'Voice with a smile' delighted thousands during long career
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For someone who was “self-taught” as a singer, Jesse A. Wilson wrote one of the most significant
chapters in Mon Valley entertainment history – a legacy that spanned well over 50 years.
“He never took any formal singing lessons,” said Wilson's daughter, Mary Ann Tomayko of Monessen. “He just loved to sing. He began singing at a very early age and developed a style that enhanced his popularity for so long. He was known as ‘The Voice With A Smile.'”
Tomayko, a retired teacher, has cataloged her father's career with a nostalgic collection of more than 100 pictures and newspaper clippings.
Many of those artifacts focus on Wilson's years as the featured vocalist with Frankie Barr and His Orchestra at the Twin Coaches supper club in Rostraver Township. He also served as master of ceremonies for the shows featuring the top names in the entertainment business at the popular night spot and later was conductor of the band.
“Jesse had an excellent voice, one that the crowds at the Twin Coaches appreciated,” said Robert R. “Bob” Rossi of Carroll Township, a longtime musician, teacher, band director and vice president of the Tri-County Federation of Musicians, American Federation of Musicians Local 592. “As a vocalist, he was the perfect front man for the orchestra. He could set the mood for dancing, especially with the ballads, and was able to perform any style of music.”
Rossi, who played in the Twin Coaches band from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, recalled that Wilson was a big reason the house orchestra was popular with the performers as well as with the audiences.
“There were so many great musicians in the (Twin Coaches) band,” Rossi said. “They were well respected by the big name national entertainers who performed there. I think that speaks volumes for the quality musicians who comprised the bands there. Many of those men also performed elsewhere in western Pennsylvania as well as at top venues around the country. They had a great reputation for their professional skills and reliability, entertainers and club owners knew of them and thought highly of them.
“Jesse earned the same respect as a singer and emcee. He had a unique manner in introducing the stars of the show, a way to build the anticipation and get the crowd excited about who was about to take the stage. That means a lot in this business and the entertainers appreciated Jesse's style.”
That gratitude is emphasized with autographed pictures in Tomayko's collection. They include but are not limited to the following personal messages to Wilson: ●
• “A great voice and a wonderful guy.” — The Four Aces, Al Alberts, Dave McKay, Lou Silvestri, Sal Vaccaro.
• “We think you are a wonderful guy and tops as an MC!” – dancers Floyd and Marianna.
• “A wonderful M.C. who really knows how to introduce an act.” — dancer Ramona Bittles.
• “Really enjoyed every moment of it. Loads of luck.” — Sarah Vaughn.
• “It's been wonderful working with you.” — The Four Lads.
• “Many thanks for everything. Your buddy, Pat Boone.”
• “Here's to a fine guy. All the best to you.” — Billy Eckstine.
Others who offered similar thoughts were Mike Douglas, the DeJohn Sisters, Frankie Avalon, Phyllis Diller, Julius LaRosa, Bobby Vinton, Chubby Checker, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, The Temptations, Charleroi's Kossol Sisters (Joan, Josie and Audrie), Eydie Gorme, Johnny Mathis, Sonny and Cher, the McGuire Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Coins, Leslie Uggams and Jimmy Sacca and the Hilltoppers, to name only a few.
The message from Eckstine, a Pittsburgh native who is considered to be one of the top male vocalists of all time, was significant to Tomayko.
“A lot of people have told us that my father sounded a lot like Eckstine,” Tomayko said. “I bought a compilation CD sometime ago that included a song by Billy, and it did sound like my father. I enjoy listening to it because it brings back a lot of memories.”
Tomayko said her father didn't have any favorites among the big name entertainers with whom he worked at the Twin Coaches.
“He just enjoyed sharing the stage with them,” she said. “Most of them were nice and personable but Dad didn't do much in the way of socializing with them. He did like to golf with Jerry Murad and The Harmonicats when they were in town, but that was pretty much it.”
Some of the photos in the Wilson collection also carry autographed messages to Tomayko and her sisters, Judy Macosko, who now lives in Colorado, and the late Patricia Wilson. But Tomayko said the sisters and their brother, Alvin “Rick” Wilson of Monessen, “really didn't spend a lot of time” at the Twin Coaches.
“We went there for some of the shows and it was fun, but we didn't meet a lot of the stars,” she recalled. “I do remember my father bringing Paul Anka to our table one night. He was very charming and talked with us. It was a big thrill.”
While Wilson was best known for his work at the Twin Coaches and with the Frankie Barr Orchestra, his career as a professional singer began nearly two decades before he took the stage at the Rostraver club.
He was born Aug. 29, 1914, in North Charleroi, a son of the late Jess Wilson Sr. and Claire Cratty Wilson.
He attended public schools in North Charleroi and Charleroi before dropping out to help his family financially.
“He went to work in the coal mines, where his father was working,” Tomayko said. “But that lasted only a year or so. He didn't like the work and felt an education was more important, so he went back to school and earned his high school diploma.”
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.