Squeezing Out The Tunes
THE REV. JOE BACCELLIERI revels in the universality of music and in the classic accordion repertoire
Mack the Knife
A flaxen-haired toddler bounces on his little sausage legs. Toes tap in the table-runner and baby-bootie booth. One by one, visitors to the Saturday Lakeside Market drop dollar bills into the accordion player's tip jar.
Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
Joe Baccellieri sits in the shade, toes in black wingtips tapping and back muscles flexing under his polo shirt as he forces air through the huge bellows of his vintage Petosa accordion. The elegant black-and-white instrument was custom-made for him in Seattle in 1963. You can't get accordions like it anymore. They use a different wood for the reeds now.
It's been 52 years since Baccellieri first picked up an accordion. Back then, he was a 6-year-old growing up in Southeast Portland's Italian neighborhood and taking lessons from Frank Baldino and Joe Parente. He remembers famous accordion players -- Anthony Galarini and Jorgen Sundquist -- packing them in at the Civic Auditorium.
"Accordion was THE instrument in the U.S. in the '40s and '50s," he recalled. "When rock 'n' roll came in, accordion took a nose dive."
Baccellieri, though, kept playing. He was ordained as a priest and taught band at Central Catholic High School. He played at fairs and festivals. He became known as the Swinging Priest. In addition to his duties as administrator of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where he's known as Reverend Baccellieri, he formed a dance band with former students -- the Gemtones -- a trio comprising accordion, drum and saxophone.
"I don't need a bass or a guitar -- it's all right here," he said of the rhythmic notes and chords he plays with his left hand.
I Love Paris in the Springtime
About five years ago, accordion players started getting together again. Now, there are clubs all over the place, although, he said with a chuckle, "you have to be 50 or more years old to qualify."
By this he means accordion songs are old songs, songs people remember from some other time and place.
"I'm playing stuff I never thought I'd play again," he said, and wafted the opening bars of "Accordiana" out over little girls screaming in the fountain, a man riding a bicycle, a woman in a pink housecoat watering the planters on her lakeside deck.
"Play 'Edelweiss,'" a woman requested as she dropped a dollar in the tip jar.
As the wistful melody curled forth from Baccellieri's Petosa she seemed to drift off, her mind a thousand miles away.
"People have said music is a universal language and I've experienced it," he said afterward. He remembered the time he and fellow priests were traveling in Germany. A tour boat they'd hired departed with a drum, a drummer and an accordion, but managed to leave the accordionist behind.
Although he knew few German songs and even less of the language, Baccellieri consented to play. Although he and the drummer didn't understand each other's language, "We played for an hour and a half," Baccellieri remembered. And when it was over, "he kissed my hands."
Up a Lazy River
Beer Barrel Polka
How many songs does he know? Thousands. All by heart.
Although the logo on his red, green and white cap reads "Italia," Baccellieri plays Irish songs, Greek songs, Scottish songs, Russian songs, Mexican songs.
"I never learned to dance," he said. "I've always played. I love music, whatever it is."
By Bethanye McNichol