Johnny Largo (real name Johnny LaPadula) was Optigan’s Music Director from Optigan’s public launch through to about 6 months before Mattel sold Optigan to Miner Industries. Basically he was the guy who went around to the trade shows and actually played the Optigan for all those throngs of amazed industry onlookers. As his was one of the first names I was able to dig up in relation to the Optigan, his persona, known mostly through a handful of promotional photos, took on a sort of mystical quality for me. Rob and I even wrote a song about him called “Johnny Largo On The Snowball Special-” inspired by the picture I found of Johnny playing the Optigan for a couple of snow-bunnies bound for the slopes on the Amtrak “Snowball Special.” But through all this fascination, I was never able to locate the man himself until Llyswen came up with the somewhat obvious (duh!) idea of looking him up with AFTRA. Soon she was on the phone with his friendly and fiesty wife Joyce, who reported that Johnny was alive and well and living in Camarillo, CA- not far from LA. What’s more, they actually turned out to have an email account, making our correspondences just that much easier. After the Largos saw our website and we cleared up some confusion about who was the official “Music Director” at Optigan (Mike LeDoux had claimed this title because he had been assigned it after Johnny’s departure. Since the Largos knew nothing of Mike’s subsequent 3-year stint as “Music Director,” they initially interpreted Mike’s claim as an attempt to steal Johnny’s credit), we eventually set a date to meet. Llyswen and I drove up to their house and spent several hours with them, looking at pictures and clippings and generally talking up a storm about Optigan! Johnny and Joyce were one of the nicest, most welcoming couples I’ve ever met, and I was very honored to have them accept me into their home.
Not surprisingly, Johnny of course considered Optigan a mere footnote in a much more noteworthy career as a professional session and club musician. He first came to public attention as an accordionist in 1950, and in 1956 (at the age of 18) he became the first ever American recipient of the “Coupe Mondiale” top-prize award for classical accordian in Biel, Switzerland. Following this victory he appeared on TV frequently in variety shows (such as Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk), recorded an album of accordion solos for Disneyland Records called “Melodies For Midnight,” and even had his own fan club! He continued in this line throughout the 60′s (even playing accordion for Sonny & Cher on “I Got You Babe”), but it wasn’t until January 27th, 1971 that he was introduced to the Optigan.
Optigan’s public debut was held at the Century Plaza Hotel on that date. F. Roy Chilton was at the helm, demonstrating the barely-working Optigans to an enthusiastic crowd of music-industry types. Roy had known Johnny previously through his affiliation with Magnatone Amplifiers, and had had him in mind as the perfect candidate for a Music Director for Optigan, but his efforts to get in touch with him had proven unsuccessful. By sheer coincidence, though, Johnny was playing a gig at the Century Plaza on that very same day! After running into Chilton in the hall, he was ushered over to one of the Optigans and urged to give it a try. Johnny instantly fell in love with the concept, and blew everyone away with his effortless skill at the instrument. He was signed on then and there as Music Director, a title he would hold for almost the next two years.
Johnny’s job at Optigan (other than performing on the instrument at trade shows and promotional demonstrations) was basically to oversee and quality-control the musical arrangements for both the discs and the songbooks. Along with Marshall Pearlman, he devised and patented (for Mattel) the ‘Automatic Beat Counter’ system which was used in the music books. He also wrote many of the arrangements for the books, although he reports that he never tried his hand at writing arrangements for the disc-recording sessions. As Johnny’s involvement in Optigan became more well known in union circles, he found that many of his former colleagues were turning their backs on him. Generally speaking, they saw the Optigan as the beginning of the end for working musicians. This obviously put Johnny in a tough spot, and is part of the reason why he tends not to look back on Optigan with much fondness
Johnny also remembers, without too much fondness, the way his Mattel superiors treated the Optigan as a toy, and did not give it the level of detailed attention required by a true musical instrument. This issue- toy mentality vs musical integrity- plagued the Optigan camp for it’s entire existence at Mattel, and was a contributing factor in Mattel’s decision to sell the whole works to Miner Industries. Simply put, Mattel got in over their head, and had to bail out. This of course resulted in most Optigan employees being laid off, Johnny included. So his final memories of Optigan were not happy ones.
Still, after all these years, Johnny was able to loosen up a bit for me about his experiences, and admits quite positively that he was totally dedicated to the idea of the Optigan. He saw quite clearly the direction in which it pointed, and is not at all surprised at the current state of digital instruments. And while, for medical reasons, he’s not allowed to play the accordion anymore, he still plays the odd session here and there on his Technics synthesizer.
And what about the infamous Snowball Special incident??? “I hopped off about halfway up the mountain!” he reports. Apparently the working conditions were appalling, and he just got fed up with the whole thing and bailed!!! Johnny Largo. Go, cat, go!!!