I won my first Grammy at the age of 7 for a bang-up cover version of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” (To clarify -- when I say Grammy, I don’t mean one of the famous annual awards for musical excellence dished out by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science – no, I mean the "DeFonza Grammy” awards, which were given out by my Grammy Bluebell [see above] who told everyone I was better than The Beatles. She gave me awards all the time. My brothers and sisters, too.
Celebrating with Grandma Bluebell (in the middle) at the 1987 "Grammy" Awards ... Grandma DeFonza (far left) told me all about Peppino DeFonza
My first "Grammy" award, wink-wink.
"...if pressed I tell folks I write and sing
songs. Some call it Americana, which is fair..."
"[The Slow and Steady CD] is an interesting mix of styles, some that are pure-genre (Fat Man Sings The Blues and The Wrong Man), and some that are more singular and non-traditional (When All The Trains Are Gone and Ostrich Man). Lyrically, it ranges from heartfelt and personal (the title cut), to playful and humorous (Not Right In The Head), sometimes with a light touch of raunchy (Back in the Day). This record welcomes repeated spins that let the songs grow on you.”
--"Just Plain Folks" songwriter forum
Big Fun on the Bio
A bio? Oh boy-o. Are bios still required? Does anyone even read them? And if so, do they believe them? Seems to me everyone toots their horn and stretches the truth in a bio. OK -- I'll be different. I'll be *100% truthful, let the chips fall where they may. (* only an estimate, not an actual measurement)
First, the standard part ... I am a Virginia-based singer/songwriter/guitarist (my homes are in Manassas and Charlottesville) ... I resist pigeon-holing my style, but if pressed I tell folks I write and sing rootsy-bluesy-country-funky-folky-poppy songs. Some folks call it Americana, which is fair, if you have a broad notion of what Americana is. I'd agree that I lean much more heavily on the forms, structures, themes and instrumentation of American music than, say, English pop. (Though I love English pop, too.) Probably what ties my songs together stylistically is the Americana sound, my lyrics (I write mostly personal songs), my vocals, and the fact that I write in what you might call "pop format" -- meaning verse-chorus-bridge kinda songs -- all in the 3 - 5 minute range. I don’t write 13-minute jam-band loops, or long and circuitous complex progressive rock, or string quartet concertos. I like that stuff, too – I just don’t write that way.
I have been influenced by many artists, but I'm not a confirmed groupie for anyone in particular (closest I come to rabid fan is for The Beatles). I like individual songs ... on my iPod, I have about 500 "heavy rotation" songs that come from about 50 artists. So, on average that's about 10 songs per artist, so I'm not really deep into anyone's archive. And my attraction to "the song" could just as easily mean a commercial jingle (I have memorized hundreds of them, sad to say) or a TV theme song (I know dozens) as it does a Top 40 hit. I might even play a commercial jingle or two when I gig. Or a TV song. :)
So, that's a short current snapshot. Now, how about a little history -- how did I get here?
Me as "The King," circa 1965.
"Thank you. Thank you very much."
I started playing guitar and singing at the age of 5. I got a cheapo little plastic Elvis Presley toy guitar for Christmas, and I took to playing "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" for any guests who would sit still long enough to listen (Elvis wiggles included). When my evil older brother Louie cut the strings off my Elvis guitar (jealous of my standing ovations), I was not at all dissuaded from performing my Elvis tunes – I kept strumming the silent almost-air-guitar and singing my heart out a capella. My Grandma Bluebell took pity on me, so she ponied up the cash for my first Gibson acoustic guitar, and became my benefactor for guitar lessons. I was on my way to maintaining the traditions of ancestor Peppino..
I am one in a long line of DeFonza performers.` My ancestor Peppino DeFonza came over on the Mayflower with all those English folks. He wasn't looking for religious freedom, he came looking for good pizza … London pizza was awful in the 1600's (they used cheddar instead of mozzarella, and in his horror he knew that the only hope was to flee the country). Peppino was a stowaway; when they caught him hiding under the bunk of Miles Standish eating a ciabatta with prosciutto and provolone, he avoided arrest by making a deal to pay his passage by playing nightly concerts for the passengers ... he sang lovely Italian ditties and accompanied himself on the mandolin. A tradition was born, and dozens of DeFonza men and women since have followed in Peppino's footsteps. I am just the most recent.
Peppino DeFonza, with mandolin, about to stow away on the Mayflower
"My evil older brother Louie cut the strings off my Elvis guitar (jealous of my standing ovations...)"
“I love the lean production; it allows your voice and songs to take center stage and shine. You have a unique style, very rhythmic, melodic and tight. And you clearly know how to write and deliver good songs. The trick is to get them out there to an audience.
If you play it, they will come."
--Nashvile Songwriters Association International song review
My first real taste of rock star fame came at the age of 11 in Toms River, NJ ... I formed a duo with my best friend, Kevin Wheeler, and we played our version of the #1 hit song "Dueling Banjos" at the Walnut Street Elementary School annual talent show. We managed to pull of a note-for-note cover without using a banjo (we wondered about the song title, which implied at least two banjos, though we knew it was played by a banjo and a guitar). We did our version on two guitars ... and frankly, we were bowled over by the instant stardom conferred upon us. For weeks, we were the lucky recipients of many free Twinkies, Zagnuts and chocolate milk in the cafeteria, offerings from fans hoping to share in the glow of elementary school fame. Very heady stuff. And addictive. Peppino was smiling.
I moved from solo (Elvis on plastic guitar) to duo ("Dueling Banjos"), so the next natural step in my career was to form a band. Or should I say "bands." Like most musicians, I have been in many bands over the years. Some say that the names (and number) of the bands a musician has played in can tell you an awful lot about the musician. Hmm. That might be true, but after sitting down and thoroughly cataloguing the assortment of ensembles I've joined over the years, I'm a bit wary about suggesting they have anything to say about me ... if they do, it's something erratic and odd. Some examples:
The Bluestone Rhythm Band (Young teen)
The Test Tickles (Still young, addicted to puns as a kid)
Ronald Rinaldi and The Bucktooth Band (Named after my kindergarten teacher, and my most prominent physical deformity … I have no idea why.)
Jules Nat and the Monkey Men (Named after my younger brother Mike’s most prominent deformity, his uncanny simian features.)
The Bubble Butt Brigade (Again, physical deformity … ouch)
I was in several questionable bands over the years, but none of them looked this awful.
The The Four Skins (My father gave us that name … when we discovered the double meaning, I’d like to say we dropped the name, but actually we thought it was excellent ... we bought bald-head wigs and made a bigger banner to hang behind us.)
Hot Ice … and Fryar Tukk (High School bands … subtle oxymoron in the first, and clever re-spelling in the second. Genius. )
Scratch My Bitch … and If The Queen Had Balls (Short punk phase in college)
The Doggs (Also college, WAY ahead of the rap world’s fascination with the word “dog,” and way ahead of Snoop, who made the double-g ending a famous flourish.)
Kate and Kaboodle (I actually made good money with this band, for many years – but I needed many cocktails prior to each performance in order to muster the courage to play under this moniker … an embarrassing chapter, best forgotten.)
Exit 82 and Suburban Drive (Named after my home town exit on the Garden State Parkway, and the street I grew up on in Toms River, NJ. Coincidentally, "suburban drive" is the force that motivates millions of middle-class American youngsters to form bands with their friends to seek the riches and fame that might be a road out of suburbia.)
Two Looks Away – a fine four-piece, I still have a few hundred CDs left of a 4-song EP disc. My return to music after a several-year hiatus to do stand-up comedy … a story for another day.)
Then – finally, after 40-some odd years of schizophrenic hopping from genre-to-genre and band-to-band … I finally went solo in 2007 as plain old Danny DeFonza, with the CDs “Slow and Steady” and “Wash You Away” (a few sample songs on the Listen to the Music page.)
"Elementary School rock star fame ... free Twinkies, Zagnuts and chocolate milk in the cafeteria..."
"Dueling Banjos" and elementary school fame!