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Joe Negri: From Handyman To Jazz Guitarist

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Joe Negri: From Handyman To Jazz Guitarist

Joe Negri: From Handyman To Jazz Guitarist

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you or someone you love grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," you may remember Handyman Negri. He was an affable guy who solved problems in the Land of Make-Believe. But jazz fans know him as Joe Negri, a guitar virtuoso. At the age of 84, Negri has just released a new CD, his first in a stripped down setting that showcases his finger work.

Reporter Joel Rose paid a visit to Mr. Negri's neighborhood.

JOEL ROSE: Joe Negri may be famous to generations of "Mister Rogers" fans as a handyman, but Negri says his character on the show is pure make-believe. In real life, he is not handy.

JOE NEGRI: Not the least bit. My wife is actually handier than I am. She can fix things. She's really good at it.

ROSE: Negri says he warned Fred Rogers about his limitations early on.

NEGRI: I'll never forget we had a big joke about that because I said to him, handyman? You got to be kidding. He said, don't worry about it. It's all pretend. And it was pretend.


NEGRI: And I pretended my way to being a handyman.

ROSE: For more than 300 episodes over 33 years.


NEGRI: (as Handyman Negri) The king might need a little handyman. Let me see if I can be of some assistance. Here we go. Yes.

FRED ROGERS: (as King Friday XIII) Mr. Negri, I presume?

NEGRI: (as Handyman Negri) Yes, sir.

ROGERS: (as King Friday XIII) Did you desire an audience with me?

NEGRI: (as Handyman Negri) Why, yes, I did, King Friday.

ROSE: But since production of the show stopped in 2001, Negri has had more time to focus on his first love: the guitar.


ROSE: Joe Negri was born in Pittsburgh, and he still lives nearby on a quiet side street in the South Hills.

NEGRI: You're good. Everybody has trouble finding this place.

ROSE: Hi. Good morning.

NEGRI: How are you doing?

ROSE: Good.

NEGRI: Come on in.

ROSE: Negri grew up in a middle-class, mainly Italian neighborhood on Pittsburgh's South Side. His father was a bricklayer and an amateur musician who got his sons started in show business early.

NEGRI: When I reached a certain age, my brother and I and my cousin, we both went to dancing school. We actually had an act. I would go out and open, sing a song, and then we would tap dance. You know, we made money during the Depression for our families...


NEGRI: show business.

ROSE: By the time he was 16, Negri was playing professionally. He went on tour with a big band. Then Negri briefly moved his wife and young daughter to New York, where he tried to land a coveted job as a studio musician. But when Negri saw what his friends had to do to get by as musicians, he didn't like it.

NEGRI: Living wasn't easy in New York. The kids had babysitters. Somebody had to take them to the park to play. I don't know. The whole scene just kind of turned me off. So we packed up, get back to Pittsburgh.

ROSE: That's when Negri started working in television. He appeared on the "Ken Griffin Show," the "Buzz and Bill Show" and, finally, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," all shot in Pittsburgh.

MIKE TOMARO: Most people know him as an actor. They don't quite realize what they have here, you know?

ROSE: Mike Tomaro is the head of the jazz studies department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where Negri teaches.

TOMARO: They're missing a treasure. I mean, not just a Pittsburgh treasure, but a musical treasure.


Unidentified Man: How about a nice hand for Joe Negri, ladies and gentlemen, and his trio?

ROSE: At his recent CD release party in Pittsburgh, Negri led his trio through several tunes from his new album "Dream Dancing." He has recorded before but never with just bass and drums.

NEGRI: I always felt I needed, you know, a little more support - a horn or a piano or something.

ROSE: On his new CD, Negri's guitar work is in the spotlight. Mike Tomaro at Duquesne University says it's about time.

TOMARO: To hear him play a ballad and to hear all those inner lines, Joe is one of the few remaining guys of that era who play all these beautiful inner lines, orchestrating on the instrument.


ROSE: Joe Negri didn't compose or orchestrate much for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred Rogers and musical director Johnny Costa took care of those duties. But Rogers did find ways for Negri to perform on the show.

NEGRI: He found me a music shop, decided it should be Negri's Music Shop. And that was a wonderful part of the show - I enjoyed that - because we brought in a lot of good guests, a lot of good musicians.

ROSE: Including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Ellis Marsalis and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Actor David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show, says Negri introduced thousands of kids to jazz.

DAVID NEWELL: If children see people doing something they love, which is obvious with Joe, they catch it. It's not something you push on them. They catch that love of music. And I think a lot of kids caught music through the "Neighborhood."

ROSE: Joe Negri says he might have enjoyed playing a little more jazz on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Not that he's complaining.

NEGRI: What I was going to get in New York, I got here. And I still had a family, and I was making a decent living. It's been a very, very rewarding career.

ROSE: And he never had to leave the neighborhood.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.


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