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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Bright Songs In Tragic Times

Ron Onesti:  Bright Songs in Tragic Times

Today I was walking down my “birthzone” of Taylor Street and it reminded me of an old guy I miss dearly. He was a very good friend who is from my “Old Neighborhood.  His name is Al Centofante and he was a proud WWII veteran!  We held one of those drive-by parades for his 95th birthday a couple of years back in St. Charles where he lived with what turned out to be well over one hundred vehicles!  Although it was during the lockdown time it was nothing short of fabulous!

Countless American flags placed on the parade route and fluttering in the wind outside numerous sunroofs added to the emotional tribute to one of the last of a generation we were honoring on this day.

As the procession advanced slowly through his cul-de-sac, I thought about the decades past since he was a United States Navy Communications Specialist.  So many wonderful occasions, experiences and historic moments, and also, the horrible realities of life that went with them.  And with what we are all going through now, I think of the music that got them through it all.

Of course, there was that Big-Band sound of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and a few others that helped the homesick soldiers get through the lonely nights, as they stared at the corner-worn photos of their stateside sweeties.

“God Please Protect America” was an actual pop song by Jimmie Osborne out during the Korean War in the 1950s.  This was a profound song on the AM radios of the day that could apply to the challenges of generations to come.  For many of us who weren’t around then, the theme from M*A*S*H comes to mind when reflecting on this period.

At The Arcada, we have had Eric Burdon, the frontman from “The Animals” of the British Invasion on numerous occasions.  When he performs “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” and “The House Of The Rising Sun”, it is truly wonderful to look out into the audience and see the brotherhood of Viet Nam War vets in their camouflage jackets scattered about, singing in unison.  Visions of those Army-green helicopters, millions of wounded soldiers and college-age protesters come to life for me every time I hear those tunes.

Tony Orlando (from Tony Orlando & Dawn) has come to be family to us here at The Arcada.  One of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met.  His song “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” is one of the most popular songs to be played on our stage.  From a military standpoint, we today remember it used as millions of yellow ribbons were tied around trees awaiting the return of hostages from the Iran Crisis.  But it was actually used in 1974 to welcome returning military personnel from Viet Nam.

The space shuttle “Challenger” disaster occurred in 1986, and I can remember John Denver doing a song called, “Flying For Me” as a tribute to those lost in the accident.  Its such an interesting story.  Denver said in an interview that he personally initiated a “civilian-in-space” concept while the development of the space station was being done.  He wanted to be that first person, but President Reagan at the time decided to send a teacher instead- Christa McAuliffe, to join the astronauts on board.  Upon seeing the newscast of the explosion, he wrote the song in memory of those who “Flew for us”, and to Christa who “Flew for him”.

Just after the 911 tragedy, we had the 80th Birthday celebration for Patti Page.  She was the biggest female pop star in the “Fabulous-Fifties” era.  Her hit song, “Tennessee Waltz” was another tune that helped the Vets get through the cold Korean nights.

In the middle of her show, she paused to pay tribute to those lost in the terrorist attacks.  She had a slow and soft demeanor, and her gentle words brought us all closer together under the banner of freedom and solidarity we were all experiencing at the time.

She then broke out into a tune that literally tore out every heart in the sold-out audience.  It was a letter from the daughter of a pilot of one of the planes that went down.  It spoke to the level of pride she had in him and how much she and her soon-to-be-born child will forever miss his warm hugs.  It was a moment I will never forget.

That brings us back to today.  Amongst massive racism, protestors, looters and a pandemic, here stood this lively nonagenarian (someone between 90 and 99 years old, I had to look this one up), smiling from ear to ear, still proud of the country he fought for seventy-five years ago.  It is his efforts back then and his smile now that will help me get through the challenges of today.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” came out when Al Centofante (and Al Onesti, my dad) were just four years old.  Now that we are basically back singing that timeless song again, arm in arm, altogether safe, eating meatballs and attending concerts, I look up and toast those guys we lost during the pandemic.  I wish their last years could have been better.  But their memories will live on through the music, and their spirit will never leave us, no matter what tries to get in the way!