Mount Laurel resident went from rags to riches

Al C. Rinaldi’s life was a testament to survival of the fittest, though it was hardly fitting to say he was healthy.

The 77-year-old chairman and CEO of Jacobs Music Company died the day before Halloween of cancer — his 15th bout with the disease, according to his son Bob.

Until his latest go-round with the illness, Al Rinaldi was able to recover from cancers of the colon, bladder, stomach, duodenum and lower bowel.

In a bitter twist of fate, the Mount Laurel resident lost his son Michael to bile duct cancer in 2006.

“He had an unwavering will to live,” said Bob, a senior vice president at the Philadelphia-based company.

As understatements go, that one is over the top.

“He never ceased to amaze me,” said Al’s wife, Gabrielle Kazze Rinaldi, who first met her husband when he hired her at Jacobs in 1978. She is now executive vice president of the regional company.

“There really was nothing he didn’t believe he could overcome. He approached everything as one more hurdle to get over, and he did.”

Those hurdles would have swamped a lesser man.

Abandoned at nine months, the Scranton-born Rinaldi was taken in by a female alcoholic in the same tenement where he had lived with his mother. He saw his father, known as Fritzie, only twice in his life, according to information provided by his family.

Bessie Nolan was Irish and poor, so her charge had to hit the streets for food. Then known as Freddie Nolan, he would ask the neighborhood deli owner about scraps for a dog he didn’t have.

He took bread from trash cans, loading it with sugar so he could get it down. He once ate moth balls, mistaking them for peppermints.

It was in that Dickensian environment the young Al Rinaldi realized he could sing for his supper. He and a friend would perform at bars, passing around a hat for money. The sax player took 90 percent of their $1 earnings.

“Brother, can you spare a dime?”

But Rinaldi didn’t quibble. Perhaps because at that point, he realized music would be his salvation.

Bob Rinaldi, in fact, sees it as the recurring theme of his father’s story, like a swinging Sinatra tune that pops up on the radio just when you need a lift.

“Music saved his life, whether he was singing in a bar or panhandling … or whether it was how he made his living,” noted Bob, whose brother, Chris, is president and CFO of Jacobs.

Al Rinaldi didn’t have enough wind in his underfed body for the sax, so he eventually mastered the jazz accordion — or ’cordine, as it was known — an instrument he needed help strapping on.

His career, however, led him to pianos and organs.

After taking his knack for survival with him into the Navy — where he charged his mates for music lessons — Rinaldi happened on an ad for a job selling organs.

Because he had lied when he said he could play the instrument, Rinaldi took some quick lessons. He eventually sold and demonstrated Hammond organs from a shop window, worked as manager of the organ department at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia, sold both pianos and organs at Strawbridge’s and Wanamaker’s and even became a banker.

A Chestnut Street dream became his legacy. Part of the Philly block was once known as “Piano Row,” home to more than a dozen piano stores, including Jacobs Music Company at 1718.

Started in 1937, Jacobs was eventually sold to Sherman Clay of San Francisco, its owner for three years. Then Rinaldi stepped in, not only buying the company but gaining permission from the Jacobs family to bring back their name.

It was 1976 and Rinaldi now had Jacobs, Wanamaker’s piano department and cancer.

He was 39.

“Once he decided on something, he saw no reason why it couldn’t get accomplished,” Gabrielle recalled.

Rinaldi earned the distinction of being a Steinway representative in 1985 and was its dealer of the year for 2009.

“I was a poor kid with no parents, and now I represent Steinway,” he said at the time.

For Bob Rinaldi, it is important to remember not only his father’s business acumen but his generosity.

“He always was very compassionate, beyond his success in business,” the younger Rinaldi said. “Many people knew of his success … what people don’t realize is the hundreds of scholarships that he passed out at Rowan University and other colleges.

“And he would hand money to performers on the street as well.”

A nod, no doubt, to Al Rinaldi’s childhood panhandling, a circumstance he never begrudged.

“He always said he never felt poor until he got much older and had money … ” Gabrielle observed. “When he truly had nothing, he was perfectly happy. Because everyone else was as poor as he was.”

“I didn’t realize how remarkable his life was until he passed,” said Rinaldi’s son. “He was an enormous individual with an amazingly remarkable life.”

(Originally published in the Courier-Post)