In the 1950s and early '60s, virtually every city in the country had a top jazz or R&B organist. If you owned a club, the organ's ability to impersonate the tonality of virtually any instrument meant you could hire one player and wind up with the sound of a full orchestra. And, if the player was deft with his or her feet, you'd also have a bassist. The organist was a one-person band who only needed the services of a drummer. Additional musicians were gravy.
In Boston, one of those top local organists was Joe Bucci, who was born in 1927 in Malden, Mass. There's little on Bucci's life story before the early 1960s, so it's hard to piece together what he was doing for 30-plus years before being discovered in 1961 by Count Basie playing in Lynn, Mass. According to Richard Vacca, author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles (Troy Street):
"Bucci’s big break came at the Agganis Arena in Lynn on Aug 21, 1961, Count Basie’s 57th birthday. Bucci and drummer Joe Riddick opened the show for Basie. Impressed, the Count booked Bucci for a month at his New York club. He also put in some good words in the right places, and Bucci was on the program at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival and recording for Capitol."
The Capitol release was Wild About Basie!, an album of Basie hits with Bucci on organ backed only by Riddick. Following the Basie album, Bucci continued to play many Boston-area clubs but was most often found at Lennie's on the Turnpike in Peabody, Mass. What made Bucci special was his ability to swing and recreate the sound of the Basie band on the organ, not to mention replicating the string sound of an upright bass using his pedals.
As Richard Vacca notes, "With an electronics engineer, Bucci had customized his Hammond B-3, adding a string bass module, a set of vibes in a detached cabinet that he played from the keyboard, and a third keyboard cannibalized from another Hammond to provide instrument sounds ranging from baritone sax to banjo. Bucci nicknamed this three manual-keyboard organ 'the Monster,' and it could sound like a whole section of the Basie band, a noteworthy achievement in those pre-synthesizer days."
Why Capitol didn't bother to record a few more albums with Bucci is anyone's guess. Perhaps Bucci's Basie thing had run its course with the label or Bucci didn't want to tour to promote additional recordings. Bucci did record two additional albums on the Intro label—Bucci Goes Two for the Show, with Neal Bernson on drums in the mid-1960s, and 'Round Midnight Blue, a live recording in 1976 with his son, Joe Jr., on drums and vocalist Martha Maxwell. Both are impossible to find.
Bucci died in 2008.
JazzWax tracks: Joe Bucci's Wild About Basie! was never released digitally and is only available on vinyl at eBay. You'll find Topsy and Lil' Darlin' from the album on Spotify.
JazzWax clips: Here's Splanky...
Here's Lil' Darlin'...
And here's Topsy...
A special thanks to Bob Putnam and Doug Paterson.