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Bell Acres man helps Pittsburgh Banjo Club celebrate 25 years

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:22 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Musical Director Norm Azinger leads a Pittsburgh Banjo Club session at the Elks Lodge #339 on the North Side Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Carl Lessman of Bell Acres performs with the Pittsburgh Banjo Club during a session at the Elks Lodge #339 on the North Side Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.

The first time Carl Lessman sang in front of a large crowd, he said, his knees actually knocked together.

That was at Mad Anthony's in Ambridge, where the Sewickleyland Doctor's Band was playing in the early 1970s to a packed house.

Band leader Joseph Griffith saw Lessman knew all of the words and, at one point, handed him the microphone, Lessman said.

“Well, I had never sung to that many people before, and I told my date to stand beside me, because I felt like I was going to faint,” said Lessman, who ended up singing “Does Your Heart Beat for Me?”

Not too long after, Lessman, now 78, became a member of the band.

He sang and played guitar and banjo at Mad Anthony's for more than 20 years.

Around the same time, he also became a member of the Fellows Band, which also featured several banjo players and played at LeMont on Mount Washington.

About 17 years ago, he joined the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, which now is celebrating its 25th year, and he still is going strong, he said.

“Now, there could be a million people out there, and I don't care,” he said from his Bell Acres porch.

About 10 years ago, Lessman sang to a crowd at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood as the banjo club warmed up the audience for the main act — the Greater Pittsburgh Barbershop Chorus.

It was an event he would never forget.

“I actually sang ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie,'” he said.

Lessman not only continues playing one of his three banjos at many of the club's gigs but also sings.

His talent for keeping the words in his head is how he originally became a member of the banjo club.

Lessman met founder and band leader Frank Rossi of Ross Township while they were members of the Fellows Band. When Lessman retired in 1997 after 31 years at US Airways, Rossi encouraged him to join the banjo club.

“He told me there were lots of sing-a-longs, and he thought I probably knew the words to just about every song,” Lessman said.

The nonprofit organization, which Rossi said is one of the largest banjo clubs in the world, has about 90 members, ranging in age from 11 to about 87.

About 40 people practice, along with some tuba, trumpets and bass players, at 8 p.m. every Wednesday at Allegheny Elks Lodge 339 on Pittsburgh's North Side.

Practices are free and open to the public, and Rossi said they always draw large crowds of young and older people.

Music includes singalongs, vocals, banjo solos, tunes from the 1920s and '30s, polkas and Dixieland.

Over the years, the group has raised about $90,000 for charity — some of which has benefited the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial being built in Sewickley Cemetery.

The club has performed in several locations across the Sewickley Valley, western Pennsylvania and the United States.

In addition, it has played at veterans hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers and has recorded albums.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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