Dick Contino was born on January 17, 1930, in Fresno, CA to Pietro and Mary Contino. His love of the accordion started about 7-8 years old after eying his dad’s accordion in the home. Dick initially took local lessons. Pietro promised that if Dick could play 20 songs without sheet music, he would buy Dick a more sophisticated accordion. Within a couple of weeks, Dick played the 20 songs for his dad. Dad and Dick went to Guerrini (one of a few makers of high-end customized accordions at the time) in San Francisco and bought an accordion for Dick who was 12 years old. Thereafter Dick primarily studied accordion with well-known accomplished accordionists: Angelo Cagnazzo (San Francisco) and occasionally with Guido Deiro (Los Angeles). Dick had a great affection for Mr. Cagnazzo and it was reciprocated. Dick graduated from Fresno High School as senior class president and attended Fresno State College.
Fame came to Dick in winning the National Grand Prize (1948) of the Horace Heidt Show which began his extensive musical career. His 48 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were unprecedented. At the height of his career, 180,000 accordions were shipped from Italy to the US. After his service in Korea, Dick continued his professional music career at the Mocambo, a world-famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, CA (1952) where celebrities filled the audience. In 1956 Dick married actress Leigh Snowden and had a wonderful marriage and family until her death in 1982. Dick was again lucky in love when he married Judy Campbell later in life.
Dick had a successful musical career and inspired generations of accordion students. He is best known for his million sellers (e.g., “Lady of Spain,” “Granada” and “Tico Tico”) and his versatile repertoire of standards and Italian music. He enjoyed entertaining an audience throughout the USA, from showrooms in Las Vegas, NV, to many Italian events. He entertained on the “Dick Contino” stage for 35 years at Festa Italiana in Milwaukee, WI. Dick liked performing at the Cotati Accordion Festival where he was a popular accordion legend and appeared on the main stage 25 times. Dick was named the 1995 Honorary Director of the Cotati Accordion Festival.
Sadly on April 19, 2017 the world lost one of the most famous accordionists of all times. In Dick’s memory, the Dick and Judy Contino Accordion Scholarship supports talented youth and their accordion pursuits. (Biographical sketch submitted by Pamela Tom.)