Monday, May 27, 2024

Hot Hero Sandwich — In Conversation with Music Coordinator Jimmy Biondolillo

by G. Jack Urso

In my research and interviews into Hot Hero Sandwich, Jimmy Biondolillo’s name kept coming up. As music coordinator, Biondolillo provided an important role in helping bring the various musical elements together, bridging the gap between in the show’s producers and musicians. Additionally, there seemed to be many fond memories of Jimmy among the Hot Hero alumni who worked with him. However, not everyone is on social media, so tracking down Hot Hero Sandwich alumni can be something of a mystery game.

After many months of trying to find Jimmy, including contacting a former colleague at Stereo Society who did an extensive interview with him in 2001 (see link), I was unable to find any information. So, based on conversations with some Hot Hero crewmates, I wrote up a short profile on Jimmy in Hot Hero Sandwich — Short Take on James Biondolillo, Music Coordinator. Since I had to become something of a detective for this project, I highlighted the unresolved, slightly film noirish ending. Jimmy was still out there somewhere and without knowing what happened we could only hope he found his way back home.

It was a nice little piece I was proud of, but I wasn’t satisfied. I continued to search until I found a small notice about Jimmy appearing at the Wickliffe (Ohio) Public Library, May 8, 2024. I reached out to the librarian and gave them my contact information and about a week later I got a phone call from Jimmy!  It was an absolute mind blower to suddenly be speaking to him and Jimmy was very patient as I fumbled for my words. We spent the better part of an hour discussing what led him to Hot Hero Sandwich, his amazing career, which includes two dozen gold and platinum albums, how he got hired for Hot Hero Sandwich, and his story since that summer of 1979.

And yes, Jimmy did, in fact, make it back home so let’s check in and speak to the man himself.

Starting Out

Ae13U: OK. First off, how old were you in 1979 when you got involved with Hot Hero Sandwich?

Jimmy Biondolillo: I was 24 years old. I had been in New York City since I was 19. Remember the National Recording Studio? That’s where I did my first session when I was 21. [Note: NRS is a legendary recording production company still in operation.] Charlie Calello was my Obi-Wan and he was a great arranger, and I remember that session, and Roger Rhoads, the engineer. Charlie did all sorts of great arrangements for Frankie Valli, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, you name it. He did everybody and he was the one who gave me the shot. Steve Popovich was the one who introduced me to Charlie Calello, and that was how I got started.

[Editorial Note: Charlie Calello is credited with more than 100 Billboard chart records, including 38 in the top 20. Roger Rhoads has credits on over 60 major album releases. Steve Popovich is the legendary founder of Cleveland International Records, Ohio, where Biondolillo started out.]

Ae13U: How did that lead to Hot Hero Sandwich?

Jimmy Biondolillo: Charlie had produced a kid named Rex Smith, who starred in the movie with the producers of Hot Hero Sandwich — Bruce and Carole Hart, that's how they knew me.

Ae13U: That would be the film Sooner or Later, correct?

Jimmy Biondolillo: That's it, and “Take My Breath Away” was the hit song that we produced. That's how I knew the Harts. Do you remember the restaurant Gallagher’s?

Ae13U: Gallagher’s Steakhouse? Sure. [Note: On West 52nd Street since 1927.]

Jimmy Biondolillo: On Sunday night, if you tip the maître’ d’ an extra $20, he would sit you seat you in the television division or the record producer division or the movie division, and I wanted to be in the record producer section because a guy hired me to do three arrangements. As I was walking out that restaurant, I heard Carol Hart call my name. I turned around. There was Carol, there was Bruce, and there was a guy named Howard Malley.

Ae13U: Really? Howard was there too?

Jimmy Biondolillo: And so was Marlo Thomas.

Ae13U: That Girl? Oh, wow! [Note: Thomas and the Harts worked together on the Emmy and Peabody-Award winning Free to Be . . . You and Me (1974).]

Jimmy Biondolillo: And Carol Hart told me, “You know, I just fired our music director for this TV show we're doing.” His name was Gary Sherman, who did all the hits for Gene Pitney, like “It Hurts to Be in Love.” He was an older guy and she [Carole Hart] said, “Why don't you come tomorrow and become my music director?” That's how I got involved.

Ae13U: That is a Hollywood story, except that it was in New York! I know the Harts were specifically looking for younger people for the show. [Note: In 1979, Sherman was 46 and Biondolillo was 24.]

Jimmy Biondolillo: It was a talented group of people, and they came from all over.  It was a really talented city and there were a lot of talented writers, especially on that show. I had a one assistant named Tony Fiori . . .

Ae13U: I was going to ask about Tony Fiori, he got billing after you in the closing credits.

Jimmy Biondolillo: Yeah, he was my assistant. I brought him with me, and I also brought an engineer named Ed Stasium. He went on to produce Living Color’s first album [Vivid, featuring their smash hit “Cult of Personality.”]

[Editorial Note: Just prior to Hot Hero Sandwich in 1977, Ed Stasium had engineered the Ramones’ Leave Home and Talking Heads’ Talking Heads: 77. Stasium reports being invited to join the Hot Hero Sandwich music production team by Mediasound General Manager Susan Planer.]

Ae13U: We’re just a little bit into this interview and I have to admit being overwhelmed with all the names.

Jimmy Biondolillo: Yeah, there were. There were a lot of people.

Ae13U: Tell me a little bit about your job as a music coordinator on Hot Hero Sandwich. I know there was stuff that Felix Pappalardi was doing with the band, so where was your component in all of this? Did any of your duties overlap with him?

Jimmy Biondolillo: Here's what happened. I went up the next day to meet Carol, Bruce, Howard Malley, and Felix was there. Howard Malley said, “We want to higher Felix to be our music director.” And I said, right out loud, I said, “Well, you can't have two directors.”

So they laughed and I knew Felix was a brilliant guy, and he was really creative, so I looked and said right in front of him, “Well, Felix is a creative lunatic and I think you should hire me as a music coordinator.” And he [Pappalardi] stood up and he pointed at me, and he said, “Hire this guy!”

Ae13U: [laughter]

Jimmy Biondolillo: I remember that he said. “Hire him man. He knows me!” And I said, well, I'll have to bring along a few people. One was Eddie Stasium, one was Tony Fiore, and they gave me an office that day, right in Rockefeller Center.

Ae13U: What were your duties like for each episode?

Jimmy Biondolillo: As a as a music coordinator, I would provide Felix with musicians and engineers. I would read the scripts, or whatever they had, calling whatever the musical act was, and then I would use what I knew to hire musicians or bring in musicians that they needed, bring in engineers if they if they needed them, because we there was a lot of them on the on the set, which was in 8H, which was Saturday Night Live [SNL tapes in Studio 8H], and on that set was a lot of fluorescent [and neon] light bulbs and you couldn’t record [due to the interference the lights would generated]. So, we had to record everything in the recording studios.

That's what I did as a music coordinator. Felix would tell me, “I wrote this song and I wrote this piece,” and then I would say, we'll let the band do that, which is the Hot Hero house band. Then there were a few things that I brought in — some musicians that were specialized — that knew what the hell they were doing with that particular cue or set of cues, if I recall. As a music coordinator you were in theory like a music director without having that title, but I got to tell you I got a Daytime Emmy Award right from that show. I still have the certificate right here 

[Editorial Note: Emmy certificates are awarded to cast and certain crew members who participated in an Emmy-award winning show, though were not nominated themselves.]

Ae13U: It sounds like you have be a people person for this job and have a strong working knowledge of all these engineers and musicians available and what they could do.

Jimmy Biondolillo:  I was very lucky to completely bypass the Cleveland music scene and plug in with Charlie [Calello] at an early age and I became his contractor. Being his contractor, I learned the talent of all the musicians because there was a “radio registry.” Radio Registry was what all the freelance musicians would call in, you know, and I would say something like “Charlie Calello is producing such and such an album” or “Charlie is producing Frankie Valli, and we need this drummer and this,” and I used to give them a list of people that he needed, and that's how I got them. I got to know musicians. I had a very powerful job. Being a contractor for a guy that powerful, Charlie [Calello], at an early age, I was 21, 22 years old. I got to know those musicians and after a while I just was addicted. I was addicted to the recording studio. There was a studio called Mediasound that was on West 57th Street. That was our home. We went there all the time. [Note: Mediasound was founded in 1969 and lasted through the early 1990s.In addition to hosting some of the hottest recording acts and session musicians, much of the music for Sesame Street was also recorded there.]

Ae13U: According to my interview with Hot Hero series writer Marianne Meyer, at the time of Hot Hero Sandwich you lived across from the Ed Sullivan Theater, correct?

Jimmy Biondolillo:  Well, not directly, but a few blocks up from it. Right across the street from the Ed Sullivan was there was there was an office building.  I lived in an apartment building called the Carnegie Mews was a one block West of Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Mews, Jimmy Biondolillo’s home at the time of Hot Hero Sandwich.

Ae13U: Marianne Meyer also noted that despite being a music coordinator working with some of the best audio equipment in the world, your own home stereo system was rather, shall we say, “cheap” by comparison.

Jimmy Biondolillo:  Yeah, that's true. I didn't have a great system. I don't know what the hell it was because I listened all day long on great equipment, and I figured, you know what? If the tracks sounds good on my little stereo then we made great tracks, and I that's how I felt.

The recording studios that I worked in had great equipment. You know, they had great cues, great everything. When I got to London — Oh, my God. It was a tech heaven in London.

Jimmy Biondolillo and the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown (Stereo Society).

Moving On Up

Ae13U: That’s a good segue to my next question about your post-Hot Hero Sandwich. career in London. I know you were involved with bands like the Communards. Can you drop some names for us?

Jimmy Biondolillo:  I produced my first single in England. I had done two albums in 1983 that really changed my life. One was a solo album for Roger Daltrey. (Parting Should Be Painless) and on the back of his album, it didn't matter whether it was good or bad, it said “Strings and horns arranged and conducted by Jimmy Biondolillo.”

Man, now when I call these record companies, I got right through to the guy. I didn't have to fuck around anymore. I got right through to the A&R guy, and he said to me, “Hey, Jimmy, you know, we saw your name. We have this artist. We can you do these arrangements?” And I said bring them along. And Richard James Burgess [a producer in the New Romantic movement] was the other album. He hired me to do all the arrangements. He was from New Zealand. He was a great, great songwriter with John Walters. He produced Spandau Ballet. He produced Adam and the Ants, and Richard Burgess told me, “Jimmy, if you want to become a record producer, you're going to have to move to England because in New York you're just an arranger.”

Well, I know how to make a living as an arranger in New York, but Harvey Goldberg, who was my partner, ultimately, he came to me at his wedding and he said, “I'm gonna move to London. Why don't we partner up? You becoming an arranger-producer and I’ll become and engineer-producer. We'll team up and he said, “We'll go find the new Beatles.”

Ae13U: [laughter]

Jimmy Biondolillo:  He was speaking my language! So, we went over and we got an English manager named Katrina Barnes and she sent this up to Scotland, to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and there were these two brothers, Pat and Greg Kane and they had a group called Hue and Cry. And don't you know that that first single that Harvey Goldberg and I produced as a team became a top 10 record in England and it launched five years of solid production work for me. It was called “Labour of Love.” I gotta tell you, that sold like hotcakes. And I was on a bunch of albums.

Ae13U: That was in the early-mid 1980s?

Jimmy Biondolillo: That was 87, 88, 89, 90 and 91. I had an apartment in London, and I had an apartment in New York, and I never had any luggage. I had a wardrobe in London and one in New York.

Ae13U: It sounds like you were really living the life!

Jimmy Biondolillo: Right, Jack [laughter], I was living the life!



Ae13U: I found a picture of you with Nancy Sinatra on Getty Images, and you’re looking pretty happy in that picture. I know you worked with her father Frank. Can you give me some background?

Jimmy Biondolillo: Yeah. Well, her dad, Frank Sinatra, I had to introduce Frank to disco. He didn't know what disco was. Some guy named Joe Beck, he produced all the music publishers in New York, and he wanted their song catalogs to be “discofied.” I knew how to do that, right?  So, I had a meeting with Frank Sinatra. He had an apartment at the Waldorf Towers. I went up and his wife Barbara was there with a girlfriend, and then I went and she had a ring on her finger. Jack — I never saw a diamond that big in my life, and she's smiling. She pointed to the living room and Frank had a jacket on and it said, “USA Drinking Team.”

Ae13U: [laughter]

Jimmy Biondolillo: And on the back it said, “Coach.” And he said to me, he said, "Hey, do you follow baseball?" And I said, “Yeah, I'm an Indians fan.” And he laughed. He said, "That's Bob Hope’s team." He said, “I'm a Dodger fan and I'm a Yankee fan.”

Later that week, he sang “Night and Day,” but he said to me, I'll never forget this, he said, I've sung it so many times, but I can't remember the lyrics for Night and Day.” I said no problem, I'll call Broadway Music, which was in on the ground floor of the Brill Building, and I said to the guy, “Do you got the lyrics to “Night and Day?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “Can you deliver?”

He said, “Hey, I'm not a deli.” I said, “Hey, Frank Sinatra.” He said, “I'll be right there.” And he came up about a few minutes later and he gave me the lyrics and that's when a photographer took a picture of me and Frank.

And Frank said to me, “What took you so long?” He was kidding me. You know, he was so happy. The next day in the newspaper, my face was completely cropped out. It was just a picture of Frank and the headline read, “Sinatra Forgets Lyrics.”

I thought my career was over at 22 years old.

Ae13U: [laughter]

Jimmy Biondolillo: I'm sorry, we digress . . .

Ae13U: Not at all, that’s exactly the kind of digression I’m looking for!

Jimmy Biondolillo: Frank called his daughter Nancy and he said, “If you come to New York, you gotta work with this little Italian kid,” and that's how I met Nancy.

Jimmy Biondolillo with Nancy Sinatra (Getty Images).

Going Home and an Awesome Frankie Valli Story

Ae13U: At what point did you decide to retire?

Jimmy Biondolillo: 9/11 was the end of it for me. That was the end of my career that day. Pop music [in NYC] to this day hasn’t returned to New York. I couldn't make a living anymore unless I went to California or London or Nashville, but I was, you know, 50 years old at that time and I retired.

Ae13U: So, what changed?

Jimmy Biondolillo: After 9/11, well, first of all, what changed was I had $58,000 (approximately $102,744 in 2024) of guaranteed arrangements in September, October and November, and then 9/11 happened and all those artists cancelled. Guys that I could never see for lunch or dinner now we were all available. So, suddenly, guys move to California . . . They moved to Nashville or they moved to London or they retired, you know? My accountant said, if you can go to a place with low overhead, when you're 55, things will kick in . . . but my mother was suffering from Parkinson's and dementia, which is a hideous combination. I took care of her for a year and then these nuns at Mount Saint Joseph's Hospice — they took care of her for a year and a half. I became a loving son again.

Ae13U: Well, I can relate having also served as the primary caretaker for my mother in her later years. It is a tremendous, and rewarding, task.

Jimmy Biondolillo: Well, then you know, and I tell you something, it ain't easy.

Ae13U: No, it most definitely is not, especially with Italian mothers like we had. You don't do for them. They do for you. They’re not used to it.

Jimmy Biondolillo: That's so true. I'll never forget my mother. She lived to 96. Just to digress again, one time, Charlie Calello, who had produced an album for Frankie Valli, said to me, “I'll let you do one arrangement if you want,” and so Frankie ended up loving this song. I just did the arrangement. Frankie said, “Do you live anywhere near the “Front Row Theater?”

Jimmy Biondolillo (second from right) at work in a recording session for Frankie Valli
(Getty Images).
And I said, well, my mother is just twenty minutes from the Front Row, so he said, “If you come home, I'll introduce you to the crowd and I'll also do your arrangement.”

I said, “Great!” Because, you know, I had an ego at that time. That was the young guy. I was 21-22 years old. And so, I came home and we were driving up to the theater and my mother says, “Why don't you invite Frankie and the boys [the Four Seasons] for lasagna lunch tomorrow?”

And I said, “Mom, are you nuts? I’m not gonna ask them to come to your house for lasagna!” And she looked at me like I had four heads, you know?  It was a theater in the round and dressing rooms were underground. So, I brought my mother down, and she was a little person, and Frankie’s a little guy, and she hugged him, and she said, “Frankie, you wanna come for lasagna tomorrow? And he said, “Oh, my God, that would be great!” So, lo and behold, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons came to our house in rural suburban Wickliffe and had lasagna.

Ae13U: That is a fantastic story. Nothing like our moms, huh? So, it sounds like you made it back home to Ohio after all these years.

Jimmy Biondolillo: I bought this house from my mother's estate. My father built this house when he came back from World War II.  I never thought I'd grow old in this house.

Ae13U: I’m living in the home my aunt and uncle lived in for fifty years. Between our moms and our homes, it sounds like we’re just two nice Italian boys. Thanks so much for sharing Jimmy. This has been a great interview and you helped fill in the Hot Hero Sandwich picture a little more.

Jimmy Biondolillo: All my best to you and good luck.

Concluding Thoughts

Jimmy Biondolillo’s portfolio is vast and includes work with such artists as Roger Daltry, Bobby Day, Richard James Burgess, Blind Vision, Bronski Beat, The Communards, Hue and Cry, Kit Hain, Frankie Valli, Odyessy, Martee LeBous, Genya Raven, Tatsuro Yamashita, and, oh yeah, and I heard he worked with some guy named Sinatra too.

Jimmy fills in blanks in the Hot Hero Sandwich story with a classic tale of paying off a maître’ d’ for a prime spot in the section where the entertainment power brokers dine and JUST by coincidence there happens to be Marlo Thomas, Bruce and Carole Hart, and Hot Hero Sandwich producer Howard Malley.

Another thing we learn from this interview with Jimmy is confirmation about how young everyone was and the Harts' desire to staff their show with talented young people. Jimmy was all of 24 years old in 1979. The original Hot Hero Sandwich music director, Gary Sherman, who was about 20 years older than Biondolillo, was no doubt qualified and had far more experience, but Jimmy was closer in age to target demographic. He knew the musical language they spoke and understood.

There are some ingredients to success that the cast and crew exemplify — primarily taking risks and moving out of their comfort zone. Jimmy could have stayed in Cleveland and had a career in music. It would have been limited, he could have had work, but it wouldn’t have developed his potential. Time and time again in the various interviews with the cast and crew we find they took great chances in moving to the big city — sometimes living in not-so-great apartments — but they invested in themselves and took a chance.

One further factor in Jimmy’s success we can learn from is the importance of mentors. For Jimmy, it was Charlie Calello. That is something else moving to the big city provides — the opportunity to connect with people who forged a path along the same road we want to tread. Jimmy had talent and Charlie had connections. Being able to learn from a master can advance a young person’s knowledge of their field and jumpstart a career. I have had mentors in education, radio news, and TV production that taught me lessons beyond just the workplace. They are mentors in life as well.

In my initial article, Short Take on James Biondolillo, Music Coordinator, having been unable to learn more about Jimmy, I could only hope that after all these years he found his way back home.

And indeed, he did just that. Welcome home Jimmy. Welcome home.

A more recent photo of Jimmy Biondolillo with some of his instruments and a gold record!
(Wickliffe Public Library, 2024)
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  1. What can I say! Hats off to Jimmy Biondolillo. What a career. Great interview, priceless stories. What a life, Jimmy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What gets me is how young the HHS musicians and rest of the crew were. Wow. Great story about Jimmy B. and Felix P.