Violinist Ruggiero Ricci held the audience spellbound when he debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in 1932, a "wunderkind" of classical music with marvelous showmanship and beautiful tone. He was all of 13.

What he accomplished in the ensuing decades is perhaps even more impressive: He made the rare leap from child prodigy to serious artist. He was regarded as one of the greatest violin virtuosos of his generation.

Ricci, 94, died of heart failure Aug. 6 at his Palm Springs home, said Shelley Bovyer, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who regards Ricci as her finest teacher.

"He was a masterful technician on the violin," Brian Lauritzen, a producer and host at KUSC-FM (91.5), told The Times. "He could play anything. But he also had a lyrical expression that made his violin sing."

Some observers called Ricci "the Paganini of the 20th century" for his devotion to early 19th century compositions by Niccolo Paganini.

"He made the Paganini Caprices for Solo Violin — works that are little more than violin fireworks — interesting music. He owned those pieces," Lauritzen said, and "showed us it was possible to make substance from style."

The violinist was the first to record the Caprices in their original version, according to the "New Grove Dictionary of American Music."

Because of Ricci, the Caprices have an important place in the violin repertory, Lauritzen said.

Ricci always credited the years he spent as an "entertainment specialist" in the Army Air Forces during World War II with sparking his interest in solo violin repertoire because he usually had to perform without accompaniment.

He "remains a master of the bold outburst, the sentimental indulgence and the pyrotechnical flight," critic Martin Bernheimer wrote of his 1987 performance of Tchaikovsky with the Pacific Symphony.

Ricci's repertoire included about 50 major violin concertos. By his own account, he had given more than 5,000 concerts in 65 countries after first touring Europe in 1932. He gave his final U.S. performance at the Smithsonian Institution in 2003, the year he turned 85.

Prodigies were big business when 11-year-old Ricci made his New York debut in 1929 wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Ricci's Italian-immigrant father was determined that one of his seven children would be a prodigy, Ricci later said.

"It was immediately apparent that the boy had something to say," reported the New York Times account of his performance, "that he was playing with a native fire.... It was the playing of one born to play the instrument."

Two siblings also became professional musicians. Ricci's sister Emma played the violin in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and his brother George, who died in 2010, was a noted cellist.

Ricci was born July 24, 1918, in the San Francisco area into a poor family and named Woodrow Wilson Rich.

When young Woodrow's talent became apparent, he was given the stage name of Ruggiero Ricci to make him sound the part. His friends called him Roger.

From age 6, according to Ricci's official biography, he studied with Louis Persinger, a noted teacher who had experience with violin prodigies — Yehudi Menuhin was also a student.

At 10, Ricci gave his first public recital in 1928 in San Francisco playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. He was hailed as a genius.

"I was not a normal child, anyway," Ricci told the Washington Post in 1979. "The only way I could get attention was to show off, and I liked it."

At 12, he was at the center of a custody battle between his parents and Beth Lackey, a Persinger assistant who was serving as the legal guardian of Ricci and his brother, George. After a court battle, his parents regained custody.

Touring Europe as a teenager was lonely, Ricci later said. Tougher still was the criticism he began to receive.

"In my teens, I was nothing," he said in a 2007 interview with Violinist.com. "I wasn't a grown-up artist, and I wasn't a prodigy."

Yet at 15, Ricci decided to make the violin his life's career, certain he could improve on his 10-year-old self, he later said.

Mentoring the next generation of violinists was important to Ricci, Lauritzen said.

Ricci held posts at Indiana University, the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan, among other schools. He also taught at a conservatory in Salzburg, Austria, gave master classes and wrote two texts on left-hand technique.

He continued to give private lessons into his 90s, teaching his students to savor their individualities, to take chances just as he had.

Ricci's survivors include his wife of 37 years, Julia; his children from two previous marriages that ended in divorce, sons Gian-Franco and Roger, daughters Riana Muller and Paolo Hopp; and several grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com