SNEAKY PETE RIZZO: The Science of Song

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“Sneaky Pete” Rizzo may be the only singer/songwriter found in The Journal of Protozoology and on “The Dr. Demento Show.” He’s even worked the words “dinoflagellates” and “protistan” into the same song.

“Sneaky Pete” Rizzo may be the only singer/songwriter found in The Journal of Protozoology and on “The Dr. Demento Show.” He’s even worked the words “dinoflagellates” and “protistan” into the same song.

Like his tune “Protistan Blues,” Rizzo (“Sneak” to his fans, naturally called Sneakaholics), has built a catalog of around 200 equally-novel tunes on his 11 self-produced albums over the past decade and a half.

There’s “Stachu Claus,” about an alternate holiday figure (“And all they have to do/is leave me a pickle and a beer”); “Eat Right,” about being healthy (“Eat right/exercise/die anyway”); and then there’s “Booger on my Beer Mug,” one of the first of nearly 20 tunes Rizzo landed on the Dr. Demento program. “Talk about an adrenaline rush-to hear one of your songs on the radio is it,” the Texas resident says. “I knew then I would have to do more songs.”

On the phone from California, Dr. Demento, host of the nationally-syndicated radio program of comedy and novelty songs, noted that the tune-No.1 for two weeks-follows the basic considerations for good novelty/comedic tunes.

“Songs should be entertaining, anyone should be able to sing the melody and lyrics should be understandable-but a top rule is the details,” Demento says. “I reject many songs for my show because songwriters don’t work on the details. They have a couple of funny lines, and then they run out of gas.”

Sneaky Pete hasn’t run out of gas yet, but then again Rizzo does have quite a day job. To tens of thousands of Texas A&M University students over the past quarter century, he is Dr. Peter Rizzo, associate professor of biology. Rizzo spends his days lecturing-usually to 300-plus students at a time-about cytoskeletons, plasmodesmata and mitochondria. One such student to pass through Rizzo’s classroom became a multi-Grammy Award-winner, Lyle Lovett.

“Lyle was in my freshman biology class,” Rizzo says. “He told me later the introduction to biology class was his worse memory of Texas A&M. I said ‘Lyle, you made a B in my class.’ He confessed that was his second time to take the course.” Lovett and Rizzo used to trade venues in the then-burgeoning music in the Bryan-College Station area in the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s. “Then Lyle went off and got famous, and I’m still here,” he laughs.

Rizzo stumbled upon songwriting late in life. Self-taught on a pawn shop guitar in the ‘60s, he formed a cover band after high school in his hometown of Gary, Ind.  Rizzo recalls, “We played everywhere in a 50-mile radius-clubs, weddings…lots of parties.”

Once college beckoned-and the steel mills were motivation enough-music was forgotten. Rizzo admits he was not the best prospect for college (258 in a class of 285) but he found the answer.

“I studied all the time,” Rizzo says. A bachelor’s degree at Indiana University led to a master’s degree and finally a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Michigan. It wasn’t until doing post-doctoral work for the National Institutes of Health at Purdue University that “I finally started to relax and play music again,” Rizzo explains, “but I was stuck in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I missed the ‘70s altogether.”

In 1975, he landed a cell biologist position at Texas A&M from among 200 applicants and has been teaching ever since. His research papers have been published in the prestigious Science magazine and other scientific journals. Making music is like playing or watching sports for others; it’s what he does to relax. “Songwriting and music keep me sane,” Rizzo said. “With few local live venues available, my satisfaction comes from recording.”

Carefully crafting those songs in the studio (Rizzo estimates 20-40 hours per song) should garner Rizzo more airplay worldwide and land more songs on the “Dr. Demento Show,” and he’s currently working on his twelfth self-produced album about his favorite holiday: Halloweenville.

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