Arts

George Rossi

The piano pounder for the Shuffling Hungarians will be honored at the Sammys Hall of Fame.

George Rossi. Michael Davis photo

George Rossi’s wife was having an affair with another guy, and everybody knew it. What made it extra-ugly was that his scarlet-haired rock-songbird bride was making the scene with another prominent local rocker. So Rossi decided to do something about it.

No, he didn’t buy a nine. Instead of exacting a bloody revenge, he sought resurrection. He recreated himself as a Southern-style caterwauling con man-cum-preacher named Little Georgie, the Zombie Boy, and he started a brash new band called the Shuffling Hungarians.

“I created a success story out of my imploded marriage,” he says now.

George Rossi. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

George Rossi.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Over its seven-year lifespan, Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians grew from a kickin’ quintet to a 10-piece rhythm’n’blues revue. They waxed two unforgettable discs of free-wheeling fonk, were featured on playlists at the House of Blues music chain, played dates in Canada and Belgium and won nine Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys). As part of this year’s awards, George Rossi, 55, will be inducted into the Sammys Hall of Fame.

Ever since he picked up a James Booker LP at Onondaga Music when he was a teenager, Rossi was enraptured with the music of the Big Easy. In the early 1990s — after honing his piano skills with bands such as Kindergarten, The Works, Jamie Notarthomas, Masters of Reality, the Neverly Brothers and The Bogeymen — Rossi was ready to take the plunge into the wigglin’ Mississippi.

He knew he still had things to learn. “I was always learning,” he says. “Still am. If you ain’t learnin,’ you ain’t livin’!” 

Rossi started learning early. When he was 5 years old, growing up on the east side of Skaneateles Lake, he experienced a rock’n’roll epiphany. “It’s 1965 and I’m playing flashlight tag with the firebugs on East Lake Road,” he recalls. “Then I heard music coming from a garage at the top of the hill.”

The kid wandered up to the driveway, which was packed with teens. “I saw the energy and the beautiful girls with their teased hair and bangs,” Rossi remembers. “One of these girls in a miniskirt and patent leather boots, she slips me a beer. And I knew I wanted to be a part of this, to do this for the rest of my life.”

The lessons continued at Under the Stone, then Skaneateles’ top nightclub. The Stone booked bands every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, so on those nights a prepubescent Rossi would jump out his bedroom window and run to the club where he had a date with another window. 

“There was a ground-level window at stage left so I could watch cats like Larry Arlotta or Cliff Spencer or Bob Halligan,” he says. “I just had to make sure to get back in bed before I got caught.” 

The next day he’d clean up the place and observe rehearsals. “That was a very formative experience for me,” he says now. “I saw bands as a business.”

After years of jamming on the Onondaga Reservation, studying piano with Phil Klein at Onondaga Community College and playing in bands like South Side Shuffle and The Works, Rossi hooked up with the Neverly Brothers, the pop cover band helmed by former Flashcubes Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin.

“My wife was nagging me for money,” Rossi recalls. “I mean I’d always worked. Even as a kid, I worked at my father’s (P&R pasta) factory in Auburn.” Over the years, he bussed tables at Scratch Daniel’s, stocked flowers for Rao’s Florist, managed an Auburn bar named Raffles, hauled video gear for the TV real-estate program Goodbye Bazaar, and roadied for Decker Audio.

With his hairdresser-vocalist spouse at his heels, Rossi anticipated more manual labor. “The phone rang the next night, and it was Gary, thank God!” 

Rossi joined the Neverly Brothers, who enjoyed beaucoup bookings for weddings and private parties where the money is surer and sweeter than any nightclub can pay. “Gary Frenay was my best boss ever,” Rossi says. “I became a real musician with the Neverlys.”

Reality Check

After years of roadwork with Kindergarten, The Works and the Neverlys, hard facts of rock’n’roll life would be drilled into him as a member of the Masters of Reality and The Bogeymen, two bands that featured the extraordinary electric guitar work and the ambitious rock compositions of Syracuse’s Tim Harrington.

Rossi had been kicked out of the Masters of Reality just before they got their record deal in the late 1980s with Def American. Then as a member of The Bogeymen, he suffered through bandleader Tim Harrington’s years-long contractual entanglements with record and management companies.

Along the way, The Bogeymen played a showcase in front of Arista Records exec Clive Davis at the Wetlands in New York City. Davis passed on the band, but Rossi was watching and learning. In 1991 Delicious Vinyl records released The Bogeymen’s debut disc There Is No Such Thing As.  

“We started working on a follow-up record, rehearsing at Ponto’s tomato-packing plant,” Rossi says. “I had nothing in those days.” His wife was gone, he had no money and often no place to live. He bunked in a spare room in a Lyncourt home owned by one of Harrington’s sisters. “So I devoted myself to making another Bogeyman record.”

But he rarely saw eye-to-eye with the former Masters. “Those were dark times. Timmy and Vinnie (Ludovico) were like wolves. They were driving me crazy,” this from a man who has often blogged about his own bipolar diagnosis. “So I steeled myself and just played the hell out of my parts. I recorded all the piano parts for an entire record in like a day and a half!”

The sophomore disc was never to be, however. “The plug got pulled by Delicious Vinyl, so the best recorded work I’ve ever done will never see the light of day,” he says. 

Despite the personal tensions, Rossi looked at it as a learning experience. “I’m not bitter about The Bogeymen. I’m grateful. The band helped define me as a musician, and later as a bandleader and businessman. I’m so grateful. Tim’s a genius. Tim’s a prick, but he’s a genius. He made me a man.” 

In fact, Rossi says Tim Harrington deserves to be honored by the Sammys. “Funny thing about this (Hall of Fame) award: I don’t feel like an elder statesman,” Rossi says. “When I was leading the Hungarians, I didn’t feel like I was setting an example. I was too busy. Tim Harrington should be getting this award as far as I’m concerned.”

Things were not always rosy with Harrington, who was known to destroy dressing rooms. “But the chance to play with him in the studio,” Rossi acknowledges, “you know you’re going to be part of something bigger than you.”

The Genesis of Little Georgie

Twenty-five years ago, while Crescent City rhythms inspired his music, the breakup of Rossi’s marriage inspired his personal transformation.

“I mythologized my own life so I was able to say stuff that George Rossi would never say. Little Georgie was part Foghorn Leghorn and part Donald Trump,” Rossi says now. “He could out-drink, out-smoke, out-fuck and out-play ’em all!”

As his personality became more incendiary — he once demanded that his Dinosaur Bar-B-Que audience arm themselves with torches and set fire to Mimi’s, the former bakery-restaurant across the street that had prohibited parking for Dino customers — so did the music. It burned hotter than all those voodoo candles that so colorfully decorated the Shuffling Hungarians’ stages. (They were bought in bulk from the Laredo Candle Company of Laredo, Texas, via Rossi’s friend, Jimmy Battaglia, at Nojaim’s Supermarket.)

Early covers such as Richard Berry’s “Oh! Oh! Get Out of the Car” and Stan Beaver’s Rocket In My Pocket” gave way to outrageous originals like “Gutbucket,” “Tear It Down” and the mytho-biographical “The Ballade of Little Georgie,” which tells of the resurrection of a discarded baby transformed into a demonic piano player.

While Rossi raved against his demons in both his patter and his performance, he rocked to the rhumba rhythms of Professor Longhair on covers of “Big Chief,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Her Mind is Gone.” He reveled in the bold sexuality of Jerry Lee’s “Meat Man” and in The Meters’ uptown anthem, “Hey Pocky Way.”

The band paid further homage to the City that Care Forgot. The Hungarians’ version of “Iko Iko” owed more to Sonny Boy Crawford & His Cane Cutters than the Dixie Cups, and their “Rockin’ Pneumonia” sounded more like Huey Smith than Johnny Rivers.

The Shuffling Hungarians trace their roots back to a one-nighter in December 1989, downtown at Dailey’s, showcasing comedian Tom Kenny and The Pushballs, a pickup band that Rossi organized. The Pushballs’ baritone saxophonist, Frank Grosso, would remain with Rossi for the better part of a decade with the Hungarian Horns.

“At the time Tom (Kenny) called me, I was suicidal,” Rossi remembers. He had been kicked out of the Masters of Reality and struggled as the low man on the totem pole with The Bogeymen. “But Tom knew I was into New Orleans music and I was prepared to really start getting serious about playing piano. So with the Pushballs I became a bandleader, and that is where I saw how to make the Shuffling Hungarians happen.”

Zodiac Thriller

Rossi was always learning something, and sometimes that meant learning how to scheme and manipulate. “Tom wanted to do a second Pushballs show at the Zodiac Club,” Rossi remembers. “Well, at the time I loved The Kingsnakes and I was dying to play with (drummer Mark) Tiffault and (bassist Paul) LaRonde. And now, with Tom Kenny, I had something to entice them with.”

Widely considered the most effective blues rhythm section in Syracuse, the LaRonde-Tiffault tandem became the engine that both powered and anchored the Shuffling Hungarians, an organic outfit that eventually included a three-piece horn section, backup singers, several screaming guitarists and a Trinidadian conga-thumper to boot.

So with LaRonde and Tiffault on board, but with Kenny out of the picture, Rossi made his move. “Tom’s gone back to Hollywood,” he told the musicians. “How about me fronting the band?”

Rossi was dating Eileen Heagerty at the time, and she and her brother, Michael, ran the Zodiac Club. So the Pushballs, minus Tom Kenny, started playing every Wednesday there, trying to get spillover business from the summertime Party in the Plaza events at the nearby Federal Building.

George Rossi. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

George Rossi.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

“I’d never sang lead before,” Rossi confesses. “In fact, I’d never played piano and sang at the same time. I didn’t know how to count a song in. I was awful. The singing was the worst. It was an ignominious start.”

The band slogged through four Wednesdays there before throwing in the towel. The project could’ve dissolved then and there, but Rossi kept fueling the fire. 

“I started studying Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John, really diving in deep,” he says. “I knew I had to rethink this thing, retool it and make it what I want it to be. I thought in terms of designing it as a piece of art, but also as a business, using things I’d learned from all those early-morning car trips talking with Ed Hamell over the seven years when I was in The Works. Ed Hamell was the best teacher I ever had.”

Unlike most bands of the day, The Works played all original material. “It was a fully functioning organism with an attached culture,” Rossi remembers. “Every show was an uphill battle, but it was a battle willingly taken on.”

That was a model that Rossi would apply to the Shuffling Hungarians a few years later. As part of that attached culture, he created a character, Little Georgie. “It made it easier for me to do a gig because I didn’t have to be me,” he says. “I was approaching it very theatrically.”

Thanks to some backstage lobbying by Big Daddy LaRonde, the Hungarians scored a weekly Hump Day gig at the trendy Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Rossi changed the name of the group to the Shuffling Hungarians, named after Professor Longhair’s band from 1949.

“That name appealed to the five people in Syracuse who knew something about New Orleans music,” he says. “It’s a concept, but nobody got it.”

During the band’s two-year stay at the Dino, two terrific musicians — guitarist Pete Heitzman and saxophonist Paulie Cerra — quit the band and were replaced by Tim Harrington and Don Williams, respectively.

“During those two years, I never took a dime myself,” Rossi says. “But I was able to pay the band and develop an arc for my character. The band was great, but the character was drawing people.”

Little Georgie channeled Louisiana piano-pounder Jerry Lee Lewis, aka “The Killer,” and the mythic Southern bad man Stagger Lee. “My alter-ego was a superman,” Rossi recalls.

Around that time, Rossi offered his band’s business to music agent Dave Rezak. According to Rossi, “He literally laughed me out of his office at the Galleries.” Rossi also declares that when the bandleader offered to record the Hungarians for Greg Spencer’s Blue Wave record label, “Greg said it wasn’t his cup of tea,” Rossi says with a sigh. “I had to prove them wrong.” 

He had to prove her wrong, too. “Every heroic figure has a tragic flaw, but the town gathers to watch,” Rossi says. “We got tongues wagging, and then we found those people would come to see you play. You’ve got to give them something to talk about. I made (my ex-wife) a laughingstock. Eventually she went to Austin.” 

Rossi certainly has an obsession for marketing. “To be successful in the music racket, part of the marketing equation is that your legend must loom large,” he advises other bandleaders. “Gossip, word of mouth and whisper campaigns are much more effective conduits then traditional advertising platforms. Whether accurate or not, my life story has been writ large on the walls of bathroom stalls.”

Shuffling at Styleen’s

About 1993, the Hungarians began a remarkable residency at Styleen’s Rhythm Palace, in Armory Square. It was another resurrection; Styleen’s was the site of the Zodiac Club at which an early version of the band tanked and nearly sank.

The Styleen’s shows were nothing short of magical. Candles flickered at their feet as the various band members sported all manner of hats, coats and shades to dull the sting of the klieg lights. The George-O-Lettes provided hip harmonies and shook their booties along with the swingin’ rhythms.

One of Little Georgie’s signature songs was “Gutbucket”: “I get intoxicated . . . my 88s get radiated/ I’m a real gone daddy when I’m puttin’ out that sound/ You can throw them sticks’n’stones/ I’m still gonna feed my gutbucket jones/ It’s the only thing that has never let me down.”

With the act firmly in place, Rossi turned his attention to marketing. He and his girlfriend, Eileen “Styleen” Heagerty, spent endless hours addressing and stamping performance calendars. 

“I was sending out over 20,000 pieces of direct mail on a bimonthly basis,” he recalls. “You try running a band and a record label, crafting the pieces, writing the copy, printing them, peeling off 20,000 self-stick mailing labels, affixing them to the mailers, paying for the bulk mail postage — every two months. I dare you.”

The Hungarians quickly grasped the potential of the Internet. A website debuted in 1993; according to Rossi, the group became one of just 250 bands in the world to have a site at that time.

In 1996 Rossi formed Queen Bee Brand records, hired Utica producer Bob Acquaviva (who had produced The Bogeymen sessions) and made a 15-track self-titled album. “That was a brave record,” Rossi says now. Although the live act still played a handful of covers like “Hey Pocky Way,” “Low Rider,” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” the disc was decidedly original, devised to stoke the legend of Little Georgie. 

Tracks included Rossi compositions “The Ballade of Little Georgie,” “Gutbucket,” “Working on My Addictions,” “Lie to Me,” “Tear It Down,” plus Harrington’s “Brassy Bessie” and Gary Frenay’s “Y’all Learned to Rock from Me.”

The song “You Like It” was inspired by a spat that Rossi witnessed between his wife and her rocker lover, something involving a spiked heel applied by his ex to his rival’s cranium. “Yeah, man, I was dropping hints. There were coded messages all through that thing, verbal, visual, musical messages.”

But you don’t need a cryptologist to understand the angst of “Lie to Me”: “Were you thinkin’ of me baby/ When you were lyin’ next to him?/ Oh baby . . . you said you’d never lie to me.”

The year 1996 was a tough one on a personal level. The Heagertys’ older brother, Patrick — the founder of Pastabilities restaurant, located across from Styleen’s on South Franklin Street — died after a long battle with brain cancer. The family tragedy put a strain on Rossi’s personal and business relationship with Eileen, but the band continued its standing-room-only Saturday nights at Styleen’s. 

By now, the group included Rossi, Paul La-Ronde, Mark Tiffault, Frank Grosso, Don William, trumpeter Jeff Stockham, singers Gail Sampson, Jackie Clarke and Angela Washington, and the man from Trinidad, percussionist Irvin Daniel.

The second record, Live from Styleen’s Rhythm Palace, Syracuse, NY, was crafted to keep the ball rolling, and to help promote the Salt City music scene. Queen Bee had sold 10,000 copies of the debut disc, Rossi says, and managed to quadruple that number with the Live double-disc. More than two hours of kick-ass music was featured, from a cover of “Come Together” to “Georgie’ Boogie” to “One Heluva Nerve.” A medley of “The Saints Go Marchin’ In” paired with “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” reminded listeners of the band’s musical moorings.

“I spent a lot of money for ad campaigns,” Rossi says about the record. The expenditures must have been well directed because House of Blues came calling, and the band earned an invitation to perform in Europe. He proudly points out that the Queen Bee Brand label, which he had created, paid the travel tab for the band to fly across the Atlantic.

Big Easy Bound

Rossi’s tireless self-promotion paid off in an unexpected manner. One Sunday morning, the phone rang: “This is Jerry Wexler,” a voice said. “Yeah, and I’m (record executive) Ahmet Ertegun,” Rossi shot back, assuming one of his musicians was pranking him. 

But it actually was Jerry Wexler, one of the top artists-and-repertoire (A&R) men in popular music history, the guy who actually coined the term “rhythm and blues.” Wexler had heard the Hungarians’ records and wanted to talk about the band and its plans. 

“Jerry was about 80 at the time, and I really think he just wanted to talk music,” Rossi says. “He was very up-front, very clear that he couldn’t deliver anything, but — I later found out — he was delivering the whole time.”

After returning from the gig in Bruges, Belgium, Rossi took a long look at the Central New York landscape and realized that the hot’n’humid city of New Orleans was calling him. After giving the band a year’s notice, during which time he turned down a deal offered by Alligator Records, Rossi moved to Louisiana in the summer of 1998. 

“I left a pretty sweet life in Syracuse to start at the bottom of the New Orleans totem pole, completely from scratch at age 38,” he observes on littlegeorgiesblog-a-thon.blogspot.com. “This was not exactly a pragmatic life choice, but it was one that needed to be made. If I was truly to be a New Orleans-styled musician, then I had to be from New Orleans, and soak it up from the sidewalk as a native, albeit a transplanted one. Otherwise, I would have been just another culture vulture. Dues had to be paid, and shots to the body had to be taken. This was a pretty huge gamble with my life’s path. 

“I was guided by three little ideas: 1. You’re Only On The Planet Once, So Do Not Be Ruled By Fear; 2. Go Big, Or Go Home; 3. Listen To Your Heart, and Follow It Without Question.”

Rossi ended up at the world-famous Pat O’Brien’s, a bar where he’d crank out “Piano Man” eight times a night for drunken Tulane students and closeted racists who wanted to hear “Dixie” all night. Rossi describes his work at O’Brien’s as “whoring,” but during his decade in the city, he also scored gigs and session work with heavy uptown fonksters such as Cyrille Neville, Bo Dollis, James Andrews and the late Allen Toussaint.

He made appearances at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival accompanying bluesman Kipori “Baby Wolf” Woods and Cyril Neville and his authentic New Orleans R&B Revue, played organ with Marcia Ball and toured nationally for seven months in 1999 with guitarist Bryan Lee and the Blues Power Band. 

That same year, trumpeter James Andrews brought George along for a national television appearance on the syndicated talk show Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, telecast from the State Palace Theatre at the corner of Canal and Rampart streets.

“Sure it was national TV, but it wasn’t a big deal really,” Rossi remembers. “It was just another gig. Got the call, they’ll pay ya like $50. OK, where? Show up, do our thing and get out of there. I got to meet Kathie Lee (Gifford) and Regis (Philbin). They were very gracious, very appreciative.”

Rossi was more impressed by his bandleader than the broadcasters. “Now playing with James Andrews: That was a big deal! I mean his family goes all the way back to the earliest days of jazz. To get the chance to play with people like James, that’s why I moved to New Orleans.”

George Rossi. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

“I’d never played piano and sang at the same time. I didn’t know how to count a song in. I was awful.” – George Rossi
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Waxing with Wexler

After 12 months of sweating and scuffling, Rossi learned the extent of Jerry Wexler’s reach. He was hired in 1999 to co-produce Life is a Carnival, a record showcasing the Mardi Gras Indian band Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias. 

“The deal involved a ton of money and a cast of thousands,” Rossi recalls. “I mean we had Robbie Robertson, Dr. John, Bruce Hornsby, Rockin’ Dopsie, Marva Wright and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.”

Life is a Carnival was released by Metro Blue Records, a subsidiary of Blue Note Records, affiliated with Capitol and the Universal Music Group. The big-time project was overseen by Metro Blue executive Bruce Lundvall, famous for signing Norah Jones. Rossi co-produced, arranged and played keyboards on the disc.

“I encountered some animosity,” he remembers. “Like ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ But Jerry Wexler had been pulling strings left and right. I had no idea!”

Rossi has a hand in all 16 tracks including “Tootie Ma,” “Coochie Molly,” “Shanda Handa” and Dr. John’s “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” Allmusic.com critic Bob Gottlieb called the record “one of the most infectious and danceable discs of the late 1990s.”

Rossi’s main memory of his Carnival labors centers on the late Wardell Quezergue, the legendary arranger, producer and bandleader widely known as “The New Orleans Beethoven.” Rossi watched as Wardell wrote out charts for all instruments without even using a piano. “The level of artistry that existed down there in New Orleans, I got to feel it. I got to watch these guys do this shit. Being in New Orleans was the only way to see it.”

And he knew it was thanks to Jerry Wexler that he’d been hired. It was an important lesson. “Now I knew,” Rossi says, “that’s how the world worked.”

Routed by Katrina

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina rocked Rossi’s world. He’d been playing one of the two copper-covered pianos at Pat O’Brien’s, home of the Hurricane cocktail. When the winds whipped up to 150 mph on Saturday, Aug. 27, and a voluntary evacuation was urged by Louisiana leaders, Rossi called the club to confirm its closing plans. “They said, ‘Hell, no, we’re not closing,’” he says. “‘Get your butt down here!’” 

He and his co-musician, Miss Vicki, were the last piano plunkers playing on the strip on the last night of the pre-Katrina Bourbon Street world. He ended the night with Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”

Then he deposited his two dogs into his girlfriend’s tiny green Ford Focus wagon. As Huckleberry and Doodle nestled in the back seat on Sunday, Aug. 28, 5:15 a.m., Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop grew smaller in the rear-view mirror. 

“By the time we got on the I-10, it was a parking lot,” he remembers. “It took us seven hours to travel two miles west of the Superdome. The car became increasingly more difficult to keep on the road, as the first tendrils of Katrina’s winds intermittently pushed us off axis from the passenger side. We started to get pelted by pine cone projectiles as the southwestern swirl slammed into the trees that lined Highway 59, and the pine needles on the road were so voluminous that they started to drift like snow. The only option was to go all Dale Earnhardt on Katrina’s ass and outrun her.”

Eventually the couple and their dogs made it to Tuscaloosa, then Birmingham, and killer Katrina was largely behind them. By Labor Day, they’d arrived in Skaneateles. 

In October, Rossi played at Syracuse’s Bethany Baptist Church, 149 Beattie St., accompanying singers Angie Washington and Jackie Clarke, two of the George-O-Lettes. “I guess I made Angie and Jackie play for Satan so many times with the Hungarians,” Rossi quipped, “it’s only fair I throw a couple of freebies over to the other side.” He also joined his mentor and friend, Joe Whiting, to perform at the Ripple Effect Concert for Hurricane Relief in Cortland.

Just as the hurricane devastated the city of New Orleans, Katrina devastated Rossi’s blossoming big-city musical career. “I was suddenly irrelevant on every platform,” he recalls. 

Hungarian Games No More

George Rossi in his youth. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

George Rossi in his youth.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

In 2008, while still splitting time between Central New York and New Orleans, Rossi decided to revive Little Georgie with a show at the Inner Harbor, featuring what was left of the Shuffling Hungarians and a few members of the Wild Magnolias. 

“I pulled the old suit out of the closet for one more try, just to see if I could still fit in it, and maybe to explore the possibility of wearing it as a career again,” he says. “But after 10 years it was a little tight around the middle, metaphorically speaking.”

He couldn’t stomach the idea of going through all the work and devoting countless financial resources to another band effort. “It helped me clarify what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, or better put, what I didn’t want to do. Juggling all those balls just isn’t intellectually, artistically and, more importantly, spiritually compelling enough to assume the role of ringmaster for me anymore. More than anything, it became painfully apparent that it was time for a third act. The Little Georgie suit went back into mothballs, probably for good this time.”

In 2011, Rossi teamed with Gary Frenay for a show of “Songs and Stories” at the Auburn Public Theater, also featuring guitarist Loren Barrigar, Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman, the Dean Brothers, mandolin player Ted Williams, drummer Cathy LaManna, keyboardist Dave Solazzo, trumpeter Nick Frenay and the Hungarian Horns: Jeff Stockham, Frank Grosso and Don Williams.

More recently, Rossi paired with his dad, 88-year-old Nick Rossi, to create a video-driven food website called You Eat What I Cook You. On the videos Nick is called Primo and George is Secondo. “We wanted to show the human side of cooking,” Rossi said. “The family, the history, the relationships and how they’re tied to food.”

As usual, Rossi is learning new ways to do things. “I like the bewilderment, befuddlement of being a student,” he says. “I’m most comfortable when I’m learning. It’s the learning and doing that really counts, not what you leave behind in your wake.”

Rossi currently remains more interested in social media than in shufflin’ rhythms. He still keeps up his keyboard chops (a book called Baroque Performance Practices graced his man-cave music stand last month). But he knows that leading a band can be a thankless job. And one of the drawbacks of being a bandleader is that, sooner or later, your musicians will learn to hate you.

“Someone’s gotta be willing to be the asshole, willing to take the heat,” he says. “The Shuffling Hungarians was a magic trick of epic proportions.” 

When the project started — after Rossi enlisted the services of that rockin’ rhythm section of Paul LaRonde and Mark Tiffault — he knew that the band, its soul and character, would be defined by its choice of material. “Every tune was chosen very carefully to acquire a skill set to be utilized for the future,” he said, “ingredients for the ultimate and upcoming gumbo.”

The song “One Helluva Nerve” worked on all levels. “Basically a solo piano workout by James Booker,” Rossi says, “it not only fit the New Orleans constraint, but it was chosen to fit the future character narrative, help me to work on my arrangement chops to flesh it out with the future template of horn section and gospel corner vocalists, and, in so doing, teach everybody to rethink how to actually play idiomatically.”

Rossi had multiple agendas. “It all started with just the three of us. The foundation had to be solid before it got gussied up with the rest of the musical trappings. I might have been the conceptualizer for the narrative and dramatic components, but the music itself was a platform unto itself. And, if not designed, was certainly built by Tiffault, LaRonde and Rossi.”

Nowadays LaRonde lives in Florida, however, and Tiffault has little to say about his former bandleader. “Paul LaRonde wouldn’t talk to me for two years,” Rossi recalls. He assumes the bassist and drummer were upset by at least two things: George’s refusal to grant a second-year extension of the band’s life in 1998, and his rejection of a rather reluctant offer from Alligator Records’ honcho Bruce Iglauer.

Because Tiffault and LaRonde were there at the beginning and because they consistently revved the band’s motor over the years, Rossi understands that they had invested more of themselves than the other Hungarians.

“In that way, and from their perspective, maybe that illuminates the ongoing animosity,” Rossi says. “Everybody wants more credit for the creation of Frankenstein more than they’re actually due.”

When informed that one of his former bandmates was badmouthing him, Rossi shrugs. “You know what? As much as I admire that guy as a musician, the fact is that he was a master plumber, and I was the genius.”

Shuffling with the Sammys

Over four years in the mid-1990s, Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians won nine Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys).

1993: Best Blues Group (Hungarians)

1993: Best Blues Instrumentalist (Rossi)

1994: Best Soul or Rhythm and Blues Group (Hungarians)

1994: Best Rhythm and Blues Instrumentalist (Rossi)

1996: Best Soul or Rhythm and Blues Group (Hungarians)

1996: Best Local Release (Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians, Queen Bee Brand)

1996: Best Rock Instrumentalist (Rossi)

1997: Best Local Release (Hungarians’ Live from Styleen’s Rhythm Palace, Syracuse, NY, Queen Bee Brand)

1997: Producers of the Year: Bob Acquaviva and Rossi

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