WEST TAMPA — Strike up the band — it's Joe Guggino's birthday.
That would be the Tampa Community Band celebrating its oldest member — Guggino, who is 99 today and still playing clarinet con gusto.
"I look forward to it," says Guggino, who attributes his healthy tempo to weekly band practice.
Call it a mutual admiration society. Band members value Guggino as much as he thrives on their friendship.
"Joe has been an essential part of the band since we formed 21 years ago," says Ed Solomon, trombonist and band manager. "Best attendance record of anyone, I bet more than 1,000 rehearsals."
The band performs six free concerts a year, mostly pops and show tunes, at nursing homes and charity benefits. Kate Jackson Community Recreation Center in Hyde Park serves as a rehearsal hall. Through the years, more than 500 musicians have participated, mostly age 55 and up, looking to keep their skills sharp in a social setting.
Guggino loves to entertain bandmates at his home in West Tampa, some 10 blocks south of Main Street where he grew up.
"He serves ice cream and cantaloupe and flirts with all the girls,'' says his daughter, Rosann Garcia. "The camaraderie keeps him invigorated."
The life of the oldest son of Sicilian cigar worker immigrants would inspire a lively Italian opera. The music crescendoes with each drink his alcoholic father downed. Young Guggino helped out, bringing in a nickel for every newspaper he sold and riding on a laundry truck to pick up clothes. He won his first pair of long pants in a boxing match.
At age 9 or 10, his uncle Antonio Guggino taught him to play a clarinet. The old-world maestro instructed by the slap method — "a smack every time I made a mistake,'' Guggino said.
But the kid clarinetist persisted. Eventually his uncle let him play dances, picnics and parades with the West Tampa and the Ybor City bands.
He was too young, however, to play street concerts held to rally shoppers on Saturday evenings.
"My job was to collect from the merchants," he said.
He also gained admirers. His thick, wavy gray hair gives a clue that he cut a handsome figure in his band uniform.
"Girls would come after me," said Guggino, who remembers earning $8.25 a weekend.
Despite grades good enough to earn a scholarship to Jesuit High, he quit school after eighth grade.
"He would make the same decision today, to support his family,'' said Garcia, noting that Guggino's father died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 43.
"He left six kids and a funeral bill," said Guggino, "including a 4-month-old son."
Guggino learned the plumbing and painting trades from his godfather, and with his first big check, bought his mother a cow. "Then there was milk and cheese enough to share,'' he said.
The intermezzo comes in 1937, when he marries Giovannina, called Jennie. They bought the maestro's house on Spruce Street for $3,000 and reared two children, Garcia and ophthalmologist Giacomo ("Jack").
A job with Atlantic Coast Line railroad seemed like a ticket to a better future, but he injured his hand before he even started.
"I cut the tendon on a 1925 Model T coupe,'' he said. "Almost bled to death.''
So it was back to painting houses until he landed a job with Seaboard Air Line, later Seaboard Coast Line and now CSX Transportation. From 1934 to 1975, Guggino painted railroad signs, stations and company housing, refinished furniture and floors, from Naples to just south of Jacksonville.
His work was important enough to get his draft notice deferred.
"We worked 10-hour days, seven days a week during the war,'' he said.
Later, he would make time for the clarinet, joining Elks, Moose Lodge and American Legion bands. He became a Mason in order to join the Egypt Temple Shrine dance and marching bands. They entertained at parties, picnics and conventions, he said, easily recalling names and anecdotes of long ago.
The Gugginos were married 65 years when Jennie died in 2002.
Now, just a year shy of a century, Guggino keeps a steady beat.
"He had no childhood," says Garcia. "Music brought him friendships he was missing all those years."
Says Guggino, with his trademark candor: "If it wasn't for the band, I'd probably be dead."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.