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"Papa" John DeFrancesco, Philly patriarch of the Hammond B-3 organ, is dead at 83

Papa John DeFrancesco at The Nash in Phoenix, Ariz. on Feb. 9, 2015.
Michael Ruiz
Papa John DeFrancesco at The Nash in Phoenix, Ariz. on Feb. 9, 2015.

Organist and vocalist “Papa” John DeFrancesco, a beloved longtime presence on the Philadelphia jazz scene who sidelined his own career to support his son, the late organ master Joey DeFrancesco, died on June 25 in Maricopa, Arizona. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by his son, guitarist Johnny DeFrancesco, who did not provide a cause.

DeFrancesco, whose sobriquet places a fitting emphasis on his proud role as a family man, arrived on the thriving Philly organ scene in the late 1960s and enjoyed a busy career in local clubs despite working long hours for the Boeing aircraft company. When youngest son Joey emerged as an organ prodigy, releasing his debut album and touring with Miles Davis at 17, “Papa” John devoted himself to supporting the rising star. The elder DeFrancesco didn’t make his own recording debut as a leader until the release of Doodlin’ in 1993, when he was in his early 50s.

“Papa” John had been something of a prodigy himself. Born on Sept. 12, 1940 in Niagara Falls, New York, he picked up the trumpet at age 6 under the sway of Louis Armstrong and began gigging in local nightclubs at 13. His father, Joseph DeFrancesco, was a Sicilian-born saxophonist who had played with the Dorsey Brothers band (namesake Joey later added his grandfather’s tenor to his own arsenal of instruments).

DeFrancesco’s life changed in 1959 when he saw the legendary organist Jimmy Smith perform in Buffalo. “Man, them cats were dealin’!” he recalled in a 2020 interview with podcaster Joe Costello. He immediately began to switch his focus, with the help of a spinet organ gifted by his wife Laurene. “Little by little I left the horn. The B3 captured my soul.”

While music was his primary passion, DeFrancesco also maintained a lifelong love for cars and aircraft, and moved his family to the Philadelphia area in 1967 to take a job at Boeing. During the Vietnam war he would toil for 12-hour days servicing Chinook helicopters yet still played several nights a week in local clubs, fueled by the organ-centric Philly scene. Despite being a latecomer to the instrument, he quickly impressed the Chester vibraphonist Manny Campbell, who hired him after a jam session, and shared stages with local masters.

“He learned from that generation of bad-ass, funky dudes,” recalled Johnny DeFrancesco. “Jimmy Smith, Groove Holmes. He made the music feel so good; his groove was unbelievable. It was a blast to play with him.”

Over the course of his career, DeFrancesco played with greats like Cab Calloway, George Benson, David “Fathead” Newman and his organ heroes, including Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff. He ultimately released nine albums, most of which could have shared the title of 1998’s All in the Family, frequently featuring his sons as sidemen. (His first child, daughter Cheryle, played the alto saxophone as a child but didn’t share her brothers’ enthusiasm for the family business.)

The family feeling extended beyond the flesh and blood to the many younger musicians that DeFrancesco took under his wing. “He was a second father to me,” said drummer Byron Landham, who met “Papa” John as an 11-year old student at Settlement Music School. “I kind of mold myself after men like him and my father. They've always taken care of their family. They always taught you what was right and how a man should be. I still think about the lessons I learned from him.”

After leaving Boeing, DeFrancesco spent nearly 30 years as an electrical supervisor with Amtrak, moving to Arizona after retiring in 2005. He hosted a Sunday brunch gig at the Phoenix club Bobby C’s until the twin blows of COVID and Joey’s sudden, tragic death at 51 in 2022.

DeFrancesco’s music was rooted in the blues, yet what comes through most in his playing is the warmth and joyous spirit of his personality. He was a gregarious personality, and his exhilaration flows through his keys. The cover of his 2011 album A Philadelphia Story is a close-up of a cheesesteak. It’s the perfect depiction of his sound – meaty, greasy, filling, comforting, and iconically Philly.

“’Papa’ John didn't have all the flash and technique and harmony that Joey had,” said Landham, who played with both father and son. “But ‘Papa’ John gave you grits and gravy. It was gonna be meat and potatoes every time.”

“He was just a sweet dude, and his demeanor transferred through the music,” concluded his son Johnny. “A lot of guys can play amazing technical things, but my dad had that magic.”

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.