1:07 PM CST, December 5, 2012
In the 1980s, Tony Andriacchi was almost as famous in Chicago as his heroes Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were around the world.
Audiences queued up to hear one of the most lustrous male voices to come out of this city, an instrument that Andriacchi used with such skill that Sinatra and Bennett applauded him at the Pump Room, where Andriacchi reigned early in that decade.
But Andriacchi eventually got "burned out" by the business, he told the Tribune, quitting in 1988 and staying away for 15 years before launching a series of comeback attempts that never quite took flight.
Andriacchi died Tuesday morning in his home in Arlington Heights, at age 57, said his cousin, Carmen Caringella. Results of an autopsy are pending.
"He was a top singer," said veteran Chicago singer-guitarist Frank D'Rone.
"He made you think, 'Nobody sings that well,'" said Nick Pullia, communications director at the Ravinia Festival and an admirer of Andriacchi's who helped the vocalist obtain several bookings there.
"He had an incredible technique, he knew microphone technique, and he also had this love of the music he sang."
Indeed, that love was palpable in Andriacchi's work, which radiated tremendous lyric warmth in the ballads and a cappella passages that were his musical signatures. Like another great vocalist who came out of Chicago, Mel Torme, Andriacchi was not intimidated by the high note, the delicate tone, the supple phrase.
"I love to hear him sing," vocalist Karen Mason told the Tribune in 1982, when Andriacchi's career was riding high. "Usually, male singers try to be so macho that when they try to do a ballad, there's something unreal about it. Tony isn't afraid to show that he does feel some pain. Aside from that, he has an incredible voice."
Born in Chicago on Dec. 24, 1954, Andriacchi was the son of a truck driver and a hair-salon owner and began studying piano at 5. His natural talent earned him the nickname "the Liberace of Elmwood Park" at his west suburban high school. But after hearing Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli in concert, a teenaged Andriacchi decided he had to sing and embarked upon his career — after taking one voice lesson.
"I had the best teachers," he told the Tribune in 2010, referring to recordings by Streisand and Minnelli, as well those by Bennett, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Andriacchi learned everything he needed to know about phrasing, breathing and finding the subtext of a lyric simply by listening to their recordings over and over and over, he said. An engagement he won at the Pump Room in 1979 and a longer, follow-up run starting in 1980 made him a boldfaced name in Chicago newspaper columns and earned him effusive critical praise.
"I had all these people telling me, 'It's gonna happen; you know it's gonna happen; soon it's gonna happen,'" Andriacchi recalled in the Tribune interview, referring to predictions of imminent national acclaim. "Well, you start to believe that."
But Andriacchi was the right singer for the wrong era, with even giants such as Bennett and Sinatra struggling in a rock-oriented recording industry that had little use for vintage, ultra-sophisticated, jazz-tinged singing. Starting in 1983, Andriacchi began a five-year run at the Sabre Room in Hickory Hills, consistently packing a venue that seated 1,300 with anachronistic covers of Phil Collins, Lionel Richie and Peabo Bryson.
"I fell into the trap of not developing my craft, not listening to who I should have been listening to," Andriacchi said in the Tribune interview. "I had the pop mannerisms down pat, and in the long run, it did me damage and it burned me out."
So Andriacchi left music, for the next decade-and-a-half supporting himself by teaching piano lessons, opening a short-lived collectibles store and working as a movie-theater manager.
When nostalgia-based crooners such as Harry Connick Jr. and John Pizzarrelli ascended to some degree of stardom in the 1990s, Andriacchi thought his second act might be at hand. So he surprised everyone during an 80th birthday party for his mother in 2002 and serenaded her and the rest of the gathering, thereafter starting to re-emerge in concert.
A striking comeback performance at Davenport's cabaret in 2005 showed that Andriacchi not only had held onto his technique but brought unmistakable freshness and insight to standards such as "I've Got the World on a String" and "More Than You Know" and new perspectives to somewhat more recent repertoire, such as Sting's "Until" and Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday."
Newly inspired, Andriacchi put what he said were his life savings, $50,000, into self-producing a plush, 2006 orchestral recording, "At Long Last," because "I wanted to do a CD like the big guys," he said.
Andriacchi began getting high-profile engagements at Ravinia, Park West and Lincoln Center in New York. But growths on his vocal cords necessitated surgeries in 2007 and 2008, leading to what Andriacchi called "a breakdown" in which he disappeared from the stage and disconnected from his friends.
He initiated another comeback in 2010 and performed sporadically thereafter. Spotted at the recent Barbra Streisand concert at the United Center, he said he was hoping to pick up the tempo of his singing again.
"I was so happy he had one last chance to see his idol perform," said Pullia, who attended the Streisand concert with Andriacchi.
"Because no one saw this coming."
Andriacchi is survived by his mother, Nancy.
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