Tribute band toots its horns for Johnny Murphy Orchestra
When the 20-piece Murphy's Music Center Tribute Band takes the stage Sunday at the Festa Italiana in Vandergrift, audience members will hear the big-band tunes their parents or grandparents danced to in the 1940s.
Toes will tap as imaginations transport fans to the Argonne Ballroom in Chicago, swinging and swaying to “Satin Doll” or “Moonlight Serenade.”
While the Murphy Music Center Tribute Band has roots in the past, the band has plans for the future.
Bob Wills, the band's director, played with the original Johnny Murphy Orchestra. The “Tribute” part of the name is to pay homage to Johnny Murphy's Orchestra and big-band music, and to preserve their music. Wills wants to train young musicians to read and play the old-style big-band music for which the Murphys were known.
The Johnny Murphy Orchestra began as a group of neighborhood musicians getting together after work to play the tunes of the day and the folk songs of their Italian heritage. Morfeo Colecchi of Vandergrift Heights was the leader. The band played in bars and clubs.
According to Jim Caporali, Morfeo's grandson, a U.S. Steel executive heard the musicians and was impressed. He invited them to play at a wedding. They agreed, then the executive gave them the bad news. “You can't be Italian. You better get another name.” Because Morfeo is Murphy in English, and Johnny was a common name and the name of at least one band member, the band became the Johnny Murphy Orchestra.
That gig opened doors for the musicians to play in Chicago, New York and other cities. They continued to play locally, as well. As Morfeo aged, his sons, Anthony (Jay), Orlando (Bee) and Gene joined the group; they continued the Johnny Murphy Orchestra through the years, with Jay taking over as bandleader.
The three brothers opened Murphy's Music Center in Leechburg around 1953, where they sold and rented instruments, gave lessons and sold music supplies.
Morfeo died in 1961, Bee in 2000 and Jay in 2005. Gene is retired from the music industry. The last time the band played together as the Johnny Murphy Orchestra was at the first Festa Italiana in 2005.
The band led by Wills had no official name, but they played as back-up musicians for the feature artists who came to sing at the Festa, such as Al Martino.
Wills was determined not to let the big-band music genre die. He was a music educator in Kiski Area School District, and, after retirement, worked at Murphy's Music Center, where he welcomed young musicians and invited them to play with his group.
As a result, 2011 was the first year the band played at the Festa Italiana as the Murphy's Music Center Tribute Band. They had a set, and they played backup for Christopher Macchio and Mareno Fruzzetti.
This year, they will accompany Matt Morgan, the featured tenor.
Wills filled his band with “great musicians who can play most any music on sight.” Now, he is inviting the children of those musicians to join, learn and play the music for which the Johnny Murphy Orchestra was noted.
A family affair
There are five sets of family members in the group. Bob and Shelly Insko are music teachers at Kiski Area, and their two sons, Nathan and Cole, also play. Shelly plays keyboards, Bob plays trombone and bass, Nate plays trumpet, and Cole is the drummer. Nate, 22, studies music education at Slippery Rock University and works at Murphy's Music Center during the summer. Cole is a junior at Kiski Area High School.
Shelly Insko says, “It's kind of cool we can all play together. ... It gives me a lot of pleasure, because they are both good musicians.”
Nate Insko agrees. “It's truly cool to play with my family. Not a lot of people get to do that.”
Jim Caporali, the owner of Murphy's Music Center and a grandson of Morfeo Colecchi, plays saxophone. Jim's son Joey, 13, has been studying saxophone since fourth grade and loves big band music. “I like to play in the band because it's fun. It's just great playing with all these amazing musicians.”
Joe Perrino, an elementary-school music educator in the Riverview School District, plays lead trumpet in the band. A graduate of Kiski Area High School and Carnegie Mellon University, Perrino performs regularly with the River City Brass and other local bands.
He enjoys playing with younger musicians. “I like to watch them discover a new style — big band and swing music. It's good to know young people will still be performing and passing on this type of music. ... And, it's a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon, practicing with my son and my friends.”
Perrino's son, Joey, is almost 14. He's been playing piano for three-and-a-half years, but “started fooling around with a trumpet around age five.” He has played trumpet with the Murphy's Music Center Tribute Band since earlier this year.
Other trumpet players are Vince Arabia, Andy Gregory and Mark Hacharian.
Vince Ruffini is lead saxophonist. His section will include Jim and Joey Caporali, Joey Sheller and Rick Matt.
The trombone section is led by Dan Trough, who has been with the band for more than six years. He has played big-band music since he was 13.
He teaches elementary instrumental music in Fox Chapel School District. He considers big band “one of America's true musical art forms, music that originated in this country.” Trough has played in several bands in Pittsburgh, not just big band but rock, symphonic wind groups and Dixieland. “I've even subbed with the Pittsburgh Symphony.”
Bob Insko, Lee Seria and Ron Spang play the trombone, and Richard Auman plays bass trombone.
Trough's son Dave plays jazz bass with the tribute band when he can.
The rhythm section features Tony Buccicone on guitar, Shelly Insko on keyboards, Cole Insko on drums and Dave Trough on bass. Joe Petrarca Jr. and Ron Ravotti and Ron's son Jeremy stop in to play when they can.
Wills says he enjoys helping a younger generation get a feel for the music as it was originally composed. He says the group continues to grow as interest builds. “I feel we're going to be playing quite a bit,” he says.
Jim Caporali expects 18 to 22 musicians will be playing at Festa Italiana. “Whoever can make it, they can play.”
Cora Lee Cole is a freelance writer.