Charles Magnante

Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

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Charles Magnante was one of the most important accordion players in music history. If for nothing else, he would be honored for having first started the Magnante Quartet, the world's first "serious" accordion…
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Artist Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

Charles Magnante was one of the most important accordion players in music history. If for nothing else, he would be honored for having first started the Magnante Quartet, the world's first "serious" accordion ensemble along the lines of a chamber quartet. This extremely successful ensemble accomplished much in its career, but will be remembered forever by accordion lovers simply for setting foot on-stage at Carnegie Hall. It wasn't Magnante's feet that was important, it was his accordion, as this 1939 spring event was the first time the instrument had been played on the stage of this all-important venue. Lovers of the kazoo, the psaltry, the vina, or the amplified ringer-washer can all either dote on or look forward to their instrument's Carnegie Hall debut, but for Magnante it was particularly significant. The serious classical world's prejudice against the accordion and its traditional musical backgrounds represented one of the great obstacles Magnante had to overcome during his career. Thrice elected president of the American Accordion Association, it was Magnante among others who helped change the accordion's image from a corny instrument reeking of garlic to the serious axe associated with the works of composer Astor Piazzola, for example.

Magnante's musical beginnings were about as typical of the squeeze-box stereotype as one could get, including plenty of performances of "O Sole Mio" in Italian trattorias. His stage debut came somewhere around the age of five when he was observed singing along with his father, an amateur accordion player who performed at many Italian weddings. From about the age of seven the youngster began sneaking his father's accordion from the closet and teaching himself. This might have angered dad, but led to a career where the typical work week might include some 31 radio broadcasts and eight record dates. The Magnante Quartet originated in the mid-'30s as an entertainment vehicle on a program which was hardly rich with cultural implications, the Lucky Strike Hit Parade show. The leader had a revelation of sorts while promoting cigarettes, deciding to form an accordion ensemble that by its sheer presence would force an increase in the amount of respect and the quality of music being offered the accordion. He chose Joe Biviano, Gene von Halsberg, and Abe Goldman as the other members, basically because these were his favorite players on the instrument besides himself. The Magnante Quartet recorded for Columbia and appeared on programs such as Major Bowes Capitol Family and Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight.

In the '40s, Magnante continued moving his instrument into new territory. He became associated with players such as guitarist Tony Mottola on guitar and organist George Wright, all members of the CBS musical staff. He also played many studio sessions on the side, and there's a good chance that an accordion run on any pop record from this decade or the '50s is Magnante, if not one of his quartet mates. While Mottola was later associated with easy listening albums, the early recordings of his crowd were more along the lines of hi-fi experimentation, exotica, and the classy weirdness that is known as space age pop. Magnante was a favorite of the latter genre's guru Enoch Light, appearing on more Light music than any other instrumentalist. Magnante also created instructional books and arrangements of popular and classical tunes for the accordion, resulting in quite a few accepted standard arrangements for the instrument. His best known composition is the solo "Accordiana" which he claims was composed in 20 minutes. Some of these arrangements and titles were part of his own career as a leader on labels such as Grand Award and Command. Outside music, Magnante's main hobby was big-game hunting. His prize trophy was the hunting equivalent of Carnegie Hall, a 1,000 pound grizzly bear; which unlike a classical music fan is a form of life that can't be vanquished with an accordion arpeggio.