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Angels Organist Does His Best to Skip Sour Notes

Times Staff Writer

When he steps to the Hammond keyboards, high in a glass booth where no one can see him, a buzz of anticipation already has begun below. Nothing can happen until he starts the set. Tens of thousands of fans are waiting.

As the opening bars waft from the public address system, the crowd is on its feet, singing along.

But Joe Tripoli, organist for the Angels baseball team at Anaheim Stadium, is nonchalant. “I’ve done the national anthem probably 880 times,” he figures.

At the still tender age of 27, Tripoli is an old pro in the select group of keyboard entertainers who regale sports fans at ball games. Indeed, the man is a musical prodigy of sorts, a Mozart of stadium Muzak.

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“Music is all I’ve ever done,” Tripoli said. Little more than a toddler when he began plinking tunes on the family piano, he soon moved to the organ. In his early teens, he mastered the drums and other percussion instruments.

By the time he was 16, at an age when Mozart had yet to compose his first symphony, Tripoli hit it big----a full-time gig as the organist for the Los Angeles Forum. A kid barely old enough to drive himself to work, his fingers set the beat at games for

the Lakers, Kings, Lasers and pugilists battering each other at boxing matches.

“It was unbelievable,” Tripoli recalled. “I was still in high school.”

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Tripoli, who still plays for Kings games at the Forum, was recruited by Anaheim Stadium officials last year.

Today, the mail carrier regularly delivers cards and letters from adoring fans, admitted the happily married Tripoli, whose wife is expecting their first child shortly. The couple live in Burbank.

As with most celebrities, a recurring hazard of his occupation is the person who approaches him after the organist’s name is announced at the game and says, “Remember me? I went to school with you in fourth grade.”

“You get people like that all the time,” Triploi said, sounding world-weary. “People in high school who never noticed you.”

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One concession to vanity, perhaps, is the personalized license plate on his Dodge mini van: “3X YROUT,” from the classic, and obligatory, seventh-inning-stretch song.

But Tripoli is not one to fool around when it comes to musical taste. He declines to hit such sour notes as, say, “Three Blind Mice” if an umpire makes a questionable call.

“That’s going a bit far,” Tripoli said. “You don’t want to be offensive. You don’t want to badger people.”

Discretion was one of the first lessons he learned when the Forum selected him after his audition in 1977.

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“First thing they told me was, ‘You’re hired,’ ” he said. “The second was how much money. The third thing was don’t ever play ‘Three Blind Mice.’ ”

Instead, for example, he will pipe up a few bars of “Woody Woodpecker” when a batter breaks his Louisville slugger on a fastball and dangerous chunks of oak fly through the infield.

The job calls for the timing skills of a stand-up comedian and the mood-evoking talents of a movie score arranger, said Tripoli, who brings his own drum machine to the stadium dates.

“Those moments happen in a split second,” Tripoli said. “I have sound effects. You have got to be fast. I try to place what I’m doing around what’s happening on the field. To enhance the action, add humor or dramatics.”

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His own musical preferences extend far beyond the stadium play list, Tripoli said.

“It’s not like I really like Viennese waltzes,” he said. “I love R&B;, classical stuff and pop music. I like everything.”

Perhaps it’s that professional, Cuisinart-like capacity for blending musical styles that is Tripoli’s artistic forte. Certainly, it’s a critical ingredient to his success with stadium music.

And it serves him well in his side work as a composer, arranger and studio musician for commercials, movie trailers and record albums. His credits include ads for Suzuki, Toyota and McCullough chain saws; TV shows such as “Who’s the Boss” and “227,” and the film “Batteries Not Included.”

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“Obviously there are more esoteric things you can perform,” Tripoli said. “But as far as doing it for a living, you have to meet the expectations of those who hire you.”

Now in his second season with the Angels, Tripoli said he loves performing for the team and its fans, despite growing up as a Dodgers’ fan.

“You’re rooting for the team,” he said. “You’re the biggest fan. You have the most power in the place outside of the guy with the bat.”


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