Concert to honor local rock legend Norman Nardini
Editor’s note: Tribune-Review staff writer Mary Ann Thomas worked for Norman Nardini before her life in journalism. This is her account of why Nardini’s 50 years in local rock ‘n’ roll are important.
As Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto declared Saturday “Norman Nardini Day,” honoring its native son’s 50 years as a musician, some might ask themselves, “Why?”
Especially since Nardini grew up near Springdale.
The self-described local “uncrowned king of rock ‘n’ roll” has proven to be an inexhaustible songwriter and performer whose music and comedic rants continue to entertain. And he’s been a force in the Pittsburgh rock ‘n’ roll scene for 50 years.
To celebrate his Normaness, Ron “Moondog” Esser put together a concert featuring Nardini and a lineup of local bands including the SPUDS and Bill Toms & Hard Rain with the Soulville Horns at the Syria Shrine Center in Harmar.
I had the good fortune to work for Nardini, who helped me work my way through college and then some. It was the ultimate gig: I got paid to do something fun — the business details and promotion — of a band that was lighting up the nightclubs with their energetic and charismatic shows in the late 1970s and 1980s, securing gigs in New York City, New Jersey and beyond, ultimately landing a contract with CBS records.
People lined up to see Nardini’s live shows with his band, the Tigers, catching the attention of music critics such as Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who, in 1980, proclaimed that Nardini was “the coolest little rooster since Jagger was green wood.”
Nardini is funny like Jerry Lewis, handsome like Robert DeNiro, but wiry and weird in an interesting way.
The first time I saw him perform, he wore a paper bag over his head – but only momentarily — for a show at the former Phase III Lounge in Swissvale, opening for Stiv Bators/The Dead Boys around 1978.
I know that sounds bad, but it really wasn’t if you consider the context and the power of Nardini.
He wasn’t just playing there, he was booking other artists there including The Dead Boys.
After the owner of the Phase III was not doing so well with disco music, Nardini, who lived just a street away, booked some bands in the new wave and punk genre around 1978 including Richard Hell and the Voidoids, “X” and The Police, their second show in the United States.
But that is just one back story. Nardini has played with many famous artists, from the legendary R&B singer Big Mama Thornton to Jon Bon Jovi, who befriended him when he was a kid and ended up singing on one of Nardini’s albums.
In his younger years, Nardini was unusually athletic when he played live, jumping up on the bar and table tops for a guitar solo, something a lithe and compact Italian man with a lot of nerve could do. And he did it as much as he could. Though, now, at the age of 68, Nardini’s tabletop days are long gone, his guitar playing, songwriting and humor are well-honed and smooth like a patina on a classic car that hasn’t been stripped.
He can be bawdy on stage, but harmlessly so.
Nardini’s descriptions of his questionable sexual prowess are legendary and could make Mae West blush.
The barroom seasoning hasn’t been as easy as it looks, nor playing in the Big Top, opening for a number of national bands.
When Nardini opened for Alice Cooper in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s and was finishing his set, he leaned over the stage to say his “thank you” and some guy threw Coca-Cola in his face.
He refused to wince and pretended like it didn’t happen.
He just kept playing, which has been his strategy all along.
Nardini is king in Pittsburgh because he is fun and, ultimately, good for not just one night or one year or one decade, but five decades.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.