Tony Lovello of Jessamine County died Sunday at age 84, and with him died the old-time razzle-dazzle that delighted audiences who witnessed the charm of the “Liberace of the Accordion.”
Lovello performed with such singers as Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Durante, Kate Smith and Eddie Cantor.
When an illness caused him to be deaf in his left ear, he retired from show business and settled down in Lexington to work at The Campbell House Inn (now The Campbell House Lexington). He was there 31 years, first as entertainment director and then as general manager until his retirement in 1999.
Born Tony Lovullo in Buffalo, N.Y., he learned to play the accordion at age 5 under the guidance of his father. He was playing professionally by age 7.
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When he was 12, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was discovered by Cantor, the singer and dancer who suggested Lovullo change his name to Lovello. While serving with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Lovello did several tours in Korea and Alaska.
After his military service, Lovello performed on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show, then joined The Three Suns, a popular nightclub attraction in New York City. He toured and recorded with the group, and also released several solo recordings.
Norm Williams, Lovello’s neighbor in Jessamine County, said he didn’t realize the extent of Tony’s fame until five years ago, when he was in Las Vegas and saw an accordionist playing in a restaurant.
“When he took a break, I asked him, ‘My neighbor is Tony Lovello. Have you ever heard of him?’” Williams recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s a legend.’”
In 1969, a couple of years after Lovello joined The Campbell House, his brother, Sam, called and asked if he wanted to help produce a new TV show in Nashville.
“I said, ‘No, I like Lexington,’” Tony responded.
The show became “Hee Haw,” television’s version of the Grand Ole Opry that aired on CBS from 1969 to 1971, and then spent another two decades in syndication.
“Sam becomes a millionaire and I’m washing dishes at The Campbell House,” Lovello joked in a 1999 interview with the Herald-Leader.
But it was on “Hee Haw” that Lovello performed with singer Roy Clark. (Sam Lovullo died in January at age 88.)
Tony Lovello enjoyed regaling interviewers with stories about his time at The Campbell House. For example, during the Lexington Junior League Horse Show, someone took one of the winning horses to an upstairs suite and let the animal drink champagne out of a bathtub.
In his later years, Lovello sold instructional videos, spoke at seminars and gave accordion lessons via Skype.
“People think the accordion died with Lawrence Welk but it didn’t.” he said.
In addition to his wife Jo Ellen, Lovello is survived by four daughters.
Funeral service is 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Pax Christi Catholic Church in Lexington. Visitation is from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the church.