Recalling first singing groups, recordings, and early musical influences. Meeting Ben E King. 1960-1966
It was 1960. I was in seventh grade. A huge slice of pizza was 15¢, a bagel a nickel, a gallon of gas 20¢. John F Kennedy was the President. Within weeks of hearing the Camelots I joined an a cappella vocal group of my own, comprised of friends who were similarly smitten with doo-wop harmonies.
We met a few times a week after school to work on our harmonizing. We called ourselves The Paramounts and were terrible. It took us nine months to actually learn how to sing harmony in pitch. The day we finally did we laughed so hard we couldn’t finish the song. It felt so good.
The baritone singer was a squinty-eyed Italian kid named Dennis Zampani. We called him Zimp the Chimp for his loping low-to-the-ground walk. He was a funny guy, always going on about the wonderful attributes of a nice ass on a pretty girl. I didn’t get it then, but I did not long after. Pretty soon I went from singing first tenor to singing lead, and for the next five years, with different groups, this is how I spent my free time.
My first recording session was with The Del Chimes. For some odd reason a lot of groups had the word Del in their name in ’62. We were a group of kids from Mill Basin, in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, channels and bays nearly surrounding the neighborhood. I was now the youngest in the group at fourteen. We sang our own a capella version of The Sheppards song ‘Island Of Love’. It was recorded live in one take in a small studio in Bensonhurst under the 86th street El. We walked out of there jazzed, with a 45-rpm acetate which the engineer created right on the spot using a lathe. It was a major thrill to hear ourselve’s on a record. To this day, recording has that special aura about it: the place in which the mad alchemist tries to change lead into gold. The title ‘Island of Love’ proved apt as well when I moved to Kauai some 21 years later.
The Thomas’ were big on moving. We moved thirteen times by my seventeenth birthday, always within a fifty-mile radius, excluding a six-month trial run in Miami Beach with my grandparents. Consequently I learned how to make new friends easily, and joined a new vocal group once situated for more than a minute or two. In 1963 we wound up back in East Islip, on the south shore of Long Island, about a mile from the barrier beaches of the Atlantic. I soon joined a singing group from Brentwood, a bunch of characters to be sure, and multi-national at that.
Bobby Delgado, a soulful singer and easygoing Spanish guy sang 1st tenor, and Richie Cunningham; the volatile wise-ass Italian was 2nd tenor. Johnny Perez sang baritone and bass. He was Irish, Mexican and God knows what else, and had sort of a broken neck. His head was permanently twisted to the side, his adams apple poking out of his neck like a stick. It was pretty grotesque but I never asked him about it. Frank was cool in his souped-up GTO, black leather jacket, and dark sunglasses. When you add me, the wandering Jew, to the group you see what I mean about multi-national.
Music had the power to bring us together regardless of our nationality. Otherwise we would’ve been out in the street fighting each other like the rest of the numbskulls in our neighborhoods, and in the world. Get over it already.
The guys goofed on me a lot because I was youngest by two years or so and because I was somewhat gullible and naive. We called ourselves the Gems, and were cocky and proud and thought we had a pretty decent sound, veterans already, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. For performing we had matching white button-down sweaters with gold, black, and white stripes down the front, black chinos, white shirts, and black bowties.
The Gems entered a vocal group contest at the Bay Shore roller rink. The rink was used mostly for skating, but big name acts like The Shirells, The Exciters, The Coasters, and The Earls sang on the weekends. Local groups from the surrounding areas were featured on Sunday night, backed by a good band.
I won’t go into it in detail right now but the Bay Shore Roller rink was where I met my first love Eileen, the long-legged, green-eyed fifteen-year old beauty from North Babylon. She resembled a young Sophia Loren.
There must have been at least a dozen other singing groups competing for the recording contract. Lou Dean, a popular DJ at WGLI – a Bay Shore AM radio station – was the sponsor of the contest and producer of the shows. With his ever-present sharkskin suit and slick Brylcreamed hair he came off smarmy, and exceedingly gay. No one in the Gems felt comfortable around him and wouldn’t be caught dead alone in a room with the guy. Sure, thanks to him there was a place for us to sing, but still.
The recording contract offered the winners a chance to record two songs on a compilation album that would also feature some of the other groups. When we found out we had won, we were on top of the world, the first sweet taste of success doing what we loved. It gave us a sense of purpose, vindication. But as much as we wanted that inscribed trophy and contract, not one of us volunteered to go to the Sugar Shack to pick them up.
The Sugar Shack (and who knows what really went on there) was the bamboo and tiki motif bar where Lou Dean had his office and held court. What were we afraid of? That he’d try to take advantage of our youth and naivety? Shit, unlike me, most of the guys in the Gems were like coiled springs, ready to rumble. I had to work on giving off a tough demeanor, because in my bones I was not. In the end, of course, I was chosen to go. It turned out a minor event of major proportions. He was a nice enough guy and didn’t pull anything stupid, but I picked up the loot and got the hell out of there as fast as I could just the same. Funny how age and changing times can shift the way we think about others whose sexual orientation differs from our own.
After looking over the contracts, and wondering if they were kosher – we knew zip about contracts – we signed them, figuring what did we have to lose? The recording session took place on Long Island in a sizeable basement recording studio with the backing band from the roller rink.
The two songs we chose were the Ronnie and the Hi-Lites hit ‘I Wish That We Were Married’, and ‘Gloria’, the Passions doo-wop version, not the Van Morrison song. We laid down the vocals live with a backing band in one or two takes. I’ll never forget the magic of hearing our voices coming out of the studio speakers during the playback. Playing the record for friends and family was the icing on the cake. Recording was something I intended to explore. They called the album ‘Night Train’. §
Some of the artists who inspired me at the time included Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, The Skyliners, Ruby and the Romantics, and the Chicago group, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. Curtis’ songwriting hit a nerve, and his electric guitar playing, especially the hammer-on riffs, made me want to get serious about guitar. The “blow” harmony of the two back-up singers had gospel overtones. ‘People Get Ready’, and ‘Gypsy Woman’ remain two of my all-time favorite recordings. There was something indefinable in black music that I could feel and relate to, it was on the cellular level for me, could not be nor need be explained.
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye were from Detroit, the motor city. I emulated their every lick and vocal histrionic until they were my own, connecting with the sound of Motown music to a large degree. How could they miss with such well-crafted songs, infectious choruses, and stand out lead vocalists? With their 24-karat group harmonies, razor-sharp choreography, and top-notch session musicians? This outfit had it all. I never imagined I would wind up having lunch, and playing my songs, for Berry Gordy Jr. himself, the founder of Motown, eleven years later. But that’s another story.
One of the highlights of my five-year singing group career was meeting Ben E. King: the solo vocalist and one-time lead singer for the Drifters, my most influential R&B vocal group. Ben E King was firmly entrenched in the New York City/Atlantic Records sound, from which a plethora of great artists had achieved widespread success, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke.
Donald Height, a black singer/songwriter/hustler who could always be found near or in the Brill building – one of the main music enclaves near mid-town Manhattan – knew that Mr King was looking for a vocal group to produce. Through Donald, and a tangled web of connections I can no longer unravel, my fourth and final group, The Nightlights, was invited to meet and sing for Ben at his apartment in Harlem.
Ben E King is the raspy bluesy soulful voice in the songs ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Up On The Roof’ and many other R&B hits of the sixties. I would have thought he’d be full of himself, having had a great deal of success. But to the contrary, he was friendly and unpretentious, a gracious host. He smiled a great deal, and his smile was sincere, if a bit toothy.
We sang for him and talked for a while. Though we didn’t get the gig, meeting him was reward enough, and a lesson of sorts, because he was at the top of his game, yet he remained humble and cool. Now when I sing the song ‘Spanish Harlem’ – which is often these days, as I’ve come up with a slack key version of it – I think back to the view from his apartment window, overlooking the very streets he wrote about.
There were a couple of special gigs with The Nightlights I still remember. One night we opened for Jay and the Americans at Stony Brook University. These guys were from New York, and had made it big. Hit records, gigs, girls, and money. Don’t remember much about the gig, but we did meet and shoot the shit with Kenny Vance, and some of the other vocalists in the group back stage. I kept in touch with Kenny for a few years and recall walking with him one time on Broadway when James Brown cruised by and said hi to him. Must be nice I thought.
The other stand out Nightlites gig was at a mostly all-black high school in Nassau county Long Island. We were the only Caucasians to be seen. I don’t know how we ended up getting this gig, but there we were, sweating and not even on stage yet. In our repertoire now were songs by the Flamingos, and other groups whose vocal arrangements were very sophisticated.
Al was our arranger. He was Mr. smooth operator, or so he thought. He gave us sex tips too, like beating off before getting laid so as to prolong the experience when you actually got laid, the older wiser Don Juan at all of eighteen years old. Al’s voice sounded as if he’d been smoking cigarettes for fifty years, but he knew harmony inside out, and would teach us our harmony parts, which at times were incredibly intricate and difficult. I was Al in those days too. Al Thomas.
Most of the gigs we performed were sung with no back up, just three or four of us singing harmonies and me on lead. But on this occasion there was a groovacious all soul-brother rhythm section behind us. The air was charged. We knew we had to be believable. We sang the Drifters ballad ‘Please Stay’, and put everything we had into it. In the middle of the song where the lyrics say, “If I get down on my knees and I beg of you not to go but to stay in my arms”… I physically got down on my knees with the mic and belted it out. A.T. as James Brown! The audience went nuts. They loved us. Not only did their enthusiastic shouts of approval and applause give us a sense of hard-won accomplishment, it also created in us a thirst for more of the same. Only trouble is there’s no slaking of that kind of thirst.
In the summer of ‘65 I went solo. My manager was Bob Richards, who also managed a well-worn hotel on west 45th street, between 6th avenue and Broadway. The semi-dive was called the Peerless Hotel. I had just graduated from high school and Bob offered me a free room in the hotel. I took it. Living at the Peerless enabled me to sit in with traveling R&B horn bands that made New York City one of their stops on the ‘cover band’ nightclub touring circuit. The Peerless was located between two pretty well known nightclubs, and was like a hive of dubious activity, with hookers, pimps, servicemen and mobsters being the regulars at the clubs, with a few tourists in the mix. It made for a very interesting summer for one seventeen year old aspiring singer.
The Peppermint Lounge was the more well known of the two nightclubs on w 45th street, made so by Joey Dee and the Starlighters who were the house band when they had their big hit ‘Shout’. The other joint was the Wagon Wheel, and this was my main hang. The go-go dancers were very friendly with Bob Richards. They spoke with a strong Italian Bronx accent, and wore skin-tight bell-bottom pants, and mid-riff baring bolero tops, with Beatle boots, long fake eyelashes, thick makeup and sprayed Beehive hairdos. The two bands I met were kick-ass, and had a four-piece horn section. They could play R&B or the latest hits with equal verve.
There were eight or nine players in all, most of them based in the South. On contract they’d travel to Manhattan for a week or two gig, then off they’d charge to some other gig down the road of endless gigs. And they loved it, at least then they did. When they invited me onstage to sit in with them, I’d sing then-current soul songs like The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Hour’, or The Drifters ‘Up On The Roof’. I really dug singing with a horn section it infused the tunes with a whole new dimension. I crack up even now when I think of the moxie that young white boy had, singing all these soul tunes in front of a New York City audience.
Of course this being Manhattan, and the Peerless an inexpensive lodging, the hotel had the full compliment of characters: con artists, musicians on tour, attractive models, hopeful dancers, luckless junkies, the list goes on. I made friends with a couple of young hookers, and made love with one of them when Bob Richards fell asleep with his back turned.
A seventeen year old runaway, Wanda was his special treat, but he made the mistake of leaving me in the room with her while he dozed. Wanda and I were already friends and got to talking and next thing you know… Now Bob might have slept with one eye open, as certain New Yorkers are wont to do, but luckily for me he was turned the other way, ’cause I couldn’t have stopped what we had begun for anything in the world at that tender time and moment.
There was a hamburger joint on Broadway, near Forty-third Street, where you could get a burger or hot dog for a quarter, and with an Orange Julius you had a meal. That’s what I survived on that summer, as I wasn’t making any money and had to stretch whatever meager funds I’d managed to save working as a caddy back home in Long Island.
I remember one night in particular when I went for a walk around the corner from the Peerless, on Broadway. There was a crowd of people on the sidewalk looking down at something in the street. As I made my way through the crowd I saw a young man lying there. He wasn’t moving. He’d just been stabbed to death, a black pool of blood seeping in the gutter.
A cold shudder went through me and I thought, “What an ignominious way to die, an anonymous body just lying there bleeding on this crowded but lonely street in the middle of this big city full of strangers. Shit, what the hell am I doing here in such a cold-hearted place?” But the thought soon passed for I was never fearful in that city, the city of my birth. I should have been maybe, and I think of it now and wince at what could have been, but as I said before there must have been an angel watching over me.
I loved taking long wandering no destination walks in Manhattan, cruising for hours mesmerized by the architecture, the one-of-a-kind stores, the smell of exotic foods, and the interesting looking people, including the fine sophisticated women shopping on Fifth Avenue, surely some of the most beautiful women in the world. A few times I walked by Moon Dog, the guy who dressed as a Viking and stood on Fifth Avenue near the CBS building reciting his poetry to anyone who’d listen.
One afternoon I was exploring the midtown area on West 55th Street near the St. Regis Hotel. I had the habit of walking with my head down for odd some reason, probably because once, years before in Brooklyn, I found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, and I was still looking for another. In any event I accidentally bumped into an older well-dressed gentleman. He was a rather striking man indeed with a huge waxed-mustache whose ends curled in a circle. I apologized. Grinning mirthfully, he reached out and took me gently by the shoulders and in a strange accent said, “ No harm done.” He followed that by kissing me on both cheeks in the European style of greeting, and continued on his merry way with his elegantly dressed lady companion.
I was planted there kind of nonplussed at having just been kissed by a stranger in the middle of the crowded street. A woman who saw the incident walked up and asked me if I knew who that was, I shook my head. She then smiled and whispered that it was none other than the great artist Salvador Dali.
One sweltering summer night Bob Richards took me to the Apollo Theater up in Harlem where one of my all-time R&B hero’s, Chuck Jackson, was in concert. Bob knew Chuck and had gotten us backstage passes. Chuck and the other acts were suave and impressive with their soulful singing, and coordinated dance steps. I was in heaven. Bob and I were just about the only two white faces I saw that night.
It was black African-American music that really had gotten a hold of me, and wouldn’t let go. First it was the doo-wop groups, and then came the R&B singers, followed by the Motown, Atlantic, and Stax recording artists. Later I would discover the older blues singers, and jazz musicians. The ground-breaking music of Dylan, and The Beatles had still not found me, but that was just around the bend.
Bob Richards told me that if I was going to get anywhere in the music business I had better do something about my thick Brooklyn accent. “What Brooklyn accent?” I asked him incredulously. I didn’t even realize I had one. But I did, and it made me sound similar to Marlon Brando’s accent in A Street Car Named Desire.
There was an acting school that doubled in diction on west 57th street and eighth avenue called the Showcase Theater. It was run by a thoughtful older woman and retired-actress named Sylvia. Her face remained fixed with a thick layer of caked on make-up, which belied her many face lifts. Bob enrolled me there for six months and I became aware of, and worked hard at changing my diction. I also had a small part in our production of the play ‘Barefoot in the Park’.
Through my manager Bob I met the singer BJ Thomas, and his record producer Huey P. Meaux, who was known in the music business as the Crazy Cajun. BJ had just had a hit with a remake of the Hank Williams song ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, and was in New York doing some TV and live shows. Bob arranged for me to sing for Huey in my room at the Peerless Hotel. After auditioning for him with just voice and guitar, he offered me a recording contract, and invited me to fly to Houston Texas all expenses paid, to record with him as producer. This meant a great deal to me: I was seventeen years old and on my way to Texas to make my first major record!
Not long after, and with my parent’s permission, I flew down to Texas. I stayed at Huey’s house in suburban Houston. He also had a sixteen-year old girlfriend staying there. This liaison with the young girl would eventually lead to his arrest for sleeping with a minor. He wound up doing hard time for a while but I never held it against him as he treated me like a son and was a great producer. Now being an older man myself I can see the attraction one can have for a younger lover, but sixteen is pushing the envelope for sure.
In the span of a week or ten days I recorded nine songs with two rhythm sections. BJ’s band was a caucasian group, and the other band consisted of all black cats. The black rhythm section was called TV and the Tribesmen. They’d had a local hit with a remake of the Robert Parker tune ‘Barefootin’. What an unbelievably exciting time for me, to be able to work out the songs in the studio with these great musicians and have Heuy Meaux produce and record me. The die was cast.
Two singles came out of those sessions in 1966: one was called ‘Summertime Monkeyshine’ on the NYC label, Scepter Records, (Dionne Warwick – Chuck Jackson – The Shirelles). The other single was called ‘Didn’t It Rain’, and was released on a small Texas label called Pablo records. These singles found their way to obscurity. Still, I was out there doing it and not dreaming about it, whatever the result. Huey P. Meaux went on to produce artists as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddy Fender, and Doctor John.
The need to heal myself after the heart-breaking loss of my first love, Eileen Nodel, near the end of 1966, pushed me to find self-expression in songwriting. Therapy through writing would prove a lifeline for me from then on. Songwriting became a way of expressing myself and exorcising my feelings. I would need these songwriting skills to keep me afloat in some very dark times ahead.
In retrospect, I agree with the saying, “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters.” Because though I may not have achieved the monetary success that I would have liked, as yet, I experienced a rich life full of amazing experiences. And it’s these adventures and experiences that make us who we are.
I dreamt my musical life into existence. So if I should leave this body tomorrow I will do so knowing that I followed my heart’s desire, and this I can live with, and that’s all that really matters.
In the end, how do you measure the quality of your life? Is it how much money you’ve made and what you have acquired materially, or is it the adventures and experiences you’ve had along the way?
§ While doing research for this story on-line, I stumbled upon a doo-wop compilation CD containing The Gems version of ‘Gloria’. How strange that this obscure one-off recording relic that I participated in forty years ago resurfaces on a compact disk at CD Universe. It’s called 45RPM Days, Vol. 1 on Crystal Ball Records.