Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
My uncle’s name was Santo Russo, but most people called him Sam. My father called him Freckles. He was athletic and ran on the old North High track team. At one time he was the city high school high jump champ. He could jump five feet something without knocking the bar off. He was very competitive and tough to beat. My father was smaller and not as athletic. Uncle Sam gave him the nickname Shorty. The brothers were always very close and in adulthood almost looked like twins. They became teenagers during the Great Depression. All young men in their teen years begin to look forward to independence, a career, perhaps a family of their own. The Great Depression didn’t offer much hope. The Great Recession of 2008 is something current teenagers have to navigate around.
Both Freckles and Shorty were attracted to music, specifically Swing Music. Freckles became an accomplished Saxophone player, Shorty played the drums. Grandma Russo disapproved. She felt the boys needed to find reliable jobs with a weekly paycheck. My Grandmother was a seamstress. She worked for a local clothing manufacturing company named, Cohen and Goldman. She was paid for what they called “piece work”. She was paid by how many completed pieces her strong, creative hands could finish, or by the piece. Because her paycheck varied by how much work she did, she would bring extra work home to continue working evenings and weekends to earn a bigger paycheck. My Grandfather worked in the leather tanning industry in Johnstown, NY. He was a pattern cutter for a glove manufacturing company. For some reason the economic effects of the Great Depression never affected the cities of Johnstown or Gloversville. Because my Grandfather sent money home to Syracuse more often than he was able to visit, Grandma ruled the roost.
My Uncle Sam developed his own plan, as teenagers do, and started to train as a prizefighter. He did this secretly and without his mother’s approval. He had won many a fight with neighborhood kids, so why not take his natural talents to the fight ring. He started out in a Golden Gloves program under the pseudonym Kid Cohen. By using the pseudonym he could hide his identity and keep my Grandmother from finding out or so he thought. Later, grandma did find out and she wasn’t happy. She tried to turn him away from the uncertain world of music only to find the freckled face youth turning to the boxing ring to fight his way to a reliable payday. They argued, fought and cried over all the choices. Grandma found a way to make a down payment on a Clarinet to be followed by weekly payments until the debt was paid off. Music, it seems, was the most reasonable choice out there.
It was the beginning of a career. Freckles along with Shorty, Buzzy Cua, Louie Gorgoni and Frank Bruno formed a band that played in local clubs. Uncle Sam was able to make a career in music. His experience was not limited to the jazz clubs in Syracuse and Utica. He was able to sit in on jam sessions in Harlem with jazz luminaries such as Buddy Rich and John Coltrane. He also played with the Nashville based Francis Craig Orchestra. The Craig band became famous for its Billboard #1 hit, “Near You”. Freckles became a teacher and shared his love of music with his many students. Thankfully for everyone Kid Cohen was not a success in the boxing ring. Grandma Russo, Shorty and everyone else in the family is very proud of Uncle Sam’s achievements. We just wish he was still around to blow a few more notes.