Rick Porrello has built his life around crime.
Porrello is author of To Kill the Irishman – on which the movie Kill the Irishman is based. It’s his second book about organized crime, and he’s working on a couple others. He has a website at AmericanMafia.com.
By day, he is the mild-mannered chief of police in Lyndhurst. If you ask him for the source of his fascination with the mob and organized crime, he’ll tell you that his grandfather and three uncles were Mob leaders who were killed during Prohibition – and that his first book grew out of research into their history.
But I don’t think you can really know Rick until you’ve heard him play the drums.
Rick graduated from Heights High in 1980 – same year I did. He lived right across the street from the school parking lot, in a house on Washington Boulevard. We were friends, but not the kind that hung out together beyond practices for the Heights Jazz Ensemble.
Even today, the Jazz Ensemble has a strong reputation, but I can tell you that it’s built on the sound of the band in the late ’70s. At least one member of every section in the group from that period (1977-1980) is a jazz pro now – among them Joe Miller (trumpet), Cecilia Smith (mallets), Mike Lee (tenor sax) and Joe Hunter (piano).
Ricky, as we all knew Porrello back then, may have been the best of them all. At 16, he did more than set the tempo and keep the beat. He could swing, and like any great drummer his sound was our blood; it gave the band life. When he had a good day, we were great; when he had a bad day … well, everyone has them, but if Rick ever did, it wasn’t when I was around. He played like he had a couple extra arms and legs; with the intricacy and nuance of not just a drum set, but an entire orchestra.
He was a good-looking kid, slightly built with big curly locks and a warm smile that came easily. In the melting pot of Cleveland Heights, you never wondered about his ethnicity. Ricky was all Italian. For a brief time, Band Director Jim Bane started calling him Meatball. As a nickname, it fit well enough with Rick’s heritage and his easygoing, goofy sense of humor that it could have stuck. But Rick didn’t like it and most everybody respected that.
Except me. It was such a great nickname that I figured he’d eventually warm up to it if he just heard it often enough. He didn’t. He asked me politely to stop, and when that didn’t work he started calling me Matzoh Ball in response. If anyone else had heard that, both names would have stuck; we would have been forever linked with appropriately ethnic epicurean epithets. So I dropped the Meatball bit.
It was in the fall of our sophomore year that mobster Danny Greene was blown up. The event struck me as fascinating, and it obviously had a bigger impact on Rick.
Throughout high school, Rick talked about wanting to go into law enforcement, which struck me as ridiculous, as anyone who heard him play would know as well as I that he could, should, would become a professional jazz drummer. It ran in his family; Rick’s older brother Ray was a drummer too – playing for most of a decade in Sammy Davis Jr.’s band.
Late in our senior year, news came in that Ray had been in a car accident – injured severely enough that he needed to stop touring to recuperate. Whoever was in charge of managing the band for Sammy Davis Jr. asked Ray if he had any suggestions for a replacement.
Ray replied something like this: “My kid brother is about to graduate from high school and doesn’t have any plans. You might ask him.”
Which is how, at the age of 18, when the rest of us were deciding what college meal plan to take, Rick Porrello began a three-year tour around the world with the Candy Man.
I lost track of Rick until I moved back to Cleveland in 1990. By then, he had quit touring, gone to school for law enforcement and was working as a suburban police officer. I bumped into him occasionally – and still do – at weddings and such. I’m a guest, he’s the drummer – often in a small combo with one or two others from the old high school jazz band.