Pat Curtis has a thick scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from a lifetime in music. The articles date back to 1954, when he was a 25-year old playing with Al Solito and the Solitones, but by then he was already an old pro.
“I must’ve been about nine years old,” he told me recently, “and I played accordion. I was in a 40-piece accordion band. Can you imagine forty accordions playing ‘Silent Night!’
“I was in a band called Godfrey Flux and his Rainbow Accordion Band. My first gig was at the old armory downtown off of City Hall Avenue. It was called the Police Jollification, raising money to buy kids toys. I remember they had little cotton balls falling out of the ceiling as we were playing ‘Jingle Bells.’”
Curtis has come a long way since those childhood days. For as long as most folks can remember, he’s been the on-call pianist and bandleader whenever a visiting big-name performer needs accompaniment, and he’s lent his musical hand to a long list of charity events and jazz festivals. He was honored by the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians earlier this year for his contributions to the regional music scene, and last month he was presented a lifetime achievement award by Mayor Paul Fraim and the Norfolk City Council.
“I was born in 1929,” he said, “conceived in Earl Court Apartments right across from City Park. My father had a home built in Estabrook, but when the Depression hit he lost it and we moved to Fairmont Park. I went to Coleman Place grammar school. After everything settled, in 1940 my father built a home in Norview and I went to Norview High.
“I was around thirteen when I started playing piano. I had a teacher whose name was Frank Sylvester.”
After high school, he attended the Norfolk Division of William & Mary, a two-year junior college that became Old Dominion University, then opened a studio at Ward’s Corner where he taught with his former music teacher. In 1950, he got a steady gig playing as well as teaching.
“My first professional job was with Al Solito,” he recalled. “I played accordion and piano. We worked steady, five or six nights a week, at the main Naval Base Officers Club. We’d go back and forth between that and Little Creek. We had that locked up for a number of years—we’d do dinner sessions and dance things.
“It was a nice job with Al—I bought a new ’49 Mercury with twin spotlights and I had a nice blue dinner jacket. But a few days later, I get this thing in the mail that says, ‘Greetings.’ It was the call to go into the service. I went to Fort Meade, Maryland, and was in the 449th Observation Battalion as a forward observer.”
He spent two years in the army, joining the band while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. One of his bandmates was Max Bennett, a bassist who would later become a top west coast studio musican and work with Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Frank Zappa and Joan Baez.
“I learned more from Max than from any college,” Curtis said with typical humility. “I really had no talent, but that was when I first started relating one tune to another tune, rhythm changes and that sort of thing. I never really knew too much about that until I got around those guys.
“They accepted me in the band but they told me I’d have to learn to play the tuba and keep it clean. I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ I walked in the room the first day, saluted and said, ‘PFC Curtis reporting, sir.’ And they said, ‘We don’t do that shit around here!’ So it got to be a real snap. I spent two years in the army, came back, and Al Solito had kept my job for me.”
The job with Solito lasted until 1962, when Curtis began leading his own bands. Among his scrapbook clippings are an ad and a couple of articles about the 1968 Kiwanis Jazz Festival at the old Virginia Beach Dome, listing the Pat Curtis Brass alongside the Miles Davis Quintet and jazz singing great Joe Williams.
“I was good at writing and arranging,” he explained, “and I started writing for four brass—two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm. We did jazz but we did a lot of those Herb Alpert things too.”
Perhaps his best remembered gig was an eleven-year residency at the Omni Hotel (now the Sheraton) on the Norfolk waterfront.
“It was a sweetheart contract,” he said. “I had two weeks paid vacation; I could stay at any Omni Hotel in the world, no charge; I had my own parking space. And I had health insurance!”
Curtis is almost as well known as a piano teacher as he is as a performer.
“That was my forte,” he said. “I turned out some good students. One fellow by the name of Tim Lovelace is a very fine concert pianist. Another one, John Cavanaugh, I said, ‘you’re gonna be a composer one of these days,’ and he’s been writing for Disney for a number of years.
“And, of course, Bruce Hornsby. He was in high school, and he didn’t know anything about chords or progressions and he couldn’t read. But he could sing and do Elton John, and he did it well. I taught him scales, theory and chord changes. He’d go home and practice four or five hours a day, then come back all the way from Williamsburg and take his lessons. I got him started, but his success was really his own. The style he developed is very different and that’s why he’s Bruce Hornsby. He’s got chops galore. He and his family are all super people.”
A lot of folks think Pat Curtis is pretty super himself. He and his wife Paula have been married for 55 years:
“I met Paula on a blind date going to a Demolay dance. She lived at Ocean View on the water. She was sixteen and I guess I must have been eighteen. It really was love at first sight.
“Music is the only thing I ever did; I don’t think I ever had a real job. We raised four children and we have eleven grandchildren.”
It’s been a good life together for Pat and Paula Curtis, but this summer brought terrible sadness. Their eldest son died in an automobile accident while driving home from the outer banks. His car hydroplaned in a rainstorm on Route 168.
“It’s very difficult to get over that,” he said. “He would have been 54. Everybody loved him; he was really a great guy.”
Pat Curtis’ performance schedule is not as busy these days as it once was. He’s been battling cancer for the last five years.
“At first it stayed in the prostate,” he said, “but then it went everywhere. But I haven’t really been in any pain. I’ve lost some weight, but I’ve been doing well with it, my energy isn’t all that bad. I had some new radioactive stuff put in me.”
Next spring, he’ll have a star embedded in the Granby Street sidewalk in front of the Roper Center where he will join his former student Bruce Hornsby and longtime friend Tommy Newsom in the Legends of Music Walk of Fame. An undated, aging yellowed clipping from that scrapbook sums up why:
“Pat Curtis knows exactly what the devil he is doing. No sham, no gimmickry, no silly format—just plain honest musicianship.”
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.