Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Mooney, Joe, vocals, accordion, piano, organ (b. Paterson, New Jersey, March 14, 1911, d. May 12, 1975, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida). While he achieved temporary popularity during three different periods of his life, Joe Mooney never found lasting success in music. Between 1929-1931, he recorded with his brother Dan as "The Sunshine Boys" (an ironic title as both were blind). On the total of 20 sides recorded, the accompaniment included Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Dick McDonough and Benny Goodman. Joe played piano and accordion on several of the sides. Joe and Dan also did some radio work, but by 1936, the pair split and Dan faded into obscurity. Joe arranged for the Frank Dailey Orchestra, a group later led by Buddy Rogers. Mooney also did free-lance arranging for Vincent Lopez, Les Brown, Larry Clinton and Paul Whiteman. In 1941, Mooney created a quartet which was featured as a "band-within-a-band" with Russ Morgan's orchestra. An auto accident sidelined Mooney for 18 months and left him with a permanent disability.
His classic quartet was formed in the mid-40s, and by February 1946, the group's personnel was Mooney on accordion and vocals, Andy Fitzgerald on clarinet, Jack Hotop on guitar and John "Gate" Frega on bass. The group played an intimate style of jazz, featuring witty compositions and arrangements by Mooney and a subtle, low-volume approach. (Mooney's imaginative re-working of "Tea For Two" is reviewed here).The group was widely acclaimed in the press, with Alec Wilder proclaiming it the most exciting small group he had heard. The quartet recorded 16 sides for Decca and had their own 15-minute show on ABC radio for 13 weeks. After successful runs at Sandy's Bar in Paterson and Dixon's in New York, the group struggled to find appropriate venues in which to play. The noise of the typical bar or nightclub drowned out the quartet. The group gradually changed personnel and disbanded over the next year.
Mooney switched from accordion to organ in the early 50s. His recording of his original tune "Nowhere" (later covered by Carmen McRae) was one of his first recordings on Hammond. He sang for the orchestra co-led by arrangers Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, scoring a hit with the song "Nina Never Knew". He recorded "Nina" and "Nowhere" again for the 1956 Atlantic LP, Lush Life, but Mooney was unable to capitalize on the artistic success of the album. In 1963, he tried again with the help of Bill Finegan. He got a 2-album contract with Columbia (resulting in the LPs The Greatness of Joe Mooney and The Happiness of Joe Mooney) and an appearance on "The Tonight Show". Yet, Mooney's re-emergence coincided with the American premiere of the Beatles, and Mooney ended up moving back to Florida, where he had lived for several years. He worked in local clubs and in churches until he died of a stroke in 1975.
Contributor: Thomas Cunniffe