Addiction thins ranks of top bassists

This Just In...

December 10, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

Baltimore's bass line sounds a little thin these days. Some notes seem to be missing from the deep lower registers of our best local music, and the reason, I'm afraid, is written in death notices. Two of the city's finest bass players of the past two decades died within the past three months. They were young, talented, and hooked.

Tony DeFontes, who played bass guitar with a lot of terrific bands in Baltimore - Mambo Combo, Gypsy Dawg, Cowboy Jazz, Patti Sullivan group - had just returned from a trip to Colorado when he died in his home in Roland Park in early September. He was 40 years old.

The original report of his death in The Sun listed "unknown causes," but the state medical examiner since has listed "narcotics intoxication" as the reason. DeFontes' friends say he had a long heroin addiction. "He was doing great the last few months of his life, but he fell off the wagon one last time and didn't get another chance," says his mandolin-playing friend, Marc Wexler.

The vast circle of DeFontes' pals staged a six-band memorial concert for him at Bohager's in October. They contributed the $2,600 in proceeds to Tuerk House, the addictions-treatment center in West Baltimore where DeFontes once spent time.

A few days before his death, Tony DeFontes had been to Colorado to visit a longtime friend, Paul "Weenie" Wheaton, another bassist, who was terribly sick from years of alcohol abuse.

Wheaton, a big man with puppy-dog eyes, played the upright bass for years with Swing Central in Baltimore. He left the band in January and went to Colorado to be near family, dry out and recuperate. His plan didn't work. He withered away and died of liver failure Oct. 6 in a Denver hospital. He was 41 years old.

Tonight at the Senator Theatre, Wheaton's friends will come together for a memorial concert. Though several of them had flown to Colorado to say their farewells in September and October, most in Wheaton's constellation haven't had a chance to mourn the "Weenie" they once knew, the joyful one who made them dance and made them laugh. That's what they'll do tonight - remember when it was good. Swing Central, led by Mark Cromer, the last of the original band members, will perform. So will Mambo Combo.

"It's a chance for us to heal," says Diane Wheaton, his wife of 11 years. "Paul had a full life, rich with friends. He made many, many people his brother. Lots of guys felt Paul was their very best friend. I Tony [DeFontes] was one. Years ago, when you met Paul, you met Tony. They were that close. There was an ocean of people at Tony's funeral in September. It frightened me, because I knew Paul was next."

Paul Wheaton had come to Baltimore in the early 1970s to study at the Peabody. That's when he met Cromer, a student of classical guitar. They hooked up with other musicians, and they experimented with different styles, starting with bluegrass and rockabilly. Both Wheaton and Cromer loved swing, the Mills Brothers, the sounds of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France, Louis Jordan and Stephane Grappelli. All that influenced them. Pretty soon, Paul was answering the phone, "Swing central," thus the name of the popular five-piece ensemble that played dance and dinner music at Baltimore-area events for two decades.

Wheaton and Cromer went where some of their peers, including Tony DeFontes, refused to go - to weddings, corporate parties, resort gigs, the kind of jobs that guaranteed them regular paydays. "We made music and a living," says Cromer. "You name the place, we probably played there." New Year's Eve parties at the Inner Harbor, black-tie fund-raisers, wedding receptions at country clubs - Swing Central played all over the region, weekend after weekend, for two decades. Any reader of this column might have felt Paul Wheaton's smooth bass line or heard his fine tenor somewhere along the way.

"He was good, and he never missed a gig," says Cromer.

"He always seemed so healthy," says his wife, Diane, over the kitchen table at her house near Memorial Stadium. "He had a lot of stamina. It wasn't until he tried to quit drinking that I saw how addicted Paul was."

It's considered an environmental hazard of the musician's life. If drugs aren't around, booze is. You play a gig, the bar's always open. It comes easy, and destroys people who, for whatever reason, don't confront their addictions. Paul Wheaton had been at it a long time, too. One his old instructors from Peabody days intimated to Wheaton's wife that he thought his talented former student had had a drinking problem even then.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.