Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
It’s hard to believe that in more than 15 years of the Secret History of Chicago Music—at least 350 installments—I haven’t covered a jazz violinist. Admittedly, the violin isn’t strongly associated with jazz, and despite my music-nerd credentials I can only name a few folks who’ve played it in that context. But if you’re into jazz fiddling, Johnny Frigo is already no secret to you. He was a true Renaissance man: a violinist, bassist, singer, songwriter, visual artist, and published poet.
Frigo was born to an Italian immigrant family in the Roseland neighborhood on the south side of Chicago on December 27, 1916. His household was poor, and as a child Frigo had to collect rags and scrap metal to help his parents afford the 25 cents per week it cost for his violin lessons. “It was the ragman who talked my mother into my taking violin lessons with his son, who was a violinist,” Frigo told the Tribune in 1992. “Every afternoon all the kids used to play softball in an empty lot, or right in the street because there were very few cars then. . . . But I was stuck in the house having to take violin lessons.”
Frigo started learning at age seven, but money troubles forced his parents to discontinue his lessons after three years. He resumed his musical education at Curtis Junior High, but because the school had no orchestra, Frigo took up tuba and then moved to trumpet, all while continuing to practice violin in his spare time. In high school he taught himself double bass, using an instrument with just three gut strings.
Upon graduating in 1934, Frigo joined Vic Abbs & the Four Californians and later the Al Diehm Orchestra, singing and playing bass in both groups at clubs, in hotels, and on the radio. He also occasionally sat in with legendary boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons at the Club DeLisa.
Frigo remembers the inconvenient way fans used to tip him in those days. “They’d see me singing sometimes, so they’d put a coin through the F-holes of my bass,” he told Fiddler Magazine in 2005. “Then I’d have to bring it home and my two brothers would have to hold it up and shake it. This one time somebody stuffed a bill in there. I happened to bring it up, ‘Who was that that put a bill in it? It was hard to get out.’ He said, ‘That was Al Capone.’”
Load In: The Hideout With Steve Krakow
As part of a monthly livestream series on Vans Channel 66, Secret History creator Steve Krakow DJs two hours of Chicago psych with special guest Psychedelic Prissy Pie. Tue 9/21, 4 PM, vans.com/channel-66.html, free, all ages
In 1942, Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers, who loved the idea of a bassist who also played violin, recruited Frigo for his touring orchestra. This gig let Frigo show off several of his skills. He sang in a quartet that featured a 17-year-old Mel Tormé and developed a skit with Marx where he played violin. “I said, ‘You play the verse and I’ll noodle around on fiddle,’” he told Fiddler. “He said, ‘Okay, you noodle on the fiddle and I’ll spaghetti on the piano.’”
During World War II, Frigo joined the coast guard and played on Ellis Island in a group that included pianist Al Haig and trombonist Kai Winding. After the war, he stayed in New York for a few years and toured with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. Upon leaving that gig, he started a trio with two Dorsey bandmates, pianist Lou Carter and guitarist Herb Ellis, who launched their career together with a six-month residence at a hotel in Buffalo, New York. They became known as the Soft Winds Trio and wrote the 1947 favorite “Detour Ahead”—a contemplative, classy tune that would become a jazz standard, covered by the likes of Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, and Sarah Vaughan.
Frigo returned to the Windy City in 1951 and began a long, successful run as a first-call session bassist. “I got in on the ground floor of providing musical backgrounds for radio and TV commercials,” he told the Tribune in 1992. He also added bass to recordings by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Mahalia Jackson. During this period Frigo began a steady gig with pianist Dick Marx at Rush Street bar Mister Kelly’s, which lasted for 13 years and led to several albums (Too Much Piano in 1955, then Delicate Savagery and Piano Solos With Bass Accompaniment in ’57).
Though still primarily a bassist, Frigo hadn’t set aside the violin. In 1957 he put out a violin-led LP on Mercury called I Love John Frigo . . . He Swings, with a band that included Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. It went nowhere, but luckily his career didn’t depend on its success. He also rocked his fiddle on the WLS radio show National Barn Dance from 1951 till 1960, playing hoedowns with house band the Sage Riders.
After WGN revived the show in 1961, Frigo would continue to play with the Sage Riders for another 14 years. He also gigged and recorded with Chicago jazz vocalist Anita O’Day. His career included plenty of curveballs too: He composed and arranged the Chicago Cubs fight song “Hey, Hey! Holy Mackerel!” and produced and conducted the Len Dresslar Singers’ 1969 recording of it. (He worked with the same group on a 1960s single release of “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” but in that case it’s difficult to find more detail.) Also in 1969, he played fiddle on Wanted, the debut LP by Champaign-born proto-country-rock band Mason Proffit.
By the mid-80s Frigo had shifted his focus exclusively to violin. In a 1988 appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, he explained why he’d started a career as a jazz violinist at age 71: “I wouldn’t have any time left to become a has-been.” He became a soloist and performed with a wide variety of ensembles—the best documented might be a trio with pianist Monty Alexander and two of Frigo’s old compatriots, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. They played live (including a gig at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase) and recorded Triple Treat II and Triple Treat III with Frigo as a guest; those albums came out in 1988 and ’89, respectively, via the Concord Jazz label. Frigo could handle trad jazz, bebop, and modern jazz, and he next appeared on the swinging standards collection Live From Studio A in New York City, a 1988 recording with father-and-son guitar team Bucky and John Pizzarelli. He followed that with the cheekily titled 1994 album Debut of a Legend.
In 1999, Frigo released Renaissance Man, featuring his son Rick on drums and his second wife, Brittney Browne, on vocals, alongside local standbys such as bassist Larry Gray and harmonica player Howard Levy. Frigo’s other son, Derek, formerly a guitarist with 80s glam band Enuff Z’Nuff, had died of a drug overdose in 2004. Johnny Frigo himself passed away on July 4, 2007, at age 90, leaving behind a rich musical legacy as Chicago’s most beloved jazz violinist.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.