Blawnox staple Norman Nardini still rocking as he approaches 70
It’s a Friday night at the Starlite Lounge, a cozy club and restaurant on Freeport Road in Blawnox. On a tiny stage in a tiny room packed with middle-aged patrons looking to shed their working week blues, Norman Nardini is holding court.
He greets everyone who walks through the door with a hearty “how you doin’.” His onstage patter ranges from slightly off-color jokes to self-deprecating observations, such as “I’m just an ol’ bag of meat.”
For almost two hours, Nardini struts around peacock proud, backed by a killer band featuring Whitey Cooper on drums, Harry Bottoms on bass, and Texas Tex on keyboards and guitar. They roll through songs such as “Pittsburgh PA,” “Ready Freddy” and “412” with gusto and verve. The patrons – many of them Friday night Starlite regulars – dance and sing along.
Nardini, who was coming off a recent illness, played another long set that evening — a feat of endurance for any musician, let alone one who turns 70 next year.
“I never imagined myself doing anything else but playing music from a very young age, from about 11 or 12,” Nardini says. “By 13 or 14, I was firmly established in what I was going to do. But like most kids, I couldn’t imagine being this age.”
He’s not only alive, but thriving. This year, Nardini released an album, “Notorious,” that in a fair world would garner airplay on rock stations across the country. But Nardini had no publicist or support team to hawk it to media outlets, and no inclination to seek attention for “Notorious.”
“It’s pretty cool,” Nardini says of the album. “It’s actually a pretty decent recording. But I’m so possessed with the overall study of life and how my days pass, that I don’t like to do things that don’t have to do with my personal musical growth. And promoting a record is something that takes away from the study of my next music.”
Nardini was born in Homewood-Brushton in 1950. His family moved to Cheswick before settling in Wilkins, where he still lives. After graduating in 1968 from Churchill High School, which is now Woodland Hills, Nardini studied at Berklee College of Music. The renowned Boston school counts among its graduates Donald Fagen, Diana Krall, Branford Marsalis and John Mayer.
After Berklee, Nardini returned to Pittsburgh and started playing in lounge bands that “scared the hell out of me.”
He eventually joined Diamond Reo, the famed Pittsburgh band featuring vocalist Frank Czuri and guitarist Warren King. In 1979, he started his own band, Norman Nardini and the Tigers.
Nardini admits he couldn’t match Czuri’s vocal range or King’s guitar wizardry.
“We were touching greatness,” Nardini says of Diamond Reo, which toured nationally and released an album on Kama Sutra Records. “But after being in the Diamonds, which was world-class great, the Tigers to me were fun and everybody was loving it. But after working with Frank and Warren, I really didn’t feel like I was worthy.”
What Nardini says he could do, however, was “out entertain everybody.” The Tigers developed a reputation for putting on the best rock show in town, packing venues such as Fat City in Swissvale and The Decade in Oakland.
Nardini became renowned for being a little bit “crazy,” according to Ron “Moondog” Esser, owner of the Starlite and Moondog’s (also in Blawnox). Curious, Esser went to see Nardini perform at Graffiti Showcase, the former Oakland club.
“Norman can be pretty scary if you don’t know him,” Esser says, more than 30 years after that first encounter. “You’re like, is this guy serious or what? But once you get to know him you realize he has a big heart and is a good soul.”
The two men struck a friendship, with Nardini becoming a regular at Moondog’s. Four years ago, he started playing every Friday at the Starlite. Esser says it’s not unusual for Nardini to start at 7 p.m. and still be playing long after feature acts at Moondog’s, which usually start by 8:30 p.m., finish for the night.
“It is good for all us old rockers who need a laugh and a little dose of rock ‘n’ roll,” Esser says “It is busy, Norman is hilarious, and it is beyond beneficial. You have to experience it.”
Except for brief stints as a golf caddie and dishwasher when he was a teenager, Nardini has made his living as a musician. At times he’s been ignored – he still feels the sting of not being invited to perform at a show featuring Pittsburgh musicians at the then-Star Lake Amphitheater in 1990 – and radio airplay has been nonexistent.
“I admire and respect Norman’s single-minded dedication to his craft,” says Billy Price, the former Pittsburgh soul singer now based in Baltimore. “Despite many of the kinds of disappointments that we’ve all experienced, he has never wavered or done anything other than what was in his heart.”