Peter Cardinali – The Roots and Rhythms of Little Italy

This musical renaissance man has played with and produced many of music's biggest names, as well as finding success as part of The Boomers. These days he focuses on running his Alma Records label and producing its artists. He is a man of 1,000 stories, some of which you'll hear here.

Peter Cardinali – The Roots and Rhythms of Little Italy

By Bill King

Peter Cardinali has an admirable record of production and arranging credits: Rick James, Teena Marie, the Brecker Brothers, Sean Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Michael Bublé, Ray Charles - even the Temptations. Phoebe Snow, Hugh Marsh, B.B. King, David Usher, Ian Thomas, the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, and it all began as an arranger for Motown, Anne Murray and Ray Charles. His own band The Boomers (with Ian Thomas, Rick Gratton, Bill Dillon) found popularity in Europe – namely Germany, and, for more than a decade, he led local favourites The Dexters as the house band at the Orbit Room n Toronto playing mostly covers of soul and funk classics.


In 1992, Cardinali opened his own record label, Alma Records, which to this day is still producing a wide range of artistic expression from Monkey House, Myriad3, Ellen Doty, Cuban Brenda Navarette, Ian Thomas, Eliana Cuevas, Hilario Duran, The Breithaupt Brothers, organist Joey DeFrancesco, Phil Dwyer Orchestra and others. Peter dropped by my Thursday morning radio show at CIUT 89.5FM, and as the hour passed it became evident it would have taken three to four additional sessions to cover the man’s professional ventures and successes. Here’s a portion of that conversation which in essence covered an equal amount of baseball chatter which for the most part I’ve omitted.

What do you think when you go back to your early roots in “Little Italy”?

I think about how lucky I've been actually. You work as hard as you can and try and succeed as much as you can but there's so much luck involved - it plays such a big part that you can't define or explain. When I go back there, the first thing I think of - most people will remember Sam the Record Man, well he babysat me when I was a kid. We lived at Montrose and Harbord - I can picture the route right now. My mom would walk me down College Street and over to Clinton where there was a fish store, and I hated that fish store. 


One day we get to Montrose and College which is where the Sicilian Ice Cream Company is now. Sam’s was right next door. It was half a store. I remember throwing a tantrum laying on the ground, kicking my feet and refusing to go to the fish store, so my mom took me over and walked me into Sam’s. It was the neighbourhood then. Everybody then knew everybody and looked after everybody, and she said, “Sam can you watch my boy?” That's what started it for me, and I don't know I must've been seven or eight or so something. It was great - he showed me R&B records and whatever. The shop was fantastic. Every time we’d go through the whole exercise, she just took me to Sam. 

And the music's playing!

And the music's playing and it's the environment I guess that I grew up in and continued with. That's the first thing I think of - that fateful tantrum.


Is your label Alma Records just off Dufferin Street?


But there's a street called Alma close to Little Italy, right? 

Yes, there is. Nice to have a record company with your own street.

I went to school at St. David's. I also went to St. Lucy's which is about a half a block up from the fish store on Clinton and College and then went to Central Commerce because I went to Europe when I was twelve. I went to Europe with a group called, ready? The Death. It was a soul band. We were modelled after Mandala at the time. We had pinstripe suits and white hair. I got back, and I had trouble getting into school. We were there for about six months.


How did you get your parents to agree to this?

You can't talk to them - you can't even bring the subject up even to today. My mom doesn’t want to talk about it. She was so traumatized by actually letting me go, but it was a different time, and that was like the real far reaches of okay to do that. The only caveat was my brother who was five years older than me, being 17 years old, had to accompany me. The band was three brothers; three Calabrese brothers and me, so they had a lot of veto power. Then, everything was the band. 

Did you spend a lot of time in church?

I was an altar boy

And your duties were?

I'll tell you a quick funny story. This I never learned - there's a whole big prayer you say when the priest comes out and in Latin. I never learned the thing. I would mouth it, and the other guy would say it, so you know I'd mumbling "bzzzzzazzzzazz” One day he didn't show up.  And we go out, and it was like this strict priest in the hall - this guy would look right through you. It was just me and what am I going to do now? I go out there and mumble something and father George says, “speak up.” I went  “bzzzzzazzzzazzz”  - and he says, “you're going to get it now.” That was my altar boy experience. Down at St. Francis.

Did you have to do the Stations of the Cross? What about Easter? Good Friday or the marchalong College with Jesus and the cross?



I have a great story I'll share with you. I used to photograph the procession – St. Francis of Assisi church  -- through the streets and it was the same Jesus for 35 years. He eventually retired. The guy who played Jesus then was a great guy. I mean this guy was amazingly nice, so I photographed and somehow my photos ended up at the church he was a member of. This is maybe 20 years ago. Somebody saw the pictures and wanted to share with the community. I get a telephone call and on the other end of the line a voice says, “This is Jesus, is this Bill?”

I’m thinking this must be a prank call and play along. Then I sense the sincerity in his voice.  I’m thinking, the same Jesus struggling with a cross - Romans whipping him along College guy?

The guy introduces himself and asks how much for a copy of a particular photo with him bearing a cross. He goes on to say he asked the Toronto Star, but they wanted $600 – I tell him $10. The same day he drops by and we sort through photos and come across the one he wanted. Now, I’m thinking, this goes in the kitchen or living room, or even a scrapbook. No. In a thick Italian accent, he says, “I’m gonna put Jesus in a clock, it’s gonna be so beautiful.” I could have lost it right there.


One of my favourite productions of yours was Cuban pianist Hilario Duran’s Latin Jazz Band, From theHeart. It's unbelievable. It won a Juno and was also nominated for a Grammy. I was so glad when this album got made because I'd heard much of Hilario’s music, but I've never listened to the big band stuff. I heard the band in concert and thought it should be recorded.

 We are getting ready to do another one.

I was recently at the concert at Koerner Hall for Hilario and big band.

Were you!

As a producer how “hands on” are you with the recording and final mix?

I always work with a great engineer. I recorded it all live in one room. We mixed it a couple of times. They then mixed it with another engineer first and were mostly concerned about getting isolation.  I said no, you got to embrace bleed and that's what we did on the second round. And it's fantastic. 

Every instrument is in their comfort zones and that's why everything rings like that. Each note is where it belongs, and he's so good at arranging. He's just so good at it.

What great training Hilario had around the Tropicana in Havana, and those arrangers who wrote for 40 pieces and more. 

He learned all the tricks - not that he's a trickster. He's just that fabulous and you know the band with Horacio Negro Hernandez on drums was just ridiculous. Cubans know that handbook. You go home and study this and then come back and play. It's not easy but that's what they grew up with. 

I’m reading here Dixie Chicks. What was that?

We spent a couple of days here. We did a country show and did this recording with them.

 Rick James crazy!

 Rick James was nuts. It was his personality and I always say this, it was much like Jaco Pastorius. When you're one on one with them - sweethearts you know; beautiful. Me and you sitting here talking, then a second or third person in the room – they’re on. They're entertaining and it's a shame because you don't get to see the real person. We had plenty of experiences with him. He was a guy who stole a school bus when he was nine. 

Scatman Crothers?

That seems like a million years ago. I forget what kind of record it was. It was shortly after Chico and the Man with Freddy Prinze. Amazing how I pulled that 70s’ thing out of the air. A producer friend of mine in L.A. called, so I went down and we did it. 

Jerry Seinfeld?

Jerry opened for Anne Murray for a couple of years. I was her bass player and arranger and music director for a little bit.

Saturday Night Live?

Did one with Rick, and a couple with Anne.

Super Dave - Super Dave Osborne (Bob Einstein). Did you do the show?

I did the whole show. I did Bizarre and then Super Dave. John Byner was a funny dude who always hung with the band on breaks, so we just had a riot. Super Dave I thought was gonna be like one, two or three skits at most.  We went like six years with that – amazing. And you know, the really brilliant Gary Blythe, was his partner and most people don't know Bob's brother is actor Albert Brooks. Albert Brooks real name is Albert Einstein. Gary and Bob were a team for many years.  They revolutionized variety shows. They did the Smothers Brothers - they did Sonny and Cher, they did the Elvis comeback thing, the Jackson Five, Andy Williams - they really turned it around - that whole type of comedy was them. The skits they did were hilarious and we’d get to see a lot of it. You know they did a skit called “And the Pips” - remember that? 

There was nobody around the microphone but the Pips?

There was an empty microphone for Gladys. It was the real Pips and all they did was sing the background. They had Ray Charles driving a car and Ray loved to drive in the parking lot at CFTO. I actually have Ray Charles’s bow tie. I’ve got to find out which one it is because I have a feeling I have about two or three of them. His was a little tight for him.

Baseball is a big thing with you and the season’s about to start. Any memories?

I did the anthem in Oakland.  We're doing our West Coast family swing. I called the Blue Jays and asked for tickets.

Is this with The Boomers?

This is going to ballparks. I called the Jays and said, look I want free tickets. I want you to set me up with good tickets for the whole trip - we're doing San Diego, L.A. Anaheim, you know that stuff. And whoever I was speaking with said no problem. He calls me back an hour later and says, they want you to do the anthem in Oakland. They're huge Boomers fans. I went OK, Sure. On what base? 

I had a session with Doug Riley that day and that night before we were leaving, I decide to do it. You’ve got to pre-record everything anyway. I'd written these arrangements for national anthems for this gig we did with Anne Murray downtown somewhere for one of the theatres. It was like a Ray Charles gospel kind of thing. I really liked it. The critics didn’t - they said it was too romantic. What? You can’t be romantic with your country?

Anyway, I pre-recorded them and I ended up doing them myself because Barry Keane, the drummer, who I have a rotisserie baseball team with - I was just talking with him before I packed and leaving early in the morning and he says I don't know about this. I said look, it's not a Milli Vanilli kind of thing, I’ve got to pre-record them anyway, it's my arrangement. I woke up in the middle of the night and rerecorded them because you know, you're gonna be sorry. I showed up in Oakland and I told my kids I’m going for a hot dog.

They moved Huey Lewis and the News because I was coming there. It was a big deal The Boomerswere coming. Meanwhile, the whole plan was I'm going to do the anthem and surprise the kid’s kind of thing. I said to my wife Judy, make sure you get this on film okay. No matter what happens you’ve got to film this. Soon as I left, I knew it wasn't going to happen. I looked at the film afterwards and hear, “ladies and gentlemen Warner recording artists The Boomers’ Peter Cardinali.” My youngest daughter went 'what?', got up and smacked her head on a chair, she's on the ground and Judy's like filming the whole episode. You can't even hear the anthem and so it didn't happen. It was fabulous though. 

We did the anthems and then we covered the rest of it. To be standing with Blue Jay’s all-star second baseman Roberto Alomar waiting to do the anthem was pretty cool. 

What are you up to at the moment?

We're getting ready to start a double album with Hilario Duran. We're going to do a big band recording. Side one big band, side two - piano duets. We did a duet on his current record called Contumbao which we recorded in Cuba with Chucho Valdes. We’re hoping to get Chucho for a couple of songs and other big names. 

Did you enjoy recording in Cuba?

It’s challenging. This was going for broke. No such thing as getting microphone cords or essentials easily. Yet it was really great. We recorded that album at the famous EGREM studio which is just the shell now. 

Have you asked anybody where those Nat King Cole recordings from Havana are hidden?

I would say they're in the building somewhere.

Where did you meet Judy?

She was the girl next door. The real estate agent told us when we were still at Montrose and Harbord about a nice girl. I was 15 or 16. I went OK and filed that in the back of my head. I didn’t know until six months after living there when I came outside - she was in the pool next door and I went, oh that's a nice-looking girl.

Did you bring out the accordion and serenade her over the fence?

No, I actually didn't want to get into a relationship because I had the band. You’ve got to follow the band rules first. I actually said that to her, ' I'm going away for a year.' I went to Europe when I was 12 and I’m going back there for a year. She said, “I’ll wait.” What are you going to do with that, she messed me up. That was cute. That was it. She waited and waited. It’s been what, forty-five years now?

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Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Rick Ross performs during the "Miami Jazz In The Gardens" music festival at Hard Rock Stadium on March 09, 2024 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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