Wilson's singing career began with the Monessen resident's orchestra
Part 2 of 2
Jesse Wilson was only 20 when he joined Frankie Barr's band as a vocalist in 1934.
Barr, a Monessen native whose real name was Frank Lombardo, had been part of the area entertainment scene since 1926 when he organized his first orchestra. By 1931 his group began to get bookings for performances all over the tri-state area. They were known then as Frank Lombardo and His Ambassadors. The name was changed to Frankie Barr and His Orchestra in 1939.
Wilson's popularity with Barr's band has been the focus of a story that has made the rounds for decades in the area. According to many accounts, it involved Sammy Kaye and His Hotel Gibson Orchestra performing at a dance at the State Armory in Monessen “sometime in the 1930s.”
“We've heard different versions of the story,” Wilson's daughter, Mary Ann Tomayko of Monessen, said with a knowing smile. “As some people have told it, Sammy Kaye took a break between songs and told the capacity crowd that ‘We have two fine young singers in the audience tonight and we want to bring one of them up to sing with us.' He said the decision would be made by the audience's applause. My dad, of course, was a local guy, so the crowd gave him the most applause and he drew the opportunity to sing with Sammy Kaye and his band.”
The other young singer in the audience that night was named Perry Como.
“He certainly did OK for himself, didn't he?” Tomayko said of the legendary crooner from Canonsburg.
As a featured vocalist with Barr's orchestra, Wilson shared the spotlight with other noted performers long before he became a fixture at the Twin Coaches.
A dance at Eldora Park in Black Diamond (between Donora and Monongahela) on June 4, 1939, featured Lawrence Welk and his band as well as Frank Lombardo and His Ambassadors. Over the years, he expanded the orchestra to 14 pieces and added vocalists. By 1931 the group was being booked at venues throughout the tri-state area and that pattern continued through the 1940s. The band also was featured in live performances on several radio stations in the Pittsburgh region.
Barr told reporter Karen Peters of The Valley Independent in a 1981 interview that his orchestra “played at just about every park in western Pennsylvania and at the former Bill Green's Casino in Brentwood,” a forerunner of such popular night clubs as the Twin Coaches, the Ankara in Pleasant Hills and the Holiday House in Monroeville.
Ads and stories in area newspapers called attention to the popularity of the band and Wilson as its vocalist.
The band also was featured at such venues as the Briatico Ballroom, 527 Broad Ave., North Belle Vernon, with Wilson and Lorees Lavery as vocalists; the Sons of Italy in Charleroi; the Italian Hall in Monessen; Monongahela Valley and Nemacolin country clubs; the Charleroi Elks and Palmer Park in Donora.
In 1953 the orchestra drew a two-week booking at the Twin Coaches, which was owned and operated by Rose and Tony Calderone, and that marked the start of a long run at the club, which was destroyed by fire on October 10, 1977. The list of national artists performing with Barr and his musicians is seemingly endless.
“You name the stars and they probably played at the Twin Coaches,” said Robert R. “Bob” Rossi, a longtime area musician, teacher and band director and vice president of Tri-County Federation of Musicians, American Federation of Musicians Local 592. “It was the place to go for a big night out and, of course, many major political and sports banquets were held there. The lineup of stars was like a who's who in the entertainment business.”
When Barr went into semi-retirement in 1961, Wilson's role with the orchestra expanded as he became the conductor. He and Ernie Coccari, a longtime saxophone and clarinet player, kept the band going until the fire gutted the Twin Coaches.
“Ernie handled all the bookings for the musicians,” recalled Rossi, who played in the band from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s. “He owned a car dealership in Monessen for many years and was a very good businessman. He was an excellent musician, but his (business) background was a plus for everyone.”
Barr took the band over again with the help of Wilson and Coccari in 1979. The orchestra drew an overflow crowd of 850 people in its first engagement with Barr holding the baton again on St. Patrick's Day at the Washington Township Fire Hall. The event was sponsored by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 47 of the Pennsylvania State Police, which honored Barr as Tri-State Dean of the Big Band Sound.
The band continued its newfound popularity at dances throughout the area and also was featured numerous times at the annual Cultural Heritage Festival in Monessen.
Barr was 79 when he died on Saturday, April 1, 1989.
Coccari and Wilson coordinated a “Tribute to Frankie Barr” later that summer at Cedar Creek Park in Rostraver Township. Coccari made arrangements for many of the musicians who had performed with Barr over the years to participate in the nostalgic two-hour presentation.
According to R. Mitchell Steen Jr., longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent, who covered the event, Wilson, who sang several songs, summed up the afternoon when he said in reference to a melody played by the musicians, “No matter how many times we play this, it's always a thrill.”
“A thrill it was for those who listened and even for many who danced under threatening skies,” Steen wrote. “Those two hours passed by as it if were two minutes with each of those tunes bringing back intimate memories for the vast majority in attendance, good memories. We search for fine entertainment, oftentimes willing to pay large sums to get it and often are disappointed. This two-hour program was for free. All those in attendance owe a debt of gratitude for all those responsible for this program and for all those who performed.”
Wilson was 81 when he died Sunday, Oct. 1, 1995, at his home in Charleroi.
His obituary noted that in addition to his many years of work as a professional singer he also was a retired employee of the Page Steel and Wire Division of American Chain and Cable Co. in Monessen and also was retired from employment with the Washington County Tax Assessment Office.
Steen's thoughts were shared by those who mourned Wilson's death.
“He was such an integral part of the entertainment scene in this area for so many years,” Rossi said. “That will always be his legacy. He was known as the ‘Voice With A Smile,' and he always had a smile on his face and in his heart.”
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.