Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Tony Barrie, the legendary leader of the Tony Barrie Band – which has been performing in numerous parades throughout Greater Boston since 1949 and is considered the longest running independent band in the region. Barrie, who was born Anthony Bicchieri, is celebrating his 100th birthday today (Friday, July 9). The Boston native has lived in Saugus since 1949. He was an ensign in the U.S. Navy and received his Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1943 from Tufts University. He went on to work for 44 years as an engineer at GE in Lynn, where he taught quality control and was a supervisor. But he had another, more fun job in music, as the leader of a dance band and a marching band.
He and his wife, Ann (Matrona) Bicchieri, have been married for 72 years and have three children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Ann, a member of the Saugus High Class of 1944, is the daughter of the late Arthur Matrona, a concert clarinetist. Tony and Ann live in the same house on Bristow Street that she grew up in and has lived in all her life. She plays the piano.
Tony sang at St. Margaret’s Church in Cliftondale for 20 years. Although it’s been years since Tony marched with his band or performed with the dance band, he sings whenever he gets the chance – at local nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: So, please tell me about the love of your life and how you met your wife, Ann.
A: At the Totem Pole Ballroom – that’s where I got the surprise of my life. In ’47, I was on top of the world: no ties, no responsibilities. I had my orchestra. I was a chemical engineer at GE. It was a beautiful life. I was 26 years old. I played my violin, saxophone and clarinet. I was having the time of my life.
Here’s the shocker: I’m singing there in the Totem Pole Ballroom one night; suddenly, I focused on one girl; that was unlike me. I never bothered with girls. There she was, dancing with a date, having a wonderful time. I lost her in the crowd, but when I got home, I couldn’t get her out of my mind – a girl – and I never bothered with girls before.
A few weeks later at the parking lot of GE, I was introduced to a girl. It was this girl who worked in GE in the building that was joined to my building. She worked in the payroll department. And there started a courtship that lasted for two years. We continued the courtship, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to tell her I care about her, so I resorted to music. I chose a song that expressed my view as well as I could. There we were at the back stairs of her home in the wee hours of the morning, and I said, “Ann, I have something to say,” and I started singing. I was holding her hand and I was singing, “I am falling more in love with you. And day by day, my love continues to grow.”
And I gave her a little kiss on the cheek and off I went to get my bus to get back to Medford.
We’ve been married 72 years. We’ve known each other for 74 years. Two years later, in 1949, we had a different song right here in St. Margaret’s Church. When we got through with that ceremony, I was on Cloud 9, never realizing the treasure I just inherited. And I do mean inherited.
Q: And the wedding?
A: I have lived in Saugus since 1949 – when I got married – right here in this house. My father-in-law, Arthur Matrona, was a concert clarinetist. We lived on the second floor and her parents lived on the ground floor.
Q: So, it sounds like you have led a very busy and interesting life.
A: Here’s the kicker: With all this notoriety and success, I forget one, very, very important thing – my wife. I started to realize that it was because of her. She was always by my side. How much could I tell her how much I love her? Music – another song I sing to this day – time after time, I tell myself that I’m so lucky to be loving you, so lucky to be the one that you run to see you in the evening, when the day is through; I only know what I know, the passing years have shown, you have to keep our love so young and so new.
The power behind me was one who sacrificed her life. True love demands a sacrifice, and she was willing to do that for me. Something had to be done, and she did it and she’s still doing it.
Q: How did the name Tony Barrie Marching Band come into being?
A: I already had the name Tony Barrie from the Totem Pole Ballroom. And the Saugus Vets Band just didn’t sound right, so I printed on the base drum, “Tony Barrie Band” with my telephone number. And it was born. It just evolved.
Q: Originally, your band was …
A: Jack Lee, Arthur Matrona, Saugus Vets … and Saugus Vets didn’t sound too exciting, so I combined the dance band with the marching band into one element: Tony Barrie Band. Yipee! And we were born and never gave it a thought.
Q: How often do you perform now?
A: We don’t do any parades. We haven’t done a parade since 2019.
Q: So, you had been doing parades up until COVID-19?
A: Oh, I loved marching! But the year 2006 was a disaster. I had a sore on my ankle, and gangrene had set in, and I wound up losing my leg. I said to the doctors at the hospital, “You have destroyed me.” That’s when I turned into something else, and I said, “Okay, what do I do now?” So, I had a friend who played the electric piano. He and I combined, so we go to retirement homes, rest homes, assisted living homes – to brighten up the day for them.
Q: What has been the secret of your success?
A: We weren’t interacting with the spectators. Nobody was having fun. It was just a job. Something was wrong, so I purchased the Jack Lee Band. I paid Jack Lee’s widow $1,000 in 1949. I still have my father-in-law’s hat – a Navy officer’s hat. I hired a dance band who wanted to have some fun. I wanted to interact with the crowds, so the first time I introduced ‘Happy Birthday to you,’ I played Happy Birthday to everybody. We were having fun.
Q: You were doing that up until COVID-19?
Q: Now, any plans of returning?
A: Well, I’ve been getting calls to start again.
Q: Do you plan to?
A: Well, my wife says “No.” And I’m just thinking it’s a lot of effort now for me just to go out. I have to go down 10 stairs. I’m not that steady on my foot anymore. I need assistance. I don’t let people pamper me. I’m independent. So I don’t know – I’m between and betwixt, as they say.
Anyway, occasionally they invite me to sing at a nursing home, to motivate people to live and get well. I motivate people to participate in life, to make it through their golden years.
Q: What’s your favorite instrument?
A: Saxophone. Oh, I loved it – alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, violin – but the alto sax, it was like it was a part of me. I could sing into it, and out would come lovely music.
Q: And as you look back on your musical career, what gives you the most satisfaction?
A: The fact I’m still going, making people happy with music, but now a different phase of it. I sing to them. I look them in the eye. I call their name out. I make them smile. What the hell is better than that!?
Q: What was your most memorable performance? The dance band or the marching band.
A: Playing at a gay parade in Cambridge. Wow! I never knew I was so popular – TV cameras – and WBZ radio is interviewing me.
Q: About the gay parade?
A: Yeah! But I didn’t know it was the gay parade.
Q: And you got a lot of interesting questions when you got home?
A: Yeah. The priest was calling my house.
Q: What are you doing marching in the gay parade?
A: They didn’t say that. They would ask my kids, “Well, what was this about your father?” They couldn’t figure it out either, but they had seen me on TV.
Q: So, the priest was a little upset?
A: Well, he was a little puzzled. I was singing in church.
Q: Now, when you think of July 4, that was a big deal in your prime, right?
A: Ohhh, four parades in one day!
Q: Four in one day?
A: Beverly Farms, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Sudbury and Wakefield – they all gave me time to go from one to the other, and it was fun all day. I didn’t think of it as a job; it was enjoyable. And the guys had fun. They all enjoyed playing for me because I made them come alive.
Q: What’s your favorite number?
A: I guess “Over There” – Da da da–da da da! It’s alive.
Q: And you do “When the Saints go marching in.” Is that a favorite?
A: Well, yah. It’s one of them. That’s what we kick off with. And then we go into “Over There.” And then the Marines hymn. We had a routine.
Q: Now, you played a lot of Memorial Day parades here in town [Saugus]?
A: The same way I do two jobs. In one day, at least. I would do three if I could get there. Well, we did them all.
Q: And Ann? Talk about your wife Ann’s role in your musical career.
A: She was a force behind me, encouraging me all the time, helping me.
Q: Did she go to all four parades when you did the July Fourth parades?
A: Oh, of course! She used to drive the car.
A: Sure! And then she’d find a parking space and wait for me to come back.
Q: What were the most members you had in your band? How big were you at one point?
Q: And how big were you the last time you performed?
A: I think I had 15.
Q: Looking back over your long career, anything memorable stick out?
A: Back in the 50’s, my dance band played at the Copley Plaza. Twin girls married twin boys. It was right there in Life Magazine. I did a thing at Copley Plaza for James Michael Curley (a controversial Boston mayor who served time in prison during his last term). That’s a story in itself.
Q: So, what’s it like as you’re approaching 100? You got any secrets you want to share?
A: Like I say, the whole thing … I hope people start to realize that there’s more to love than hugs and kisses and all that sort of stuff. There’s more to it.
Q: Is there a special message that you want to convey?
A: It’s all for you – all the way, like Frank Sinatra used to sing. “When somebody loves you, it’s no good unless they love you all the way.” I know the lyrics. I can sing them. They just flow out.
Q: Who is your favorite singer?
A: Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
Q: Between the two, who would you rather sing with?
A: Either one. I’m delighted for the opportunity to sing for people. I’m delighted to sing for my wife, to tell her how much I really love her, “every time after time, I tell myself, I’m so lucky to be loving you.”
Q: Do you sing to her regularly, like Mother’s Day? Or her birthday? Or your anniversary?
A: Yes, every now and then, and I write her notes – a lot of notes. She was the one I was forgetting until I woke up. I said to myself, “Hey, without her, where would you be?”
Q: Anything else that you want to share with the readers of Saugus?
A: I want to thank them all if they remember me. And I want to thank Mark Vogler for spending this time talking to a 99-year-old guy, who is still alive. Yep. Unbelievable.
I hope people who read your article take a different view of life and love and realize that true life depends on sacrifice. People get the wrong idea of marriage and devotion. It’s not all kisses and hugs and sex. There’s much more to it. If people realized this, they would be much happier in their marriage. I try to motivate people to try to participate in life.
Q: Well, you are pretty sharp.
A: I still have it.
Q: Yep, you’re very lucid. You have your hearing. You can articulate, so you maybe minus one leg, but you’re still in the game.
A: I’m still in the game. Right. Right on. It’s been a pleasure to see you.
A MUSIC ICON IN SAUGUS: Tony Barrie, the long-time leader of the Tony Barrie Band, during a recent interview at his Bristow Street home. Today (Friday, July 9) he celebrates his 100th birthday. (Saugus Advocate photo by Mark E. Vogler)