Charles Almeida played his first note on a musical instrument more than eight decades ago and today, at 96, he’s still setting toes tapping while performing with a local band.
In his apartment at The Palms at Ponte Vedra, he is surrounded by treasures of a rich lifetime. There are photos of loved ones, a unique American Indian staff carved for him as a gift, a cartoon caricature celebrating his many talents, a pair of speakers he bought while serving with the military in Korea and, of course, an assortment of woodwinds.
Most of his musical career was spent with a variety of military bands, but he also played for touring Broadway shows, various combos and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. During his career, he performed with some of music’s top talent.
Technically a “woodwind doubler,” capable of playing multiple instruments in the same performance, Almeida’s musical career began in his youth with a desire to play the saxophone.
Entering junior high school in Providence, Rhode Island, he was tested to determine if he had an ear for music. His teacher told his parents that the school would offer free music lessons if they provided the instrument. They were offered a choice: saxophone for $150 or clarinet for $50.
When the music store salesman told Almeida’s mother that 90% of what he learned on clarinet would translate to saxophone, the decision was made. And his senior year, his father bought him the saxophone he wanted.
Almeida’s first gig was at a local dance club. His pay of $4 for working three-and-a-half hours on a Saturday night impressed his father, who told him to use his earnings to pay for his ongoing lessons.
By the time he was 20, Almeida began working at the local music store and was playing at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet as part of a 17-piece band three nights a week. He was doing well enough to buy a 1948 Studebaker Champion.
But it looked as though he was about to be drafted, so on the advice of a friend he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, where he joined the reserve band.
“I thought: This is a pretty good gig,” he said.
But, the war being over, President Harry Truman declared a reduction in force. The draft took a holiday. And Almeida took to the road.
On the road
At first, he went to Kentucky and joined a five-piece band from Chicago. But he found the lifestyle disagreeable.
“As soon as I could find another job, I was out of there,” he said.
He joined a number of bands after that, the first of which brought him to Jacksonville.
“I came to Florida the first time in 1948,” he said. “I worked a club out on Route 1 called Joe Williams’ Peacock Club. I remember it, because it was the first really big nightclub I ever worked in.”
While in the Sunshine State, he discovered two cherished pastimes: diving and skiing. In fact, he quit a successful band so to return to Key West to pursue those interests. While there, he joined a local trio, which played at the Bamboo Room Cocktail Lounge and then, after hours, at a gambling joint.
On Key West, he also discovered another great passion: spear fishing. In fact, his fishing success was documented with a photo in the February 1952 issue of Popular Science depicting Almeida and his group with a 1,160-pound hammerhead shark they caught.
Meanwhile, the risk of the draft came around again in 1951 during the Korean War. One night at the Bamboo Room, he spoke to some members of the U.S. Navy about enlisting there so that he could attend the Navy School of Music.
But they dissuaded him, suggesting instead the Air Force band.
So, in 1952 he enlisted and was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for basic training. There, he auditioned for the band and was signed up for the basic bandsman indoctrination course.
That’s when some life-changing advice he’d received a few years earlier proved its worth. A musician from whom he’d been taking lessons said, “If you ever have to go in the service, don’t tell them you play saxophone or clarinet. Tell them you play flute. They’re always short flute players.”
While at Lackland, Almeida was instructed to go to Washington, D.C., for the 12-week advanced instrumentalist course at Bolling Air Force base. Technically, he didn’t qualify; he had too few years in the Air Force and was short the required rank.
But, as it turned out, they needed a flute player.
“That changed my whole life,” Almeida said. “I got sent to Washington, D.C., right out of basic training.”
Brushes with greatness
Because he could play tenor sax, he was transferred to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland to play in the dance band. He was encouraged to take up the piccolo, and thus was able to play in the concert band as well.
“The first gig I played with these guys, this trombone player sitting behind me — man, he could play!” Almeida recalled. “The first break, I turned around and said, ‘Man, I love your playing!’”
That trombone player turned out to be Sammy Nestico, who would go on to work with Count Basie, Phil Collins, Barbra Streisand, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and many more big names. He also went on to a long career in film and TV, serving as the orchestrator for “Mission: Impossible,” “Mannix,” “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie’s Angels” and more. He was orchestrator and arranger for “The Color Purple.”
“That’s how I met Sammy Nestico,” said Almeida. “We became fast friends.”
While at Andrews, he also befriended a young band member named Tommy Newsom. In the years ahead, Newsom would go on to work with Kenny Rogers, Charlie Byrd, John Denver and more. He would be a member of the Tonight Show Band during Johnny Carson’s years, as well as the orchestra for “The Merv Griffin Show.”
But in 1953, Almeida and Newsom were in the Air Force and were more or less pressed into performing for the band at Bolling, Almeida because — in a repeat of the flute episode — he happened to play piccolo.
In 1955, Almeida got out of the service and returned to Key West, diving, skiing and attending college on the G.I. Bill. He also continued to play. But civilian life wouldn’t last long. In February 1956 he re-enlisted with the hopes of attending warrant officer school. That didn’t pan out due to a change in how ranks were assigned, but Almeida continued to perform.
He left the Air Force in 1962 but then enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly thereafter. For a time, he played with the NORAD band.
He got his first taste of Broadway musicals while serving at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. A local theater group needed musicians for a performance of “Music Man” at the post.
In 1972, after leaving the military, Almeida began to play for traveling Broadway shows, something he was suited for as a woodwind doubler. Toward that end, he took up another instrument, the oboe.
In Washington, D.C., he performed at the National Theater, the Kennedy Center and more. In Baltimore, he performed at the Lyric Theater, the Mechanic Theatre and more.
“And we did several pre-Broadway runs,” he said. “Those were fun. We did a pre-Broadway run for ‘A Chorus Line.’ That was a hard show.”
From 1973 to 1987, he also played for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“Every time the circus came, I played the circus,” he said.
In 1981, he was selected to play a brief soprano sax solo in the Baltimore Symphony’s recording of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
In 1983, Almeida and his wife relocated to Florida, where he continued to perform for the circus.
These days, Almeida continues to perform at a local sports bar, where patrons may not realize they are listening to a musical legend.