S.J. Montalbano, a local legend in the music business and beloved character about town, died early Wednesday morning of heart failure at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. He was 84.
Montalbano’s many music achievements include producing Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” a national No. 1 hit in 1963. Inspired by duos of the era such as Paul & Paula, Montalbano paired Prairieville singer Grace Broussard with Mississippi native Dale Houston for the recording. Broussard and Houston followed their No. 1 debut with a Top 10 follow-up, 1964’s “Stop and Think It Over.”
A producer, record company owner and concert promoter from 1958 through the early 1970s, Montalbano also operated a recording studio and music publishing, management and booking companies.
Johnny Palazzotto, another longtime local music producer and promoter, called Montalbano "the godfather of the Baton Rouge music scene."
“S.J. was right there with Johnny Rivers, John Fred, Jimmy Clanton, G.G. Shin, Luther Kent, all the guys from the late 1950s and early ’60s,” Palazzotto said.
A teenager during the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, Montalbano loved to dance.
“I felt the music,” he said in 2018. “A lot of my friends were athletes who weren’t involved in the music like I was. I felt the soul of it.”
Montalbano was still in his teens when he felt called to the music business.
“To put it together, produce it, put it on the market for the public,” he said. “Just like a show. When you book a big concert, you’re putting it out there to see if the people will appreciate it the way you do.”
Montalbano’s daughter, Stephanie Crochet, said, “Music was a part of his life that brought him joy. And he was good at it. He never played an instrument and he couldn’t sing a note, but he had an ear for talent.”
After leaving the music business, Montalbano became a pioneer in the fresh-cut produce business, operating Bano Produce for nearly 30 years.
Returning to music in his late 60s, Montalbano co-hosted the popular Saturday afternoon radio show, “Jukebox Legends,” with his brother, Mickey, for nearly a decade at WBRH-FM and KBRH-AM.
“S.J. enjoyed being the emcee,” said Rob Payer, WBRH’s production and music director. “Many people in Baton Rouge grew up with S.J. through his Montel Records label, with Dale and Grace and John Fred, and his days as a concert promoter. S.J. loved this city and the city loved him right back.”
In 1958, Montalbano launched Montel Records with the help of Mickey Montalbano, his older brother by a decade.
“Mickey was my financier,” he said in 2001. “Daddy did not approve, so Mickey would say, ‘Here's some money. Go ahead and cut that record. Get you a hit.’”
Montalbano named three of his labels after his daughters Michelle, Stephanie and Debbie. In addition to the two Dale & Grace hits, he produced regional favorites by Baton Rouge band John Fred and the Playboys (“Shirley”), New Orleans’ James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (“Danny Boy”) and recordings by Van Broussard, Luther Kent, the Boogie Kings, Lee Tillman, the Greek Fountains and future soul star Joe Tex.
As a promoter, Montalbano presented concerts and nightclub performances featuring national stars Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Herman’s Hermits, the Who, James Brown, Ray Charles and Steppenwolf. He also presented New Orleans acts Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns and Ernie K-Doe.
In 2018, Montalbano and co-writer Sam Muffoletto published his memoir, “I’m Leaving It Up to Me.” They followed up the book with a two-CD collection of Montalbano productions, “You're Never Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: The Sam Montel Collection.” Montalbano staged a record release party at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, in the same gym where he’d presented hundreds of teen dances in the 1950s and ’60s.
In recent weeks, Montalbano discussed hosting a podcast along the lines of his “Jukebox Legends” radio show.
“Like John Fred Gourrier and Rockin’ Tabby Thomas, S.J. was an integral part of the Baton Rouge music scene,” WBRH’s Payer said. “I’m glad S.J. and Mickey are together again, emceeing concerts in rock ’n’ roll heaven.”
Montalbano is survived by his sister, Mary Margaret Bains, daughters Michelle Montalbano, Stephanie Crochet and Debbie Taylor, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.