Joe Fertitta sat on the brick steps of his Cape Cod style home in Catonsville last Thursday, dancing his fingers across the keyboard of his accordion to play his favorite Italian tune, "Flight of the Angels."
It's a sound unlike most popular music heard today.
"We're trying to bring this accordion back alive again, for the young people to learn to play," Fertitta, 82, said.
The instrument reached its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, but has made a comeback through indie and folk rock bands like Beirut, Arcade Fire and The Decemberists.
When the rock 'n' roll era hit, accordions fell out of style because the music was at such a high volume that accordions couldn't be heard, said Duffy Llama, 53, a member of the Maryland Accordion Club and a friend of Fertitta.
"Before the Beatles, there were a lot of renowned accordion players," Fertitta said.
Fertitta has been playing the accordion for nearly 65 years, having first picked up the instrument at the age of 17 when a high school friend introduced him to the reed instrument.
"I listened to him here one day in Catonsville," recalled the Mount Saint Joseph High School graduate.
Eventually, he was able to coordinate movement of the bellows with the keyboard and bass buttons, and play waltz songs, he said. Now he knows how to play about 150, he said.
"I can make this do everything — it's a band in a box. That's what these things are all about," Fertitta said, cradling the heavy instrument, which has 6,000 different parts.
The instruments weigh 12 to 45 pounds, depending on how many reeds they have, Fertitta said.
"You can take it anywhere with you," he said.
Unlike many of his generation, Fertitta is self-taught.
"He's a fine musician, he really is," Llama said. "He has a wealth of knowledge."
Since his teenage years, his hobby has grown— he now has a collection of 10 accordions and often performs at nursing homes and events across the state.
After retiring from a maintenance position with the U.S. Postal Service in 2003, Fertitta began repairing and selling his favorite instrument in his home, where figurines of accordion players are displayed on a white bookshelf in the entrance.
That same year, he established the Maryland Accordion Club. Fertitta is president of the club, which meets the second Saturday of each month from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Bloomsbury Community Center in Catonsville.
The club has about 65 members from across the state. "They can play all kinds of music — even rock," Fertitta said.
About 12 to 15 members march in the Catonsville 4th of July Parade each year, raising awareness of what the instrument, invented in Europe in the 1800s as a type of portable organ, can do.
When the club first began, it had 100 members, Fertitta said. But membership is shrinking as members die, retire or move away.
Llama said part of the reason why accordions haven't become popular again is that they're expensive instruments — ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
Although they look complicated to play, they're not, Llama said.
"In my opinion, an instrument is an instrument," Llama said. "Once you get the basics down, it's really easy to play."
Marie Fertitta, 72, said she met her husband after he often played accordion for her at family gatherings, and the music has long been part of their married lives.
"It's a lot of fun — I love hearing him," said Marie, who is also a member of the accordion club. "Our daughters grew up listening to him play."
The couple passed their passion for music to their two daughters and seven grandchildren who play instruments including the piano and guitar.
Asked her favorite accordion song, Marie, who likes to sing, paused to hum along as Fertitta played "Mona Lisa" in the other room.
"It's hard to say because I like them all," she said.
Whenever the couple travels to Italy, Fertitta always brings his accordion, Marie said.
"I swear I think he would leave me home before he left it home," she said.
The accordion is the third most important thing in his life — behind God, and his family, her husband said.
Both he and Llama say performing with their accordion before a crowd is the most satisfying part of playing the instrument.
"Whenever I play, kids come up and stare at it and ask questions," Llama said. "So they're interested in it."
"You make people happy when you play," Fertitta said. "It keeps them out of their blues of the world's problems."
For information about the Maryland Accordion Club, go to: catonsvillerec.com/maryland-accordion-club.