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Sweetheart Al plays the squeeze box

Sweetheart Al plays the squeeze box

Posted By Sunny Lockwood

One evening late last spring, while I was working at my desk with the window open so I could listen to the wind and smell the fresh green unfurling, I heard what sounded like calliope music coming from Sweetheart Al’s studio above the garage.

We have an agreement when it comes to music. He plays his (country and western) in his studio. I play mine (classical and 20th century pop by Frank Sinatra, Julius La Rosa, etc.) in my office.

This arrangement enables us both to retain our characteristic good moods.

But the music I heard that evening filled my mind with pictures of Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and set me to wondering what in the world could be going on in his studio.

So I headed over there. When I entered, I saw something I’d never seen before: Sweetheart Al playing a big red accordion, wearing an equally big smile.

He’d told me long ago about his mother making him play the accordion much to his displeasure. He’d even shown me an old 8x10 black and white photograph of his accordion class. All the little kids in the picture were smiling except for one -- a very sad looking little boy in the back row. That was Al, the child who hated the accordion.

And now, here he was, so many decades later, enthusiastically squeezing out old fashioned tunes.

He stopped and said, "I got this on E-Bay. Isn’t it beautiful?" and then started to play again.

"Your mom must be spinning in her grave," I said.

After that, whenever I heard him playing, I smiled. If there’s one wonderful thing I can say about Al, it’s this: he’s full of pleasant surprises.

Then, I discovered that the little hamlet of Cotati, California, north of San Francisco, was having an accordion festival August 21 and 22, and I knew we had to go. We learned that this year’s was the 20th annual Cotati Accordion Festival. More investigation revealed that anyone who plays an accordion could bring their instrument to the festival and jam with others. It sounded like way too much fun to miss.

Sweetheart learned that the mid-afternoon jam would consist of playing the two classic accordion songs: Lady of Spain and Beer Barrel Polka.

He started practicing in earnest.

Friends Laura and Mark Novak joined us and we all spent Sunday, August 22, listening to happy music, eating healthy food and having easy-fun in Plaza Park.

Plaza Park boasts a large bronze statue of a man playing an accordion. That’s a first for me. I’ve seen bronze statues of soldiers on horses and authors like Mark Twain in city parks, but I’d never before seen a bronze accordion player in a city park.

There were booths selling accordions and famous accordion players like Dick Contino performing, but the best moment for me was when Sweetheart Al and about 30 others lined up at the foot of the main stage to belt out Lady of Spain and Beer Barrel Polka.

The music was loud and lively and the musicians were laughing as their fingers danced along the keys and buttons. The audience clapped and shouted in appreciation. What fun!

It turns out that Cotati has an amazing musical history. Back in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead played every Tuesday night at the Inn of the Beginning (a block from Plaza Park). Janis Joplin sang there as did Neil Young. Waylon Jennings played there and so did country artists Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams Jr. The list of famous singers and musicians who have performed in Cotati is long.

But the guy I’ll recall when I think of music in Cotati, is Sweetheart Al playing his big red accordion on a sunny August afternoon.

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