THE MAN WITH THE HORN! That’s how he was billed when he played the lounges up and down the Strip and nightclubs from New York to Miami and many stops in between. Chris Fio Rito and his horn brought audiences to life. He sang, he danced, he told jokes and, oh, yes, he played the horn.
Much of Chris’ style and material came from Louie Prima. But, the feeling that brought it all to life came from deep within his soul.
By the time Chris played Las Vegas, we had known each other for many years. He loved the ponies and it was easy for him to find work at a nightclub in close proximity to a racetrack. The winters were spent in Miami. Daytime found us at Hialeah rooting home winners, but more often tearing up tickets and leaving dejected. In those days, the losses used to get us down.
As we stood in line waiting for our cars, Chris would say, "Stop by the Dream Lounge tonight. I’ve got some friends in town. Good people. You’ll like them."
Usually I didn’t feel like going. I was more concerned about tomorrow’s daily double and where I’d get the scratch. But, after a short nap, a shower and dinner, something stirred inside and I found myself heading over to catch Chris’ second set.
When I walked in, the air was tingling. Chris was onstage and people were clapping and rocking to the good sounds. Without fail, as soon as he spotted me, his next number was Bunny Berigan’s classic hit, "I Can’t Get Started." Chris knew it was one of my favorites and he never missed a chance to play it for me. And, he played it well. They didn’t call him the man with the horn for no reason. By the end of the set, Chris had proven once again the power of music. My doldrums had disappeared and life was good.
All of those memories came flooding back one day last week as I looked at the envelope that came in the mail. The return address was Mrs. Chris Fio Rito Sr., his mother. I hadn’t talked to her in years. Instinctively, I knew the news inside was not good. A quick flash reminded me that I hadn’t gotten a Christmas card from Chris this year.
His mother’s note confirmed my worst fears. My good friend had passed away in October.
Immediately I reached for the phone. It was still difficult for Mrs. Fio Rito to talk about her son. She passed the receiver to her husband. In addition to his parents, Chris (Sr.) and Marie, he is survived by his long-time companion, Delores "Darry" Monteleone, brother, Frank, and sister, Catherine LaVista.
Chris, 65, had known he was very ill, but kept that information to himself. He went on working as if everything was OK. He kept playing his horn ”” a very special one ”” the trumpet given him by his pal, Louie Prima.
Chris spent 15 years in Las Vegas. He kept the lounges jumping at the Sands, Desert Inn, Tropicana and Frontier. Many of those years he worked opposite his friend, Sonny King.
Chris had a long list of show biz friends, including Wayne Newton, Shecky Greene, Joey Bishop, Danny Thomas, Jerry Vail, Pat Cooper, Buddy Grecco, Sam Butera, Keely Smith, Freddie Bell, Bernie Allen, Steve Rossi, Claude Trenier, Jackie Gayle, Joey Villa, Babe Pier, Larry Lee and Joe Castro.
In the audience often would be the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Bucky Howard, John Moran, Jilly Rizzo, Frank Fertitta, Jr., Joe Spinuzzi, Carmen "Minnie" Cardillo and ”” I’m happy to say ”” me.
Chris was very proud of his television credits. They include a "Paul Anka Special," "Jerry Lewis Telethon," "Charlie’s Angels," "Vegas" and "The Ray Anthony Show" from Miami Beach. He was an opening act for Perry Como, Buddy Grecco and Pat Cooper. And, lest we forget, wrote a column for GamingToday when it was known as Sports Form.
Chris has left us downhearted, in the words of Vernon Duke, ”˜cause we can’t get started with him no more.