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Family Over Fortune For The Musical Manzis, But Not Without Dreams

Getting ready for a rare appearance, the Manzi Family Band was in full rehearsal on a recent summer afternoon in a basement in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Seven members of the Manzi family practiced for hours, tuning and retuning their guitars, with harmonicas and percussion instruments nearby -- sometimes misplaced, and voices well warmed up.

Among the millennial generation, all sharing the Manzi last name, Ray is in college, Jake is a local musician, Angelo and Lucas are in business and Laura is a school speech pathologist.

One baby boomer is John, who works in the Springfield Public Schools finance department. He’s also fairly well known as a musician around the local bar and country club scene, playing sometimes with his nephews or one of his own kids.

Frank Manzi is John's slightly younger brother. He teaches construction and carpentry at Putnam High School in Springfield.

Both of them, without any intention early on, led their kids into playing music. And the brothers grew up, in Springfield's Forest Park neighborhood, hearing their parents sing songs brought with them from Italy, after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s.

Taking a break from rehearsal, Frank and John began to sing one of those songs -- in Italian, with no instruments. Their kids watched as the brothers forgot the words and everyone started to laugh.

Still, Laura was impressed.

"I don't think I ever heard just you two sing that!” she said. “It's always people screaming it at a family party!”

Laura is one John's five kids. Frank has three. It doesn't stop there; this is a large, close Italian family. And no one had a single explanation for how the Manzi Family Band came about.

"We have kind of a baseline of songs that we can choose," said Angelo, another of John's kids, who lives in Boston. Early on, he said, his father taught him and his siblings the same songs, and Frank did likewise with his kids.

"[It] made the family party jams a little more structured, because everybody kind of knew everything," he said.

In between bites of a sandwich, John said it's really a blessing to sing as a family.

"Since they're all pretty good, it's great," John said with a laugh. “Because we improvise a lot -- that's what I like. I don't know how Frank looks at it." 

Frank? Frank loves this scene. Everyone's here, along with platters of food and ice buckets with drinks. They're making music.

The Manzi Family Band in a Longmeadow, Massachusetts, basement.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
The Manzi Family Band in a Longmeadow, Massachusetts, basement.
Angelo, Lucas and Laura Manzi, rehearsing with their family.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
Angelo, Lucas and Laura Manzi, rehearsing with their family.

But earlier in his life, Frank had big dreams of a musical career, starting in seventh grade, when he met a couple of buddies who also played guitar. 

"Barry Kingston and Chris Kingston -- they were my friends and they're still my friends," Frank said.

They met and practiced a lot, all through high school. And after they graduated, they started playing in clubs.

"[We] bought a truck, bought equipment, and we were traveling up and down the Northeast playing music," Frank said.

They became The Breakdown in the mid '80s, popular at first locally. Then they were nominated for a Boston Music Award. They made an music video and got a contract to record with a big record label.

"We felt good about what we were doing," Frank said.

The Breakdown was about to go into the studio when a corporate merger put the project on hold. The band pretty much stopped playing together in the early '90s.

It was around the same time Frank met Susan. They married and started having kids. Frank worked for years in construction, and sometimes at Home Depot. All through this, when the kids were growing up, he wrote new music and played gigs -- sometimes with big artists.

Susan, who is not musical -- and who agreed with this -- was completely onboard, Frank said. But it wasn't easy.

A few years back, a local music writer said that in another era and maybe in another part of the country, Frank Manzi could have been a star by now. Frank said he has no regrets about the choices he made, though it's not that he can't imagine being a rock star.

In 2017, he and a bandmate from The Breakdown, Barry Kingston, opened up for Pat Benatar, the Queen of '80s Rock, at the Calvin Theater in Northampton. She was on a surprisingly acoustic tour. Frank’s music is more acoustic, too. It turns out everyone is mellowing. And at the same time, Frank’s kids got older.

"Maybe one day I'll go on the road and play my music. You know, I've seen guys do it at my age. I've been thinking about it," Frank said, and then he headed back down to the basement to practice for the weekend gig.

The Manzi family will likely perform some of the songs they recorded on an album a couple of years ago called Sunday Dinner. That's what it felt like at Frank's home, getting ready for a big Saturday night.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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