Johnny Frigo: 1916 to 2007
Jazz violinist and bassist Johnny Frigo spent most of his career in Chicago but crossed many musical boundaries along the way. One of the last survivors of the early generation of jazz violinists that included Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti, Frigo, 90, died in Chicago July 4 after suffering a fall.
He began playing violin in his youth, cultivating a formidable ability to swing, but played bass fiddle far more frequently. After World War II, Frigo made a major contribution to jazz as bassist for the Soft Winds, a vocal-instrumental group similar to the Nat King Cole Trio. Two songs the group (including jazz guitar great Herb Ellis) co-wrote, “Detour Ahead” and “I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out”, became jazz standards.
After Soft Winds dissolved, Frigo moved effortlessly into radio and session work. He led the Sage Riders for fifteen years on Chicago’s legendary “National Barn Dance” during its waning years on radio and spent 35 years in Chicago’s thriving recording scene as a first-call bassist (occasionally doubling fiddle). He recorded commercial jingles and accompanied everyone from Chet Atkins and Pee Wee King to Mahalia Jackson, remaining in demand by learning electric bass.
In the mid-1980s, he concentrated again on jazz violin, his rhythmically aggressive yet versatile swing style intact and in fine form. He played various venues, the Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering, a Soft Winds reunion, and a “Tonight Show” appearance that dazzled Johnny Carson. Gleefully eclectic, even occasionally dabbling in fusion, Frigo remained at home with veteran and younger musicians.