45 Friday: CHIC AND THE DIPLOMATS – You Don’t Know

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

Chic Cicero was everywhere in the days of Buffalo’s early Rock’n’Roll scene, when instrumentals were the favored type of music, saxophones had equal prominence (at least!) with guitars, and an R&B influence was essential.

In the early days of the 1960s Chic blew tenor sax with The Fendermen. In 1963 he joined an established combo, The Vibratos. They had achieved a lot of success locally, working regularly at the Town Casino and becoming house band at the Glen Park Casino. But singer Emil Lewandowski and guitarist Mike Lustan left, having been pushed to greener pastures on the West Coast to seek fame and fortune. They found some, while playing and recording as The Enemys. But it was nothing compared to what happened when Emil, now called Cory Wells, joined with two more singers to form Three Dog Night.

So Chic was brought in. Older by a decade than the rest of the band (Dick & Jack Terranova and Al Fiorella), he brought his old-school R&B sax-honker antics with him, clowning and ‘walking the bar’ at places like The Colonie on Hertel Avenue.

Around this time Gary Mallaber also  joined the Vibratos, replacing Joe Ferrara on drums. Later a legend but just starting out professionally at this time (and still a teenager), he would go on to work his way up the ladder of success: Stan & The Ravens, then Raven, and eventually Van Morrison, The Steve Miller Band and studio dates with everybody from Springsteen to McCartney.

This version of the Vibratos broke up after recording a single (the second and final recording for the band) around 1964. Chic formed Chic And The Diplomats with some of the cream of Buffalo’s R&B players- Joe Madison on organ, Denny Fox on drums. In their early days they played top clubs like the Candy Cane Lounge alongside The Jesters.

As the Sixties went on they began a long stand as house band at the Ivanhoe Lounge on Forest Avenue. It was during this time they cut their lone waxing, Tears/You Don’t Know. Tears is an old style sax-led ballad instrumental which was already dated at the time, with a lounge-y organ sound more Wild Bill Davis than Jimmy McGriff.

But You Don’t Know is an up-to-date Soul track, a stomping version of the current Sam & Dave hit (also known as You Don’t Know Like I Know), written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

As a side-note: Sam & Dave’s success can largely be traced to WNYer Steve Alaimo who performed on the same show with them at a nightclub in Miami and produced and released them on his own Marlin Records before taking them over to Atlantic, who then turned them over to Stax Records, where they found great success.

This record was released on Ivanhoe Records and all copies came with a postcard-sized photo in lieu of a picture sleeve. The ‘Ivanhoe’ part is easy to understand, while the Pittsburgh address on the back is not.

In any case the record wasn’t a hit but they continued to ply their trade at 561 Forest Ave. A 1967 ad promises “every Tuesday through Sunday- the Soul Sounds of Chic And The Diplomats”.  A 1968 ad puts them at the Safari Inn in East Amherst, probably a step down, and a sign that their career was just about stalled as a new wave of music was coming in – psychedelic/heavy or singer/songwriter – these guys were none of the above.

I don’t know what happened to the rest of the band, but Chic Cicero left the music world for fame (or notoriety) of a different sort, not germane to our discussion here. We’re left with this – not great, not bad, but a perfect evocation of a time when you could walk into a Buffalo club and hear a bar band pound out R&B for the dancers.

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45 Friday: FOUR ANDANTES – Hipper Than Me

45-Friday_4 By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

Mo Do Records label and recording studio was located in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood. Label owner William ‘Billy’ Nunn, Sr. made his first try at the singles market with Bob & Gene’s “You Gave Me Love” / ” Your Name” (Mo Do 101, 1967).  Bob was his son Bobby Nunn and Gene was Bob’s friend Eugene Coplin. In 1968 the next Mo Do single was issued – “Hipper Than Me” / “The End Of Love” (Mo Do 102, 1968), credited to The Four Andantes. The only thing I know about them is that the lead singer was Levi Ruffin, Jr. Other collectors, either local or part of the international Soul scene, don’t seem to have discovered anything either. Collector interest in the Mo Do label really only started in the late 1980s/ early 1990s with the growth of the Northern Soul scene. The original scene was mostly focused on the hits and major labels. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, more obscure tracks and second-string labels came into vogue. DJs all wanted to have records on their playlists that no one else had, or even knew. By the 1990s second-tier labels, third-tier and beyond had been exhausted and attention turned to ultra-obscure labels. Mo Do Records was one, having never had a hit in its time, with very few copies of Mo Do singles having ever left the Western NY area. As is often the case, a collector ahead of the curve was the first to contact Billy Nunn who sold him most of the leftover records for a pittance. Along with Mo Do’s many Gospel releases were the four Bob & Gene releases, the Four Andantes single and a couple other Soul/R&B titles. These made their way to the biggest market for USA Soul records. In England, The Four Andantes developed a reputation not only as the best but as the scarcest record on the label. Endeavoring to find out more, UK collectors contacted Mr. Nunn directly. He was less than forthcoming with them, feeling he’d been burned by the previous collector. No, he couldn’t remember much about the Four Andantes, but he could connect them with one member. Levi Ruffin, Jr. was just coming off a long period of success as keyboard player with Rick James’ Stone City Band, who backed Rick as well as putting out records under their own name. For whatever reason, Ruffin couldn’t or wouldn’t provide additional information on the group beyond verifying he was the lead singer (he is also credited on the labels as the writer). Eventually a blurry picture of the Four Andantes turned up. They look as you’d expect – the photo reveals very little – and no additional names were forthcoming. Typical young Soul singers circa 1968. And the tracks themselves are typical 1968 Soul with a ballad side and an uptempo side. Maybe a little on the under-produced side, and not the greatest recording quality (typical Mo Do characteristics). Yet coming through that is the feeling of hopes and dreams, a first shot at success. For Levi Ruffin Jr, it was the start of a career in music. Label mates Bobby Nunn and Billy Nunn, Jr. attained equally successful careers in music in bands or as solo artists. For Billy Nunn, Sr. there was no chart success for his label, though he did get to see his sons make their mark in the business later.  Eventually, vindication: in the 2000s a local collector was able to obtain his trust, this time gaining access to unreleased material he had. This led to a Bob & Gene album being issued which sold well to the niche market of hipster Soul collectors and attained critical praise. The financial rewards continued in the form of royalties when two of the Bob & Gene tracks were used in motion picture soundtracks. Luckily Mr. Nunn was able to experience this before he passed away. By the way, Andante is a musical term. They may have become the FOUR Andantes after discovering that Motown Records already had a ‘The Andantes’.  This was a girl group who sang mostly backgrounds, rarely issuing their own records, but were on an unbelievable number of Motown tracks including many mega-hits. Interesting, in that Ruffin and both Nunn boys ended up on Motown labels as well.

45 Friday: WOODY ROBINSON – I’ll Never Let You Go

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

Here’s another one about which I know almost nothing. Please please please tell me something, somebody!

Monticello Records was a short-lived Buffalo record label with maybe a half-dozen releases. It’s a difficult one to track because each of the singles has a different label design and a different address, if it has an address. I’d guess this Woody Robinson record is an early release, and the 42 Monticello Avenue address gave the label its name. All other Monticello records seem to be Gospel but this one has a great R&B Rocker on the flipside of a late-period vocal group ballad.

Monticello #7232 has been dated to 1962 by the pressing plant markings, which means both sides were already pretty old-fashioned in the fast-changing early 1960s. The A-side “Please Be Mine All Mine” is very reminiscent (if not based on) Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love”, recorded with the Impressions. That was a huge hit but in 1958; in 1962 the big news was Motown, the Beach Boys and the Twist; the Beatles were already recording with George Martin; and this stuff was passe as far as chart success. But due to the classic timeless Black Vocal Group sound it fits exactly into what the R&B Ballad collectors of today look for.

By the way, the few references I found for this record credit it to Woody Robinson & Group.

The flip is a spiffy Rocking number though equally dated. Especially the guitar sound – it really sounds like it’s from a decade earlier. But there’s a good reason: the label credits the Skeeter Best Orchestra and Skeeter is undoubtedly the guitarist.

 


Clifton ‘Skeeter’ Best was a jazz guitarist who made his name with Earl “Fatha” Hines’s orchestra before enlisting in the service for WWII. After the war he played with Bill Johnson and Oscar Pettiford before forming his own trio in the 1950s. He’s probably best known for the his prominent work on the 1957 Soul Brothers jazz session with Ray Charles and Milt Jackson. He continued to record with jazz artists, some singers who crossed over from jazz slightly into R&B, and into pop music with Harry Belafonte; but no R&R or modern R&B as far as I can tell. Later in his life he taught in New York City before passing away in 1985.

Skeeter’s only other connection with Buffalo which I can find is that he again worked with Earl Hines, recording with him immediately after Hines recorded his 1976 Improv album at Buffalo’s Statler Hilton. I wasn’t able to find any evidence Skeeter hung around Buffalo so details on the Skeeter Best Orchestra which will have to remain a mystery for now. I’m guessing it may just be an expanded version of Skeeter’s trio. For what it’s worth, he co-wrote the A-side with Woody.

In any case, the guitar work on “I’ll Never Let You Go” is great, but it’s the work of a hot player schooled in Charlie Christian, more jazzy than the Pop R&B music of the time. Perfect for the earlier 1950s, but by 1962 nobody wanted to hear T-Bone Walker licks.

So… who is Woody Robinson? I know nothing. But his Buffalo credentials are secure, right from the first line of “I’ll Never Let You”: ‘I got a little girl, she lives in Buffalo….’

 

 

45 Friday: The Professors – Our Teenage Love

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

In the Fifties, there was a division between Teen Music and Rock’ N’ Roll. Our young people have come to believe that all Fifties youngsters were Rock ‘n’ Rollers, thanks to “Happy Days” and “Grease!” In reality, Fifties Teen music could be R&R, but it could also be straight-ahead Pop.

R&R was considered the music of hoods, delinquents and Frats (at least earlier-on). And Pop was for the Squeaks (as in Squeaky-clean).

 

 

There’s no doubt where these Professors fit in. They majored in Pop, and their dissertation – “Our Teenage Love” – was pure Corn!

In any case, they were apparently good students all the way around. Lou Mastor, Dick Fagan, Tom Sheeder and Frank Pullano were all students at Fredonia State Teachers College (today’s SUNY Fredonia). Tom and Lou were from Fredonia, Frank was from Niagara Falls. Dick was from Sherburne. While at the school in the mid-1950s, they formed The Four Dukes. As such they didn’t record but they appeared on a Rochester TV program.

Eventually they took on a residency at Buffalo’s McVan’s night club, where their smooth style probably went over real well. It would be some years before McVan’s became a R&R club.

By the end of the 1950s ,they were calling themselves The Professors. Somehow they were able to cut a single. I believe Famas Records was a one-off label, created exclusively for this release. Pullano wrote the top side and Mastor sang lead, backed by the others. It’s a Teen sound, but with little trace of R&R influence.

Subsequently they made an album which seems to be rare but also seems to not be in high demand! Maybe the few who would care are simply unaware of it? Their vocal influences on the 45 are the pop vocal groups of the day (the Four Lads, Four Coins, Hilltoppers) but on the LP they to toward a more interesting sound; the Four Freshman, that is. And it’s revealed that they are indeed a band, playing all their own instruments with a fair amount of talent.

They seem to have gone their separate ways after this. Lou became a member of Pop hit-makers The Hilltoppers, the local (Lockport/Niagara Falls) group who had worked a similar non-R&R sound in the R&R age. In the Hilltoppers’ case, they had made it work. They were virtually superstars, at least as far as record sales. But those days were far behind by the time Lou joined them. Now ALL the kids were listening to R&R. Pop groups were dead in the water. Or should I say- they had flunked out?

No word on whether any of The Professors became actual professors later on. If so, they were probably forever chagrined to be on the spelling-impaired ‘FAMAS’ label.