Rio Pardo, 1972

October 29, 1972

Duluth musician Rio Pardo, 1972 (News-Tribune file photo)

Rio Pardo brings crowds to Black Bear Lounge

By Jim Heffernan, News-Tribune columnist

There was a time – and it wasn’t too long ago – when you could go to the Black Bear Lounge in Hotel Duluth and if you were along and wanted company you could always talk to the stuffed black bear.

There also was a time – and it was quite a few years ago – when the same room was one of the two or so most popular night spots in town.

It appears those days of glory have returned. On weekdays now you have to elbow your way through the glass door off the most beautiful hotel lobby north of Hinckley. Once inside, you can get a table one of two ways: with luck or with patience. On Saturday nights you must add longevity.

Responsible for all this excitement is a friendly fellow names Jamesearl Brown, a Meadowlands horse raiser, among many other things. His first name is two combined into one.

Duluthians know him as Rio Pardo.

“Why did you pick a name like Rio Pardo?” I asked.

“Well,” he said as he lit his Sherlock Holmes pipe for the third time in three minutes, “I always liked the Latin beat and I saw the name Pardo in a book.”

“What about Rio?”

“I don’t know – it sounds sort of South American so I took it.”

Rio Pardo in a publicity shot from 1968, before he was scheduled to play at the Tin Pan Alley Club on London Road in Duluth.

I should point out here, for the dozen or so Duluthians who haven’t heard of Rio Pardo yet, that he’s the bandleader currently playing at the Hotel Duluth. He can play 12 instruments and sing in his own style with tinges of Brook Benton and Al Hibbler.

He plays everything from old standards to the latest rock backed by three able musicians. His popularity knows no age limits; on a given night you see young people (some look like teenagers) gyrating on the dance floor with not so young people who were dancing long before Rio Pardo was playing anything.

So much for the music; now for the man.

Jamesearl Brown was and still is his real name. Around Meadowlands he’s known as Jim. He was born in Great Bend, Kan., something over 40 years ago. His basic instrument is piano: “My mother worked so I could take lessons.” But as time went on he started picking up other instruments, most notably the trumpet.

After high school graduation in Great Bend, young Jamesearl Brown went into the U.S. Navy (World War II was on) and he served in the Mediterranean when it was a very unsafe place to be.

Following the war, Brown began his life as a professional musician, starting in Norfolk, Va. Soon after, he went to New York where he played in Harlem at the height of the old Cotton Club days. Brown played in a place called the Baby Grand where he became friendly with Nipsey Russell, who was the M.C. there, and a then-unknown comedian named Redd Foxx.

Enter the 50s. Carnegie Hall. Rio jumps off the stage during a rhythm and blues concert and gets mentioned by columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.

Rio Pardo with Jane Smith (back, left) and Anthony Benson (back, right) during a recording session in September 1979. At that time the three were working on developing a syndicated TV show, with Smith conducting interviews and Pardo providing music. (News-Tribune file photo)

Four years ago Rio came to Duluth with his wife, their son and a foster boy who came to live with them in Minneapolis. He played various local lounges, including the old Tin Pan Alley at the London House, and even bought his own place upstairs of the old Kasbar. He did OK – made a living.

Then last March he came to Hotel Duluth. He glows when he tells the rest of the story. “I can’t explain what happened, but we just hit. I fixed up my music a little, added another musician as backup, and everything started happening.”

Yes, it’s true he led a frolicking “Saints Go Marchin’ In” line through the WDSM studios during the 10 o’clock news one night. And some surprised moviegoers at the Norshor saw Rio leading a line of celebrators up and down the aisle during a movie a few months ago.

These antics belie the personality of the man, and the musician. Here is a soft-spoken family man with rustic yearnings. Here also is a superb musician whose talent has taken him to the top of his trade in the nation’s metropolitan centers.

Here is Jamesearl Brown of Great Bend, Kan., and Meadowlands, Minn.


Rio Pardo performing at Telemark Lodge near Cable, Wis., in 1979. (News-Tribune file photo)

I’m not too sure about the “Jamesearl” part – later stories referred to him as James Earl Brown. Either way, Rio Pardo continued to perform in Duluth and the surrounding area for many years.

After the Hotel Duluth gig ended, his band was the house band at Telemark Lodge near Cable, Wis., for a while. According to clips in the News Tribune archives, in 1983 he was back performing in the Twin Ports at the Zoo bar in Superior. In 1994, he performed at the Blue Note Cafe.

Rio Pardo performing at the Zoo bar in Superior on March 24, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)


Rio Pardo and his band performing at the Zoo bar in Superior, March 24, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

Eventually, Rio Pardo moved the Twin Cities area. where he continued to perform. He died at his home in Maple Grove in December 2006 at age 80.

Share your memories of Rio Pardo or other area musicians by posting a comment.

19 Responses

  1. Marv Ross

    When I was a teenager our family would go to the Telemark Lodge in Cable to ski. I got my first night club experience listening to Rio Pardo at the lounge and it blew me away. To this day 40 years later whenever I hear “Baker Street” on the radio I still remember the amazing trumpet solo I heard at Telemark by Rio Pardo. My dad spotted him hanging out the next day wearing his cowboy hat and got a big kick out of that.

  2. I have fond memories of Rio playing at Mr. Petes Corral. Being drawn to his talent more than what my friends called “talent”, I went alone a lot. Truly a one of a kind entertainer. He is missed.

  3. Beaver

    What memories of Rio Pardo. Rio was friends with our choir director in Eveleth, Elliot Zunich. Rio did his show for our high school in 1972 and our choir got to do a few numbers with him. I will always remember you did not have to be politically correct in those days. Zunich had two students dress up in black face and surprise Rio on stage. If you can get your hands on the 1972 Eveleth year book, that picture is in it.
    I saw Wayne Newton perform in Vegas a number of times in the 70’s and told friends that Wayne Newton knocked off his act from this guy Rio Pardo in northern MN. Wayne Newton is the white version of Rio Pardo.

  4. Tim from Storm Lake

    Rio showed up in my small Iowa town looking for a drummer the week I graduated from high school in 1973. After a couple interviews I was fortunate to sign on. We (Rio, Marie, and their two boys whose names I don’t recall) drove to Milwaukee to meet an agent, booked a gig in Streator, Illinois, headed south, got lost in Chicago for 6 hours and arrived in Streator right as the bar closed. While trying to find our way through Chicago, we found ourselves in the south side where I was definitely a minority! There was one neighborhood in which the people weren’t too friendly to our mixed-race car full and this white farm kid was scared to death – I’ve hated prejudice and discrimination ever since. Anyway, we played the rest of the Streator booking and then headed to Brainerd for a stint at the Holiday Inn, followed by an engagement in St. Cloud at the Cougar’s Den. Rio loved to go fishing almost as much as he loved playing. We’d rehearse every morning, grab lunch, then go fishing before we cleaned up to go play the gig. Rio really did a lot to mentor me and eventually I actually figured out how to swing! From dixieland, to big band, to the popular rock of the day, Rio could play it all. And he did one mean “funky penguin” too! He was one-of-a-kind and I will always appreciate all he and Marie did for me. May he rest in peace.

  5. Ted Decker

    I graduated from East in ’72 and, although I’m not familiar with Rio Pardo, it’s great to find this website! I did a summer internship with the News Tribune … and Jim Heffernan supervised me. He’s a great man, writer, and editor!

    My friend, Mark Petrulo, gave me this link because he said Rio Pardo played at Shakey’s Pizza. There are several Shakey’s where I live here in the Philippines and my family and I enjoy eating there.

  6. I played drums with Rio from around the summer of 1977 through around 1989 (?) I started with Rio at The Black bear Lounge in Duluth, MN with Billy Barnard (guitar), Mark Pederson (bass), Dan Fiskum (keys), myself on drums. We also played a month or so down at the Lake Geneva resort, Wisconsin. From there we were the house band at Telemark Lodge and I left the band a year or two later. I also worked as house drummer at Telemark form 1973-1976.

    Rio was a super talented natural musician with a lifetime of experience. He pleased the crowd with his onstage performances and table-top dancing. RIP.

  7. Ricardo

    It’s nice to see the history of Mr. Brown, He adopted the artistic name of Rio Pardo, which is my hometown, south of Brazil; we all love music, i wish i would know the name of the book he was reading when He decided to pick up the name. God bless all.

  8. Dave Schuler

    I played organ with Rio’s band for a year or so back around 1977. We played the Hotel Duluth, the Androy Hotel in Hibbing, Sammy’s in Virginia, the El Toro Lounge in… Cotton? Besides myself, the band at that time consisted of Linda Love on vocals (and mean tambourine… she went on to win $516.32 on the Gong Show), Don Pavel on guitar (became music director at the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua until his death a few years ago), Ted Nierowitz(sp?) on bass, and Marvin Pomeroy and Dick Moore on drums. Rio got mad at me and started calling me “Youngblood” when I announced I was quitting the band to play rock and roll. 🙂

    I remember Rio’s big competition at the time was a country singer named Ron E Light. Don’t know what ever became of him.

  9. Dennis Rowe

    Yes, Rio was a fantastic entertainer and the best Showman I have ever seen. Also, his backup musicians were also very talented. Billy Bernard, Harlan Nelson and myself. Together, we made the sound to compliment Rio. After the Black Bear “stint” Harland and myself joined Diana Patton at Mr. Petes Corral. We continued to keep the music going for several years. Those were the “Good Times” in Duluth.
    It would be very interesting to find some pictures etc. about the Diana Patton Trio.!!!

  10. Pingback : Vintage video of Duluth music favorite Rio Pardo | News Tribune Attic

  11. Julie Thoreson here from Black Water Lounge/Greysolon Ballroom and Black Woods Grill & Bar. I know that I speak for many at Black Water Lounge by saying that a week does not go by without someone asking about, or commenting on Rio Pardo. Your husband/grandfather’s rich history and reputation for creating a lively fun filled atmosphere has helped us in developing the “tone” and direction for Black Water Lounge. Due to Rio’s success at the Black Bear Lounge we are striving to bring a similar atmosphere, like the old days back to Downtown Duluth. We have reached out to the community on a couple of occasions looking for old photos of Rio performing and we were so pleased to come across these today! So, if anyone has a photo of Rio Pardo and would like to see it at Black Water Lounge please contact me.


  12. mary goman brown

    James Earl Brown “Rio Pardo” was my husband for 22 years until he passed away 41/2 years ago. He loved Duluth and the people as I know they loved him. His ability to charm and entertain audiences is unsurpassed. I along with my grandson, Prestin, want to thank you for re-running this article. I miss him greatly for as Prestin said “he was a great man!”

  13. Prestin Brown

    Rio Pardo, or what we called him james earl brown was my grandfather. his son was named after him, james earl brown, which was my father who passed away. My name is prestin tyme brown. My grand father was a great man who I still today look up to. Thank you sooo much for recgonizing him and what that he has done. I love you grandpa

  14. Jim Heffernan

    Well now, what a pleasant surprise to find my very first News Tribune column reproduced in the Attic. I had interviewed Rio between sets during his show at Hotel Duluth’s Black Bear Lounge (now Greysolon Plaza’s Blackwater). He was quite a gentleman, very soft spoken, hugely talented. Regarding the run-on first name — Jamesearl: I don’t recall that part of the interview, but I doubt I would have written that and made a point of explaining it if he hadn’t told me. When I started writing my personal column for the paper, I thought it was going to be weekly interviews with interesting people like Rio Pardo — first-person feature stories. I soon ran out of people and time to do interviews so I began making them up.

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