Music industry dynamo Don Markese

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Music is everywhere in our lives, from commercial jingles, movie soundtracks, radio playlists and television programming to the melodies that waft through dining areas, offices, lobbies and elevators. But who exactly is creating all of that beautiful sound?

Beyond a relative handful of superstars, most of it comes from anonymous musicians known as sidemen: a misnomer that implies that they’re only minor contributors. In reality, sidemen are the heart and soul of the music industry, and you need look no further than Don Markese for proof of that.

A second-generation Italian American from Franklin Park, Markese traces his Italian roots to Potenza, whence his paternal grandparents came in 1900. Markese was a typical kid from the near western suburbs who still talks about the pizza at Armand’s in nearby Elmwood Park.

His musical journey began at age 8 when his older sister, Marie, put an alto saxophone in his hands. His grade school band didn’t need another saxophonist, so Markese was encouraged to also learn the clarinet. He played both instruments in high school and tested off the charts for musical aptitude. He went on to earn a B.A. in music education at Northern Illinois University, with teaching credentials for grades K-14. This gave Markese the option of earning a living in both music education and performance.

While teaching in junior college, Markese worked as many gigs as he could in the Chicago area to supplement his salary. His extraordinary talent attracted the best musicians and most promising musical projects, fueling a growing preference for performing over teaching. He knew, however, that he’d have to leave Chicago to pursue a career in performance.

Putting teaching on hold, he relocated to LA in 1977, where he and his tenor sax had a date with destiny. That date would have to wait, though, because of the incredibly competitive and cliquish West Coast music scene. Markese had much more to offer than most of the competition, but until he had the opportunity to prove it, his career was stalled. All he could do was practice, network and wait.

For six years, Markese struggled in LA, doing manual labor to survive. He even had to practice in a public park for lack of rehearsal space. Nonetheless, he never considered giving up. In 1983, his diligence and hard work began to pay off, and one of his first clients was none other than Neil Diamond.

Diamond had decided to use a horn section on his next album, and Markese got the gig on baritone and alto sax. His performance on that job launched a long-term relationship with Diamond that weaved throughout his career. At the same time, other opportunities were developing, and producers began to recognize Markese as much more than just a tenor sax player.

By then, Markese had mastered a wide assortment of wind instruments, from clarinets, flutes and saxophones to recorders, penny whistles and ethnic woodwinds from around the world. He became a one-man woodwind section. He could perform jazz, pop or classical styles with equal skill and authenticity, which is a rare talent. He could also write and arrange for woodwinds and other wind instruments, assemble musicians, and conduct entire studio horn sections, saving his clients time and money. Producers came to realize that Markese’s versatility was a real advantage to them, catapulting him to “first-call” status. And LA was a cornucopia of opportunity in the commercial, film, TV and pop recording industries. His move to the West Coast was finally paying off.

Markese has recorded well more than 100 commercial jingles for major advertisers like Visa, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Pepsi, Coke, AT&T, most of the major car companies … and the list goes on. In fact, you can hear him play his Irish penny whistles on Budweiser’s iconic Clydesdale Super Bowl spots. At one point, he had more than 50 commercials on the air simultaneously.

Markese also took advantage of LA’s massive pop music business. The woodwind specialist has recorded an astounding number of tracks for more than 75 different artists, including Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, Maroon 5, Roy Orbison and Frankie Valli, to name a few. He is featured on Engelbert Humperdinck’s rendition of “I Apologize,” which Markese later performed live with Englebert on a CBS TV special. He’s also a soloist on at least two of the many albums he recorded for Diamond, including “Cherry Cherry Christmas” and “Dreams.”

Between all this, Markese found time for live shows and short tours with 40 other notable artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow. He also played in the pit orchestras for “Les Miserables,” “Evita,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and other famous Broadway productions. Opportunity knocked again in 1993, when Diamond invited him to join his touring group, presenting Markese with a tough decision.

Touring with Diamond had the potential to put Markese on the road for up to 10 months a year, keeping him out of sight and mind with his LA studio contacts. Nonetheless, he took the gig and stayed with Diamond until the singer retired in 2018. While on the road, Markese kept up with most of his studio work through the use of remote digital recording technology.

Although he may have missed out on some movie work that required his physical presence, his accomplishments in film are most impressive. At last count, he has played on 60 major motion pictures, including “Star Wars,” “Mission Impossible,” “Spider Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “That Thing You Do,” “Look Who’s Talking,” “Bad Santa,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Karate Kid” and an array of Pixar hits. He has also recorded for at least 40 TV shows, including “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “Mad About You,” “Family Guy,” “King of the Hill,” “Clueless” and “Crime Story.” He even had a number of non-speaking roles as an actor in movies and on TV.

Markese has created some of his own music, as well. For example, he wrote, recorded and produced “Spirit Flows,” an album designed to inspire relaxation and introspection, and he collaborated on “File Under Kool,” a jazz album featuring Markese on multiple woodwinds that can be heard in rotation on Chirp Radio (107.1 FM) in Chicago.

Don Markese is not a household name, but it would be hard to find anyone in America who hasn’t heard and enjoyed his music. Although he is now semi-retired at his family farm in Wisconsin, he continues to produce music in his home studio. Don Markese, the kid from Franklin Park, may have been a sideman his entire life, but his body of work makes him nothing less than a superstar.

The above appears in the April 2023 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Robert Camastro

Robert Camastro was born and raised on Chicago’s West Side and spent his younger years as a professional musician. He was later employed for 19 years by United Airlines, where he worked his way up to directing planning and development for the airline’s worldwide call center and ticket off operations. After leaving United he became the founder, partner and operating manager of Virtual Agent Services — a call center handling reservations and customer service for 26 hotel brands. Throughout his business career, he continued performing music in Chicagoland. He is now retired but continues working as a studio musician and writer/reporter for Fra Noi. He divides his time between his homes in Florida; Illinois; and Umbria, Italy.

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  1. Not only is he a great talent but the man knows his pizza!! Armand’s rules. Seriously, have appreciated Don’s talent ever since he became a member of Neil’s “horn dogs”. Keep a goin’ Don!!

  2. Great article! Enjoyed it when Marie spoke about her brother. What musical talent you have Don, but you always are most gracious and friendly about it all. But pizza? We need to discuss.

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