1930 – 1987
Richard Joseph Contino, professionally known as Dick Contino, was born in Fresno on January 17, 1930. He attended Local elementary schools, Fresno High School and Fresno State College. He took up the accordion at an early age and performed at local functions and on a local radio station weekly. He auditioned with a Horace Heidt representative at the Fresno Musicians Union Office and secured a slot in the first talent competition. After weeks of traveling across the country with Heidt, he won the national title in 1948. Mr. Contino played a “jive rendition” of “Lady of Spain” during the first of his 13 consecutive victories in Mr. Heidt’s talent contest, Parade Magazine reported that the “bobby-sox audience howled, stamped and clapped its hands.” He won the finals of the contest a few months after graduating from high school with a grand prize of $5,000 . He left Fresno State College to focus on his music career, a career that lasted until he retired just shy of his 85th birthday, as an accordionist who earned up to $4,000 a week in nightclubs.
After leaving the Heidt band, He fronted his own revue, selling out theaters in Milwaukee, Chicago and Pittsburgh. He was promoted as the “Rudolph Valentino of the accordion.” A movie about his meteoric career was being discussed. He wowed audiences at Ciro’s in West Hollywood and made an unprecedented 48 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. He and his family eventually moved to Las Vegas where he entertained for 50 years performing at the Flamingo, Tropicana, Sands, Aladdin and Desert Inn.
His Professional life took him to all corners of the world including a tour of Russia with Ed Sullivan. He also had a modest career in Hollywood, appearing in a few B-movies, most notably “Daddy-O” in which he played a truck driver who sings in a nightclub while trying to find out who killed his best friend. That film fascinated James Ellroy, the crime writer best known for “L.A. Confidential.” After finding and talking to Mr. Contino, Mr. Ellroy wrote a novella, “Dick Contino’s Blues” (1994), set in 1958 when “Daddy-O” was being filmed.
Mr. Contino passed away on April 19, 1987 and is buried in St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery.