After Chet Salvatorelli’s wife died in 1986, he didn’t play the keyboard or accordion for 15 years. For someone who started playing at age 15, this was quite a gap. But he was married for 34 years and sorrow had stopped the music.
Now the 89-year-old Salvatorelli has played regular gigs at The National Hotel in Nevada City for 10 years and has fans from New York City, San Diego, Yuba City and around Nevada County.
They head to the National for holidays to hear “Always” and “Moon River” for anniversaries, Glen Miller for Mother’s Day and Patsy Cline for everyday. A group of Irish-Americans from San Diego requests “Danny Boy” for St. Patrick’s Day.
Salvatorelli, or “Chet” as everyone calls him, has made scores of friends from hotel staff to repeat customers. If he forgets your name, he calls you “Big Guy.” But mostly he remembers your name.
Playing for appreciative audiences has kept him young and hauling his keyboard and accordion around have kept him fit.
“You get friendly with everybody” said Chet, who has an easy laugh and friendly demeanor. “Everybody here works hard,” he added. “People don’t realize what it takes to run this place. I really respect Tom (Tom Coleman, owner of the National with his wife, Ernie). He’s a really good man.”
Then there is his family. Three children, two boys and a girl, five grandsons, two granddaughters and six great-grandchildren keep him hopping.
Chet’s no stranger to employment. Growing up in Ellwood City outside of Pittsburgh, he started young.
“I’ve been working since I was 10,” he said. “I sold the Ellwood City Ledger, which cost two cents a piece. I got to keep a penny of that. I’ve been working ever since.”
He worked in insurance for Prudential when he and his wife moved to Oroville in 1964. In 1969, he began selling cars for Ford. “I sold more than 4,000 cars,” he said.
He and his wife were happy to move from insurance to car sales. Ford sent Chet and his wife to South Lake Tahoe on vacations and he didn’t have to work long hours.
Before turning to music for a living, he played at Eskaton and the Elks Grange. He still plays for the Nevada City Elks for its monthly spaghetti dinners.
“He’s a great asset,” said Coleman. “He’s perfect for setting the mood of the dining room. He appeals to the young as well as the old. And people are really impressed he’s still performing at his age.”
Coleman added that Chet always shows up on time, “in a suit and tie,” which is not common these days.
“There are a lot of people who just who show up to hear him laugh and perform,” Ernie added. “Or they say, he sold them a car years ago.”
“When he starts clapping for himself, it cracks me up,” she added.
Chet plays Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m. You’ll know you’re in the right place by his laughter and applause, sometimes his own applause.