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Arts & Culture

Jimmy Cavallo Returns Again to the Syracuse People Who've Loved Him So Many Years


Late Friday afternoon, Jimmy Cavallo will walk down the jetway at Hancock International, make sure he's got his sax and satchel, and locate his ground transportation.

The 88-year-old will whisk his way directly to downtown Syracuse.

Destination: FestaItaliana, main stage.

"My guys will be out there playing," Cavallo says during a recent phone conversation from his home in Pompano Beach, Fla.

He sounds fresh and ready for this annual trip back to his hometown. The man considered a pioneer in the rock 'n' roll sound will be making his last appearance at the fest set up to honor his heritage, with 5 p.m. slots scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Leadership changes at the event have dimmed his interest, he explains, sticking to first names, though it's obvious that in  Stanley he's talking rather specifically about the passing of his dear musical comrade Stan Colella -- gone since 2002 -- and Marie is Marie Felice, who no longer directs the fest.

"Too young, things going on now," Cavallo says. "Not that I'm against all the acts and styles. But this is still an Italian fest."

He wants to make sure that everybody knows that he's open for more visits down the line, at other fests in Syracuse. "If I get a call from Blues Fest of Jazz Fest, I think I'd do it," Cavallo says. And he's got another gig lined up for this trip, too. At 3 p.m. Sunday at Mickey Vendetti's Soft Rock, 2026 Teall Ave., Syracuse. It's being billed as a rock 'n' roll party with an Italian buffet, dessert and coffee. Tickets are $25, available by calling 315-399-5700 or for purchase at the club from 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday,

He scheduled the late arrival, he says, so he can jump on a plane in Fort Lauderdale for a direct flight. "No holdover in Kennedy," he says. "I hated that."

Don't let that fool you into thinking that Cavallo, the man who took his band The House Rockers into the world of prominent New York City DJ Alan Freed in the red-hot 1950s, has slowed to a crawl.

"I still feel good," Cavallo promises. " I still do two nights a week down here in a jazz and blues club, 5 to 8 (p.m.). And I'm picking up two more, 7 to 10. Physically, I'm OK. Mentally, everything's alright. Next March I will turn 89. I don't look it on stage. I don't sound like it, either. I'm lucky. I maintain my youthful outlook."

He credits his music, this Navy guy who came back to his hometown to play a club called Sorrento's in 1949.

The sax-and-voice work that allowed him to tour the south with beach shag music, and appear in the famous movie Rock, Rock, Rock, performing the movie's title song. And after that, becoming the first white band to play in Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.

It gave him performance songs like Fanny Brown and Georgia (On My Mind), the material he still sings today. "Sinatra. Ray Charles. The blues. Outside shows will be up-tempo. Indoor shows will have more ballads," he says.

Jimmy Cavallo, still rocking. (Courtesy of

"I don't put on that smile up there," Cavallo says. "It's natural. Music keeps me thinking. I've been checked out. The only thing they find is the allergies (that affected his voice some at last year's Festa Italiana). They worked that out. I'm better this year."

Cavallo will be backed in Syracuse by a couple of longtime House Rockers, Chuck Sgroi on bass and Tony Licameli on drums, along with Joe Carello on saxophone, Dave Solazzo on keyboard and Mike Diliddo on guitar.

"They are automatic," he says of his rhythm section. "I never have to turn around and look at them. They know what I'm doing. They enjoy giving me the stuff. They're happy campers."

Cavallo says the fest is joyful, with people coming from Utica and all around the area to hear their favorites. But the club show at Mickey Vendetti's joint has him stoked in a different way.

"They come to listen and dance. That will be fun," he says. "I will get more of my regulars that have been following me for years. That's the first thing I enjoy. The people. My people. One on one. I never neglect to talk to anyone who stops me. What makes you happy, makes me happy. All my life."