Mario “Joe” Russo was born in the Bronx, N.Y. June 20, 1925, to Raphael Russo and Ippolitta Scardigno, immigrants from Foggio, Italy.
His parents did not want him to be adversely influenced by city life, so they gave him his first saxophone. At 14, he played his first gig at a New Year’s Eve celebration and his musical career was launched.
During World War II, Joe was inducted into the Navy and assigned to a tour of duty at the Navy School of Music, Washington, D.C., where he served as a staff member. His talent for languages made him an early recruit for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA.
He took full advantage of the GI Bill and obtained a B.S. in music at Lebanon Valley College, where he served as assistant to the college’s director of Musical Organizations. He was included in Who’s Who of American Universities and Colleges 1953 and earned his master’s at Columbia. Joe then went on to teach instrumental music, and later, various languages at local public schools.
Joe possessed a Pavarotti-style tenor voice and sang in many churches in the Washington, D.C., area. He served as a member of the Paul Hill Chorale, The Ron Freeman Chorale and the Russian Chorus. He performed at the White House during the Kennedy years; Camp David during the Eisenhower years; the first performance at the opening of Wolf Trap with the New York Opera Company; and the opening performance of Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera Company.
Instrumentally, he was active in D.C.-area dance and concert bands at Blues Alley, Quarter Back Club, the WRC radio station, the Baird Hall at the Smithsonian Institution, Cherry Blossom Balls and one of Clinton’s Inaugural Balls.
After retiring from teaching, Joe remained active in dance bands and performed with the National Concert Band, made up of retired musicians from the major service bands.
Joe retired once more and moved from the Washington, D.C., area, but he was never able to retire from his love of music and performance. He continued to find an outlet for his talents in Florida, where he played in well-known swing bands and sang for the past 15 years.
He leaves behind his second wife, MaryAnn Fields Jones Bert Russo; four stepchildren, Gary Bert and wife, Helen, Laryrn R. Jones, Wenda Bert and husband, Steve Martin, and Jeanette Bert and husband, Eric Layton; and 14 step-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his parents; two brothers; and his first wife, Jean Patricia Lipscomb Russo, whom he married Sept. 13, 1945.
“He (Joe) will be remembered as a fine gentleman and a marvelous alto sax player and opera singer,” said Bill Millner, a recent conductor.
Services: Services will be scheduled for a later date. Farley Funeral Home is in charge of local arrangements. To send condolences and check for service details, visit FarleyFuneralHome.com.