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Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame Loss


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Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee Mickey Montalbano dies at age 91.

A week ago, Mickey Montalbano, a World War II veteran, was part of Baton Rouge’s second annual Veterans Parade. He called it the “best one ever.”

Early Sunday morning the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee died of heart congestion. He was 91.

Together with younger brother S.J., the two brothers played a huge role in the local music scene in the 1950s and 1960s, booking acts like Ray Charles, The Temptations, BB King and Jimi Hendrix at the old Independence Hall. It was Mickey who slipped money from the family business, Bano Produce, so S.J., aka Sam Montel, could make records under his Montel record label.

The two brothers were both inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2012.

“Mickey was my financier,” S.J. Montalbano told The Advocate in a 2001 interview. “Daddy didn’t approve, so Mickey would do it behind Daddy’s back. He said, ‘Here’s some money. Go ahead and cut that record. Get you a hit.’”

And thanks to Mickey’s help, there were lots of hits. The brothers helped launch the careers of Jimmy Clanton, “Just a Dream”; Dale & Grace, “I’m Leaving it Up to You”; John Fred & the Playboys, “Judy in Disguise”; and the Boogie Kings.

They kept this music alive via their radio show for Baton Rouge Magnet High School’s radio stations, WBRH 90.3 FM and KBRH 1260 AM, hanging up the microphone three years ago.

“Mickey led a very, very full life,” said Rob Payer, manager of the two stations. “He wrote me a birthday card a few years ago in this beautiful handwriting, and the thoughts were so eloquent and touching. Not something you’d expect. He was a gentle, sweet guy and he’s going to be missed.”

That sentiment was echoed by Johnny Palazzotto. He was among a group of friends who visited with Mickey days before his death.

“We all sat around and told stories. … He was such a character,” said Palazzotto, who referred to his longtime friend as “Uncle Mickey.” “He is/was very much loved by everyone and I will miss him.”

Some of those stories are recounted in a just-released book by S.J., “I’m Leaving it Up to Me.” The brothers had a book-signing scheduled in four weeks. It is dedicated to Mickey.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Greenoaks Funeral Home.

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Mickey Montalbano passed away peacefully Sunday morning at his residence at Williamsburg Senior Living. He was 91. Mickey was born Michael Joseph Montalbano on Feb. 16th, 1927 to parents Carl and Rose Nicholas Montalbano. He received his diploma from Baton Rouge High School in 1944. He was granted an “honorary” degree from Catholic High School. He enlisted in the Navy that same year and served on the SS Xanthus in Okinawa during WWll. He was later stationed in Tsing Tao, China. His rank upon discharge was Seaman 1st Class. He has one brother, Samuel John (SJ) Montalbano, and one sister, Mary Margaret Montalbano Bains (Frank). He was preceded in death by his parents, Carl and Rose and his wife, Jaqueline Laurent Montalbano whom he married in 1951. He is survived by his brother and sister, Mary Margaret and SJ, and a sister-in-law, Kay Davis. Also, he is survived by his children and spouses: Mike and DeEtte Montalbano, Randy and Darleen Montalbano, Vicki and David Brewer, Toni and Daniel Strong, and Tommy Montalbano. Additionally, he is survived by nine grandchildren: Dana Brewer, Kristen Brewer Sitter(Doug), Michael J. Montalbano, lll (Allison), Kerrie Montalbano Richmond (Ryan), Tiffinie Burychka (Darren), Randall Montalbano Jr.,(Emily), Tabitha Montalbano Bordelon (Mark), Ryan Strong (Whitney), and Natalie Montalbano Virgets (Warren), and sixteen great grandchildren: Anna Kate, Brody, Evie, Gianna, Stella, Claire, Abigail, Abel, Cooper, Enoch, Ellie, Sloan, Mollie, Luke, Anna and Parker. He owned and worked for the family business most of his life. That was The Fruit Exchange, which was located where the statue of Christopher Columbus now stands on Front Street in Baton Rouge. It later became Food Systems, Inc., located on Nicholson Drive. Mickey was Vice President of Montel Records, with his brother SJ as president. Together they had a #1 hit, “I’m Leaving it Up to You” by Dale and Grace. They also produced many concerts and dances through the 1950’s and 60’s and early 70’s. Later in life, Mickey and SJ co-hosted the very popular radio show, “Jukebox Legends” on WBRH. His brother, SJ was his best friend, and they saw each other every day for breakfast, lunch, or just to visit. Having lived a long and active life, Mickey acquired hundreds of friends and loved ones throughout the years. Some have passed on, and some are still with us. Mickey loved and cherished all of his friends who came from all walks of life. Some were successful, some were economically challenged. They were all friends in his eyes. Over the years, Mickey belonged to many civic, social, and church organizations. He sponsored numerous youth athletic teams. Most recently, he served on the board of the SS Kidd, and belonged to the Baton Rouge Chapter of the US Navy Club. Pallbearers will be, Michael Montalbano lll, Ryan Richmond, Ryan Strong, Randy Montalbano Jr., Doug Sitter, Mark Bordelon, Warren Virgets and Darren Burychka. The family would like to thank Dr. Carl Luikart for his warm, caring and professional care over the years. He always reminded us that every day is a blessing. Visitation will be at Greenoaks Memorial Park 9595 Florida Blvd. Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 7th, from 5pm until 8pm. There will be a Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on Thursday at 10am. Conducted by Father Cleo Milano Burial will take place at Greenoaks. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to St. Vincent DePaul Society.

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SJ Montalbano weaves a story of rock and roll history and Baton Rouge


SJ Montalbano is laughing behind his plate of veal Parmesan at Gino's Italian Restaurant. It's a dry, happy sound that comes from deep down in his gut, but his shoulders hunch over the plate of red sauce-covered spaghetti and the glimmer in his eye makes it feel more like a private giggle between two old friends.

It's a feeling many in Baton Rouge have had. Montalbano has friends from all walks of life thanks to his storytelling, a deeply rooted history in the city and a career in both music and business: record producing, show promoting and the creation of one of the state's most successful produce companies alongside his brother and partner-in-crime, Mickey.

Just now, however, he's in the middle of a story about the time he brought Jimi Hendrix to town in 1968 for two shows, one-night-only. Back then he was Sam Montel, and he'd strut around Independence Hall in a freshly-pressed suit, ready to emcee the night's events, meeting his fans and signing autographs.

"It seemed like every show there was a situation, and I'm talking about a close situation," Montalbano says.

The Hendrix show was a big one -- he'd snagged the guitarist on a Tuesday night for just $5,500, and he charged attendees $5 at the door -- so there wasn't any room for error. But when one of the state police officers he'd paid to act as security that night showed up with a tightly-leashed dog, he knew something wasn't right.

"He said, 'We got a call at the State Police that there's a bomb under the stage because Jimi Hendrix is black,' ... and I said, 'Please tell me this is a prank,'" Montalbano remembers. But no, it wasn't, and the officer insisted the hall be cleared out. Instead, Montalbano, the officer and the bomb-sniffing dog crawled beneath a hidden door under the stage to ensure everything was all clear.

"There's all these cobwebs ... and I don't like spiders to start with, but I had to," he says. "I had a show going in seven, eight minutes, and this is just the first show (of the night)."

Hendrix never found out about the false alarm, but it stands out as Montalbano's defining memory of the night. That kind of thing -- putting out fires with a laugh and still figuring out how to make a buck -- are what has made Montalbano so successful. Guys like him are rare, and increasingly so as the years carry on but some of the people so influential in south Louisiana's 20th century sound do not.

Montalbano always loved music as a young kid in Baton Rouge. He and his friends would listen to WXOK on the sly, hoping they wouldn't be caught listening to the black radio station that played the R&B, blues and gospel music they loved.

He'd also hang around the CYO for dances and live music, and he eventually began booking his friend Jimmy Clanton. (He was also friends with Johnny Romastello, aka Johnny Rivers, but Montalbano just laughs when you ask about him: "I had nothing to do with his career except to tell him he couldn't play guitar and couldn't sing.")

"We brought Jimmy to New Orleans, and I introduced him to Cosimo Mattasa , and Cosimo was a very charming and funny guy, just good as gold, a little bitty bald-headed fellow," Montalbano said. "Anyway, we recorded 'Just a Dream,' and Cosimo called his buddy ... who owned Ace Records."

From there, Clanton shot to fame and landed on "American Bandstand."

"He came on, and we're all sitting in the student union (at USL, now UL-Lafayette). ... Dick Clark says, 'Jimmy, Baton Rouge, Louisiana? Way down South? How'd you get started?' and he said, 'Well my buddy SJ Montalbano --' and I'm like, yeah!" he says, throwing a fist in the air over the bread basket.

Montalbano quit school and went on tour, leaving his father's dreams that he'd be a lawyer behind in Lafayette and never looked back. The thing was, he hated being on the road.

"I was supposed to be management, like the coach, you know? But football's too tough. I signed John Fred and the Playboys in the latter part of 1959, and I said to Jimmy ... I'm moving out," Montalbano says. Perhaps the most lasting gift of that partnership was the name Sam Montel.

"His advice to me was ... you need a name that's catchy. So S stands for Sam, and we'll cut your Montalbano in half, so Montel," Montalbano explains, his hands chopping down the syllables in his name against the white tablecloth.

Montalbano returned to Baton Rouge and set up shop inside a renovated tomato room inside his father's fruit exchange and went to work. Montel Records was pretty successful -- and he eventually scored a No. 1 hit with Dale and Grace's "I'm Leaving It All Up To You" -- but it wasn't enough to pay all the bills all the time, so he began promoting shows in the city.

"Yeah, I'm Mr. Baton Rouge," he laughs again, not the least bit modest. "The kids who grew up here were lucky."

They were lucky. Besides Hendrix, Montalbano also brought in acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and The Who.

"For a town like Baton Rouge where in 1966, 1967, crew cuts were still the norm, and you were frowned upon if your hair was down to your collar, it means a lot to have The Who play here on a tour," said Rob Payer, a radio engineer for WBRH and a Baton Rouge music aficionado, in a later interview. "No major acts come through Baton Rouge now. We're lucky if they go to New Orleans. This was, I think a pretty special time for music."

Montalbano never learned to play any music for himself. It just wasn't in his blood.

"I never had a desire to play it, but I had a desire to feel it," he says. "I remember sitting in 1958, I sat at the piano with Ray Charles, and I said, 'Ray, teach me how to play piano,' and he said, 'do-do-do-do-do-do.' It was 'Chopsticks,' and I learned it, and I said, 'Thank you, Ray!'"

What is in his blood is storytelling. Little anecdotes like that easily flow from Montalbano, like the time he took Otis Redding on his first plane ride ever -- an especially poignant one given it was a plane crash that killed him in 1967. There's also the time a local singer got Montalbano in trouble for blowing marijuana smoke rings into cop cars as they passed the record studio on their way in for the night, and the eureka moment he had at a McDonald's in Northgate when he decided to go into the produce business.

That moment came soon after disco, the genre that essentially ended the livelihood for anyone in blues and rock and roll in Baton Rouge. He was out on a routine trip delivering lettuce so he and his brother, Mickey, could get to lunch when he discovered the value of selling pre-sliced produce.

The ensuing business, Bano Fresh Produce, eventually employed dozens of people with a warehouse in North Baton Rouge, but the Montalbanos sold it to Capitol City Produce about 10 years ago. By then, the Montalbano brothers were hosts of Jukebox Legends on WBRH at Baton Rouge High School with Payer, which the pair had taken over from John Fred when he became too ill to manage it.

"It became a monster," Montalbano says of the program, now onto a steaming cup of coffee. The restaurant, by this point, has mainly emptied. It's too late for lunch and too early for dinner. "I liked ... the creativity of it."

He and Mickey left after nearly 10 years on the airwaves, burnt out and ready to take a break.

"I'm 77 years old!" he exclaims, making it clear that's reason enough to leave the studio. "I was tied down to it."

He'd still love to get back in the studio. He's got this idea for a show about rock and roll heaven.

"I was gonna take a rocket and go into Heaven," he says, his eyes raising a bit and looking past the table, past the next one over and settling somewhere else entirely.

"The first cloud I see was gonna be Ray Charles. Check out Elvis over there! Rock and Roll Heaven, and I was gonna do it. Hank Williams Senior, still playing the guitar -- because it's Heaven."

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