Ernie Santosuosso, 93; Globe critic for music from rock to jazz
Ernie Santosuosso sat in a hotel room with the Beatles in 1966, hours before the band’s final Boston performance, which he reviewed for the Globe from a perch next to “a set of ominous-looking speakers.” Given the proximity, he wrote, “I didn’t miss a note,” despite Beatlemania’s famous screaming fans.
As a Globe critic, Mr. Santosuosso ranged across popular music, interviewing the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Paul McCartney, but his heart was always in jazz, a realm where one assignment remained his most memorable.
“When will I learn never to ask Miles Davis what he’s going to play? After putting the question to him Tuesday night, I could tell by the familiar glower that I should have worn a shield,” Mr. Santosuosso wrote in 1972. “ ‘I don’t talk about my music,’ he rasped back. ‘I just want you to listen.’ . . . Not wanting to push my luck, I decided to listen first.” As for the trumpeter’s playing, he added: “In brief, the music of Miles Davis never bores.”
Mr. Santosuosso, who was long considered the dean of Boston jazz critics and who helped launch the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in 1966, died Monday in Southwood at Norwell Nursing Center. He was 93 and had lived in Braintree for many years.
Though he penned some 3,500 reviews and interviews for the Globe over the course of 31 years, he was a late bloomer as a writer. Hired initially as a copy editor, Mr. Santosuosso was 42 when a Globe arts editor asked him to conduct a post-concert dressing room interview with Johnny Mathis in 1965. Mr. Santosuosso described the singer as “a 29-year-old, 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pound will-o’-the-wisp who, only minutes earlier, had returned a conqueror over a packed opening night house.”
About a dozen years later, Mr. Santosuosso moved into writing about jazz nearly full time, easing away from pop music as punk rock flowered. But he began his critic duties during the British invasion and reviewed nearly every popular musician who played in Boston during rock music’s ascendancy in the 1960s and early 1970s. “If I had my druthers, and I do, I would ascribe to the Beatles, alone, the stamp of virtuosity in the field of rock ’n’ roll,” he wrote in 1965.
Younger writers whom Mr. Santosuosso inspired and mentored thought he possessed a virtuosity of his own. “He helped me write quickly. He set an example,” said Steve Morse, a former Globe pop music critic Mr. Santosuosso brought into the newspaper.
“He was one of the fastest deadline writers I’ve ever seen. His fingers would be a blur over the typewriter,” Morse said. “I would be wracking my brain and working up a terrific anxiety, and Ernie would kind of calm me down and say, ‘Don’t deliberate too much. Just write what you feel and get it out there.’ He was a true daily newspaperman.”
John S. Driscoll, who was managing editor and then editor of the Globe during part of Mr. Santosuosso’s tenure, said that “beyond music he was a very learned guy. He was a good man. He was always fun to be around, but you knew he was dependable and capable. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Former Globe managing editor Thomas Mulvoy recalled that “whenever the name Ernie Santosuosso came up in conversation inside and outside the Globe, the words ‘such a gentleman’ followed in very short order. Tucked behind his warm and engaging nature was a keen mind that, in his reporting and critical writings, centered on the essence of things, especially when it came to jazz in its many forms.”
The oldest of six siblings, Mr. Santosuosso was born at home in Dorchester. His father, Benjamin Santosuosso, was a cobbler and an Italian immigrant. His mother, the former Margaret Litto, was a meat wrapper whose parents were from Italy.
Mr. Santosuosso went to English High School and planned to become a French or Latin teacher when he went to Boston College. Instead, he joined the student newspaper, was editor by his senior year, and became a BC correspondent for the Boston Post. After graduating in 1943, he served in the Army and was stationed in the South Pacific, telling the college’s magazine in 1984 that he “wasn’t in any great danger. I think I tripped in the mess hall once.”
Returning home, he went to Boston College Law School, but found the experience so stressful that he walked out of a class his final year and never returned. He spent a decade working as a carpenter, tutoring students in French, Latin, and math, and writing for a community newspaper before the Globe hired him at the end of the 1950s as a part-time copy editor.
In 1963, he married Janet Flynn, who worked for New England Telephone and with whom he traveled often. Known for his whimsy on and off the page, Mr. Santosuosso wrote a 1976 travel piece about one of their trips in the Caribbean: “The vacation cruise has been described as an epicurean orgy in which copious amounts of food delicacies, round-the-clock revelry, and 57 varieties of Bingo are within comfortable reach of the passenger.” When his wife died in 2000, he fondly recalled her love of fashion and clothes, saying she held a “black belt” in shopping.
They did not have children and Mr. Santosuosso was a generous, attentive uncle. “Every Easter, he and his wife hosted a huge Easter egg hunt for the nieces and nephews, and then the grand-nieces and the grand-nephews,” said one of his nieces, Michele Callinan of Holbrook.
He also was a dedicated parishioner and usher at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Braintree. In retirement, Callinan said, “you would find him at not just one Mass on Sunday, but at multiple Masses.
Mr. Santosuosso leaves three siblings, Agnes Brown of North Quincy, Alfred of Braintree, and Therese Macdermott of Holbrook.
A funeral Mass will be said at 12:30 p.m. Friday in St. Francis of Assisi Church in Braintree.
Mr. Santosuosso’s conversations with musicians had an easy intimacy, even though he often was 20 or 30 years older than the rock stars he interviewed. In 1977, he spoke with Mick Jagger and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones and wrote that neither seemed “disturbed over advancing age or the tag of venerability they are destined to acquire.” The musicians were then in their early-30s. “I guess I’ll settle down when I’m a lot older,” Jagger told him.
Despite his preference for jazz, Mr. Santosuosso’s tastes were expansive. A 1978 list of albums he recommended as holiday gifts included work by musicians including Donna Summer, Billy Joel, Ella Fitzgerald, the Dexter Gordon Quartet, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, and Steely Dan. On another occasion, Mr. Santosuosso wrote that Judy Garland was the most exciting performer he had seen, “even on her worst nights.”
“Ernie always looked for the good in musicians,” recalled Morse, his former colleague. “He helped a lot of musicians and was more of an encouraging critic. Ernie saw the positive side of someone’s music. He was not cynical or jaded, and I think that was his best quality as a writer.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, the date of the Beatles’ final Boston performance was incorrect in Wednesday’s obituary of Globe music critic Ernie Santosuosso. The concert was in 1966.