November 23, 2003
Author - Mary Anne Janco
- Linda Johnson, Inquirer Staff Photographer
Joe Soprani started with the USO. Fifty years later, he's still
MUSICIAN PLAYS - AND LIVES - WITH GUSTO
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
Fiddler on the Roof. It has one of the best accordion parts
of any musical."
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
Tuesday, December 1, 1953
Phila. Musician, 18, Safe in Plane Crash
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.