At 74, radio legend Ron Della Chiesa doing it his way
HULL — Many people know Ron Della Chiesa. He’s a smooth-talking, charismatic guy and a very familiar face in Hull, where he hangs out with a bunch of pals who call themselves “The Nantasket Rat Pack.”
But even more people recognize Della Chiesa’s deep, perfectly pitched voice from WGBH, where he is the official announcer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, and his two radio shows, “Strictly Sinatra” and “MusicAmerica,” both of which air on Plymouth’s WPLM-FM (99.1).
After more than half a century of working in radio, the 74-year-old broadcasting icon is still as busy as ever. When he’s not on the air, he can be found hosting Frank Sinatra tribute dance parties and promoting his memoir, “Radio My Way,” which features memories of his childhood growing up in Quincy and highlights from his career, including his encounters and friendships with celebrities like Dizzy Gillespie, Luciano Pavarotti, and Tony Bennett.
Della Chiesa will be signing copies of his book at his next Sinatra party, which takes place Friday night at Raffael’s in the South Shore Country Club in Hingham.
“It’s an opportunity for me to get together with people, dance, and have a good time with this music,” he said. “There are so few places where people can dance and enjoy this music these days.”
Della Chiesa’s book reveals his deep ties to the South Shore. Born in Quincy in 1938, his family lived on High Street and his grandfather worked in the quarries. His father taught art and mechanical drawing at Braintree High School.
As a boy, Della Chiesa listened to opera, classical music, and jazz, and he recalls playing his father’s 78-RPM records on a cherrywood Victrola in their home.
“I was always fascinated with radio as a youngster,” recalled Della Chiesa, who once built a makeshift radio studio in his childhood bedroom in Quincy, complete with a turntable and a microphone crafted out of cardboard.
Della Chiesa made his radio debut on Quincy’s first radio station, WJDA, when he was just 10, doing a guest spot on a children’s program. When the aspiring broadcaster asked the station manager to listen to his demo tape, he was told he wasn’t ready for radio because he had a “diction problem.” Like most area natives, Della Chiesa didn’t pronounce his R’s.
Della Chiesa recounted that experience in his memoir: “I sat down and made a list of all the problem words I could think of. All the poor, helpless words I was flattening and murdering with my accent: cahh, bah, latah, nevah, ovah, dahk. The list grew daily, and daily I repeated the words over and over until I had officially welcomed the letter ‘R’ into my life.”
After graduating from Quincy High School in 1955, Della Chiesa went on to earn his college degree at Boston University in 1959. He landed his first big radio gig at WBOS, and took night shifts at the station and then worked 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Quincy shipyard. In 1960 he became program director at WBCN, which was a classical radio station at the time (the call letters stood for Boston Concert Network).
He joined WGBH in 1967, and first worked as a part-time news and promotional announcer for Channel 2, and then later as the host of two classical music programs on WGBH-FM (89.7). He became the voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1991.
Today, Della Chiesa splits his time between his home in Dorchester and his condo in Hull. On a recent Monday afternoon, he was at his usual spot on the beach, leaning against the rail across from Barefoot Bob’s, a popular beachfront bar and grill on Nantasket Avenue. Seated beside him was his wife, Joyce. His platinum hair was blowing in the wind as he chatted with Joyce and nodded and waved to several beachgoers strolling along the sidewalk. In the distance, surfers caught rides on curling waves in the vast ocean behind him. He was wearing dark-rimmed glasses, white pants, sandals, and a jet-black Sinatra T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I do it my way.”
Sinatra is the focal point of one of Della Chiesa’s shows on WPLM: “Strictly Sinatra” airs on Sundays from 7 p.m. to midnight, followed by “MusicAmerica” from midnight to 2 a.m. He describes “MusicAmerica” as “a real blend of music” featuring selections from the Great American Songbook and a wide range of artists, from Harry Connick Jr. to Louis Armstrong.
Paul Schlosberg, his executive producer, says Della Chiesa fills a niche.
“Nobody’s playing the music he’s playing on terrestrial regular radio in Boston. He’s the one keeping the music alive,” said Schlosberg.
Which is another reason why Della Chiesa is looking forward to the upcoming Sinatra party: He gets to not only hear the songs but also see timeless music brought to life on the dance floor.
“It’s nice because I have a chance to meet my audience,” he said. “In radio, you never really see your audience.”
Della Chiesa’s “Summer Wind Sinatra Tribute Dance Party” will feature Rico Barr and the Jump n’ Jive Review with special guest vocalist LuAnn Dutra. Doors open at 7 p.m. at Raffael’s in the South Shore Country Club, 274 South St. in Hingham.
Tickets are $35. For more information, visit www.musicnotnoise.com. For reservations, call 617-633-5100 or 617-389-8787, or e-mail Listen@MusicNotNoise.com.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.