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Charlestown's John Saint-Amour Gives the French Horn its Proper Respect

September 8, 2015

CATONSVILLE, MD (September 8, 2015) -- For decades John Saint-Amour played the French horn among a "Who's Who" list of legendary singers, musicians, and entertainers. Today he shares his talent with his friends and neighbors at Charlestown retirement community.

Nearly every day, the sound of the French horn fills John's apartment home where he practices for upcoming performances. A vibrant musical atmosphere was one of the things that attracted John to the community a little over a year ago.

"I love to perform, and the French horn is a rare enough instrument that you can't really perform alone," says John. "It's like eating a lot of sour cream; you get your fill pretty fast. One of the things I liked about Charlestown was all of the musical opportunities."

Not long after moving to Charlestown, John joined a group called the Charlestown Brass Plus One, an ensemble of two trumpets, a baritone, tuba, accordion, and John on the French horn.

He also teamed up with pianist Julia Hershfield and violinist Helen Roeder, both Charlestown residents, to form a trio. The three recently performed Beethoven's "Archduke Trio" for Charlestown's staff appreciation week.

A Cleveland, Ohio, native, John picked up the French horn for the first time at age 15.

"All of my classmates were choosing the trumpet or clarinet," says John. "The French horn wasn't my first pick, but the band leader told us if you pick the tuba, euphonium, or the French horn you wouldn't have to buy your own instrument. My family didn't have a lot of money, so I chose the French horn. I guess that's kind of a dumb reason, but I ended up loving it, and I've built my life around it."

John worked hard at learning the French horn and had become quite adept by his second year of high school. After graduation, he went to work at Reliance Electric Company winding armatures for battleship power conversion during World War II. He continued to play the French horn in his free time.

"My mother's boyfriend reluctantly bought me my first used horn for about $125. Good horns now start at about $12,000," says John.

John passed up his first big break in the music industry while working the nightshift at Reliance.

"I was dating a woman who went to see Frank Sinatra in concert," says John. "During the show they announced they were looking for a French horn player to travel with the band. I thought about auditioning but instead did the macho thing and said, 'I'll find my own job,'" says John.

But his luck didn't run out there. A musician friend with ties to up-and-coming Cleveland bandleader Ray Anthony got word that Ray's band was looking for a French horn player. It paid $100 a week.

"At the time I was only making $35 a week, so I jumped at the chance," says John.

John traveled the nation with the Ray Anthony Band playing the country's hottest venues at the time, including New York's Paramount Theater on Broadway, the Meadowbrook Club in Cedar Grove, N.J., and the Palladium in Hollywood, Calif.

"It was exciting! We traveled by bus across the country doing one-nighters," says John.

John later joined what is now the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra where he backed up Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti. Throughout his career, he accompanied Broadway stars such as Linda Eder of the Tony Award-winning musical Jekyll and Hyde, as well as the Smothers Brothers and Engelbert Humperdinck.

John recently got his second chance to accompany Sinatra while promoting "FrankFest: A Celebration of All Things Sinatra" in honor of Sinatra's 100th birthday this November at Charlestown. John produced a CD with Sinatra's voice accompanied by a jazz chorus and John on the French horn. It played during a commercial on the Charlestown's TV channel that promoted the event. In preparation, he spent weeks studying and practicing Sinatra's phrasing.

"There are nuances and subtleties in his songs that musicians always try to copy," says John. "Sinatra was a complex person who had his share of heartbreak. His ballads are lonely and sad, and he sings them from a place deep within his soul. They are exquisite."

In nearly eight decades, John's love for the French horn hasn't waned.

"I love performing anything that involves playing for the public. I'm the biggest show-off in the world," says John.

When asked if he has any regrets about not auditioning for Sinatra's band he says, "I never think of what might have been. I never look back."