Robert “Bobby” Lonero, a Louisiana Hall of Fame musician and long-popular New Orleans bandleader, died February 17, 2013. According to fellow New Orleans recording artist Frankie Ford, Lonero’s given surname was Popina, and his parents owned a bar on St. Claude Avenue near Elysian Fields Avenue. Lonero got interested in music, and the guitar, as an adolescent. He made his recording debut on a major label, Liberty, with the catchy rockabilly nugget “Little Bit.”
The following year he had a couple releases on Spinett, a local label owned by Ford and his then-manager Joe Caronna. The first release, “One More Time” was influenced by Bobby Darin, while the second, “Little Brother Tom” mimicked Huey Smith and the Clowns’ then-popular style. Like many New Orleans musicians of his era, Lonero moved to California in the mid-1960s. He claimed to have played at one time with Elvis Presley, Jayne Mansfield, the Everly Brothers, Liberace, Neil Diamond and even Ray Charles. He also claimed to have appeared on the Johnny Carson Show as well as American Bandstand. He joined a band in California with a fellow New Orleans musician, Ronnie Barron, called the Prime Ministers. The band got a deal with RCA in 1967. No hits were forthcoming though and the group dissolved. A CD of their material, Read ‘Em And Weep, was issued by Night Train in 2006.
Lonero said that in 1971 he was playing guitar with Louis Prima and the Wildest at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. This claim would later come to haunt him. Nevertheless, Lonero eventually made his way back home and formed The New Orleans Express which was a very popular Prima tribute band. The energetic group played in the French Quarter for decades including a 13-year stint at the Royal Sonesta’s Mystic Den lounge. The New Orleans Express was also named the official band of the Italian American Marchers and they often performed at functions with the Marchers. In 2010, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival staged a tribute to the late Louis Prima—even getting Tony Bennett to design a portrait of Prima for the official Festival poster.
Naturally, Lonero and the New Orleans Express were part of the celebration. They were a huge hit at the Economy Hall Tent, but Prima’s widow, Gia, took exception to Lonero’s constant claim that he was once in Prima’s band. Gia Prima ordered Lonero to “cease and desist” his claim or Prima’s estate would take legal action against him. (Check out Offbeat’s June 2010 issue for a complete blow-by-blow). Things eventually simmered down and Lonero went back to work with the Express. Lonero is survived by a wife, Helen, and a daughter, Nyeema. A funeral Mass was held March 6th at the St. Mary Magdalen church in Metairie.