He’s 74 now, but Dave Cucuzza recalls a moment from decades ago — as if it was yesterday.
He was 8 years old at the time, living in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and his family was heading out to church.
Their car was buried in snow, though, so they had to dig it out.
By the time they arrived at church, it was the High Mass.
“The organist was up in the balcony in the back, and it was a stone church, so the sound really reverberated — with the high ceiling.
“And, at the end of the Mass, he had everything on — on the organ. He did full organ,” Cucuzza recalled.
“That sound roared out there and echoed through that place,” he said. “I’d never heard it full blast.
“That’s when God gave me that little gift box — wrapped up so nicely — of music, that was going to be a big part of my life,” said Cucuzza, who now lives in Land O’ Lakes, is one of the volunteer organists at Tampa Theatre. (See related story.)
Hearing that huge sound set Cucuzza off on a quest.
He just had to learn to play organ.
First though, he took piano lessons.
He played on an upright piano his dad had acquired from a friend.
“It was a great hulking thing. And, it never was in tune much, because it was so old,” Cucuzza said.
He hated playing it. It simply didn’t sound right.
His wish to play the organ was finally granted when he was 13, after his family moved to Florida.
He had talked about playing the organ so much, his dad went out and bought a used one, Cucuzza said.
The young musician took lessons from Frances Slocum.
She was a kind and generous teacher.
“If she didn’t have anybody after me, she would give me extra time.
“She was always positive, and she showed me the basic way that songs were written, and she taught me how to learn a song in the most simplest of ways. And then, in the next month or two, add different things to it so that when you would play it, after a couple of months, it sounded like you really knew your stuff.
“People would think: ‘Wow, how did you learn to play like that? You must have been playing forever.’
“She taught me how to learn,” he said.
Cucuzza practiced constantly.
A little too much, in fact, for his family.
“They would kindly ask me to take a break,” he said.
Cucuzza said he didn’t learn in the classic fashion, but had a solid foundation in music theory.
He learned by listening to great organists, too.
“E. Power Biggs was the organist that made at least 35 albums for Colombia Master Works.
“He was a Bach guy. I would listen to it, because some of his bigger sounds. When he would get a lot of stuff going — using a lot of sets of organ pipes on a piece — it would really sound massive.
“I thought, ‘Wow, listen to that.’”
He also admired Virgil Fox.
Fox took liberties with the pieces, while Biggs was a purist, Cucuzza said.
Listening to them inspired him.
“I loved to hear it, so I was drawn to it, again and again. It would just make me want to do it more,” he said.
Playing in all sorts of venues
Cucuzza sold organs for a living, and performed at restaurants, awards ceremonies, baseball games and other events. He estimates he’s played on at least 50 organs.
At Tropical Acres Steakhouse, in South Florida, one couple, in particular, dropped in frequently.
“I don’t know when they ate because they danced nearly every song,” Cucuzza said.
Stirling’s Country Kitchen, another South Florida restaurant, had lots of regulars.
“I knew all of their songs, and I’d play their songs when they came in. They’d be waiting to get seated, and I would play their song and wave. And then, when they’d get their food, I’d play their song again,” he said.
He played organ for preseason baseball, at what was then Joe Robbie Stadium, before Miami was awarded the Marlins.
When Wade Boggs came up to bat, Cucuzza would play “Wade in the Water.” And, when Cal Ripkin was at the plate, he’d play the movie theme from “Superman.”
One gig he particularly enjoyed involved playing in a gathering space at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, in Ft. Lauderdale — leading up to numerous performances of a touring group of the Radio City Rockettes.
At Tampa Theatre, he plays a variety of songs hoping to have something for everyone, in the 20-minute pre-show.
He wants the audience to experience the full, rich sounds of organ music.
He hopes to ignite a passion for this music, and perpetuate a need for it.
He put it like this: “I want to have them love this sound — and have to have this sound, in their life.”
No matter where he’s playing, he hopes to pass along the joy he derives from organ music.
“There’s so much connected with music. It does such great things to people, and for people. And, it’s like, you’re happy after. You’re happy that they enjoyed what you did, and you tried to do what they enjoyed.
“You’re trying to make that connection. It’s something they really can’t buy,” he said.
Published May 20, 2020