About The Artist
He was born Michael J. Pelillo but was known to fans as "Duke" and led his troupe the Swingbillies. "Duke" was born to his parents Domenico and Rosa (Festa) Pelillo in Graniteville, Vermont. His father was from Italy. The parents were living in Graniteville at the time and Duke's birth record indicates his dad was a quarryman.
The 1930 census records indicate the family had moved to Concord, New Hampshire. His siblings included Francis, Secelia, Rocco, James and Margaret. He was the fourth oldest.
Old newspaper archives show that Duke and his Swingbillies were being heard daily at 11:15am over WHEB in Portsmouth,New Hampshire for a 15-minute broadcast in 1939. Later in 1940, the show appeared to have expanded to a 25 minute show judging by the new start time of 11:05am.
There was an occasional article mentioning the band's personal apperances around the areas. One occasion was in May of 1941 mentioning a show at Kittery. Another four line 'notice' advertised an appearance in Rye on November 22, 1941. Ticket prices were 40cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
On January 29, 1942, Michael took the former Charlotte Louise Mossey (daughter of Perley and Florence Katherine (Stewart) Mossey as his wife in Concord, New Hampshire. His wife was born in Littleton, New Hampshire. Her father was an electrician.
Records show that Michael Pelillo enlisted in the US Army on December 2, 1942.
Many of his band served in World War II. Columnist Richard H. Keeler kept fans up to date on the activities of the band in his "News From Old New England" column. In September 1944, readers were told that Duke and the Swingbillies were all involved in World War II. Duke was a staff sergeant based in Fort Dix in New Jersey. "Tex" was a Military Police corporal in Texas. Texy was with the Army Communications unit in Louisiana. Peggy and Ann, the group's cowgirl singers and Bashful (accordion player) were working in a plant in Concord, New Hampshire. Hezzie, the comedy fiddle player was working at an airplane plant in Poughkeepsie, New York. Occasionally the group would come together to entertain folks when they could, but were busy in the war time efforts.
Mr. Keeler wrote that he had received a letter from Duke dated January 1, 1945. He had sent him a variety of stamps and foreign currency from the places he had been and was "...somewhere in Germany". The local newspaper had been sending them copies daily for about four months, but Duke indicated they had not caught up with him yet.
In late 1944, Duke was stationed in France. Three members, Bashful (accordion) and female vocalists Peggy and Ann, while working with defense contractors during the day, kept busy playing for Granges and "...more than half of the New Hampshire fairs, including Hopkinton, Plymouth and Pittsfield fairs. "Dusty", the bass player was based in Texas. "Texy" (guitarist) was with the Army and based on Camp San Luis Obispo, California.
Columnist Richard H. Keeler wrote that S/Sgt. Michael J. Pelillo was a cook with the 9th Army in Germany. He had written his mother on V-E Day and told her he was glad the fighting was over. Another band member guitarist "Texy" arrived in Germany about two weeks prior to V-E Day. "Dusty", who played bass, was an MP guarding prisoners of war in Hereford, Texas. "Bashful", accordion player along with Peggy and Ann were still trying to entertain folks when they could and were working in defense plants in Concord.
Michael Pelillo was released from the US Army on October 18, 1945.
Dusty Cal Witham told readers of his "What's New .. in Old New England" in his May 1946 column that the group had a daily show at 12:45pm over WMUR (610 on the am dial). They were replacing "Charlie and Mary" who were moving back to Kentucky to entertain audiences. July 1946 column that Duke and his gang had a 2:00pm daily show over WMUR (610 on the am dial) in Manchester.
Mr. Keeler told readers in his September 1946 column that the group inluded Rocco, ace accordionist, Speedy Parent, New England champion fast fiddler, Happy on bass and comedian, Little Ralph Lucier, pint sized boy yodeler and "Sis" Hawkins was said to "...rube comedy and dancing, one of the cleverest young entertainers in the east. Rusty Wellington had left Duke's band was was working with Pappy Howard over WJW in Cleveland, Ohio. With Rusty was his wife, Ginger Shannon, known as a "fast girl yodeler" formerly with the Downhomers on WTIC in Hartford, Connecticut. Later, Mr. Keeler mentioned that "Sis" stole the show everywhere the band appeared during the summer with her routines.
In October of 1946, we were reading that Duke and the Swingbillies were entertaining audiences over WMUR in Manchester, New Hampshire on their daily 12:45pm show. At that time, the band included Rocky on the accordion, Rocky, the smallest cowboy singer and guitarist, Happy was on bass, Speedy was a champion fast fiddler, "Sis" Hawkins, a child dancer and "rube comedian".
By the end of 1946, the band's show over WMUR had moved to 3:00pm. During the Christmas holiday season, Mr. Keeler told readers that the band kept busy doing "...free shows at auditoriums, hospitals, orphanages and the like." They also had a daily show at 6:30am as well as their show at 12:45pm.
Smokey Warren wrote in his June 1956 column about entertainers in the New York and eastern area that Duke and his Swingbillies were working both radio and television in Poland Springs, Maine as well as doing personal appearances.
In 1960, Duke and his Swingbillies had a television show over WMUR-TV (channel 9).
Credits and Sources
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