WASHINGTON – The Marine Band, “the President’s Own,” usually plays for presidents and potentates at ceremonies and state dinners. But on 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 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 age 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 of the cherry red jacket of the uniform worn only by the President’s Own, the oldest musical group in the country. As section leader and special consultant, Corrado would go over the details with White House staff – again. Would he be playing for a Roman Catholic cardinal or Iowa pig farmers? Would the Strolling Strings ensemble play during dessert? Would there be dancing?
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 – had a wide repertoire of classical American standards.
“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 (Kennedy) liked polkas,” said Martha Corrado as she sat in her husband’s music room, pointing to a black-and-white photo of an 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 – 10 days after President Kennedy’s funeral.
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.”
The stories he did tell were often of momentary flashes of panic and quick recoveries. Like the time Bill Clinton snuggled up to him on the piano bench and wanted to talk, instructing him mid-song to “go into ‘God Bless America.’ ” Corrado did.
Corrado’s discretion and decorum were a model for the younger musicians who came up through the ranks, said Master Sgt. Bob Boguslaw, who replaced Corrado at the keyboard.
Like most members of the President’s Own these days, Boguslaw is a classically trained, highly educated musician. Corrado, who was 18 when he enlisted in 1958, was of another generation. He taught himself to play the piano in the 1970, figuring the accordion was going out of style.
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 same disease that afflicted baseball player Lou Gehrig, and retired a year later.
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.