By Mike LaBella
---- — Their bugles had no valves and their first drums were mounted with calfskin heads that were dried and stretched by the Amour Meat Packing Company of Chicago. The band had to take out a loan to pay for its drums, and another to pay for its uniforms.
The Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps in Haverhill can point to those humble beginnings in the spring of 1939 when a group of local Italians who played band instruments held their first official meeting.
Seventy five years later, the last Drum and Bugle Corps to be associated with a Sons of Italy Lodge in America is still going strong and is still marching in parades.
You can’t miss them.
“When I first joined people would say, do you march with the Papa Gino’s band?” said Larry Gaiero, business manager and baritone horn player for the band.
Members perform in green pants with red stripes and white shirts in the summer, and white turtlenecks and red jackets in the winter.
“We average 25 parades a year throughout New England,” Gaiero said. “We march in all the major feasts in the North End, including St. Anthony’s, the biggest one, and we’ve been on national television three times.”
The band is currently practicing to perform in the Memorial Day Parade in Seabrook, N.H., and the following day in Haverhill’s Memorial Day Parade.
Once each year the band honors its dead by marching from the Sons of Italy Lodge at 124 Washington St. to All Saints Church for a memorial Mass. This year’s event will be held on June 1.
During its first year of existence, the band held social affairs to raise money for uniforms, instruments, and to pay instructors. One raffle offered 100 gallons of oil or $5 in cash. Weekly Sunday socials were held in the lodge’s main hall between the fall of 1939 and winter of 1940, but were forced to end because of a city ordinance banning dancing socials on Sunday.
The band’s first public performance was on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 12, 1940, when the 32-member group participating in a baptism parade from the lodge’s quarters on River Street to St. Rita’s Church in the Mount Washington neighborhood. (St. Rita’s has since closed in a merger of Catholic churches that resulted in the creation of All Saints Parish.)
During the spring of 1941, as the nation’s draft quotas increased along with the threat of American involvement in World War II, the Drum and Bugle Corps held its last banquet before disbanding. Several members served in the armed forces and worked at defense plants during the war. On Aug. 15, 1945, lodge members removed the drums and bugles from storage and marched, in civilian clothes, in the Haverhill Victory Parade, celebrating the end of World War II.
The band threw a 75th anniversary celebration on April 12 at the lodge that featured a pasta and meatball dinner cooked by Tony Santoro (soprano horn) and Frank Quintiliani (cymbals).
“Former band members who’d marched years ago talked about the old days, such as when they performed at a birthday party for Rocky Marciano at a function hall in the Boston area,” Gaiero said. “The band also performed for former president Richard Nixon at an event in the Boston area.”
For Gaiero, the proudest moment was in January of 1999, when the Drum and Bugle Corps was selected with two other bands to perform at the Statehouse for the inauguration of Gov. Paul Cellucci.
“They treated us to lunch at the Oyster House and at night we performed at the governor’s ball,” Gaiero said. “To me that was the most exciting time we’ve ever had.”
Band members practice on Mondays in the lower level of the lodge. The group specializes in patriotic and military songs, such as “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle,” as well as “The Sons of Italy March,” a military style piece that drum major Stephen Iannalfo conducts while passing by parade reviewing stands.
Another one of the band’s favorites is “Eh, Cumpari!,” an Italian novelty song about musical instruments that gained popularity in 1953.
“We played this for the first time during the Santa Parade in 1953,” said Carmine LoConte, who joined the band in 1949. “We didn’t know it at the time but the parade was being broadcast on WHAV in Haverhill.”
The evolution of horns from no valves during the band’s first years to one valve in 1949 allowed for a greater musical repertoire due to the additional tonal range of the horns.
It made it possible in the 1950s for the band to perform the “Triumphal March” from the opera “Aida” by Giuseppe Verde. The piece is usually performed at the start of a parade. The music is upbeat and exhilarating and just the thing to get a crowd going.
“They played it back then and we still play it today,” Gaiero said.
Today’s band has about 40 members ages 10 to 75. The group includes a uniformed drill team of 10 teenage girls led by Amanda LoConte. They march in front and carry Italian flags. The band’s instruments include soprano horn (two and three valve bugles), mellophone (similar to a French horn) and baritone horn (like a mini tuba). Percussion is by four to five snare drum players, two bass drummers and two or three cymbal players.
It’s a family affair for some members. Stephen Iannalfo’s father, the late Richard Iannalfo, played baritone horn, while his grandfather, the late Joseph Iannalfo, was Chief of Section and a baritone horn player for the original band.
Stephen Iannalfo’s sons, Steve and Michael, are in the band as well.
Carmine LoConte, who played the baritone horn before retiring from the band after more than 40 years, joined the band in June of 1949 at the urging of his friend, Richard Iannalfo.
“We’d just graduated from Tilton School and Richard brought me to the home of Vinny DiProfio, who was the drum major for the band. He asked me if I’d like to join, and I said sure, I’ll try it.”
Carmine’s son, John LoConte, plays soprano horn for the band and his daughter Amanda is in on the drill team.
John LoConte’s nephew, Anthony LoConte, plays cymbals, bass drum and occasionally the snare drum.
“Marching is a family thing that is passed down from generation to generation,” Anthony LoConte said.
Gaiero said he joined because he always wanted to be in a marching band.
“Often times I hear people say, who is that band and where are they from?” Gaiero said. “I like hearing that. It gets my adrenaline going.”
Gaiero says the band welcomes newcomers and that all people need is the desire to be part of the group’s tradition.
“We provide musical instruction, instruments, and uniforms,” Gaiero said. “You don’t have to be Italian, as we do have non-Italian members. We want to keep the tradition going and continue representing the city of Haverhill.”
The band is a nonprofit that operates from income from performing in parades. It holds an annual banquet in December.
Victor Emmanuel Lodge Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps
First meeting: April 24, 1939 in the Victor Emanuel Lodge, 94 River St.
First public performance: May 12, 1940. Thirty-two member band marched in a baptism parade from the lodge’s quarters on River Street to St. Rita’s Church in the Mount Washington neighborhood.
World War II: The group temporarily disbanded in the spring of 1941, and reformed for VJ Day Parade, Aug. 15, 1945.
Current members: 40, ranging in age from 10 to 75, including a 10 member all-female drill team
Performances: The band performs in 25 parades each year throughout New England