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Requiem for Piano Man to Presidents

August 13, 2004|Kathleen Hennessey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Band, "The President's Own," usually plays for presidents and potentates at ceremonies and state dinners. But Thursday, from a knoll at Arlington National Cemetery, it serenaded one of its own.

For 41 years, Master Gunnery Sgt. Charles V. Corrado provided the soundtrack for White House pageantry. The band's longest-serving member, he played piano for nine commanders in chief and countless prime ministers, literati, kings and movie stars.

He played polkas for the Kennedys and Sinatra for the Clintons. He knew just when to launch into "Laura" when President George W. Bush and his wife took a surprise turn on the dance floor. He kept a tight lip and a calm head when Diana, princess of Wales, sashayed in front of him.

And he played until his fingers wouldn't let him. After a two-year battle with Lou Gehrig's disease, Corrado died June 26 at 64.

"Charlie always knew just what song to play," said his wife, Martha. "He knew how to set a scene."

Often, the scene was this: Evening. White House ballroom. Several hours before a gala.

Corrado would arrive early for every job, his wife said. He needed time to prepare, to press the white pants and the cherry-red jacket of the uniform worn only by The President's Own, the oldest musical group in the country.

Band members say Corrado -- whose father owned a gas station in Boston and whose formal musical training consisted largely of accordion lessons in his cousin's apartment on Boylston Street -- had an encyclopedic repertoire of American standards. White House social secretaries came to him for advice.

"Song selection is really a challenge," said Marine Col. Timothy Foley, a retired director of the band and close friend. "It's knowing the songs, and it's knowing the musical tastes of the current administration. It's knowing what the appropriate music is for the guests ... and then it's knowing how to present the music in a way that is tasteful and doesn't intrude."

It was an administration's musical taste that led Corrado to audition for The President's Own in the spring of 1962.

"Jackie liked polkas," said Martha Corrado as she sat in her husband's music room, pointing to a black-and-white photo of a dark-eyed Italian kid, barely 23 years old, hoisting an accordion and standing steps away from the former first lady as she doted on her son, John F. Kennedy Jr., at his third birthday party.

Corrado witnessed intimate moments in the White House. But he spoke of very few, often to the frustration of his wife, a Catholic school teacher and history buff.

He'd return from formal dinners with few details and no gossip, she said. "I asked him what Princess Di was wearing and he said, 'I don't know, maybe a dark dress.' He was always too busy playing to notice."

In the spring of 2002, Corrado's hand began to cramp, and he couldn't reach the chords he used to hit without effort. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease that afflicted baseball player Lou Gehrig.

After his retirement in 2003, Corrado returned to the White House twice as the Bushes' guest.

On Thursday, Corrado received his final distinction -- a full-honors military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

Martha Corrado said she knew it was what he wanted. And she knew The President's Own would play just the right song -- the Marine Corps anthem, adagio.

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