Joe Gattone’s fingers were so strong, they looked like they could do push-ups.
They were filmed playing the piano for an episode of “The West Wing” in 2002 and “dubbed” in for the hands of an actor.
Mr. Gattone, who performed for decades at nightclubs and hotels including the Blue Max, the Mill Run, the Drake and the Four Seasons, often accompanying Mel Torme and other masters of jazz and the Great American Songbook, died Wednesday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.
On Mr. Gattone’s musician’s salary, he and his wife, Jean, raised 11 kids in a four-bedroom, two-shower home in Glenview with lots of bunk beds and a kitchen table that expanded on hinges. Jean Gattone dealt out pancakes like cards and put together school lunches on a PBJ assembly line. All 11 children completed college. Several have master’s degrees. One earned a PhD.
“He was invited to travel with major performers, like Tony Bennett, but he refused,” said a son, Phil Gattone. “He did not want to travel.”
“He put his family first,” said singer-musician Joyce Garro, who performed as one of Dean Martin’s Golddiggers.
Young Joe grew up near 112th and Kedzie, the son of Italian immigrant parents. His father, a barber from Sicily, might have gone only as far as 4th grade, but he played violin and mandolin and recognized his son’s musical talent. “He really invested in getting him trained from wonderful teachers,” said Phil Gattone. Joe Gattone earned a bachelor’s degree from Chicago Musical College — now Roosevelt University — and a master’s degree from DePaul University.
The Korean War ended as he was completing Army boot camp at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington. While entertaining soldiers in an Army band, he met Jean Henry, an Irish-Norwegian from Takoma who sang for the troops. “They fell in love kind of at first sight,” said another son, Joe Gattone Jr. “She came back to Chicago and met his parents and they married in 1956.”
They settled for a time in Mount Greenwood, where she learned to make meatballs from her Calabrian mother-in-law.
“He always took time out to have dinner with all of us,” said a daughter, Thea Meierkort. “He just had a ton of patience.” Even with the youngest, he didn’t “run out of steam, or get tired of coming to our softball games.”
Mr. Gattone also had a reputation for patience with singers and other performers, as well as impeccable manners, said Ed Ward, former president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians.
“He was a cross between Andre Previn and Mister Rogers,” said singer Carole March Vito, whose husband, the late Joe Vito, was another esteemed Chicago piano player. “He played classical as beautifully as jazz.”
Chicago jazz diva Judy Roberts expressed condolences on Facebook, saying, “What a sweet, wonderful man!!!”
“He was a highly regarded musician and probably an even more highly regarded human being,” said Rich Daniels, musical director of the City Lights Orchestra.
The Joe Gattone Trio played at the Blue Max nightclub at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, said Joe Gattone Jr., accompanying Torme and opening for pianist Erroll Garner, jazz legend and composer of the classic, “Misty.”
Mr. Gattone played at Al Farber’s steakhouse in the Belden-Stratford Hotel and at Cafe Bonaparte at the Sheraton-Blackstone Hotel, which featured “dancing on the world’s largest copper dance floor.” Mr. Gattone crossed paths with singers Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls and Helen O’Connell.
And, “If anybody’s ever had brunch at the Four Seasons, they enjoyed his music” in the background, said Phil Gattone.
He was musical director for “Tintypes” at the Apollo Theater. Mr. Gattone performed at the Ravinia Festival and with the Chicago Civic Orchestra.
In 2003, his hands were used as digital stand-ins for actor Donald Moffat, who played the Alzheimer’s-stricken father of Allison Janney’s C.J. Gregg on “The Long Goodbye” episode of “The West Wing.”
Mr. Gattone is also survived by four other daughter, Maria Mejia, Grace Dickow, Liz, and Katie Hesser; four more sons, Chuck, Tony, Jim, and Frank; a sister, Grace McShane; his brothers, Frank, Guy and Charles; 32 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A funeral service is planned at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Life Changers Church, 2500 Beverly Rd., Hoffman Estates. Burial is at Abraham Lincoln Cemetery in Elwood.