Joe Iaquinto, Tom Semioli, Tony Senatore, Mark Polott at John’s Italian restaurant, New York City 2021
Joe Iaquinto: A Guy Like Me
In 2006, I spoke on the telephone with my friend John Conte, who is currently the bassist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. We discussed bass equipment and our never-ending quest for the ultimate tone. John was telling me about a non-Fender vintage bass he wanted to buy. He told me it was an excellent instrument for “guys like us.” He did not have to elaborate on the meaning of the phrase guys like us because I instinctively knew what he was talking about. Members of this group would probably regard the Acoustic 360 as the most outstanding bass amplifier of all time and have no problem explaining the difference between Gibson EBO, EB-1, EB2, or EB3 basses.
Moreover, it was likely that one of these basses is the instrument they currently play most often. Most importantly, group members likely started playing bass guitar in the 1970s, which they consider the most significant period for creativity regarding the electric bass. In many ways, being a member of the guys like us club was analogous to Henry Hill’s definition of being a good fella; “you’re going to like this guy Joe Iaquinto. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.” He plays an EBO-L through a Marshall Major. More practical individuals ponder the great mysteries of life.
On the other hand, guys like us are more concerned with things they deem more important, like what bass guitar and amplifier did Dee Murray use on Elton John’s 11-17-70 vinyl masterpiece. The guys like us club is an exclusive club along the lines of Yale’s Skull and Bones. To gain entrance, we might trace your bass history back 100 years. If you owned a bass that requires 9-volt batteries or owned a bass with a million knobs made out of fancy wood that looked like a coffee table, your hopes of admittance are slim to none. Finally, if your bass tone sounds like the theme music from Seinfeld, that is grounds for a sit-down with the heads of the five New York City Bass families with Don Semioli at the helm.
When Know Your Bass Player head honcho Tom Semioli permitted me to interview Joe Iaquinto; I took advantage of the opportunity to get to know Joe better. To the staff of KYBP and me, Joe is no stranger. When he is in New York City, he is always a guest of honor at the KYBP dinners that “Don” Semioli puts together. Often, there is not enough time to ask him the types of questions I want. I messaged Joe, and he agreed to a lengthy phone conversation. When it was over, I was amazed to learn that Joe was not only a genuine member of the guys like us club, but our life stories were incredibly similar. Whether in person at a Semioli-hosted dinner or during a Zoom call with KYBP stalwarts Joe Gagliardo and Mark Polott, Joe Iaquinto amuses us. He is extremely funny and makes us laugh, but to be clear, he is not funny like a clown. I think he could have a career as a stand-up comedian if he ever chose that career path. His humor is undoubtedly a by-product of his days observing comedians while performing with the Brooklyn-based band Hollywood during their 1976 stay at the Brickman Hotel in the Catskills.
Joe only had one private music instructor. Between 1971 and 1975, Joe studied bass guitar with a guitarist named Jack Leone. I find this intriguing, as I only had one instructor, primarily a jazz and classical guitarist. Joe was so proficient that by the time he was 13 years old, Leone was using Joe on his own gigs with The Noblemen. This was made possible via a pencil applied to Joe’s upper lip. Charlie Dere was Joe’s high school stage band director. Dere was a mentor to Joe and was the person that introduced him to the legendary bassist Jeff Ganz. This was another exciting revelation, as Mr. Ganz was also a great inspiration to me. He was a close friend of my father’s, and my dad held Jeff in the highest esteem as the type of consummate bassist I should seek to emulate.
Perhaps the most important commonality between Joe and me is that our parents did not expend tremendous energy to guide us on a career path. In Joe’s case, it was unavoidable. When Joe was 11, his mother and father passed away. My father was a professional musician who toured the world with Tito Puente and was quite involved with my development as a young musician. Unfortunately, my father dissuaded me from attending college when I was about to graduate high school. He told me that after graduating, I should get a job and start helping around the house. This contrasts with most of my friends whose parents urged them to apply to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Joe and I were on our own when it came to creating our destiny. We both agree that, unlike many of our peers, we already knew how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives, so we were blessed. Spending our days practicing and nights wielding a Gibson Ripper while plugged into an Ampeg SVT seemed much better than four more years of education. Besides, we both concluded that most of our heroes did not study music in college. We had no interest in getting into the double bass played arco or studying serial composition, or becoming the next Schoenberg. The only context in which the word serial meant anything to us concerned David Berkowitz, the serial killer whose reign of terror defined the 1970s and our neighborhoods.
Perhaps you have heard of a college student that never wants to leave school. Becoming a perpetual student is much more palatable than getting out into the real world as soon as possible and perhaps failing. Unlike these types, Joe and I had no interest in higher education and immersed ourselves in the NYC music scene. Jeff Ganz offered to take Joe under his wing and groom him for the Broadway scene. I had similar offers from NY bassists, most notably Paul Adamy, the primary bassist for Mama Mia, one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. It was essential to convey that while we appreciated the offer, Joe and I wanted to be a part of an original live band, and all of our efforts were on securing a major label record deal for the bands with which we were involved. In retrospect, this was shortsighted and the wrong plan for me, but as we all have learned, hindsight is 20-20.
While I remained tethered to the NYC area, Joe decided to try his luck in California. He left New York in 1978, returning only once in 1982. Ultimately, Joe spent from 1978 to 2017 on the West Coast. While there, he did a stunning array of singer/songwriter gigs and live performances with a who’s who of the music business: Earl Slick. Rita Coolidge, Stephen Bishop, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Patrick Simmons, Wayne Newton, Bobby Kimball.
Joe’s tenure as the bassist for Branscombe Richmond, the star of the well-known television series Renegade, is perhaps his most enduring musical relationship. Joe started with Branscombe in 1995 and is still the band’s bassist. Joe told me the band’s direction was country-inspired before he occupied the bass chair. Joe’s funky bass playing was the catalyst for a new direction for the band. Joe also confided in me that between 1985 and 1988, he made quite a bit of money doing the soundtracks for porn movies. The libertarian in me has no problem with that. I find it offensive that those who clamor about the dangers of big government seem to be preoccupied with what consenting adults do behind closed doors. I think Joe should have starred in some of the movies he created soundtracks for. I will save the political commentary for another time because Semioli likes to keep these conversations private and within the family. Perhaps head honcho Semioli is getting a little soft in his old age, with all this talking about SEO optimization this, algorithms that, and dumbing things down for a semi-literate audience. As philosopher Jimmy Conway once asserted, “what is this world coming to?”
Joe conveyed that having a five-string bass was mandatory for most of the work he did in California, and a Music Man Stingray was his primary bass guitar. These days when recording, Joe uses and endorses long-scale basses built by Pat Wilkins of Wilkins Guitars. He prefers short-scale basses in live performance situations; a 1970 EB3 and a Fender Mustang P/J reissue. Like many of my KYBP brethren, Joe has moved to light (40/95) strings. I am the sole holdout with my 55/110 flat wounds. The first reason is that I prefer the feeling and tone of heavy strings. The second reason is that Don Semioli always advocates using “manly” gauged strings. I don’t want Semioli to whack me, so I adhere to his wishes. Also, a 110-gauge E string can be a deadly weapon. Just ask Carlo Rizzi and Clemenza.
The most important part of my conversation with Joe was that by 1990, all of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll had wreaked havoc on his mental well-being. He was at an all-time low and decided to seek therapy. This wise decision enabled him to thrive as a musician ever since. He also agreed that after a lifetime of temporary day jobs, he could only be pleased if he was not a part of the 9 to 5 world. He credits his therapist for helping him realize this. He took a short time off, going out on what he refers to as stress leave, which was similar to disability. During this period, his bills were paid, which enabled him to focus on getting well.
Similarly, I am no stranger to how untreated or resilient mental issues can destroy lives. My sister had a traumatic experience at 16 that ruined her life. I would rather not publicize the event and relieve the pain, but it also affected me. In 1993, I had to raise my sister’s child with the help of my family when my sister was unable to do so because of her illness. When she passed in 2007, like Joe, I was at a crossroads in my life. During my career as a musician, I met some of the most unsavory and unethical people imaginable. They mistreated me, and I took it from them for fear of losing my gig. I was unhappy but felt that I did not need to seek therapy, as I instinctively knew what I had to do to reclaim my life. When one can do that, it is a blessing. I decided to retire from the music business in 2004 and get a government job. By 2008, my lack of a college education was the chip on my shoulder that I needed to deal with. It took time, but by 2017, I graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University at 55. The take-home message here is that if you are unhappy, you need to make the necessary changes in your life.
Most importantly, there is no one size fits all approach for success in life or mental well-being. You must do what is right for you, not for your friends or family. Telling individuals under extreme mental duress to “man up” is similarly unhelpful.
The final piece in the puzzle for Joe’s quest for happiness was his decision to play and teach music full time and relocate to Madison, Wisconsin, which the Iaquinto family did in 2017. Joe’s wife Kristine, to whom he’s been married since 1995, was born in Wisconsin, so it seemed like the right move, as they were both disillusioned with life in Los Angeles. As a young boy growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Joe was surrounded by some of the best food available anywhere. His favorites were places such as L&B Spumoni Gardens on 86th Street and Randazzo’s on Emmons Avenue. He also used to load up on littlenecks and cherrystones at Lundy’s, but now it is all over. There’s not as much action or good food in Madison as in Los Angeles or Sheepshead Bay. Larry Storch Boulevard has supplanted the Belt Parkway and US 101. I wondered if when Joe ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce the first time he had dinner in Madison, the waiter gave him a bottle of ketchup and egg noodles. I promised to ask him that the next time I spoke with him. One thing I know for sure is that he is not an average nobody living the rest of his life like a schnook.
How Joe’s life took shape was not only the best for him, but for Kristine and his sons Kevin and Jordan, who are 23 and 19, respectively. I can say the same thing regarding how my life ultimately took shape. We concluded our conversation that there is no musical artist alive today who could convince us to alter the lives we have both built for ourselves. We are both making music on our terms. We also spend a lot of time with our families because, as Don Semioli famously asserted over dinner at John’s of 12th Street, a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. For more information about Joe, please visit his website at
Now go home and get your shinebox!