Borrowing a line from Don McLean’s classic song American Pie, April 19, 1989 was “the day the music died” here in Amsterdam, NY. One of the very best musicians players ever to be born in our community, who became the beloved director of the instrumental program at Amsterdam High School left us on that day, after a valiant struggle with a horrific cancer.
I still remember the first time I ever heard Mike Pallotta play the trumpet and the very last time too. The first was in 1965 on the stage of the Wilbur Lynch High School auditorium, when our elementary school band went up there to practice for an upcoming concert. As we were taking the stage to begin our rehearsal, the AHS Stage Band was just leaving it and Pallotta was packing up his horn. The director of our band asked him to play something for us and though I don’t remember what it was he played I will never forget the sound that came out of his instrument. We all just sat there with our mouths open.
He was born on August 12, 1951, the son of Nick and Mary Salerno Pallotta. The family lived at 99 Center Street and young Michael spent much of his childhood hanging out with his South Side friends and cousins in the neighborhood streets and popular gathering spots that made the old Fifth Ward such an idyllic place to grow up. By the time he reached Junior High School he was already pretty much considered a prodigy with his horn. When he got to Wilbur Lynch, he helped the brass sections in the high school band, orchestra and especially the stage band create sounds that have never been duplicated, before or since.
It didn’t matter in which ensemble he was playing, whoever was conducting knew they had a true star in their midst and at some point during the evening a spotlight would shine, Amsterdam’s young trumpet master would stand up, clear his horn with a quick spit valve release, do a practice flutter of the valves with the fingers of his right hand, flex his lips, wait for his cue and then proceed to blow the audience away with a featured solo. And since I played the same instrument, I knew exactly what Pallotta had to be doing with his fingers, lips, tongue and breathing, not to mention the years of serious practice it took to make those incredibly beautiful sounds happen and I was in awe.
After graduating from AHS in 1969 he got his bachelor’s degree at Ohio Northern University and then spent a year in the music performance program at the prestigious Berkley School of Music in Boston. He then went on to get his Masters from Brockport. Mike also got married to his lovely wife Kathi Gould and their union would produce three children.
He was first hired by the Johnstown School District as an instrumental music teacher in the late 1970’s and students, staff and parents of that Fulton County community instantly fell in love with him. Fortunately for Amsterdam’s future musicians, Pallotta’s goal was to return to his hometown and teach here.
That opportunity presented itself when long-time Amsterdam High School band director, Robert Kent Kyler left that position, creating the vacancy Pallotta was destined to fill and boy did he. During the next decade, he became one of the most effective and admired educators in this community. What made him so special?
There was his unquestionable musical talent. He was a walking, breathing, real-life example of what the results of practicing your instrument could be, which inspired his students to practice theirs’. Then there was his passion for teaching and his absolute love for working with young people. My younger brother played drums and was fortunate enough to have been among the last group of students who played and marched for Pallotta at AHS. I can tell you that he was a near magician when it came to the extremely difficult task of helping adolescents build confidence and self-esteem.
He instinctively knew to what degree he could challenge his students with more difficult music and more complex marching formations. And when they accepted and met those challenges, they got their rewards in the form of a standing ovations from thousands of adoring halftime show fans or the huge first place trophy they brought home from Georgia for winning the band competition at the Peach Bowl parade. Their biggest reward? Seeing that amazing smile break out on Mike Pallotta’s face after their last note of another excellent performance had been played.
I first heard about Mike’s cancer from my good friend Mike Sampone, who was Pallotta’s cousin. I remember thinking he was too young, too strong, too upbeat and too special to succumb to that disease. But as so many of us know, it’s an evil illness that just doesn’t let go. Nobody fought it harder or more valiantly than Mike.
I remember the day in April of 1989 when he died. I remember my little brother, the drummer crying. I remember thinking about how much Nick and Mary adored their loving son. I thought about his wife Kathi, who had just recently given birth to their third child, a girl they named Jean and how she and her older siblings Nick and Toni would be without a dad. It was a sad, sad day.
Now, 30 years after that tragic event, hearing or thinking of the name Mike Pallotta, makes me smile. It makes me think of the over $30,000 worth of Pallotta Memorial scholarships that have been handed out to graduating Amsterdam High music students, including my own youngest daughter. And it makes me think of the last time I heard Mike play his horn.
That was at the old Starlight Theater in Latham. Remember, Mike was a world-class musician. When he wasn’t teaching or being a husband and dad, he was playing trumpet in the house band ensembles that accompanied some of the world’s greatest entertainers who came to Capital District venues to perform. That night, the incredible Tom Jones was at the Starlight and me, my brother and our wives were at the bar waiting for the show to begin. My brother is married to Maria Persico, Shorty’s daughter, who grew up on Center Street, next door to Mike Pallotta.
All of a sudden, Pallotta was standing next to us at the bar, dressed to the nine’s in a sharp-looking tuxedo with that huge smile on his tanned and handsome face. For the next half hour I listened to him and Maria talk about their wonderful childhood memories of growing up in their beloved South Side. You could tell he wanted to keep talking and he probably would have if Maria hadn’t finally screamed, “The show’s about to start, don’t you have to play!” He turned and ran down to the stage just before Tom Jones came out. If you can remember Jones’ hit “It’s Not Unusual” you can also remember the three-note trumpet-blaring staccato riff it featured, That’s the last great sound I can remember coming out of Mike Pallotta’s magical trumpet.
Mike shared his August 12th Birthday with this icon from Amsterdam’s radio broadcasting history.