The people came to enjoy a weekend of everything Italian and they were not disappointed. From the sounds of accordions, the beautiful tenor voice of...
When you think of Italians and music, you might just think of the great opera composers, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, or the powerful voices of Caruso, Pavarotti or Bartoli. Perhaps your mind fills with the smooth sound of Sinatra and Martin but that is only part of our history. What if I told you Italians also made the best toe tapping, boot scooting, country AND western music, right here in California?
In 1924 in Monreale, Sicily, a hillside village best known for the Cathedral of Monreale, one of the greatest examples of mosaic art in the world, was born Guiseppe Quartuccio, later to be known as “Shorty Joe”. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1930 by way of New York, Ohio before finally settling in San Jose in 1936. It was the era of the Great Depression and the Quartuccio family made its living, like many other Italian immigrants, as farm laborers and cannery workers.
Shorty Joe started picking fruit at age 12 then moved into cannery work until the outbreak of World War II when he joined the Navy and became an aviation mechanic. After his discharged from the military, he was hired by NASA and eventually assisted in training astronauts and jet pilots at NASA’s Ames Reach Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. But this was just his day job.
When Shorty Joe was a young boy he’d listen to the radio, that’s when he first heard and fell in love with country music. His favorite band was The Sons of the Pioneers, lead by Bob Nolan. He admired them, and knew everything about the band and its leader. When Shorty Joe was about 14 years old The Sons of the Pioneers came to San Jose, the admission price was 10¢ but even that was more than he had in his pocket.
He was excited and just had to see them so he went around back hoping to catch a glimpse. A Dodge with longhorns on the hood arrived, and as the driver step out, Shorty Joe mustered up the nerve to ask if he could meet Bob Nolan. The driver asked him what he knew about the band leader, Shorty Joe began to talk fast, rambling on and reciting Nolan’s life story. The driver was awed by the young fan’s knowledge, he shook Shorty Joe’s hand and introduced himself as Bob Nolan. Hearing of the young boy’s financial dilemma he invited him backstage and gave him a chair to watch the show.
Since it worked once, Shorty Joe decided to try a similar approach with his number one idol, Dude Martin at a radio station in Oakland. Dude Martin had become the top western band in the area. He appreciated Shorty Joe’s tenacity and took a liking to the short Italian kid. Dude Martin would let him into his shows whenever Shorty Joe showed up at a performance. Bob Nolan and Dude Martin were to influence Shorty Joe’s musical career for life and provide the spark a young man needed to fuel his own passion for country music.
Before World War II, Shorty Joe formed his first country trio, after the war, the trio quickly became eight and in no time at all, Shorty Joe and the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys, whose original members were all Italian American, were recording under the Golden West and Bella labels. Their popularity continued to grow and they soon found themselves performing in larger venues with their music gaining more and more radio time.
Their original songs had a distinct Bay Area sound and one of Shorty Joe’s favorite compositions is “In Santa Clara Valley Round Ole San Jose”. They performed at Tracy Gardens in San Jose (now the site of Valley Fair Mall) to huge audiences and their shows were aired live on the radio. They played to sold out crowds all over Northern California alongside Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and Lefty Frizzell.
Shorty Joe has been honored as a “living legend” by the Italian American Heritage Foundation, San Jose. He is an elected member of the Country Western Music Hall of Fame for his work in bridging Country Music with Western Swing. And was just recently noted by the Italian Consulate General of San Francisco for his contributions to music and for providing a positive portrayal of Italians in America. Today his band recordings are housed at the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.
To add to his accomplishments, Shorty Joe achieved all his musical ambitions without ever giving up his career at NASA, retiring after 30 years of service.
Today, Giuseppe Quartuccio, Shorty Joe, lives in Sacramento, with his wife Jeannie Valentina, and is the last surviving member of the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys. Shorty Joe first met his wife while picking prunes in Santa Clara Valley. They attended school together and got married in 1946. They have a son, Joel and daughter, Joann Wilcox along with four grandchildren, Gregory, Denise, Nicole, and Christine.
Google “Shorty Joe”, you’ll find him on YouTube and elsewhere. Listen to the early sounds of San Jose’s own country AND western swing. I guarantee you, you’ll never look at Italians and music the same.