He came with me in 1974. And these guys are retired now. And the newest guy, Frank Dobson, was with me for the last 16 years. I can’t get rid of them. 

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DT: So Frank’s the rookie. Does that mean he has to carry everybody’s equipment?
AS: (He laughs.) No. No. We all pitch in and do that.

DT: How frequently do you play these days?
AS: At least, once a week. Last week, I played Friday and Saturday night. I usually play once a year at the Taj, usually on Columbus Day since, you know, my name is “Santoro.” I used to play all up the East Coast when I was doing it for a living. I was in the 287th Army Band for 12 years. I play at the Hunter’s Den the first Friday of the month. Last Saturday, I played at the Ocean View VFW Post. I’ve played just about every place in Delaware, I think. I was playing in Wilmington at places like Carpenter’s Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the Cadillac place. There are four or five places that are not halls for those kinds of affairs anymore. I played Fournier Hall and the Italian Festival. In 1974, John DelGrasso took it over, and he called me on a Monday and said, “How would like to play the Italian Festival?” It was not big then. It was just a carnival. And I said, “When?” He said, “This afternoon.” I called the guys and they said, “OK.” And they weren’t even Catholic or Italians or anything. We did it for a couple years for nothing, and then John said, “Hey, you gotta start charging.” So I played there from 1974 into the 1990s. It was a good 20 years. I played a lot of carnivals over the years—St. John the Beloved, St. Catherine of Sienna. I just can’t name all of them. When you’re in a small place like Wilmington, people know you for just being available and playing music. I’ve played a lot of parties. Christmas parties. I played DuPont Country Club dances for many years, from the ’50s. Hercules Country Club. I played a lot of country clubs. I play dance classes once in a while. We’ll play ballroom stuff. We do a rumba, a tango, a cha cha, a merengue, a waltz, a polka. They take lessons, and that’s what they want. We’re a commercial band. I don’t play any original stuff. We’ll do “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller for an old crowd. They get up and dance right away. Other than that, we’re just a local-yokel band. Not to be egotistical, but no matter where I go, I get people coming up to me saying, “You played my wedding.” I’ll say, “When were you married?” “1964.” I’ll say, “Oh, yeah.” I’ll usually say, “Are you still married?” Or I’ll ask them if they remember their first song that we played for them.

DT: Are you famous?
AS: Am I famous? (He laughs.) I’m a legend in my own mind.

DT: You seem to know everybody.
AS: I’ve been around a long time. I know all the politicians. Joe Biden is a good friend of mine, although I’m not a Democrat. Joe’s a good guy. I was down in New Orleans last year with a good friend. A guy named Frank Wickes, who was the head of the LSU music program for over 30 years. He and I were in the 287th Army Band together, so he’s still a good friend of mine. Once a year, I would go down there and go to a game—LSU or Auburn, one of those games. And then, we’d go down to New Orleans. We were having a buffet, and I got a phone call. And Frank says, “Who’s that?” And I said, “It’s Joe Biden.” And he said, “Are you serious?” Joe was at Andrew’s Air Force Base, and he was waiting for a plane to go to the Middle East. He said, “I understand you were sick, Al.” And I said, “I wasn’t feeling good, but I’m fine.” So we talked for about 15 minutes—he likes to talk—and when I got off the phone, Frank said, “Can I have your autograph?” (He laughs.) When Joe’s father died, Joe called me. He said, “Al, this is Joe. My father died this morning. He’s got a request for you to play at the grave.” Just me on the sax. I said, “You’re kidding.” He said, “No.” And he names six songs. If you’re in this business as long as I’ve been in it, you know the songs. “I’ll be Seeing You,” “Stardust,” “Body and Soul”—you know, these are the old tunes. I said, “It would be an honor for me to play.” So I did. Joe never forgot that. He sent me a nice letter. He said, “I want to invite you and anyone else you want to bring down to Washington. I want to take you to the Senate Dining Room for lunch and take you for a tour around Washington.” He was very appreciative.

DT: Do you know a lot of politicians?
AS: I know people like that because you play places, and they’re there. And they always want to get up on the stage—“Here I am”—the politicians. I’ve played inaugurations. I played Johnson’s, Kennedy’s and Eisenhower’s inaugurals when I was in the 287th Army Band. That was pretty interesting—to march by these people. In fact, the week before Kennedy died, he came into Delaware. The 287th Army Band was there. Kennedy was standing right next to me. Another time, we played the dedication of the Summit Bridge on 896.

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DT: Have you made a living playing music your entire life?
AS: Yes. It’s funny because I used to take my blood pressure before I went out to play, and it would be high. And then, I would go out and play music, take my blood pressure and it was normal. I don’t do too many weddings now. They don’t want the old men up there. We do everything but rap. We tried to do rap back in ’86 when Run DMC had their first big hit. So we learned it, and we were playing up at the Hideaway up off of Ebright Road off of Naamans Road. My wife, who passed away since, was there. And I came off the bandstand and said, “How does the band sound?” And she said, “Well, it sounds OK. But what was that last song you played?” And I said, “That’s rap.” She said, “Forget it.” So we never did it after that.

DT: So, despite the rap failure, you guys are pretty versatile?
AS: I don’t want to sound egotistical, but we can do everything from the Charleston to Led Zeppelin, Glenn Miller, Steve Miller … Barney Miller. We can do the Big Band stuff, ’50s, ’60s, the Stones, The Beatles.

DT: Do you ever get tired of performing the same songs?
AS: It revitalizes me. A lot of times, yeah, you don’t want to go out and play. It’s just like a job. But once I get out there and get on the stage and make a fool out of myself, I get all pumped up again. Right now, I’m playing in a couple big jazz bands, like five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones, a girl singer. The Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller-type music. People call me. I just had a call from a lady down in Greenwood. I’ve never played down there before. She booked me because her friend heard the band last Saturday night and said, “You’ve got to get these guys.” I don’t do too much advertising anymore. It’s word-of-mouth. And that’s enough. I’m 79 years old. I would have been 80, but I was sick a year. (He laughs.)

DT: Have you ever taught lessons?
AS: I used to teach at one time—sax and clarinet and flute. I quit doing that because I could tell right away when a kid hadn’t practiced. I said, “The heck with it. I’m not going to teach anymore.”

DT: You should have puffed on a cigar, played their instrument, and then given it back to them.
AS: (He laughs.) That professor … that was terrible. I’ll never forget that.

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DT: You have some great stories.
AS: I’ve got some wedding stories that will knock your socks off.

DT: Anything you can repeat here?
AS: Here’s one: They’re going to cut the cake, and it was on one of these long 8-foot tables with the legs that fold underneath. And they’re ready to cut it and we’re playing a little ditty. And they start cutting it without touching the cake yet, and one of the table’s legs starts to fold under. [He laughs.] They followed it down to the ground. I swear. I wish I had a camera. It was so funny because they were both holding the knife and going down with the cake. Another time, the bride and groom were cutting the cake, and one of them said, “Hey, look, don’t smash it in my face.” Sure enough, when they went to take a bite, one of them smashed a slice in the other’s face. So the other one smashed the cake in the other’s face and then they started fighting. I mean, they were actually fighting. Unbelievable. When you do a couple thousand weddings, you’re going to have stories like that. I was playing a wedding one time, and the bride was dancing with her grandmother. And right in front of me, the grandmother drops dead. Now, what do you do? We stopped playing the music. Didn’t say a word. Of course, the bride is crying, everybody comes over. I told the guys, “Pack up.” We packed up, took everything out and left. I didn’t know what to do.

DT: I guess there wasn’t a certain song that fit that occasion?
AS: (He laughs.) I couldn’t think of any.

DT: That just sounds like something that would only happen in the movies.
AS: In over 60 years, it happened twice. I was playing a singles dance every Sunday at what used to be the Holiday Inn on 273 and 95. I’m playing, and a guy comes around with this gal and he dropped dead. The ambulance came. I go outside to the ambulance, and the guy’s deader than a doornail. I come back in and said, “Ladies and gentlemen—he’s doing fine.” And I continued to play. I lied.

DT: So everybody stayed and had a good time? 
AS: Yeah. I guess they did. I’ve done 10,000 dinner dances. I played a divorce party. I only played one. And I forgot to ask them one thing: Who paid for it? The man probably did. It was a great party. They were both there with their friends. In 50-some years, that’s the only time someone asked me to play a divorce party. I have played for the children of the bride and groom whose wedding I played—probably at least 25-35 times.

DT: Vendemmia is one of your big events these days, right?
AS: I’m the musical director, whatever you want to call me. I line up the music. Of course, I bring my horn and sometimes part of my band comes. It’s all volunteer, by the way. I don’t pay anybody—including myself—which is fine. I do things like that. In fact, I’ve got something coming up at the Cavaliers Country Club. It’s a gratis thing to raise money for cancer. I usually do four or five of those [free concerts] a year.  You’ve got to be careful about that, and the reason why is if I were to do it for everybody that calls me, I wouldn’t have time to make any money. I try to help when I can.

DT: Did you ever have other opportunities?
AS: I had an offer to play in a Big Band. It was Elliot Lawrence and His Orchestra. They were nationally known. I didn’t go because I had my own little band. I’m happy here. I could have moved to a couple places on a job I was offered. I worked for a company in New Jersey for eight years, and the president said, “You’re going to have to move up here, Al,” because I was on the road a lot then. I was the national sales manager. He wanted me to move to north Jersey. I said no. There was too much traffic for me. People in Wilmington did not know what traffic was until you get up to north Jersey. So I never moved from Wilmington.

DT: Did you ever play alongside anybody famous?
AS: Like I say, Doc Starkes & his Nite Riders. I played alongside any number of bands. Once, I was playing at the Raymond Hotel in Wildwood. I walked in to see what the place was like, and this guy had a trumpet in his hand, and he had a raspy voice when he sang. He was with this gal, who was just sitting there on a stool. Her haircut was across the forehead and then straight down. It was Louis Prima and Keely Smith. They were phenomenal. The musicians were phenomenal. The trombone player was fantastic. The sax player, who I met again about 10 years ago, was very good. He gave me his autograph. For two months, I played alongside a group called the Day Brothers out of Philadelphia. They were very popular. They drew a big crowd down at Moores Inlet down in Wildwood. I played a lot of places.

 

DT: You recently received the Delaware All State Theatre Legacy Award for your work through the years.

AS: That was a very nice award and I was very appreciative of it. 

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