November 23, 2003

Author - Mary Anne Janco

Photo - Linda Johnson, Inquirer Staff Photographer

Joe Soprani started with the USO. Fifty years later, he's still performing.

BROOMALL - As Thanksgiving Day approaches, accordionist Joe Soprani who has played over the years with Luciano Pavarotti and Peter Nero, can't help but think about the plane crash in the icy Sea of Japan that could have ended his life 50 years ago.

After appearing on the Arthur Godfrey Show at age 18, Soprani got a call to join a USO troupe performing for US service men and women in Japan and Korea in 1953, and became one of the youngest USO entertainers. During that 17-week tour, as he was flying to a show in Miho, Japan, rain and poor visibility caused the pilot to miss the runway. The C-46 plane, with 25 passengers and five crew members, hit the water at 140 m.p.h.

"We hit so hard," Soprani said. "The crew was hollering at us to get out." The plane sank in five minutes, and with it, his accordion - a gift from his grandfather.

After bobbing in the icy water for an hour, Soprani saw a rescue boat, which took them four miles to safety on that Thanksgiving Day in 1953. Soprani, a Philadelphia native, returned to the States by boat, vowing never to fly again.

But "two years later, I enlisted in the United States Air Force," he said. As the accordion soloist with the Air Force band, he traveled for four years. "How? By plane of course," said Soprani, who later taught at the former Neupauer Conservatory in Philadelphia and played with the Army National Guard Band.
When the Beatles came, "no one was playing the accordion, the guitar and rock-and-roll took over," said Soprani, who played but eventually became band director at Philadelphia's Robert E. Lamberton High School.

"He made the accordion sound like it wasn't an accordion," said Beth Sinagoga, one of his former students. "He has raised the bar for what people can expect from the accordion. It's not just the oompah music. He's taken it above and beyond."

These days, when Soprani who retired from the school district, is not performing, he is in his studio, writing his arrangements or recording. He is working on a CD of popular Italian folk songs.
Snapshot - Joe Soprani
Overbrook High School; bachelor's degree in music and education from Philadelphia Musical Academy; master's degree in education from West Chester University.

Why the accordion?
"It gives you a lot of happiness. I can express myself with this instrument."

Most memorable performance:
"My goal as a kid was to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra." Soprani played an accordion concert with teh Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1954

Favorite Composer:

Favorite Show:
Fiddler on the Roof. It has one of the best accordion parts of any musical."

Challenging Project:
For Bon Jovi's 1996 world tour,. "I took a rock piece," "Lay Your Hands on Me," and converted it into a concert band arrangement.

Longest Performance:
A three-day Polish wedding in Scranton.

"I feel the accordion is a romantic instrument and when you try to write modern music for the accordion it just doesn't seem to fit," Soprani said. "The accordion missed the romantic era. I'm trying to make up for it by arranging romantic pieces for the accordion."

Last year, he arrange Fritz Kreisler's "Three Old Viennese Dances" for the Landsdowne Symphony. Next season, he will do a solo performance with the Immaculata University Symphony, with a world premiere of his own arrangement of Carmen Fantasy.

"I just love the instrument," said Soprani, who pumps the bellows of the accordion like a violinist bows the violin. "I have fun. There's nothing like it."

Sinagoga, a music teacher with the Neshaminy School District, said he invited her and other students to a rehearsal for a show that he had with Pavarotti several years ago. "He instilled a love of music in all of us."

For her school's production of Fiddler on the Roof, she called Soprani who had done the musical whenever it was in Philadelphia. He played the accordion in the pit for her play, she said, and "gave me some pointers from all the years he'd been doing it."

Soprani, who took up the accordion at age 5, has played with Pavarotti whenever he is in the area, and fulfilled his dream of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Soprani was performing a weekly solo on the Children's Hours on television, starting at age 11. "My mother was the force behind me, said Soprani who admits that, at times, he would have rather been playing sports than practicing.

Sam Fire of Northeast Philadelphia, who was stationed in Pusan, South Korea in 1953 saw Soprani's USO show and recognized him from the Children's Hour. "I played the accordion when I was young," Fire said. "I would watch Joe every Sundayh. He was a fabulous little player. He would play some fantastic thing every week."

In Korea, "the USO shows were a great uplift for us," Fire said in a recent interview.

Soprani said, "My favorite audience is a GI audience. They were just hungry for entertainment. They gave me standing ovations.

"We went to 40 bases in Korea," said Soprani, who was the band leader for the 10-member unit, known as Broadway Ballyhoo.

It was cold performing during those outdoor shows, said Soprani, who once wore three military jackets during a performance but "still managed to play the 'Flight of the Bumble Bee' " wearing gloves.

The USO performers had been served a Thanksgiving meal, before boarding the ill-fated plane for Miho, Japan, which was less than an hour away. When the pilot realized that he overshot the runway, he tried to gain altitude but could not, Soprani said. "It was just a miracle we survived."

He lost the accordion, a gift from his grandfather, who "took me everywhere I had to play," he said. The military later sent him a package with some sheets of water-logged music, his arrangement of "Lover" by Rodgers and Har. "I saved it as a souvenir," said Soprani, who has not flown since 1959.

Philadelphia, Tuesday, December 1, 1953
Phila. Musician, 18, Safe in Plane Crash

Joseph Soprani, of 323 N. 64th Street, 18 year old accordionist with a USO troupe, is safe in Tokyo after the plane in which he was a passenger crashed in the Sea of Japan.

USO officials in New York notified his mother, Mrs. Aurora Soprani, yesterday that all ten members of the troupe had been rescued in the crash last Thursday along with 15 other passengers and five crew members.

After attemtping a blind landing, the plane set down about three miles at sea off the Air Froce base at Miho on the southern tip of Honshu. A crash boat got all off the plane five minutes before it sank.

Soprani, who won an Arthur Godfrey talent scout show in April, was the first person ever awarded a music scholarship for the accordion by the Board of Education. He started with the USO troupe on August 31 for a tour of Japan, Korea and the Pacific Islands.

Philadelphia, Friday, November 27, 1953
C-46 Hits Sea Off Japan; All 30 Aboard Saved

Tokyo, Nov. 27 - (AP) - The Air Force said today that a twin-engined C-46 ditched in the Sea of Japan last night after an attempted blind landing but all 25 passengers and five crew members were saved.

Tha plane set down about three miles at sea off the Air Force base at Miho on the southern tip of Honshu. A crash boat from the base got all the people off the plan about five minutes before it sank. Ten were members of a USO troupe.

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