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Keyboardist Nick Russo, anchor of many Chicago clubs, dies at 63

Nick Russo and Michael Bolton | supplied photo

Nobody wanted to go home when Nick Russo was at the keyboards — especially when, in the wee hours of the morning, he sang “I Don’t Wanna Go Home.”

Billy Joel, Vic Damone and Paul Anka sat in with Mr. Russo, who played five days a week at dark and smoky places filled with martinis, cigars and Sinatra songs. Sean Penn once joined him for a rendition of “My Way.’’ At Jilly’s on Rush and Oak, he performed for nearly 18 years — the life span of the club. Billy Eckstine used to call ahead to make sure Nick would be tickling the ivories when the jazz legend wanted to drop by Giannotti’s restaurant in Norridge.

At one time or another, he played for Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, Ozzy Osbourne, Harrison Ford, Vince Vaughn, Ike Turner and Michael Bolton.

Mr. Russo was always expanding his knowledge, said guitarist Frank Rumoro. Before he died of a heart problem Sunday at 63, he was learning a new song by his favorite group, Tower of Power.

Keyboardist Nick Russo (far left) looks on as Piano Man Billy Joel sits in on his equipment at Jilly’s. | supplied photo
Keyboardist Nick Russo (far left) looks on as Piano Man Billy Joel sits in on his equipment at Jilly’s. | supplied photo

Using his voice, two keyboards, a drum machine and foot pedals to play bass, he filled rooms with music. Some called him the “Man with 1,000 Fingers.”

When Mr. Russo performed at the Redhead Piano Bar and the Rosewood, or in the Drake Hotel’s Coq d’Or and Palm Court, “You thought it was 10 people playing” said Edie, his wife of 25 years.

“One hand was doing one style, the other hand was doing a different style,” said a friend from high school, Nick Gironda. “I was just in awe.”

“He was probably one of the most important components of Jilly’s success,” said Stan Wozniak, a founder of the club named after Jilly Rizzo, a good friend of Frank Sinatra. “He’s probably the best piano player-singer in the city of Chicago.”

Other nightclub artists were some of his biggest fans, said cabaret singer Denise Tomasello. “Anyone visiting Chicago — including well-known celebrities such as Billy Joel, Billy Eckstine, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme — were recommended to hear the one and only Nick Russo at Jilly’s, where he was the resident entertainer for 18 years from the day it opened to the day it closed,” she said.

Young Nick grew up near Addison and Harlem. In grade school at St. Francis Borgia, he practiced his accordion for hours a day. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he studied music at DePaul University.

The first day of college, he met Rick Rossmark. They formed a group called Fantasia and played at NikosCQ in Bridgeview, Interlaken Resort in Lake Geneva, and Richard’s Lilac Lodge in Westchester.

Nick Russo and actor Chazz Palminteri. | supplied photo
Nick Russo and actor Chazz Palminteri. | supplied photo

His most requested song was “Fly Me to the Moon.” Some nights, he had to play it five times to satisfy the crowd. When he performed swingin’ classics like “In the Mood” and “Birdland,” his wife said, people seemed to fall in love.

She was one of them.

At 25, she was in the audience at Giannotti’s. “From that day on, we never left each other.” He schmoozed with women when he sang, but it was just show biz. He’d always tell them, “This is my wife, Edie.”

“All the women he kissed, Mother of God. There wasn’t a woman who didn’t love my husband,” she said. “He was clean. He always smelled good. He was just good.”

At their wedding banquet at the Starlight Inn, it seemed like every cabaret performer in Chicago took a turn at the mic, she said. Her new husband serenaded Edie with what would become their song: “Something New in My Life.”

They raised their kids in homes filled with good cooking and loud talking in River Grove and Elmwood Park. He loved his wife’s cornmeal fried chicken, and also her gravy, made with pork neckbones, the old-fashioned way. “He said it was one of the reasons he married me,” she said. When he did eat out, he liked Tufano’s Restaurant in Chicago and Paula’s Cafe in Franklin Park.

Mr. Russo liked muscle cars. He was just starting to work on a new toy, a 20-year-old yellow Corvette.

Edie and Nick Russo. | family photo
Edie and Nick Russo. | family photo

One thing giving Edie Russo comfort is they never missed a nighttime ritual. “We went to bed, [said] ‘I love you, I love you.’ Then we said our prayers. He always said, ‘If I go, I gotta be in peace, next to my wife.’ ”

He is survived by their six children, Theresa, Deliahcq, Anthony, Nick Jr., Frank and Anna Marie, and two grandchildren. Services, featuring a keyboard made of flowers, have been held.