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For this band, accent on family, longevity

For this band, accent on family, longevity

The Accents still busy 60 years after first gig; anniversary gala is Friday
For this band, accent on family, longevity
From left, Frank, Benny and Joe get together at Joe's Niskayuna home.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Benny Cannavo hears it all the time.

"Hey Benny, you played my wedding 42 years ago," a guy will say.

"Benny! Remember when you played on my wedding day in 1968?" a woman will ask.

Cannavo can't remember all of them, but he'll smile anyway. For about 50 years, the 87-year-old Schenectady resident brought his crew - "Benny Cannavo and the Accents" - to Italian weddings, church festas, dinner dances and other social events around the Capital Region.

Cannavo retired as drummer - later percussionist - around 2008. The Accents are still in business and still in demand 60 years after their first gig, and Cannavo's sons Joe and Frank are keeping the band in the limelight.

Accent appreciation night will be held Friday, when the now nine-member band plays an anniversary gig at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia.

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The 40 musicians who have been part of the band since 1958 are all expected to attend. Four hundred tickets have been sold for the private gala that also will feature jazzy Michael Panza and the Charles Cornell Trio and local rockers the Audiostars.

The Accents will take the stage at 10:30 p.m. during the party, which is now sold out.

There were not any sellouts in 1958, when Benny first struck up the band. He had left Italy for America in 1949, and worked as a mason and in a lumberyard before landing a job at the former American Coat and Apron Co. on Barrett Street, which became other linen companies.

The business provided table linens for bars and restaurants, and Cannavo began driving a route for 85 cents an hour.

"A guy passed away and I took his place," said the jovial Cannavo, who has kept his  strong Italian accent. "The thing was, if you brought any business in, you got a percentage."

Cannavo was on the job when he and his friends decided to put together the band, a group that would play Italian favorites. The guys all played accordion, and Cannavo knew that lineup would not work.

Benny bought some drums, and kept the beat. Peter Rizzo of Schenectady stayed on the accordion. Vince Siciliano of Amsterdam became the bassist and fellow Amsterdam resident Carmen Filanova became guitarist and vocalist.

Putting together the name of the band was a little easier.

"We were looking for names, Starlighters, anything that would fit," Cannavo said, during interviews inside son Joe's Niskayuna home. "I'd say 85 percent of our trade was Italian weddings, dinner dances. It was the four of us , we all had an accent. I said, 'How about the Accents?' We started with Benny Cannavo and the Accents."

Cannavo said he received top billing because he was someone who could get people talking. And the job with American Coat and Apron put Cannavo in touch with plenty of talkers.

When Cannavo was driving a company linen truck, he'd make a stop when he saw an "Opening soon" sign at a club, bar or restaurant. He'd make a sale and cash in on the commission.

"They were sort of surprised I was  bringing in so much business," Cannavo said. "They said, 'Benny, you don't belong in the truck. Off the truck!' They gave me a car and I became a salesman."

When Cannavo lined up linen accounts during his daily travels, he also lined up gigs for his band. Restaurant and tavern owners of the day loved live entertainment.

The band prospered. Cannavo said the guys had nothing to worry about when the Beatles showed up in America in early 1964 and helped launch dozens of other rock outfits. The Accents were playing for different audiences.

"We took care of the Italian crowd, church festivals and things like that," Cannavo said.

If there was competition, it was friendly. Benny's cousin Sal Cannavo had his own band, which played local gigs. Carmen Cannavo, Benny's late brother, hit the big time with a show band that played all over the world.

"The Copacabana in New York City, he was there night and day," Cannavo said.

During the 1960s, Cannavo began to think about the future of the Accents. These thoughts sometimes came after band members showed up late for gigs, or were not property dressed up for the evening's performance.

Cannavo promised himself when he had children, they would become part-time musicians and someday join the group. At the very least, he figured, they would listen to orders.

Joe Cannavo, now 54, began taking accordion lessons during the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, Joe had switched to keyboards; when he joined the Accents in 1978, he was 14.

"At 14 years old," Benny said, "he looked like he was 18 or 20."

Frank Cannavo, now 51, took guitar lessons and was an Accent by 1982. As Benny slowed down, the guys put on some speed. Under Joe's leadership, the Accents - who have never taken a hiatus - expanded.

The brothers had always wanted to add horns to the drums and guitar sound. Even though the economy took a downturn in 2009, the Cannavos believed it was the right time to load up.

"Frank and I talked and said, 'Why not do it now?'" Joe said. "We knew the economy was eventually going to pick up, it's a cycle. We said, 'Let's add them now so we'll be ready to go.' We would have enough time to get into it and get used to it."

With the brothers in charge, there was never any thought about changing the band's name.

"It was already well known in the area, established," Joe said. "If you had to start over with a new name, people wouldn't recognize it."

The Accents still know some Italian songs, but with three lead singers, the band blasts out more dance and pop style tunes. Bruno Mars, Rihanna and Alicia Keys are on the current playlists.

The band does about 80 gigs a year and will sometimes play three or four times a weekend. Summer is big, and the Accents travel to Saratoga Springs for the race course and social season.

Like their father, the Cannavo brothers are just part-time musicians. Joe works as a design engineer for Albany International Corp., which works with advanced textiles and materials processing. Frank is an engineering drafter for the SI Group, a chemical company, in Rotterdam Junction.

"I still enjoy getting out on the weekends," Frank said. "I also have two kids and one of them is musically inclined - he's 21, a guitar player, Lucas - and hopefully, he'll take over some day."

None of the Accent alumni are expected to perform Friday night. Benny Cannavo is just glad his sons are keeping the Accents audible. The band is his legacy.

"They've got to keep me happy," he said.


The Accents today

The 2018 version of the band features nine musicians. They are:

Joe Cannavo, keyboards; Frank Cannavo, guitar; Bobby Angiletta, drums; Steve Karwiel, bass Joe Vivian, trumpet; Frank Rosselli, saxophone; and lead vocalists Nick Horace, Alejandro Williams and Stephanie Robinson

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