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Here are a few stories and reminiscences connected with the Liberty shop. I know that there are plenty of musicians and others who have a memory they'd like to share. Please send them along.

From Floyd Scholz:
"Back around 1980, I remember one warm Saturday morning in spring, sitting in the front room of Liberty Banjo, looking at an Epiphone banjo hanging on the wall, and wondering how I could get up the $400 to buy it. A lot of people would show up on Saturdays to play or just hang out. I recall a young guy walking in the door, dressed in jeans and a plaid hunters type shirt. It was Bela Fleck on his way from New York to Boston to record with Tasty Licks. I recall it very clearly. You (Jim) were standing in back of the left showcase next to the wooden Indian and some of the other regulars sat around with instruments in their laps. Before long, Bela was playing along with the guys. I remember Paul Morrissey whispering to me under his whiskered breath, “Keep an eye on this kid. He’s gonna be one of the greats.” Paul was in a prophetic mood that day." 

Paul Morrissey (about):
One morning we were all busy at work when we heard a big bang from out front. A grouse must have gotten lost, and wound up hitting our front window and breaking its neck. Paul went out, picked it up, and for some reason crossed the street into Sorrento Importing, an Italian deli. We found out later that he had given it to the butcher over there, had him prepare it, and then took it home and cooked and ate it. It was at this time that we started warning customers to be careful not to bang the window on their way in.

In the beginning, Paul and Bob were very picky (no pun intended) about what music was played in the shop. I recall when even the Seldom Scene was taboo. In 1975, a banjoist named Kenny worked briefly in the shop, and his musical tastes strayed from the required listening list. One time, in a rare moment of musical unction, Paul let Kenny put on one of his own LPs (it was 1975). I think it was Newgrass Revival or a similar group. Paul was ok right off with the instrumentation, but then he noticed a drummer, made some comment, but with grace let the song continue. It was when a saxophone player took a solo that Paul lost it. He ran around the shipping bench and disappeared into the office. The next thing we heard was a needle screeching across a record, and then the sound of J.D. Crowe and his group playing "proper" music. For a long time, only hardcore bluegrass, old time, or Irish traditional music was heard in the shop, at least when Bob and/or Paul were there. Eventually, comedy records, Vaughn Monroe, and Spike Jones were allowed. Definitely a one of a kind place. 

From Kevin Nealon:
"I don't have any specific recollections per se -- I do remember coming in once and watching someone in the shop, a customer/friend sitting and playing "Nola" on a five string and how impressed I was. I have since learned the song myself. I also took a few trips with Paul Morrissey to Bluegrass Festivals, sleeping in his van and helping him sell Liberty Banjo parts during the festival. That was my first experience with Bluegrass Festivals."

From Dave Moretti:
Here are some of Dave’s words: (By the way, Henry was a local character who lived across the street from the shop. One of his claims to fame was selling the slogan “Be Happy, Go Luckies" to the American Tobacco Co. back in the 1920’s, at the age of eighteen). 

"In the beginning…there was Henry!
In a word?…unforgettable. That’s how I would describe my tenure at Liberty Banjo. As a young teen, roaming Main Street in Bridgeport, I happened to wander into a place that would make such an impact that I would carry the memories with me for a lifetime.

I remember the first day as if it was yesterday. (a great feat for me due to the fact I can’t even remember what I ate this morning!)

The storefront appeared like any other Main Street business, but when you walked through the door you immediately knew “you weren’t in Kansas anymore”…not that everyone was really short, just that there was something different about it. I was a novice guitar player with about a dozen Grand Funk songs under my belt so when I looked around, I knew this wasn’t your ordinary music store.

At Liberty, you were somehow transported into another dimension…much like Twilight Zone meets Mayberry. Months later I learned that Liberty had its’ own brand of Mayberry townspeople. Everyone who walked through the door had their own “quirky” characteristic to contribute to the overall atmosphere of the shop. Each felt compelled to visit Liberty…not to spend money, just spend time. This added to the charm of the store and, what I believe to be now, the primary reason for its’ success.

The store itself was divided up into two areas…the front had a “living room” feel to it whereas the back was a workshop. (It wouldn’t be long before I’d be allowed to see this work area and the “dungeon-like” basement below…complete with running water...down the stairs!) (note: Dave is referring to the original shop we stayed in for a year, across the street from the shop most people remember)

 The first person I encountered was a well-dressed elderly man who asked if he could help me. (I found out later that this man was Henry…just one of the many characters that would grace the doors of Liberty Banjo over the next few years.) I gave Henry the ol’, “just browsing” line, while I perused the instruments on the walls. After a while, I did leave the store…but not without deciding that I had to learn more about this place.

For next few months, I would strategically wander into Liberty Banjo from time to time to begin a relationship with everyone there. I managed to learn who were the principals and who weren’t. All were very friendly and willing to pass along any info regarding these instruments they called “banjos”.

The owners Bob Flesher and Paul Morrissey didn’t come across as your ordinary proprietors but more like two guys who really enjoyed what they did for a living...and enjoyed each others’ company. They were like night and day personality-wise but worked toward a common goal…to create the finest banjo on the market.

It wasn’t long before I got to know Jim DeCava. He was like another older brother. Jim had much patience for me as I look back. Anybody else would have chased me away within minutes. I think Jim sensed that I had an interest in woodworking and the type of craftsmanship that Liberty Banjo was known for.

One of the first times I remember being in the basement workshop, Jim asked if I would like to assist him in removing some frets from an old banjo neck…I jumped at the chance. I can still hear his words…”just take these two wood chisels and carefully pry the fret up from each side”…”make sure you don’t slip and cut your thumbs”. In a matter of seconds I personally demonstrated what NOT to do when removing frets. Needless to say, I got both thumbs...not bad for my first time. I remember bleeding and laughing at the same time. Thank goodness, for the next few years I did a lot less bleeding and a lot more laughing.

From this point on I was hooked! The next few years would be some of the best times one could have as a kid. Liberty made you feel special even with any shortcomings you brought with you…and believe me, the guys never let you forget those shortcomings either!"

John Harrick (about):
John said he was surprised we even thought enough of him even to put him on our website but he made quite an impression. Here are some of his doings as he told Jim:

The first time I met John Harrick was on a quiet afternoon. I was alone in the shop when I saw a ’66 Nova pull up in front. Out of it came a big man with long hair, a full beard, tattoos and a leather coat trimmed with studs. When I saw he was heading toward our door, I said to myself, “This should be interesting.” John walked in the door, pointed to an Aida 5-string banjo, and said, “I want that banjo right there.” I, of course, stepped aside and said, “Help yourself.”
With the birth of his first child, he felt that he needed to make some changes. One of the ways he did this was to get involved with bluegrass banjo. He bought that Aida, and over the years I have made him many necks for his pre-war banjos. One of the things that John remembers about Liberty is letting the very young Bela Fleck play his banjos before Bela had a good banjo of his own. John told me that what stands out most in his mind about being at Liberty is the education he received by just being there.

From Gary Filgate:

"I was just a young kid when I started hanging around Liberty. One Saturday afternoon I was sitting listening to whoever was playing that day, when I had my first encounter with John Harrick. John was playing a Mastertone banjo he had taken off of the wall. He knew that I played but was too shy to try out the banjo he was playing. He said, “You want to play this here banjo hey? ‘Cause if you don’t take it right now, I’m going to put it back on the wall and I won’t let you play it.” Of course, I had to take it and play. John didn’t leave me much choice. I got used to John’s subtle ways over the years, and after twenty years we still communicate."

Mark Horvath

Mark was the most enigmatic of all the people I remember from Liberty. He usually provided humor from the dark side, or the opposite end of the spectrum – slapstick. Mark, originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, was a mandolin and fiddle player. He and his friend, Jeff McHugh, an old time banjo player, would play old time and traditional Irish tunes. Mark would find a person’s weak spot and go after it. For example, we had a very macho UPS man who would pick up packages daily, and was not afraid to voice his opinion on anything he considered unmanly or effeminate. One day he made the mistake of making fun of Mark’s fiddle playing. Immediately Mark started playing, “I’m In the Mood for Love” on the violin, and walked up to the UPS man like a strolling musician in a restaurant. The guy’s face turned red, he grabbed the last few boxes and headed out the door to his truck. Mark of course followed him out of the door with his violin, still playing; “I’m In the Mood for Love”. I’ve never seen a UPS trucker move so fast. Mark was still with him outside of his door at the traffic light a half a block up.

Mark was definitely a night person. It was not unusual for him to be working on some project in the middle of the night. More than once, I had been shocked awake when opening the shop at eight o’clock in the morning, going down into the work area, turning on the lights and seeing a body lying across one of the benches. Of course this was only Mark getting some sleep after an all night carving or pearl inlaying session.

Paul Morrissey

(He wasn’t a funny man himself but he was a crucial part of the memories at Liberty, he was also a good victim)
One facet of life at Liberty involved lunchtime. There were a few places to go nearby, but most of us gravitated to Sorrento Importing, which was right across the street and for me was responsible for at least 20 pounds of overweight. As the name implies, Sorrento’s carried Italian foods of all sorts, and made incredible sandwiches, which of course we supplemented with cured olives, table cheese, roasted peppers, chips, and Italian pastries. One episode involving Sorrento’s stands out in my mind. One morning we were all busy at work when we heard a big bang from out front. A grouse must have gotten lost, and wound up hitting our front window and breaking its neck. Paul went out, picked it up, and for some reason crossed the street into Sorrento’s. We found out later that he had given it to the butcher over there, had him prepare it, and then took it home and cooked and ate it. It was at this time that we started warning customers to be careful not to bang the window on their way in.

Paul was known to love everything Irish. One day at lunchtime I stopped to get a beer to go with my imported cappacola, provolone, roasted peppers, vinegar and olive oil on a Portuguese roll (from Sorrento's, of course), and spied a pint of Bailey's Irish Cream, and thought Paul would really love a sip of that with his lunch. But I forgot how Paul was with anything he liked. He was the guy at a party with the bowl of shrimp between his legs, oblivious to everyone else, and the one who was never too shy to take the last two eclairs. So it went with the Irish Cream. He had a sandwich and a pint for lunch that day. Fifteen minutes later he came out of the office with a funny look on his face. "See you tomorrow, boys" was all he said. I instantly saw a way to get Paul out of the shop when necessary, but I never really tried it again. Bailey's is expensive.


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DeCava Banjos
Phone: 203-243-4036
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