Day in and day out, for 55 years, he could be found at Rayburn Musical Instrument Store, just steps from Symphony Hall. There, at his workbench, Emilio Lyons spent his time repairing saxophones and clarinets for everyone from unknown students to the world’s biggest stars. Somewhere along the way, his careful, meticulous work even earned him the moniker ‘The Sax Doctor’ and a Lifetime Achievement Award from DownBeat Magazine.
Still, when Emilio, now 79, arrived in the United States as a 17-year-old immigrant from the small town of Castelcivita in Salerno, he could have hardly imagined the path that lay ahead of him. He came with little more than the shirt on his back, but thanks to the kindness of an Italian-American named Joe Ruggieri, he found work in a clothing factory almost immediately.
Sitting at his workbench on the afternoon of June 27, his very last day at Rayburn, Emilio recalls their first meeting.
“I went to the shop and I saw a beautiful man. He said to me, ‘Can I see your shoes?'”
“I didn’t know what he meant, but I went like this,” Emilio explains, lifting one foot to his knee and exposing the sole of his shoe, a beautiful light-brown leather loafer. “I had five holes. When he saw the holes, he cried. He said to me, ‘Start at the job now.'”
A few months after getting the position at the factory, Emilio entered the world of music when he enlisted in the Air Force Reserves and, at the urging of an Italian friend, joined the band as a clarinetist. The same friend recruited Emilio to play in a North End rumba group and offered him his first paid gig: four days of performing at St. Anthony’s Feast in exchange for $3.
“To me it was a lot of money then,” Emilio recalls, explaining that his friend counted the dollars out as if they were liras.
“My friend gave me one dollar and he said ‘600 liras.’ Two dollars: ‘1,200 liras.’ Then another dollar: ‘1,800 liras.’ I said, ‘God bless America!’ I’m telling you, I was so happy.”
Emilio adds, chuckling, “But, he paid me too cheap. Now I know.”
Although he may joke when looking back on his early days in Boston, Emilio becomes serious when discussing the people who helped him on his journey to become one of the most respected woodwind repairmen in the world.
In fact, when speaking to Emilio, it’s clear that kindness, rather than dollars or liras or even music superstardom, is the currency he deals in. He pays tribute to Joe Ruggieri and Rayburn owner Ray Sternburg, as well as Berklee professor Joe Viola, who were his role models.
Emilio met Sternburg when he started taking clarinet lessons at Rayburn, and eventually was offered a job as a clerk despite the little English he spoke at the time. At Sternburg’s insistence, he began to tinker with the instruments. Soon after, Viola took Emilio under his wing, teaching him about the saxophone and introducing him to some of his most famous clients.
From these men, Emilio says he learned how to treat people – everyone, not just the big stars like Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz and Paquito D’Rivera, whose photos hang on the walls around his workbench.
“No red carpet,” he says, launching into a story about Rollins to prove his point.
“I was working on his saxophone and he was standing up here,” Emilio explains, pointing to the space behind his chair. “A little kid came in, 12 years old. He was nervous. He said to me, ‘My saxophone is broken. Can you fix it for me?'”
“You see, if it was another repairman, he’d say ‘No, go away boy! Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Sonny, do you mind if I repair for this kid? You never know, some day he may become like Sonny Rollins.’ Sonny liked that. So I looked at the boy’s saxophone, I spent a few seconds with him, I fixed it and that’s it.”
“To me, it’s more important who I am and not what I do,” Emilio insists, adding that his goal is to make people happy and very often, for the small repairs, he doesn’t charge a dime.
Although Emilio has now retired from his days at Rayburn, he continues to work from his home in Lexington, because, he says, the musicians need him; the health of their prized instruments depends on his craftsmanship. When his age no longer permits him to work for the pros, he’ll still do repairs for students and children, “just to pass the time.”
With his dedication to the music industry over the last five decades and all the days still to come, it’s hard to imagine Emilio in another role. Yet, as a boy, he coveted a totally different career: being part of the Carabinieri.
“That was my dream. If I didn’t come to America, I would have joined the Carabinieri. I loved the uniform,” he says, laughing.
Last year, he finally got to live out his childhood fantasy, as he was invited to the barracks in Rome after doing some repairs for the Banda Dell’Arma dei Carabinieri. He was given the uniform that he admired so much as a kid and was guest of honor at a concert.
In the end, though, Emilio’s reality is more than he ever could have dreamt up as a young boy in Salerno.
“To go in the police barracks, that was my thing, but instead I came here to America,” he says. “All this, what I went through with the musicians and everybody, it’s a dream.”
“Still today, it’s like a new day for me. It’s like I just started. Honest.”