Giuseppe “Joe” Venuti was born in Philadelphia on September 16, 1903. Joe was classically trained as a violinist from an early age. Salvatore Massaro, friend and fellow-fiddler in the James Campbell School Orchestra, was to prove a significant musical partner from the mid-1920s onward. Massaro, who adopted the name Eddie Lang, played jazz guitar to Joe’s jazz violin.
Through the early 1930s, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang made scores of recordings as leaders and as featured sidemen. Venuti and Lang became so well regarded for their hot violin and guitar duets that they were hired to play jazz choruses on commercial dance recordings by Roger Wolfe Kahn, Paul Whiteman, and others. Beginning in 1926, Venuti and Lang recorded as duettists for the Okeh label, and pioneered “chamber jazz” with their remarkable Blue Four sides. In 1930, they appeared with Whiteman in Universal’s The King of Jazz.
Despite his notorious penchant for practical jokes, Joe Venuti was an in-demand studio musician, working with Benny Goodman, Adrian Rollini, the Dorsey Brothers, Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Frank Signorelli, the Boswell Sisters, and others. But his hearty roughhouse demeanor was an insufficient buffer for the loss of his friend Eddie Lang, who died in 1933 of complications from a tonsillectomy.
Venuti continued to record and to lead bands through the 1930s. He led small combos with Dick McDonough or Frank Victor on guitar; the results were worthy but Lang was irreplaceable. In 1935, he formed and fronted a big band, writing most of the band’s arrangements. After folding the band in 1943, Venuti moved to Hollywood to work as a studio musician. Aside from his guest appearances on the Bing Crosby program, he was not notably heard outside the Los Angeles area.
After a 15-year career lull, Joe Venuti was “rediscovered” in the late 1960s. In 1967 he appeared at Dick Gibson’s Colorado Jazz Party. In 1968 he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. During the 1970s, Venuti toured extensively and recorded with names such as Earl Hines, George Barnes, Marian McPartland, Scott Hamilton, Leon Redbone, and, most notably, Zoot Sims. Venuti continued to tour and play for the rest of his life. Joe Venuti died in Seattle, Washington, on August 14, 1978.