A Tribute to Nick Perito

Sept. 22, 2005

Final Notes: Nick Perito

by John Sawoski

Published in Overture, October 2005

I first met Nick Perito when I was playing second keyboard while he played piano and conducted the Riverside Philharmonic for Regis Philbin’s live show at Pala Casino. I remember thinking: “Who is this man? He plays so beautifully, gets a great sound and maintains complete control over the orchestra, and yet barely has to play a thing or lift an eyebrow to get the orchestra to follow his tempi and dynamics. What’s his secret?”

As it turned out, his secret was years of writing arrangements, accompanying, and conducting for artists from Perry Como to Diana Ross, and thereby knowing exactly what the musicians needed to see and hear. Luckily for me, Nick was happy to share his vast abilities and knowledge, especially after I told him I’m half Italian. From that moment on we were paisans, and he treated me like a son. While he never marketed himself as a teacher, Nick did give arranging lessons, to me and a few other lucky young pianists, arrangers, orchestrators, and musical directors. Nick was not only an inspiring and passionate fountain of practical musical knowledge, but one of the most warm, loving, and encouraging persons I have ever encountered. He and his wife Judy graciously welcomed me to their home, where Nick had his office and huge music library. He would show me his arrangements, share trade secrets, answer questions, go through my scores and discuss what worked and what didn’t, and rapidly fix things on the fly, as he often did in his live performances. It was a priceless but all too brief education, spanning a little over a year.

At one of my lessons, Nick showed me a video of an amazing arrangement he had done for a Taiwanese TV special where Jose Carreras and Diana Ross sang seamlessly alternating phrases of “Over the Rainbow” in E-flat and C, through the whole song. Thanks to Nick’s mastery of using the orchestra to support a singer, few audience members could sense the continuously alternating keys. Nick also shared the inspiring arrangements he did on Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme’s 1986 album Steve & Eydie and Friends Celebrate Gershwin, definitely worthy of study by all arrangers, for its dazzlingly fresh yet authentic treatment of Gershwin. At one of my lessons, Nick also actually wrote a few measures of woodwind parts that are in “my” arrangement of the Phantom Medley that The Leading Ladies performed on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Of course, as Nick always said, you can’t copyright an arrangement, so you might as well steal from the best (Nick also noted that by the time you use a “stolen” idea your own way, it’ll change anyway).

Shortly before my second (and unfortunately last) Regis Philbin gig with Nick, Nick gave a wonderful talk at an ASMAC luncheon, where he highlighted his book I Just Happened to Be There: Making Music With the Stars. After the book came out, when I asked Nick a question at one of my lessons, he would often tell me “That’s in my book.” Now, unfortunately, Nick’s book is the only way I can get more answers from him. Thank God he wrote it. So between the chapters I haven’t read from his book, and all the things he taught me that I have not yet fully integrated into my arsenal, I am still learning from him. And I will be forever thankful to my paisan Nick Perito.

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