Buffalo in the ’50s: Basie, Gillespie, Billie Holiday headline Kleinhans show

By Steve Cichon

What a night for music in Buffalo on a November night 65 years ago at Kleinhans.

WWOL’s Joe Rico brought some of the biggest names in jazz for one night only in what promised to be “the biggest jazz concert in Buffalo history.”


The show featured Count Basie, Billie Holliday and Dizzy Gillespie. For the uninitiated, Basie was “a primary shaper of the big-band sound that characterized mid-20th century popular music.”

Frank Sinatra called Billie Holiday, “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing (through the ’40s and ’50s.)”

Known in pop culture as much for his giant inflated cheeks as his music, Dizzy Gillespie is remembered as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time.

The running-out-of-space add-on to the program was Buddy Rich — whose drumming prowess extended inside and outside the jazz world. He was named by Rolling Stone magazine as the 15th greatest drummer of all-time.


Legendary Buffalo jazz DJ Rico used “Port of Rico,” with Basie on the organ, as one of his theme songs throughout his long Buffalo radio career.

Illinois Jacquet Port Of Rico 1952

Rico was the son of Emelino “Papa” Rico, whose “Neapolitan Serenade” broadcast for five decades from Buffalo’s West Side.

More: Buffalo in the ’50s: West Side Italian radio with Mama and Papa Rico


Buffalo in the ’50s: West Side Italian radio with Mama and Papa Rico

By Steve Cichon

They were the heart and the voice of Buffalo’s Italian-American community. For 50 years, Emelino Rico — known to listeners of “Neapolitan Serenade” as “Papa Rico” and the head of “Casa Rico” — broadcast Italian music, in Italian, for Italians, from his home on Seventh Street on Buffalo’s Italian West Side.

Mama & Papa Rico in their studio at their Seventh Street home on Buffalo’s West Side. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For most of five decades, come 10:30am, the Liberty Bell March would open another program of cultural pride, personal warmth and a taste of the old country. While he was heard on many stations through the years, often two or three stations at the same time, for 45 years the Ricos were heard on WHLD 1270-AM.

Emelino came to America as a movie producer in 1922. Ten years later, on a stop in Buffalo, he met Mary Pinieri, who was destined to become the West Side’s beloved Mama Rico.

Their lives, Mama Rico told listeners to their 50th anniversary celebration on WHLD in 1985, were spent highlighting the best in Italian music and culture, “helping others, and doing charitable work.”

Heavily edited publicity photos of Mary and Emelino Rico, from the Buffalo News archives.

The Ricos worked to bring some of Italy to Buffalo, and some of Buffalo to Italy, with many trips and exchanges. Papa liked to tell the story of a 1967 audience with Pope Paul VI, when His Holiness greeted him immediately by saying, “You run the Italian program in Buffalo.”

Many of Buffalo’s most famous Italian-Americans said the time spent at Casa Rico helped jump start their career — those like Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Bennett and pianist Leonard Pennario.

Papa Rico died in 1985, Mama Rico in 1993, but the Rico name has continued on — sons Lenny and Joe Rico have continued the family tradition of broadcasting in Buffalo.