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To the Beat of Drum: Drummer Michael Nigro Picks Up His Sticks and Talks about his Music Career and his Love for the Sport of Boxing

Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt

“Mike had been with Al for over 26 years and because of all these wonderful years that we have spent together, Mike has become our adopted son. Al was very lucky to finally lure Mike to join him as his drummer. Mike not only proved he was a fantastic drummer, but he is an amazing human being. I always told Mike that his parents did a great job raising him because he is a real gentleman. I can’t say enough about Mike, he is family to us. I love him.”-–Judi Martino (Widow of the Legendary Italian Singer Al Martino)

Through sadness, sometimes joy can come out of it. Last month, I did a tribute on RSR to the late Italian Crooner Al Martino who unexpectedly passed away at the age of 82, on October 13, 2009. His death was a shock to all because he was in great shape from all accounts and was actually getting ready to tour again in early 2010.

For many, Facebook has brought Al’s family, friends, acquaintances and fans together. They have been sharing stories, pictures, and videos that have helped his family get through this very sad time. Well, one of those close friends I was able to meet is Al’s former drummer of 26 years, Michael Nigro. Mike a born and bred Philly guy who has been playing drums since he was a young child, toured the world with Al and has worked with many musical legends over the years.

Nigro was lucky to have a neighbor who was in show business in the 1950’s named Jodie Sands who found some success in the music business singing. Sands took an interest in Mike and got him a lot of exposure, doing TV shows, benefit shows, and talent showcases. This would be Mike’s on the job training and it paid off.

So you put an Italian (Mike) and an Italian – Jew (Yours Truly) together, you get a conversation that lasted five hours with stories of music we grew up with, artists we knew or followed, and just more proof that an era has come and went when you had legends like Al Martino, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Vale and others gracing stages around the world. Oh yeah, we also got an interview in.

Drum Roll……Ladies and Gentlemen, RSR brings you Mr. Michael Nigro……

BB: For the RSR readers, what are you up to today?

Well, as you know, I was Al Martino’s drummer for the past 26 years. He took me all over the world, and I had the privilege, and honor to perform with the world’s finest musicians. Since we lost Al, I now will have to reevaluate my future. During my tenure with him, I did do shows for other artists, but Al was always priority number one. I still get calls for outside work, and the occasional “headliner.” I may decide to start teaching now, since I won’t be touring as much as I was when I was working with him. I can pass along the gift that was given to me.

BB: How did you first break into music and what instruments did you play?

I think that all drummers are frustrated bass players, myself included. I stick with what I know best which is the drums. When I was little I always wanted to play the trumpet. Then one day, my father came home from work with a pair of drumsticks. He gave them to me and I started gathering my mother’s pots and pans, cardboard boxes, and anything else I could find to bang on. A day or so later, my father said to his friend who gave him the drumsticks, “This may sound crazy, but it doesn’t sound like noise when Michael is banging away on those pots and pans. Could you come and see him and tell us what you think?”

The following weekend, my father’s friend, Ritchie Heil, came to the house to watch me play. He put on one record after another and told me to play along. When I was finished, Ritchie said to my father, “He can play all different styles of music, Rock, Jazz, Latin, etcetera. Your son is a natural drummer. Send him to this man for lessons.” That man was named Armand Santarelli, who was a protégé of jazz great Joe Morello. I was nine years old at the time.

I was also very fortunate to have a neighbor who was in show business in the 50’s, singer Jodie Sands. She had a couple of hit records in the 50’s and was handled by Bob Marcucci, who also found Fabian. She took an interest in me and got me a lot of exposure, TV shows, benefit shows, talent showcases…anything to get me some experience.

From there things just seemed to snowball for me. I played in many different types of musical settings since I was 10 years old: rock bands, club bands, wedding bands, dinner theater, and even 17 piece big bands. While performing at a talent showcase, an agent who was in the audience asked my parents if I would be interested in making national television commercials. The very first commercial I made my role was what else, a drummer. I was now a member of the Screen Actors Guild and under contract for three years to be an actor. Those commercials bought my first set of professional drums!

After High School, I was a member of a local Big Band that backed up many “headline” acts at a place called The Woodbine Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey. It was there that I was offered a job with a comedy team named Fisher & Marks. I went out on the road with them for three years. I was performing with them in Atlantic City at The Claridge Casino when I was first approached by Al Martino who offered me a job as his drummer. Ironically, Fisher & Marks use to be Al’s opening act for years.

BB: Growing up, who were some of the musicians you looked up to?

Thanks to my dad, I learned to listen to all different styles of music. He taught me a great lesson one day by telling me, “You don’t have to like the music, but you have to learn how to play it.” This being said, the musicians I looked up to were very diversified. Frank Sinatra was always being played in my house. Others include Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, all the Big Bands (Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman), The Beatles, Tower Of Power, Yes, Billy Joel, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. There were so many.

BB: If you had to pick only one night in your career where you thought, “Mike, you nailed it tonight,” which one would you pick?

That’s a very tough question Brad. That’s like asking me which one of my sons are my favorite (Big laugh). I try to make every single performance I give my very best. Like most artists, you always strive to do better every night. But if you need an answer, I would say the night I played in Atlantic City and I impressed Al Martino who in turn gave me so many years of experience, knowledge, and friendship. I must have done something right that night!

BB: Do you think music has changed since you first got into it and if so, how?

Yes, it definitely has changed. It has to change. That’s the way you grow as a musician. Trying something that is new, something that is different. Although I will say that I don’t like all of the music that is being offered today. That’s just the way it is. Different strokes for different folks.

I personally like structure in music. It seems like a lot of the music today is not really thought out as well as they did years ago. OK granted, when I was young we had the usual 3 chord songs, but they said something. They had melody. You don’t hear too many songs nowadays that have a good melody. Sometimes it seems that they take a step backwards instead of forward. Some of the music I hear today on radio is insulting to a studied musician.

BB: You appeared with Al on the CD Al Martino Live in Concert. What was it like working that concert that night and how do you feel about the finished product that came out in 1993?

If I remember correctly, we recorded that concert sometime in 1991. The original idea at the time was to film the show and release it on video. However, I think that they had some technical problems with the lighting so the video idea was scrapped. The producer then sold the tapes to the BBC in England. They were the very first to release the concert on CD in 1991. It was only available in England at that time.

It was then released here in America on the Laserlight label in 1993. Unfortunately, this release omitted a 12 minute medley called “The Big Band Medley.” I have no idea why this was not included on the American release. I was a little disappointed about that.

The orchestra on that concert was top notch. We contracted all the top players from Atlantic City.

I remember telling Al that as much as I liked his original recording of “Here In My Heart” that he did in 1952, and his remake in 1959 which I thought was even better than the original version because his voice had matured a bit, his performance of “Here In My Heart” from that concert was the greatest version that he ever recorded. You can hear all the vocal technique that Al possessed on that track. Soft, smooth, and powerful and if you want to hear a singer with great breath control, just give this track a listen.

BB: I want to throw some names out to you that you have worked with over the years and give me some of your thoughts on each.

Al Martino-

Al had the best pipes in the business…bar none! I know of no other singer that could sing their hit records in the same key that they were originally recorded. And I’m talking about over a 50 year span! That is a feat in itself. Anyone who knows Al’s repertoire will know that his songs were not easy to sing. They were big and powerful songs. I know of no other singer that can make this claim.

When Al performed at Billy Joel’s 50th birthday party, I was standing right next to Billy when he told Al how he couldn’t believe how beautiful and powerful his voice remained after all these years. He told Al that his voice was shot, and Billy was only 50 years old at the time. Al was in his 70’s.

I have countless stories of Al performing when he was not feeling 100%. Of course no one with the exception of myself and Al’s conductor knew this. One example, we had a three week tour of Florida and Al had about 15 shows to do. He did them all…with a cracked rib, a kidney stone, and a hernia!

That’s the truth….That’s “Old School” brother. Al was the consummate professional and he had class.

Jerry Vale

I first met Jerry way back in 1981 when I was working at The Claridge Casino in Atlantic City. We would spend a lot of time together since he was friends with Fisher & Marks. I didn’t find this out until years later, but Jerry would ask Fisher & Marks if I could play drums for his performances at The Claridge. Since we were off when a “headliner” was at the theater, Jerry thought that I could work for him. Fisher & Marks told him “NO!” I couldn’t believe it.

They thought that I would leave their act for Jerry. Through the years, Al & Jerry did many shows together on the same bill, but I never played for him…just Al. I use to say to Jerry that I’ve known you for years and I have never played your show. I finally got to play Jerry’s show at The Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. It only took 25 years to accomplish this.

Joe Piscopo

Joe is a very talented and wonderful human being.

I first met him in 2004 when I got a last minute call to play his show in Connecticut. Joe’s show consists of singing and comedy. In addition to this, he also plays guitar, piano, flute, saxophone, and drums in his shows.

Joe and I hit it off right from the start. I enjoyed playing his show and told him anytime you need me, just give me a call. To my amazement, he called me two weeks later. I was unavailable. A month later he called again, I was unavailable. I told his people that I hope he understands and that I hope he will call me again. In this business, if you don’t answer the first time, they usually move on to the next guy and forget about you. Well, Joe didn’t forget about me. I’ve done many of his shows since then including The Montreal Jazz Festival where we shared the stage with Dave Brubeck, and Gino Vanelli.

When Joe had a two month engagement at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, he not only asked me to be his drummer, but also wanted me to be his Musical Director.

BB: If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only have one movie and one CD, what would they be?

My movie choice is The Godfather. The CD choice is a tough one. If I can only have one my choice is The Beatles White Album…in mono.

BB: What “words of wisdom” can you impart on the young man or woman wanting to break into the music business as a drummer?

STUDY! Find a good teacher to help develop your technique. Listen to all kinds of music, not just what you like. Try to be an original and not a carbon copy of someone else. My teacher use to tell me, “Listen to everyone, steal from them, and develop it into something all your own.” Why would you want to just copy what someone else already played on a record? Music is feeling. Music is emotion. It should come from the heart.

BB: When did you first start following the sport of boxing?

I started following boxing because of my father. He loved boxing. We would always watch any fight that was televised. When I was younger that meant watching ABC’s Wide World Of Sports every Saturday afternoon with my dad and my brothers. My dad would tell us about all the great fighters from way back to the present day. I was amazed that he could remember so much about so many boxers.

BB: Who are your top three fighters of all-time and why?

Rocky Marciano has to be my first pick. Although he was before my time, I’ve seen many of his bouts on ESPN Classics. The man was unbelievable. I once asked the great Willie Pep what made Marciano so great? We all know that he was undefeated, but he also came from behind to win some of those fights. He told me that Rocky would come in and punish their arms so badly that after a while they couldn’t even hold them up to defend themselves. Then he would come in for the kill.

Following a very close second is Muhammad Ali. I’ve never seen a boxer who could take a punch like Ali. The man was only knocked down 4 times in his career! With a record of 56 wins and only 5 losses, he had 37 KO’s! He made a lot of people dislike him through the years with his mouth, but you have to give the man his due. He was most definitely one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Then you have Joe Frazier. Being from Philadelphia, I grew up loving Joe Frazier. Philly gave the sport of boxing some incredible fighters, but Joe was always one of my all time favorites. He had such heart and determination. I remember that I almost cried when he lost the belt in Kingston, Jamaica to George Foreman in 1973, being knocked down a total of six times in two rounds.

BB: Do you have any stories about fighters you have known?

Would you believe that I played drums for Joe Frazier on a couple of occasions? Joe would stop by to see a friend of his by the name of Sonny Averone who was singing at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Joe would come up on stage and sing his version of My Way. He had special lyrics written for the song that told a story about his life.

When I was working in Atlantic City in the early 80’s with Fisher & Marks, I became friendly with Middleweight Champ Joey Giardello. We would go to some matches together at The Claridge, and The Tropicana. He was always a lot of fun to be with. He had an incredible sense of humor. I always had a great time when I was with Joey. This May there will be a statue put up in South Philadelphia honoring him.

I shared the stage twice with Middleweight Champion Jake Lamotta. He was an opening act for Al Martino. The promoter of the show didn’t hire a drummer to play for Jake. He told me to play for the opening act. At this time I didn’t know the opening act was Jack LaMotta. I told the promoter that I don’t play for the opening acts, just Mr. Martino. Well, I held up the show for about 15 minutes. Then Al told me to go on stage and play for Jake. I said “Jake who?” When he said “Jake LaMotta,” I almost died. Here I was this little kid telling “The Raging Bull” that I won’t play for him. I almost died!

I also had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with fighters Willie Pep, and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Willie was a huge fan of Al Martino’s and he never missed a show when we played in Connecticut. Ray was also friendly with Al and we met for lunch or dinner many times through the years.

BB: If you had to pick one fighter since the day you started following boxing, who do you feel moved the sport ahead the most and why?

Without a doubt, Muhammad Ali. Not only was he quick and sharp with his punches, he was just as sharp with his comments. Ali kept the sport of boxing in the news more than anyone else. And for the most part it had to do with boxing! Who can forget all those interviews with Howard Cosell? I always wanted Ali to really take off Cosell’s toupee (Big Laugh)! People who weren’t even born when Ali was in his prime will still know the saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”…and they will know who said it as well.

BB: Is there one boxing match in all your years of following the sport that you would say that was the single most exciting fight I have ever seen?

I know you asked for one fight, but I have to pick the Arturo Gatti – Micky Ward trilogy. If you watch any of these bouts I don’t think you will ever see a match with so much action, guts, and determination from both fighters. From the first round to the last, Gatti and Ward gave their all. You just don’t get to see matches like this anymore. When Gatti and Ward stepped into the ring, you knew that it was going to be an exciting match.

BB: Who are some of the fighters you follow today?

I always liked to watch Oscar De La Hoya. He was a Class Act. I think he should have retired when he was on top of his game. A great fighter like that should know when to stop. Floyd Mayweather, JR., is another favorite. I also enjoy watching Ricky Hatton. The guy I like to watch now is Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao. He looked great in his big win over Miguel Cotto recently.

BB: Do you feel the sport of boxing has moved ahead or backwards since you first started following it?

I think it moved backwards. Everything now is about the almighty dollar. This is not to say that there are not great fighters now, there are many, but the promoters seem to think they are more important than the fights or fighters themselves. This is a great sport with a big following. Respect the boxer. Respect the sport.

BB: What is your favorite boxing movie of all-time and why?

There are lots of choices for this question. But I will go with the first Rocky film. I was born and raised in South Philly. As a young kid I watched them film scenes for this movie in my neighborhood. I remember the night my friends and I watched them film a scene where Rocky asks the Priest for his blessing before he went to fight Apollo Creed. This was filmed at the school yard where I went to grade school. I know it’s not a big deal, but it is when you’re only 15 years old. After you watch this film, you feel like you can take on the whole world.

BB: Who is your favorite Boxing Commentator?

Howard Cosell was my favorite commentator growing up. He had a style all his own. Even if the fight wasn’t the most thrilling fight you ever saw, Howard had a way of making it exciting.

Larry Merchant does a great job as well for HBO Sports.

If you ever watch the old fights on ESPN Classic, the master was Don Dunphy. Naturally, years ago lots of people listened to the fights. Dunphy made you know everything that was happening during the fight. That was a commentator!

BB: If you could change one thing in boxing today, what would you change and why?

The divisions. I don’t know who’s the champ anymore. I know that there were other people who you have interviewed who have said the very same thing, but it’s true. When I was younger, we knew all the champs in all the divisions. There’s just too many divisions nowadays to keep track of.

This may not pertain to your question but one other thing I would like to see an end to is the language used by some boxers during their after fight interviews. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude by any means. But when they use foul language on live television it shows a lack of class for themselves and for the sport of boxing.

BB: Do you favor a mandatory retirement fund for all boxers and if so, how would you like to see it accomplished?

Yes, I do. They could handle it like any other union. While your active and making money, they can take a percentage out of your purse and use it toward a retirement fund. It would have been nice if this was done many years ago when the fighters didn’t receive millions of dollars for a single fight. They are the ones who really need it. If you make millions upon millions of dollars while a pro and you lose it all, that’s just stupidity on their part. The older fighters who made peanuts when they fought really deserve it more.

BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?

“Don’t depend on anyone to do anything for you in life but yourself.”

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