Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ROSA RIO - Organ Failure at age 107

The legendary Hammond organist Rosa Rio has died. Her fanfares, flourishes and freaky spine-chilling runs up and down the keyboard were featured on dozens of famous NBC radio shows over three decades. She also played on live TV soap operas such as "As The World Turns."

She was featured in organ concerts at Town Hall and other venues around the country and played live accompaniment for endless revivals of silent films (most notably The Tampa Theater near her Florida home). She also recorded soundtracks for silent movies re-issued through Video Yesteryear and had the time to make a few record albums, too. She was the "Woman of the Wurlitzer" and "Queen of the Hammond" in her illustrious career.

Rosa Rio (born Elizabeth Raub, June 2, 1902 – May 13, 2010) was from New Orleans. She attended schools in Ohio and then in Rochester, New York where she studied music and eventually got a job in a silent movie theater in Syracuse re-running her score for the same movie six times a day. She later played the giant Wurlitzer at the Brooklyn Fox theater

She also tried to master the Hammond…her husband John Hammond. Was it possible that she heard one too many Hammond organ jokes? Her marriage to John Hammond didn't last, but she performed yeoman duties for her second husband, Bill Yeoman, whom she wed in 1947. Now 90, he survives her. He was also her manager, and put together tours for her "Trio Hammond Organ Concerts" with Ashley Miller and Bill Dalton.

By the time of their marriage, Rosa had starred in her own radio show "Rosa Rio Rhythms," adopted "Everything's Coming up Roses" as her theme, and was one of the busiest keyboard players in the world, performing on stage, coaching vocalists and adding musical themes and stings to the era's funniest comedies and spookiest suspense thrillers. Nothing could stop her, including announcer Dorian St. George, who once unbuttoned the back of her dress and unhooked her bra while she was performing live in front of a studio audience. Later, when St. George stood in front of the microphone, script in hand, to deliver a commercial message, Rosa snuck behind him and pulled down his pants.

The lively organist recorded show tunes and standards for Vox, and when the need for live organ music vanished in the 60's, she moved to Shelton, Connecticut to work as a piano teacher and voice coach. (Her credits as a voice coach included work with Mary Martin on Broadway.) Not too far from Shelton was the office for David J. Goldin's Video Yesteryear/Radiola company, and in the 70's when home VCR's became popular, he hired her to score hundreds of silent films, from "Farmer Gray" Terrytoons shorts to the classics of Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton. In 1993 Rosa moved to Florida but never retired. She performed live at the classic Tampa Theatre, which screened the classic silent films for an audience that probably included ex-silent film stars.

Rosa Rio, at 107, still came to the theater to accompany a classic silent film, her fingers expertly finding every note and nuance. She broke her hip three months ago, and an infection set in. Despite the setbacks, she still practiced at home on her grand piano, and it was only within the last two weeks that she was unable to play her favorite music. She died in her sleep. She had given the world music professionally for over 80 years, and had only recently given up her true age. Up until a birthday party in 2007, her answer to that question was: "Age is just a number, and mine's unlisted." She also guarded her real name, which her husband only revealed once the obituary writers came calling.

She never forgot the first time she heard an organist play in a silent film theater: "I stayed for the second show just to hear it again. And when I walked out on the street, I looked up at the sky as if to say a prayer. I said thanks. I now know what I want to be in my life. I laugh and say, 'As long as I can play, lift me on the bench, I'll play.' "

Your download is a seven minute medley of "stings," radio themes and a cute version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," all from a Golden Age of Radio interview/broadcast in 1971. You'll even hear a few words from the grand Rosa Rio herself.



Terry Snyder said...

The loss of Ms. Rio is both a personal and public loss. Ms. Rio's contribution to the arts, the leadership of women in America, performance excellence and dedication to hard work which she made seem effortless is immense. I will miss her lively nature and friendly acceptance of all people she encountered. Rosa was a model human being for peace and love.

Anonymous said...

There is another one like Rosa Rio:
Herbert Benton "Ben" Connor. Ben never tells his age until he died 12 days shy of 84 years of age. Connor is related to two heroes: Park Ranger Nicholas Edward "Nick" Hall and "Uncle" Alan Burton Hall! Connor is related to Napoleon Bonaparte and he is part Italian.