Accordion’s hep cat, Dick Contino, dead at 87

Dick Contino, a Las Vegas lounge mainstay and the man who made the accordion hip in the 1950s, died Wednesday in his native Fresno, California. He was 87.

Starring in the 1958 B-movie “Daddy-O” was evidence of Contino’s teen-idol status in an era when the accordion was still a popular-music instrument.

“He put it in another place,” his son Pete, a Las Vegas musician, said Thursday.

“There were young icons and television stars who made (the accordion) popular then, like Dick Contino. He was the teenage sex symbol before Elvis,” Paul Pasquali, founder of the International Accordion Convention, once noted.

Contino lived in Las Vegas from 1975 to 2015 — except for a four-year spell in the Los Angeles area — raising three children here with his first wife, actress Leigh Snowden, who died in 1982.

After playing Las Vegas for years at bygone hotels such as the El Rancho Vegas, an offer of steady work in the Tropicana lounge motivated Contino to move here, buying a house near the Boulevard Mall from Las Vegas bandleader Vido Musso, his son Pete said.

Contino emerged as a bobby-soxer idol after winning Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show” in 1946, and he was said to have played the Ed Sullivan show a record 48 times.

Contino’s cult status was elevated with the short story “Dick Contino’s Blues,” part of best-selling crime fiction writer James Ellroy’s 1994 collection “Hollywood Nocturnes.”

Ellroy’s story blended fiction with facts, such as Contino’s recording and movie career being derailed after he spent six months in jail for ignoring his draft notice to the Korean War.

Contino remained hearty well into his 80s and played through most of 2014 — including the accordion convention — after bouncing back from a broken hip the previous year, his wife, Judy, said Thursday.

But health complications starting in early 2015 caused him to move back to Fresno to be closer to his daughter Deidre.

A private family service in Fresno will be followed by a public celebration of his life in Las Vegas on a June date to be determined.

Survivors include his son Pete of Las Vegas, daughters Mary, of Phoenix, Deidre, of Fresno, and two step-children, Cathie and Robert.

Contact Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288. Follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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