Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


FRIGO, Johnny

(b 1917, Chicago; d 4 July 2007) Bassist, violinist, singer and songwriter whose skill and encyclopedic knowledge of songs made him a legend in the jazz world. He took up the violin at the suggestion of the local junkman, whose son taught the instrument for 25 cents a lesson. His junior high school orchestra had plenty of violinists, so he switched to tuba, then string bass so he could attract girls by playing in dance bands. As soon as he finished high school he landed work in local clubs, where he also sang.
He played with the big bands, served in the Coast Guard during WW II, and was then playing in Jimmy Dorsey's band when he and guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Lou Carter all left at once in 1947 to form Soft Winds, a trio that played and sang hip harmony, arranging their own songs, such as 'I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out' (covered by Woody Herman) and 'Detour Ahead'.

Ellis joined Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown in 1953, one of the greatest jazz piano trios of all time (see Ellis's entry). Lou Carter later became Lou the Taxi Driver and was a frequent guest on Perry Como's TV show, singing sentimental songs and gentle novelties, then formed a jingle company. Frigo returned to Chicago and became a specialist in music for radio and TV commercials. He could improvise, he could write original material and he could read anything, and had no trouble finding work.

One of Frigo's best known tunes was 'Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel', written for the Chicago Cubs in 1969 (before they collapsed). Then in the 1980s, when he was approaching 70, he switched from the bass back to the violin, which he had never stopped practicing. 'I started to realize that I wouldn't be able to compete much longer with these kids coming up playing electric bass who knew every lick from every bass player,' he said in an interview. 'I thought, with all this knowledge I have on violin, why not pursue that?' There have never been many jazz violinists, and Frigo had a more beautiful sound than most. He often played at the Green Mill, one of Chicago's favorite jazz clubs, where owner Dave Jemilo said Frigo was like a human jukebox. 'An old guy would call out, "Play Hungarian Waltz No. 5," and he'd do it,' Jemilo said. 'How many guys can do that?' And his technique was such that jazz and classical musicians would come to a club just to hear him play.
Frigo made an album on Mercury in 1957, then Debut Of A Legend on Chesky in 1994, with Gene Bertoncini and Michael Moore. He also gigged with a rock band, Enuff Z'nuff, with his son Derek on lead guitar: Derek Frigo (b 1968, d 28 May 2004 in California) left that band around 1993 and later lost his battle with substance abuse. Johnny Frigo was planning to play festivals in Italy and Holland at age 90, but he fell in the lobby of his condo, went to the hospital with fractured vertebrae and a broken pelvis and never recovered.