Guest Column: Jazz musician Val Eddy celebrates 80th birthday

By Valeri DeCastris

Lifelong jazz musician and vocalist Val Eddy (DeCastris) turned 80 years young July 3. Area musicians, family and friends celebrated with a jazz jam session.

Val’s long and illustrious career as a full-time musician and contributor to the arts in Illinois spans more than six decades. He has entertained audiences throughout the world on the bass, mandolin and banjo, and performed with some of the greatest artists in the jazz world. He has given music lessons to scores of students, and has played with symphonies and pops orchestras throughout the United States.

Mainly self-taught, Val toured with many of America’s big bands, and has performed on numerous recordings. Val’s credo is “Jazz is America’s true art form and is our legacy to the world.”

Val Eddy was born to Orlando and Amalia Ludovici DeCastris in the Italian-American community of south Rockford. In the early 1900s, his parents immigrated to Rockford from Ferentino, Italy, an ancient hill town near Rome that is a Sister City to Rockford.

Beginning in the 1930s by nailing together a broken mandolin, Val began a journey that evolved into a full-time career in music. The south Rockford community of his youth was filled with the sounds of musicians, brass bands and rousing serenades. Children and their parents danced together in the many Italian social clubs, in the streets and in the tidy yards, with the steady percussion of bocce balls and lively conversation keeping the cadence.

The sweet sounds of Italian mandolin music were audible from the porch of his neighbor, Gabriel Giorgi, father of the late state Rep. E.J. “Zeke” Giorgi. Listening in rapt attention at “Gabby’s” knee, he taught himself to play the mandolin, bass and banjo. When he got haircuts from barber/mandolin player Dario Pro at his Cunningham Street barbershop, a popular neighborhood gathering place, Dario always insisted Val play his mandolin for patrons while seated in the barber’s chair.

At age 12, he performed with his first band, the Val Eddy Band, at the Montague House in south Rockford. The year was 1938. While at West High School, Val was invited to tour with the nationally-renowned Boyd Rayburn’s big band, but his father insisted he finish high school. After graduation, he toured the country with the legendary Del Courtney Band and popular vocalist Bob Vincent, and appeared with Lawrence Welk. He performed at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas with Jack Benny and had long engagements at the famous Edgewater Beach Hotel and Aragon Ballroom in Chicago and the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Val appeared at venues alongside San Kenton, Louis Armstrong, the Count Basie Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Les Brown and Martha Raye. Called to duty in World War II, he joined the Army’s Marching Band and was admitted to the Army’s prestigious Dance Band. During World War II, Val entertained troops at USO clubs and the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo, Japan.

After World War II, Val Eddy returned to Rockford and married the late Patricia Macaluso, a dance instructor with the Arthur Murray Studios, and they toured the country until their daughter, Valeri, began elementary school. He began a 45-year partnership with Rockford’s Homer Carlson, a virtuoso pianist and composer. Known as the Val Eddy Duo, they performed at grand hotels, resorts and night clubs throughout the country. In Rockford, they had extended engagements at popular night spots such as the Town Lounge, Times Lounge, the Red Garter, Carriage House, Red Door and the Cart.

They also played Chicago’s Cairo Supper Club, Lake Geneva’s Riveria, and Lake Manitou, Indiana’s Colonial Hotel Resort. Other venues were the legendary Lake Club in Springfield with Del Courtney and Springfield’s George Rank; the historic Pere Marquette Hotel in Peoria; the elegant Plantation in Moline; the Evergreens in West Dundee; and Stan Hack’s Place in Grand Detour, owned by the popular Chicago Cubs’ third baseman. They spent 20 years at the Manor in Beloit, Wis., the former Freeman Shoes Mansion.

In the 1950s, the Val Eddy Trio, with guitarist and vocalist Dave Pitts (Lamond), starred in a popular live television show, The Song Shop, on the Rockford NBC-affiliate WTVO Channel 39. The show aired live, five nights a week, opposite a popular western. Artist Gene Holmberg, husband of former Sen. Joyce Holmberg, painted the placard signs that announced the songs being performed to the television viewing audience.

Val Eddy lives in Rockford with his wife, Marian, and performs regularly with state-line area musicians, orchestras and symphonies in a variety of venues, and is on the board of the Rockford Jazz Society. His wife, Pat, who died in 1979, chronicled his career with memorabilia from throughout the world. His partner, Homer Carlson, retired from music in the mid-1990s and died in 2003. Their partner, Dave Lamond, a WGN radio musician on the Noon Show with Orion Samuelson, who played for Ronald Reagan’s 75th birthday at the White House, died that same year. Homer’s celebration of life featured Rockford-area jazz musicians and Dave’s featured Chicago-area jazz musicians, including world-class jazz violinist Johnny Frigo.

In the words of former Rockford Park District Director Webbs Norman, in presenting Val with the 2001 Rockford Area Music Industry’s (RAMI) Lifetime Achievement Award, “Old musicians never die, because the music lingers on.” Catch Val at the Gun Club in Beloit, Wis., Saturday nights performing with fellow RAMI Award winners Maxine Holler and Bob DeVita, or at venues throughout Rockford. And, wish him a happy 80th birthday and many more!

From the July 12-18, 2006, issue

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