Boston Conservatory alum Denise DeCaro (B.F.A. ’74) remembers the life and extraordinary career of her long-time friend and collaborator, Mike Renzi in the following tribute. Renzi passed away on September 28, 2021.
By Denise DeCaro
On September 28, 2021, the internet lit up across the world as the recording and entertainment community learned of the sudden passing of maestro Mike Renzi, jazz musician and one of the most revered accompanists in the world. “He accompanied Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, and Big Bird,” as New York Times journalist, Neil Genzlinger, wrote in his Sunday, October 17, 2021 article, highlighting Mike Renzi’s 70-year career.
There were other articles and acknowledgements, including JazzTimes, the Associated Press, Broadwayworld.com, the Sesame Street blog, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, a live, virtual interview-type program with a few artists who were fortunate enough to have recorded with the gifted pianist over the past few decades, and an NPR tribute interview with guest and Washington D.C. broadcaster Murray Horwitz. Horwitz is a Tony Award-winning playwright, lyricist, and director who also knew Mike and apparently collaborated with him for many years in a variety of settings. During the interview and 7-minute listen, Murray wonderfully described Mike and Peggy Lee’s special rapport and the “conversation between friends” that is clearly demonstrated on tunes such as “There’ll Be Another Spring,” written by Peggy Lee. “He is truly one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever met, and I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for me to sing with him,” Peggy Lee said in 1985.
Stepping up to the piano with maestro was like the moment when two become one…sharing a frequency that lifts the voice and spirit with colorful orchestrations of beauty, joy and swing. —Denise DeCaro
After listening to Peggy and Mike’s music magic and their dialogue, Murray states as an accompanist, “he captures the sadness and the hope in the lyric and the music.” That would be especially true since Mike not only knew your key instantaneously, but knew all the lyrics as well. Also, Murray emphasizes Mike’s tact and diplomacy in dealing with people who appear to be prima donnas, but Mike made you see that the art was the only thing that mattered. Lena Horne’s Something to Live For (Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn) beautifully followed and brought me to tears. Mike appears also as executive producer and in her later years provides so much support and “makes Lena shine.”
I was trying to listen while struggling with the shock of Mike’s passing to the broadcast the morning of Mike’s memorial on October 9, and at which I would be performing, saying to myself, yes, that’s Mike, making us all sound better than we really are. Even a young Diana Krall sought out Mike Renzi in 1993 as a harmony coach after hearing the standard “Remind Me” by Lee and Renzi. Krall included Mike in her list of special thanks on her Only Trust Your Heart (1995) with our friends GRP producer Tommy LiPuma and Grammy Award-winning engineer Al Schmitt. I had the opportunity to chat with her backstage after her Santa Barbara Bowl concert and her eyes lit up when we spoke about Mike.
The New York Times article in particular touched my heart, as it was extraordinarily informative, yet personal and completely respected maestro and his family’s privacy during a very traumatic time. I especially appreciated the history and focus on earlier opportunities that arose which provided insight to part of the extraordinary journey of the Berklee and Boston Conservatory alumni on his road to success. I had the opportunity to reach out and personally thank Neil Genzlinger. He was most gracious and confirmed it is unlikely, if perhaps hardly at all, that a pianist, even at Mike Renzi’s level would receive the recognition in the New York Times as a featured story even though as a pianist and arranger he performed “for countless megastars” in the recording and entertainment industry. Neil listened as I explained that Mike Renzi has been by my side as pianist, arranger, and music director since I was a young chanteuse at 15.
I spoke about my 50-year or so friendship with Mike and the early years of performing with the Mike Renzi Trio at the Stone Balloon in very quiet Warren, Rhode Island, when I was 15 years old. I had begun performing professionally since I was 12 throughout the New England area, mostly large stages, and had just won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and I guess that was the pitch. I can only imagine what the trio was thinking. It was only to be a two-week replacement for a popular vocalist and friend of the trio who was ill but all that was about to change. We had a quick rehearsal at the tiny club, the day of and with my sheet music, just an hour or so before the doors would open. The Mike Renzi trio whose members included bassist Bob Petterutti and drummer Arti Cabral, opened the set with two songs with Applause! Applause! and then Mike, before graciously inviting me to the stage, told the audience of a few of my credits and how I came in last minute to help out. My heart was racing and thinking the audience was too close, and would I be able to hear myself, and I thought my hair looked awful. Then the intro to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Going Out of My Head” medley began as I approached the stage area. I was terrified for a moment until Mike led me right into the song, modulation included, and I knew at that point I was in safe and very capable hands. And it has been that way ever since.
My repertoire was predominantly ballads, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Summer Me, Winter Me,” “This Is My Life,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” with a few swing tunes and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave.” Soon, a Mike Renzi arrangement of “On a Clear Day” was written up and that always brought down the house. While my father Julio scanned the room every night making sure the sound level was good as the room filled up, the owner was thrilled with his suddenly packed room every weekend and asked if I could remain throughout the summer. I had a huge crush on Mike and as so many ladies of song will attest, when you met him, you just fell in love. Always approachable, personal and caring with a great sense of humor.
Then on to the Kings and Queens at which I performed periodically and loved especially with the showroom vibe, lights, and great sound system. I was moving up and growing up at 17 and so was Mike. Mike then invited me to perform at the historic Shamrock Cliff mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, throughout the summer while the trio basically took me under their wing, providing transportation and becoming the big brothers I never had. Then on to what became New England’s premiere jazz spot Allays located in downtown Providence. Somehow, we managed to squeeze in weddings, special events, local commercials, and TV appearances. I performed on a rotation system with other vocalists while attending the Boston Conservatory with the trio, who was the house band five nights a week.
Our medleys were a favorite of the audience and Mike arranged them all from Stevie Wonder to Burt Bacharach to Michel Legrand to “Funny Girl”—even the Beatles and so on. Even Aerosmith loved that medley of ours. In fact, Mike Renzi could play anything from ragtime to pop to jazz to classical to Latin infused improvisational pieces.
I explained to Neil how our friendship developed and evolved at that time trying to balance the personal and professional. One of our final performances was a glorious night performing with the Arthur Fiedler Boston Pops Christmas Concert in 1975. If it wasn’t for Mike, a young 34-year-old and our meeting with maestro Arthur Fiedler at Boston Symphony Hall in October 1975, there may have not been a performance on December 15 of that year for “Denise Mainelli” (my name at the time). Thank you, promoter Phyllis Adessi and Carol Iafrate.
As my pianist, arranger, and conductor, we performed six songs for an audience of 9500 and received great reviews from Variety magazine. I gained a lot of experience and insight during those years. Mike attended and cheered me on with family and friends for my leading roles at the Conservatory and waited patiently for my return as Anita in the European tour of West Side Story.
Along with the multiple concerts and album collaborations throughout the past 20 years in particular, Mike initiated what would have been yet another recording in 2017, soon after the release of our Grammy nominated 2016 holiday album Christmas and You, on which he appeared also as executive producer, an extraordinarily generous gift. At the time of the idea I was enjoying yet another stay at his Boca Raton home. After one of his morning runs of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, he asked me to step up to the piano and suddenly the light reflected oh so brightly off the Emmy statuettes, on “Lucky to Be Me.” He had collaborated on a similar production style album with Maureen McGovern and Jack Jones on the critically acclaimed, The Pleasure of His Company (1997) and Jack Jones Paints a Portrait of Tony Bennett (1998) respectively. Both albums received Grammy nods and the concept album focuses on the conversation between the piano and the voice, the conversation between friends.
The new album would be similar to the intimate style of production of one of his favorite recordings with Maureen McGovern, the Grammy-nominated The Pleasure of His Company. The success of our sold-out Feelin’ Good Concert in September 2019, at which several of our music friends from Allary’s attended, further confirmed the need to perform in L.A. at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s with Mike, record our album Here’s to Life, and then book a venue in New York. The stars aligned and there was excitement for the next chapter.
Then came 2020. We conducted long distance rehearsals at Mike’s request throughout the pandemic and used our time wisely. These were dark and uncertain times, but Mike always reminded me to stay hopeful. I further explained to Neil, that as the song list developed, Mike and I realized it was becoming autobiographical in that it was our story. Since music is a universal language, it could be anyone’s love story. The plan was for me to return home this April from L.A. to Rhode Island and finally record our intimate production styled album, celebrating the conversation between the piano and the voice, and we have had many an intimate conversation throughout the years. There was excitement and hope for the next chapter. Neil simply said, “You’ve got to do it.” And so, The Very Thought of You began production in L.A. that April with Randy Waldman, Chuck Berghofer, Dave Tull, and Brandon Fields. I want to take it back home and finish the album where it all began, our history, our story and dedicate the album as a gift of inspiration and love to my dear friend who will remain in my heart forever.
Undeniably, Mike Renzi is a superstar in his own right. With seven Emmy Awards for musical direction and composition both for Sesame Street (1999-2009) and the long-running soap opera One Life to Live. The shiny gold statuettes were proudly displayed at both his Boca Raton and Middletown, Rhode Island, homes on his Yamaha grand. Other awards on display include the Rhode Island American Heritage Music Award, the key to the City of Providence (presented by mayor and friend Buddy Cianci Jr.), and a Lifetime Achievement Music Award presented by Legends Radio and host Dick Robinson, who was a long-time friend of Renzi’s. He was also inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame—and submitted me as a future recipient.
He released over 150 albums with legendary artists including Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Jack Jones, Tony Bennett, along with Cynthia Crane, Annette Saunders, Maureen McGovern, Hillary Cole, George Shearing, myself, Nic King, and several Rhode Island–based artists, and performed with Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Natalie Cole, and an eight-week tour with Frank Sinatra of which Mike was so proud. There were also the many performances at the prestigious Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the White House, the Newport Jazz Festival, Broadway with Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, studio pianist on popular movies The Birdcage, Biloxi Blues, and others. He recorded at the best studios in the world, including Nola Studios in New York with his best friend, owner, and engineer, Jim Czak during the 10 year or so of the Sesame Street era and at Capitol Studios Hollywood. He was truly a force generated by excitement and passion.
One of the many highlights was the Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga world tour. Mike was 72 at the time and performed as music director for thre years. I was fortunate enough to have been invited by my dear friend to the Hollywood Bowl Concert, VIP garden section, seated beside the lovely Monica Mancini and Lady Gagas’s parents and sister. That evening I witnessed sheer genius as Mike conducted two separate rhythm sections and the orchestra. It was extraordinary and the Cheek to Cheek album garnered the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop album. Mike’s accompaniment on “But Beautiful,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Cheek to Cheek,” are favorites of mine from the album.
The fact is Mike Renzi is a megastar in his own right, and as a vocalist and friend who shared the spotlight with him since 1967, I am completely honored to have been asked to contribute a tribute article celebrating his gift, his passion, and his purpose. As a musician, he was influenced by romantic and impressionistic composers Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Rachmaninoff in combination with his jazz idols Bill Evans, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Dave McKenna (from his hometown), Art Tatum, Chick Corea, and others. At a very young age, Mike appeared to be working more towards a synthesis between composed and improvised music, while developing a jazz style that is difficult to acquire and master. According to my International Musicians Magazine copy, Mike explains when he heard jazz: “It was like a magnet. My parents had great jazz records. I loved the harmonies and songs. I wanted to learn to play this kind of music, and that’s what I did. I started doing that when I was eight or nine and did my first job when I was 12.”
As an accompanist, he was a master of an art form that is sadly fading. His knowledge of songs from the American Songbook was extraordinary, and he knew all the lyrics, so he is a singer’s best friend, and for so many reasons. Mike Renzi is the American Songbook, as dear friend Dick Robinson, host of Legends Radio said as he awarded a Lifetime Achievement award. “I like to make colors and create an orchestra behind singers. Accompaniment is a very beautiful thing for me. Words mean a lot and I know the lyrics to most of the songs I play. The words help me color the song, [to know] how I’m going to fill in a certain space, what kind of mood I’m going to try to create. The lyric and mood help me pick my chord voicings, how I fill it in, and create an introduction and ending. I’m creating not for me, but for them—but vicariously—how I would like to be accompanied.” Oh yes, those voicings and as Stephen Holden of the New York Times noted, Mike Renzi’s “extraordinary grace as a pianist arranger whose accompaniments have a panoramic sweep.”
Michael E. Renzi was born in the Italian section of Providence, Rhode Island, on Sutton Street just a few blocks away from Bradford Street where I was born and also lived in a tenement house. Ellie and Ernest Renzi raised both Mike and his sister Lorraine during a time when people worked very hard and didn’t earn a lot, but made a decent living to provide for their families. So, there were no silver spoons here, or extra privileges and no internet or cell phones. It was a much different time but many of us still stay in touch. Mike’s first instrument was the accordion, and when his grandfather, as I’m to believe, recognized his ability, piano lessons started at the age of 8 with Julius Chaloff, a Boston-based classical pianist. So, in perspective, when the neighborhood kids were out playing baseball in the street, Mike was and continued practicing romantic and impressionistic composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, and Mozart as part of his everyday ritual. “When I practice, I don’t play jazz or showtunes. I play Bach fugues, Chopin waltzes, or a Beethoven sonata. I keep my hands in shape that way,” he said. And his early morning runs were always like heaven to my ears.
He began performing every Saturday night, a dinner and dancing venue at the Narragansett Hotel at 12 years of age and joined Local 198-457 (Providence, RI). He joined the Artones with well-known Rhode Island saxophonist Art Pelosi. In 1962, and at 21 years of age, he formed his own group, the Mike Renzi Trio with bassist Bob Petterutti and drummer Artie Cabral, as the house band for the King and Queens, the city’s main jazz club. They had attended the Boston Conservatory together, along with Bob Mainelli and Peter Tutalo. Local artists including several from the Boston and New York area came in to perform with the trio for the next five years.
While Mike was at Allarys , he was also hired in 1972 as music director for The Sonja Hamlin Show out of Boston WBZ-TV in the afternoon. I had heard a couple of funny things from Mike about this moment, but Mike was known not to discuss artists’ business and always remained discreet. According to Rex Reed, Sylvia Syms was to perform and questioned who the pianist was, and what? He was from Rhode Island? And she didn’t want an amateur! Sylvia, who happened to be one of Sinatra’s favorite singers, was notoriously demanding. In any event, and while the show is supposed to air live in 20 minutes, she tells Mike “I want to sing ‘More Than You Know’ and with the verse!” Mike didn’t miss a beat, and due to the success of her performance, she told Mike to get ready because he was going to be playing Carnegie Hall. She also called Sinatra to tell him about this young pianist, which led to an eight-week tour with Frank Sinatra. And it led to Mike being recruited to work with Mel Torme, a partnership that lasted nearly 25 years, producing five albums and numerous performances.
Clearly, the man was blessed with a gift and at a young age was destined for greatness. With years of practice, preparation in knowing the songs and lyrics, forming his own group at 20 with years of accompanying singers in his hometown, stepping out of his comfort zone at an early age and following his instincts, as opportunity often knocks like a sponge on a glass window, like with a Sylvia Syms, and taking that leap of faith with his move to New York in 1976 playing at Carnegie Tavern adjacent to Carnegie Hall weekly, only to have it become a second home to him throughout his seven-decade career.
He established himself as one of the most in demand players of Local 802 (New York) and was revered as one of the top five accompanists in the music community. He always spoke very highly of bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer vocalist Grady Tate with whom he collaborated.
Mike also extended himself for master’s classes and informal clinics, and we had planned on collaborating with Berklee as well as at the Tommy LiPuma Creative Arts Center in Cleveland. Although he also has solo albums and is featured as the primary artist on various albums, he loved playing for singers. It was his calling. As the master said, “It’s not how you press your fingers down, it’s how you lift them.” He served us all well with no bad chords and his orchestral sweeps and fulfilled his assignment with passion, purpose, and sincerity…what an inspiration. We all miss him dearly, truly “a jazz singers’ best friend,” but his legacy lives on with an extensive discography and the many performances throughout the world that made this world a better and brighter place.
A few notable compliments paid to Mike over the years include: “That’s some great piano playing, man!” (Paul McCartney); “I really like your touch.” (Barbra Streisand); “He is truly one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever met, and I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for me to sing with him. (Peggy Lee); to quote but a few.
His body of work will be honored and recognized with the Mike Renzi Musicianship Award Fund that is being established at the University of Rhode Island with an annual event and music scholarship to be awarded to a deserving music student. DeCaro will also be the featured performer at the Musician’s Annual Benefit on October 18, 2022, at the historic Rhodes-on-the Pawtuxet. DeCaro will be accompanied by the Greg Wardson Quartet featuring Greg Wardson on piano, Paul Del Nero on bass, Vin Pagano on drums and on sax Arnie Krakowsky, all of whom are either Berklee alumni or faculty. The event director will be Al Deandrade, president of the Musician’s Union. In the past, Mike Renzi performed for over 70 of these events to help benefit musicians and their medical needs.
Mike would be so very proud of these honors. Mike Renzi is survived by his brother-in-law, niece and nephew, grand nieces and nephews, step brothers and sisters, and his extended family of music lovers and friends.
Denise DeCaro is an alumni of Boston Conservatory of Music (B.F.A. ’74) and she will tell you music is her gift, her passion, her voice. She has performed roles in shows such as Funny Girl, Company, and West Side Story, and performed in opera houses in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Austria. Since her move to L.A. in 1977, she established herself as one of that city’s top vocal contractors, receiving platinum and gold records for her contribution as recording session vocalist with a diverse list of artists including Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Barry Gibb, Dolly Parton, Michel Legrand, Stanley Tourantine, Bill Withers, Diane Schurr, David Foster, and Cher to name but a few. Her voice has been featured in several movie of the week themes, national commercials, Welcome to Pooh Corner for 14 years with film composer John Debney, and always a fond spot in her heart with Burt Bacharach and Paul Anka on the live duet “Rainbow” (Polydor Records). As a session vocalist and performer, she has been afforded the opportunity to collaborate with the finest producers, arrangers, musicians, vocalists and engineers in the world. Denise is married to Frank DeCaro, music contractor on multiple albums and live venues for over 30 years as a union musician with Barbra Streisand, Sir George Martin, Burt Bacharach, Natalie Cole, Claus Ogerman, Dolly Parton, Al Jarreau, Neil Diamond and many more. She continues her live concerts in both L.A. and in Rhode Island. Also, Special Angel Productions L.A. plans to produce a live concert in the fall in Rhode Island to help raise funds for the Mike Renzi Musicianship Award Fund, and share her tribute album, The Very Thought of You and Other Love Letters from the American Songbook, dedicated in loving memory to her friend Mike Renzi who helped her find her voice again. DeCaro resides in Camarillo, California, and has been married to Frank DeCaro for 41 years while raising their three children, Nicholas, Julianne, and Francesca DeCaro. She immensely enjoys her new granddaughter, Emery Mae to whom Denise is already giving voice lessons.
DeCaro would like to thank Berklee personnel Kim Ashton, Joe Dreeszen, and Bryan Parys for their assistance in putting together memorial materials for Mike Renzi.
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