Attanasio holds his drum. (Photo by Kathryn Heidecker)
Nicholas Attanasio and his wife, Geraldine, at their Lake Katrine home. (Photo by Kathryn Heidecker)
AND THE DRUMBEAT GOES ONThe Kingston [NY] Daily Freeman
Published: Sunday, November 1, 2009
By Kathryn Heidecker, Correspondent
“Drumming saved my life,” Nicholas Attanasio of Lake Katrine is quick to proclaim.
A member of the American Patriots Rudimental Drum Corps Hall of Fame, the World’s Drummers Hall of Fame and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, Attanasio, who will be 87 on Thursday, has paid it forward by teaching dozens of young drummers the art of the membranphone. Former students include West Point drummers, a university professor of percussion music and professional musicians who have accompanied the likes of Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.
In 1932, Attanasio began drumming at the suggestion of his father, who recruited him into the Mill Rock Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 716 Drum and Bugle Corps in Manhattan at the age of 9.
The preteen initially resisted the suggestion to try out drumming. “I said, ‘No thanks, I’m not interested,” Attanasio recalled with a rueful smile. A few months later, he was hooked. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Times were hard, and the world of music was a literal safe haven for the young boy. “My mother took a walk on me when I was a baby,” explained Attanasio, who was raised by his single father, Clemente Attanasio.
Childcare was difficult to come by. “My dad earned $15 for working seven days a week, and paid someone $10 a week to take care of me,” said Attanasio, who called his father a hero. “I’ll be sitting here crying in my beer if I talk about him.”
The title of hero is one Attanasio also bestowed upon his first drum instructor, Charlie Wilson. While Attansio was performing in Manhattan, the New York City music teacher heard his drumming —and recognized his potential.
“When he saw I was serious about drumming, he used to give me car fare to come to his home for lessons,” Attanasio said.
As the rhythms of snare and bass drumming became his passion, Attanasio came to love performing and marching in parades, drum-and-fife and drum-and-bugle competitions. He often placed first.
He dreamt of attending the prestigious Julliard School of Music. “I wanted to go to Julliard, but I was a reject,” said Attanasio, who, at the time, had yet to learn how to sight-read sheet music. “If you can’t read music, they don’t care how good you play.”
Still, he said he doubts he would have been accepted because of his propensity for “fooling around.”
“I was a cutup in school,” he said.
His mischievous nature came in handy when he later auditioned for the Metropolitan Vocational Trade School, where he pretended to sight-read a drum piece he had already memorized. The ploy worked.
“I was fibbin because I knew it by memory, but they accepted me!” He later dropped out after a disagreement with one of his teachers. “I got too big for my britches. ... I just walked out of school and quit.”
While still in his teens, he found the flesh-and-blood love of his life, his wife, Geraldine. The couple, who were married in Yonkers in 1942, will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary on Nov. 22. His natural gumption came into play as he pursued a courtship with her. At the time, the young Geraldine was dating a member of a competing drum corps, and Attanasio asked her to take a walk with him outside a music hall.
“I looked him up and down and said no,” Geraldine recalled. A fight later broke out in the music hall, and Attansio tried his luck again. This time, she said yes. (This was in order to keep things peaceful at the music hall, she said.)
Geraldine was an accomplished musician in her own right. Her father, Harry Dall, played the trumpet during vaudeville shows. With musicianship in the couple’s blood, their three children, George, Janice and Nicholas J. grew up performing.
“When George was an infant, he didn’t go to bed with a doll or a teddy bear,” his father said. “He just had a few drumsticks rolled up in a blanket.”
While raising a family and working as a driver for the now-defunct Hudson Cement of East Kingston, Attanasio still made time for drumming, teaching percussion and authoring two instructional books on rudimentary drumming. He also designed a drums mallet for the Cooperman Drum Company that is still produced today.
His long career has produced a devoted following. One of his former students named his first-born son after him. His fans include Dominick Cuccia, formerly a performer with the U.S. Military Academy Band’s field music group, The Hellcats, in which he was, among other things, a performer on the drum line. He is currently an instrumental music teacher and instructs a number of fife and drum corps in the greater New York and Danbury, Conn., area. In 2006, Cuccia nominated Attanasio for the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. Attanasio would get in as the hall’s first — and currently only — rudimental bass drummer.
Cuccia later would write this about Attanasio on the Web site for Black River Music Word — www.b-r-m-w.com: “If you ask a dozen people who the greatest drumset player in the world is, you’ll probably get a dozen answers. If you ask who the greatest marimba player is you’d have the same results. In almost any category you pick the results would be the same. If I ask 100 people who was the greatest, most influential rudimental bass drummer in history is, I’ll bet 99% would say Nick Attanasio! (We’ll save one percent for those who live on another planet!)
Two brushes with mortality have kept Attanasio inspired to keep the beat going. Years ago, he flew through the windshield of the truck he was driving during a messy trailer wreck. And, over a decade ago he noticed some nausea during drumming exhibitions. When he reported the symptoms to his doctor, he found himself on a fast track to quintuple heart-bypass surgery. The surgery was successful, and, though the accident has left him with some back pain, he doesn’t let that stop him from performing.
Attanasio keeps practicing, performing and teaching, participating in upward of 18 parades a year. The octogenarian even has a YouTube video
showcasing his prowess in circulation.
According to Attanasio, the music of life simply gets sweeter with age.
“The longer we live, the more we appreciate life,” he says.
Attanasio loves to teach and would welcome e-mails
from anybody who wants to learn to drum. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, see blog posts
nominating Nick Attanasio for Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame
And see these books by Nick Attanasio:Tunes of the Hudson Valley - Vol. I
A compilation of 26 original fife tunes with accompanying drum arrangements by Frank Grady and Nick Attanasio.Tunes of the Hudson Valley - Vol. II
63 original fife tunes with accompanying drum arrangements by Frank Grady and Nick Attanasio.