The Dukes Of Dixieland (1951)

A 14-year-old Frank Assunto and Fred, his brother (17 years old), began playing Saturdays at Mama Lou’s Seafood Restaurant. Sometimes they would also play across the river at The Moonlight Inn with other children on Saturday nights. Frank Assunto recalls those Mama Lou’s days. He said they were paid $3 per night, but because none of them could drive a car, the cab fare from and to Mama Lou’s took most of their money. They got what they had in the “kitty”, a tip jar, and the sessions ran from 10pm to 2am. There was one break at midnight where the budding musicians could go into the kitchen to eat as much seafood as they wanted. Frank was broke, but well fed in those early days. This band often included a young Pete Fountain. The band changed its name to the Basin Street Four Five Six, Six or Six by 1947 depending on how many people could be gathered. After high school, they played for pure pleasure and wherever else they could. The weekend gigs continued at a seafood restaurant. The Assunto brothers were part of Redemptporist High School’s marching band. It was during a performance of the school band that Freddie Assunto, a young man, caught Betty Owens’ attention. She thought he was the most handsome thing she had ever seen. Betty, a friend and her dog followed the parade back to school. They eventually arrived at the Assunto home, where Betty saw Freddie come out of the back door. She knew she was in the right place. A friend, who was at the time dating Frank Assunto, introduced her to Fred. It was a simple matter of time before the Assuntos gained another member. The band also gained a singer, The Dukes of Dixieland. Betty became well-known for her performances with the band. Betty was a local hillbilly singer since she was 6. Although she was too young to join the band in the bars and clubs, she soon began singing with them. The Assunto brothers heard that Horace Heidt Pot of Gold radio was coming to New Orleans for a combined talent hunt and playing engagement. They gathered a seven-piece band and began practicing hard for the show. The Heidt contest featured Frank Assunto as a trumpet player, Fred Assunto as a trombone player, Pete Fountain playing clarinet, Fred Assunto as a trombone player, Fred Assunto and Tommy Balderas playing guitar, Willie Perkins, Artie Seelig, Hank Bartels, and Willie Perkins, drums. The show’s title was the Junior Dixieland Band. They won the top honors in the local talent competition and were invited to tour with the Heidt Show. They finished second in the Cincinnati national talent contest to a pair girl singers. The brothers decided to go pro after six weeks of working with the Heidt Show. They took $500 with them to the Show and made it back to New Orleans hotfooted. They were issued uniforms and joined the musicians union. They did not achieve success immediately. At first, they were able to make a guest appearance at New Orleans Jazz Club meetings. They were invited to the 1949 New Orleans Jazz Festival, which was held at the Auditorium. Their first job was a 22-week stay at the Golden Slipper in Baton Rouge. Artie Seelig, piano; Chink Martin Jr., string bass; Bill Shea (an outsider from Highland Park, IL), on clarinet; and Willie Perkins, drums, were all members of the band. Many Dixieland bands have used KING as their name over the years. This may be why they chose THE DUKES of DIXIELAND to call their new band in 1949. They had previously played at Tony Almerico’s Parisian Room as well as other clubs such the Junior Dixie Band. Sharkey Bonano

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