Saturday, September 12, 2009


The organist Papa John DeFrencesco was born on September 12th, 1940, in Niagara Falls, New York, the son of a remarkable Sicilian-born musician, Joe DeFrancesco, who was a member of the Dorsey Brothers swing band and had the uncanny ability to quickly learn and play nearly any musical instrument.

Exposed to music at an early age by his father, John DeFrancesco began playing bugle and trumpet at age 6. After forming a band with several school mates, DeFrancesco played his first professional gig at just 13, at a local nightclub in Niagara Falls.
In 1959, at age 19, DeFrancesco encountered jazz organ legend Jimmy Smith and the course of John’s life was seemingly forever altered. He had become enamored with the organ. Three years after hearing Jimmy Smith perform, DeFrancesco acquired his first Hammond organ, a spinet, and immersed himself in learning to play it. He quickly graduated to the Hammond B-3 and began to play it professionally.

Gigging in the Buffalo, New York area, DeFrancesco began making a name for himself. It wasn’t long before he made the acquaintance of several prominent jazz artists, notably jazz organist Jack McDuff, singer/band leader Cab Calloway, and another newcomer to the Hammond B-3, Dr. Lonnie Smith. DeFrancesco would later move to Philadelphia and become a key player in the Philly jazz scene.
Meanwhile, the birth of his children brought not only the addition of the word “Papa” to his name, but also resulted in changes in DeFrancesco’s intended career path. Choosing instead to stay home with his growing family, DeFrancesco made a conscious decision to stop touring. Perhaps as a result of that decision, he now finds himself the Patriarch of a remarkable and burgeoning musical clan. He and his progeny have helped add a new chapter to the history of jazz. And, noone should be surprised if his grandchildren eventually add to that legacy. They are all involved in music at some level.

DeFrancesco's son, Joey, started playing professionally at a very young age. His meteoric rise to prominence as a jazz organist is credited (by many) with reviving interest in the organ as a legitimate jazz instrument. Yet others regard Joey DeFrancesco as perhaps the greatest jazz organist of all-time. His son Johnny DeFrancesco is a talented and successful blues / jazz guitarist and recording artist.

Papa John had essentially placed his own career “on the back burner” while mentoring and managing his remarkable musical offspring. Nevertheless, DeFrancesco has played with many noted jazz musicians including George Benson, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, David “Fathead” Newman, and many others.

DeFrancesco has also managed to record 8 albums as a solo artist, and continues to be in demand for live performances. His most recent album Desert Heat, released in 2007, demonstrates Papa John’s continued prowess on the Hammond B-3. It contains fine performances by both Papa John and Joey DeFrancesco and includes extraordinary renditions of such classics as “Cold Duck Time” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” Also performing ably on this album are bassist Tony Banda and drummer/percussionist Ramon Banda.

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