Papa John DeFrancesco: A swinging journey in music.
By Patricia Myers
World-renowned organist John “Papa John” DeFrancesco was a professional trumpet player when he heard Jack McDuff playing a Hammond B3 organ. “Hearing all those harmonics, the organ took my heart,” he said in an interview with MusicSceneAZ. He’s widely known for his infectious, bluesy, swinging style.
“With me and the organ, there’s always a bottom groove. It all starts with the blues, the changes. Everything comes from that music. It’s a listening thing, you can’t just acquire it. You have to enjoy the music for what it is. It’s church music, gospel. I grew up as a Catholic, so everybody was saying. ‘You better come to my church,’ and when I went, everyone was swingin’. We didn’t have that in my church.”
John DeFrancesco, 74, said he has always heeded his musician-father’s early advice: “He always told me ‘Play from your heart, and listen to what others are doing — that’s why they call it a band.’
“What would I tell young musicians? Don’t look for fame and fortune. You want to learn the instrument and the music so you can paint a picture with your music, like an artist would feel things and then paint. Music should be this — that you feel it in your heart.”
John was 23 and a working trumpeter in 1963 when he started playing organ at home, a Hammond spinet model that his recent bride, Laurene, bought for him. “I was driving her crazy talking about the organ, so she went out and got it — she’s an angel!” he said about his wife of nearly 53 years.
During the next six months, he said he played that organ “morning, noon and night, but I was still playing horn gigs and vocalizing.” He soon began to take both the horn and the spinet to club gigs, and he also worked in the pit bands of theater-in-the-round productions.
As soon as John acquired a Hammond B3, he began to perform professionally on it. “With me and the organ, there’s always a bottom groove. It all starts with the blues, the changes. Everything comes from that music. It’s a listening thing, you can’t just acquire it. You have to enjoy the music for what it is – it’s church music, gospel. I was a Catholic, and everybody was saying. ‘You better come to my church,’ and when I went, everyone was swingin’. We didn’t have that in my church.”
The only child of Sicilian immigrants in Niagara Falls, NY, John started to play clarinet at the age of four. “But when I heard Louis Armstrong, I told my father I wanted to play like ‘Pops.’ ” His father, Joseph, a multi-reeds player in swing bands of the 1920s and ’30s, replied, “With all these reeds in the house?” But he took his son right away to the music store for a trumpet. “I was first-chair in seventh grade in the school band. I was a pretty good reader because my dad was tough. He and my music teacher made me learn the solfreggio method (that involves singing notes of the scale as do-re-mi, while reading music and keeping time).”
Although Louis Armstrong was his first trumpet icon, John gravitated to Harry James and then to bebop. “It was Diz (Dizzy Gillespie), Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard. Ah, but Miles, he would play a tune and never go where other cats would go.” Today, his listening favorites are Count Basie “because he always swings, and the Duke (Ellington).” He also loves cars, saying, “My son John and I rebuilt a hotrod, and I have a lot of interests, but it’s always been the music first.”
John and Laurene, who moved to the Phoenix-area in 2005, were married in 1962. “We knew each other since she was 13. We’d meet at swimming places on the Canadian-side islands, so we kinda grew up together.” John’s grandmother lived with his family in a building that was home for other relatives, too. His father, Joseph, played in bands and wrote music for marching bands and big bands, including for the 100-member Carborundum Company’s factory orchestra. John’s grandfather had played the piccolo in his native Sicily.
“After I got a B3, I started picking everyone’s brains. A close friend, Ted Davis, called me ‘packrat’ (for acquiring licks from others). Later on, Jimmy Smith (kiddingly) called me ‘a thief.’ Jimmy was the master, the innovator with the groove.” Papa John eventually performed with McDuff and then with Jimmy Smith after each had moved to Arizona; they frequently played together at the now-closed Bobby C’s in Phoenix.
John and Laurene moved to Delaware County, PA, and then in 1966 to Philadelphia, where he became an active part of that music scene. “I was playing three and four nights a week there, and in Atlantic City and other cities. In 1979 when Joey turned eight, he and my older son, Johnny, started sitting in for the early hours of my local gigs (Joey on organ and Johnny on guitar).” After daughter Cheryle was born, Papa John opted to stop traveling. “But I still played in a lot in Philly, with Bootsie Barnes, Mickey Roker and others.” His daughter, who played sax in grade school, is a journalist and writes his album liner notes.
When all three children were grown, Papa John returned to performing more, also recording albums that soon brought global recognition. “In the early 1990s, we were on the tour bus with Joey in Paris (Joey was performing with guitarist John McLaughlin’s Free Spirits band). The bus had a radio, and a station was playing my album that had Joey and Johnny on it, and the announcer was talking about us.”
Papa John released eight albums as a leader between 1993 and 2011. His first was Doodlin’ (Muse, 1993) with Joey on trumpet and Johnny on guitar, plus Bill Easley-tenor sax, Randy Johnston-guitar and Byron Landham-drums; and Comin’ Home (Muse,1994) with Joey (trumpet-piano-organ) and Johnny (guitar), plus Bootsie Barnes-tenor sax, Johnston-guitar, Landham-drums and Ralph Dorsey-percussion. His next releases were Hip Cake Walk” (HighNote Records, 2001). Jumpin’ (Savant, 2002), Walking Uptown (Savant, 2004); Desert Heat (Savant, 2006); Big Shot (Savant, 2009) and A Philadelphia Story (Savant, 2011) with drummer Glenn Ferracone and guest appearances by Joey-trumpet, Johnny-guitar and Joe Fortunato-tenor sax.
In 2013, Papa John received the Oklahoma Hall of Fame Living Legend Award, joining a stellar list that includes Louie Bellson, Freddy Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Milt Hinton, Patti Page, Frank Wess, Dorothy Donegan, Slide Hampton, Taj Mahal, Sam Rivers and Stanley Jordan.
And now, answers to often-asked questions. First, how did Papa John acquire his moniker? “It was when I was recording an album of gut-bucket blues with Joey and John. When my solo spot came up, they said, ‘Go ahead, Papa,” and from then on, I was Papa John.”
Second, what does he have to say about the pizza guy who appropriated his name? “Yeah, he stole my name,” he said with a chuckle, “but I don’t know why, or how long ago. But a while back, Shea Marshall (Phoenix organist-pianist-saxophonist) took that pizza logo, put my face on it and changed the slogan to ‘Groovin’ with Papa John’.”
Papa John’s January booking at the Sacred Grounds coffeehouse in Scottsdale was rescheduled when he had to handle a business matter back East, but he wants to perform there again soon.
Finally, what has made Papa John and Laurene’s marriage lasted more than a half-century? He credits her for all of it: “My wife has had a lot of patience regarding my music, and my traveling and, I have to admit, my being a little bit crazy!”