Friday 45: TOM SHANNON with THE RUSS HALLET TRIO – Frosty

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

Russ Hallett, Aldo Brozzetti and Jack Sinchaski worked as a trio in their local area – Binghampton / Johnson City – until word got out that they could rock the joint. They started getting offers for good paying gigs if they were willing to travel. Soon they were hitting the college circuit (from local Cornell to Dartmouth) and the Catskills circuit.

They were mostly known as the Russ Hallett Trio but sometimes as Russ And The Rockets, Russ Hallet’s Rockets or even The Nomads. And eventually they expanded beyond a trio.

Along the way they got a manager who sent them to Buffalo to record, in 1958. They were in the process of cutting 8 or 9 tracks – including “Frosty” – when Buffalo deejay Tom Shannon walked in.

Liking what he heard Shannon asked them to make up a jingle for his WKBW radio show. They did, and thus recorded the familiar tune we know as the “Tommy Shannon Show” vocal theme, which was used extensively on-air. Tom took them with him to sock hops and shows in the Buffalo area and Toronto where they played their tunes but always got their best reaction to the Shannon Show Theme. It became a crowd favorite yet the idea of cutting it as “a record” didn’t occur to the group.

Local teen combo The Rebels started playing an instrumental version of it and eventually asked Shannon for permission to record it. Recorded as “Wild Weekend” in 1959, the record was a regional hit and even got them an appearance on American Bandstand.

The record died but a Syracuse deejay rediscovered it in 1962 and used it as HIS theme. The record was picked up by Swan, released again in December of 1962, and became a worldwide hit. This time it was credited to The Rockin’ Rebels.

Meanwhile the recordings the Russ Hallet group had done lingered unused. A newspaper article from their area bllied them as having a single on VIM (Variety In Music) Records and even gives the title (“Only Love” / “Love Me Little Girl”) yet this seems to have never actually been released.

However one day the group was surprised to hear their song “Frosty” on the radio. It wasn’t quite the version they’d recorded. Their instrumental now had Shannon’s vocal dubbed over the top, though his ‘vocal’ is really just Tommy talking a little (about a ‘frosty’ chick) over the top of it.

The group claim to have had no advance knowledge this release was coming, though they recognize that their agent might have dropped the ball on this. The flip was a forgettable version of “Blueberry Hill”. But “Frosty” is some good R&R action.

“Frosty” was a local hit, of course receiving local airplay. It DID come out on the VIM label (October 1959) but even this is confusing. It seems to have simultaneously released on local PhiTom Records. I’m not sure how this could happen, as the New York City-based VIM – though a relatively small label – was distributed by Clock Records and surely was run by tough experienced music business folks who wouldn’t have allowed any shenanigans.

For what it’s worth both labels are pink, look similar and have the same matrix numbers (indicating they were pressed at the same time, by Columbia Records’ plant). Al Brozzetti has stated he got copies of both record labels at the time of release.

If you’re wondering, PhiTom Records was named by combining the first names (Phil and Tom) of Shannon and his partner, deejay Phil Todaro, In the same way they created Shan-Todd Records; and The Rebels’ first label was MarLee, a combination of Phil and Tom’s girlfriends’ names.

“Frosty” bears the unwieldy credit of Hallet-Rockets-Todaro-Shannon. Confusing, if you look at the PhiTom release, which credits the Russ Hallett Trio; but the VIM release credits Russ Hallet’s Rockets.

No other releases were forthcoming but Hallet and his associates kept gigging. They hooked up with Binghamptom wailing sax specialist Pat “The Cat” (Monoforte) who had released a great Rockin’ record out of Auburn in 1856 as Pat The Cat & His Kittens.  They intended on recording but this never came to fruition. Unfortunately after this no more was heard from the Russ Hallet or his group.

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45 Friday: THE JESTERS featuring Junior Shank – What’d I Say

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

This week saw the passing of a man who was very important in the local music scene.

Junior Schenk’s time in the Buffalo area proper was relatively short but it included that crucial time in Rock’n’Roll between the initial impact of Presley, Holly and Little Richard and the rise of the Beatles. He came from the Southern Tier area and returned there after he was done. In his area – Bemus Point (where he ran the Surf Club) and Jamestown – he became a legend. But his time in Buffalo is not well-remembered and has never been documented.

The ‘big deal’ in the R&R world of the Fifites in the Southern part of this region was Billy Lehman and his group. They cut one of the first true Rock’n’Roll 45s from this area, and followed it with two more. All three were true R&R band records, as opposed to a single artist or vocal group. 1958’s “Take It Easy, Greasy” was a Bill Haley-style raver. Their vision of a Rockin’ R&R band sound stayed true to the roots and continued even as this group of associated musicians changed personnel and band names.

They were known first as Bill Lehman & The Rock-Itts, later as Billy Lehman & The Penn-Men (named perhaps because they ranged down to Northern PA). They got up North enough to have their first 45 carry an address of “The Hotel Hamburg, Hamburg New York”, from which I assume they hold forth at times. Lehman played guitar, Shenck played guitar and sang, and Mousey (aka Mousie, aka Roy A. “Mouse” Gage) played standup bass and sang.

Clyde Dickerson – who later made records out of the Southern Tier as Clyde Dickerson & The Teardops and Red Arrow & The Braves (see previous articles) – played sax. Tony DiMaria was the drummer.

We should probably clarify one things now: Paul R. Schenck, Jr was known to his friends as Junior or Junie. On all records bearing his name he used his stage name of Junior Shank. So from here on out, he will be Junior Shank.

After three 45s things changed. Other musicians got involved and the changes are somewhat confusing. Shank, Gage and DiMaria morphed into The Jesters. Lee Markish joined as lead guitarist and co-vocalist and John Capello came in on sax.

Markish’s real name was Leroy Markish but that didn’t stop him from calling himself Lee Marcus, Lee Davey and Lee Carroll as well. Capello shows up all over Buffalo R&R, as the sax player on The Tunerockers’ “Green Mosquito” and lead vocalist with the Graduates!

At some point Peter Haskell took over on bass in the The Jesters, replacing Mousie’s standup bass with his electric. The group was run by DiMaria who acted as leader, and Carl Cisco became the Jester’s manager.

Bill Lehman himself stepped back into a manager role and formed a new Rock-Itts around guitarist/vocalist Billy Quadt, using members of Billy Quadt’s band (including Dave Rosean on guitar).

[ Quadt used the stage name Quad, and his band may previously have been called Billy Quad & The Ravens, but were once again The Ravens in time for their 1965 single on Sahara. ]

Eventually Capello left the Jesters to join Billy Quad’s The Rock-Itts. The Jesters replaced him with saxist Eddy Jay (Eddie Hoagland). Later Haskell too left to join the Rock-Itts, and was replaced by Kenny Mills.

Peter Haskell eventually ended up joining Stan & The Ravens. Ironic, because Billy Quad had named HIS Ravens in honor of Stan Szelest’s group!

This is simple enough – two separate bands – but it seems that Lee Markish also played with Quad’s Rock-Itts, filling in for Dave Rosean on the road! Markish ended up in a trio with Quad in the mid-60s anyway: The Soulful Bowlful.

Another thing the bands had in common is that both were ‘house bands’ at Downtown Buffalo’s Jann’s Casino. The Jesters were followed in by The Rock-Itts.

Which brings us to today’s record. 1963’s “The Big T” / “What’d I Say” came out on Candy Cane label in 1963. The Twist craze was in high gear and both songs do have a Twist rhythm. Jann’s Casino opened a room called The Candy Cane Lounge, referencing the famous Peppermint Lounge of NYC which was ground zero for the Twist fad. “The Big T” seems to refer to The twist itself. The labels proudly boast “Recorded Live at The Candy Cane Lounge” and includes crowd noises, like Joey Dee’s “Peppermint Twist” and “Shout” and others of the genre.

Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is perfect for this frenzied treatment. For this reason it was covered by many bands, from frat-rockers and Rockabillys to garage-rockers.

Junior sings both sides of this, and it sure sounds frantic! From listening to this you can guess at the wild show they delivered. And the story on Junie is that in later years he only became MORE of a showman – doing handstands and back flips onstage.

At some point he left the now Buffalo-based group. He pursued a music career ‘down South’ and eventually focused his efforts on his Chautauqua Lake club.

Not long afterward The Jesters reached the pinnacle of their career when they were picked by Tom Shannon to replace the original Rebels and become The Rockin’ Rebels, recording many singles under that name, and most of the “Wild Weekend” album.

Junie has passed on but his Rocking efforts live on; on vinyl, on YouTube, and in the memories of the people who saw his entertaining shows.

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Note: in the pictures used in this video, the Jesters are Jay, Haskell, DiMaria, Markish and Shank.

LENNY O’HENRY & The SHORT STORIES (The VIBRAHARPS) – Billy The Continental Kid

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

As Buffalo’s most successful ‘doo-wop’ group – more accurately: most successful Rhythm & Blues Vocal group – The Vibraharps did well locally. But like most musicians they found there wasn’t a lot of opportunity here. Besides their local shows at places like the Club Zanzibar and the Kitty-Kat, they did live appearances out of town and did most of their recording in New York City. Even so it was hard to keep the group together and they split up several times.

Donnie Elbert and Danny Cannon co-founded the group in 1955, joined by Donald ‘Duck’ Simmons, Douglas Gibson, and Charles Hargro. Donnie was still in the group when they made their first record (written by Buffalonians Bobby Fonville & Ralph Hernandez) for NYC’s Beech Records. In fact Donnie was in the studio but due to a group squabble he didn’t sing on it!

So it’s not surprising that he was the first to leave, beginning his solo career on Deluxe Records in 1957. He continued to stay in touch and remained friendly with the group though. As he was hitting the charts the Vibraharps were breaking up – for the first time. During this down time Charles Hargro went to work as his driver.

They reunited, broke up again, reunited again. At one point Danny Cannon and Duck Simmons took off to Toronto to perform as a duet, “Danny & Donnie”, singing Everly Brothers covers!

During one of their reunions the Vibraharps brought in Thomas ‘Cookie’ Hardy Jr who had a bonus talent – he could write R&B / R&R songs. He wrote both sides of their 1959 single on Atco Records. Later in 1959 they recorded a single for a local label which saw them working with Bobby Fonville & Ralph Hernandez once again. It featured Hargro and credited only him on the label. Unfortunately not much in the way of financial or chart success resulted from either of these 1959 efforts.

They were drifting in and out of “active” status when local DJ Lucky Pierre took them under his wing. He hooked them up with new local management, a pair of hustlers with all kinds of connections. With the promise of work and good pay the group came solidly together and started performing in and out of town.

Somehow the came to the attention of Berry Gordy (maybe through Donnie Elbert, who was also courted by the Gordy empire). They auditioned for Motown Records in Detroit, resulting in a contract offer. Unfortunately they had to turn this offer down. Their managers virtually simultaneously signed them to a deal with business contacts in New York City.

In 1961 the Vibraharps went off to NYC to record their first single, for music business powerhouse ABC-Paramount. At this time Danny met the man who would become a friend and guide his career for the next few years: Bob Crewe.

The record was “Cheated Heart”. When it came out it was billed to Lenny O’Henry & The Short Stories. Danny was told he was going to be the front man, he would be called Lenny O’Henry, and he was asked to sign a contract a separate contract from the whole group. Danny – not wanting to go behind their backs – disclosed this to the group and asked them what to do. Though they encouraged him to move forward with his career and appeared to accept secondary status as ‘his’ group, it was really the end of the Vibraharps. They never recorded together again, and Danny – though achieving some solo success – never was able to find the same feeling in the music business as he did when he was one of the boys.

“Cheated Heart” was written by Danny. Bob Crewe wrote the flip side, a rocking number titled “Billy The Continental Kid”, a tale of hip cat Billy from Philly. Danny didn’t really care for this one that much. In general, he liked to sing ballads or anything in a Sam Cooke direction. Yet producers and his band mates often pushed him to do uptempos and rockers.

So – “Cheated Heart” / “Billy The Continental Kid” is the last actual Vibraharps group record and also the first Danny Cannon solo record, though it’s credited to Lenny O’Henry & The Short Stories. All of which points out why recording artists are sometimes not given their due; when their actual recording histories are so hard to unravel, few people seem to care, and those who want to remember – well, their memories aren’t getting any BETTER.

45 Friday: THE ROOSTERS – I Wanna Do It

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By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon

In tracking down information on The Road, especially their ‘Cognition’ album, several mysteries were solved while some remained unanswered. One interesting thing is that five members are pictured on the cover and listed as the actual band personnel but a good portion of the songs were written by other people. In fact the songs that seems to be the most significant – a suite of related songs whose lyrics are printed on the back cover, which give the album the feeling of a ‘concept album’ – are written by people who weren’t members but associates.

One writer is Ken Kaufman. He’s not listed as a band member but is credited for playing piano, while member Don “Jake” Jakubowski is credited with organ.

Although the group did exist as a two-keyboard band for awhile, it seems that Jakubowski was on his way out and Kaufman on his way in. He would remain in the band and in their circle for a time, taking a leading role.

Another writer is Ron Lombardo who had been a member of Baggs. Following one of several Road breakups Lombardo would join with former Road members to form Waves in 1973.

The last ‘outside’ writer on Cognition was John Lotz. All three of these men would end up involved in the Waves project, writing the two songs on their 45, but only Kaufman and Lombardo were actual members of Waves.

The question remained- who was John Lotz, and what did he do, besides help write songs for these local groups?

The answer was surprising and completely unexpected.

John Lotz and his brother Trey Lotz were from Amherst and attended Amherst High School. Trey went on to study Philosophy & Religion at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY (in the Upstate area). While at Hamilton guitarist Trey met bass player Peter Brohl. John Lotz was convinced to move to the area and registered with a College in nearby Utica. With the vocalist question settled (John also played a bit of guitar and keyboards) only a drummer was lacking. Western NY friend and drummer Ralph Guastaferro was soon a student at Mohawk Valley Community College and the band was complete.

The band played the local gig circuit in the Utica / Oneida area, ranging to Syracuse; but specialized in frat parties at all the wide-ranging Upstate NY institutions of higher learning. During their core period (1965-67)

Many of the Upstate NY bands recorded for a series of labels based in Utica with unexpected Eastern-sounding, vaguely-religious names: Krishna, Kama and Buddha. Note that this isn’t the famous NYC-based Kama Sutra Records or it’s affiliate Buddah. In fact, I wonder if the different (‘incorrect’) spelling of the famous Buddah label was due to the correct spelling having already been copyrighted by the Upstate people?

In any case these labels also seem to be associated with Hamilton College, with the Roosters record on Buddha carrying a Hamilton College address.

The Roosters first (probably!) 45 was a version of “I Wanna Do It”. This Feldman/ Goldstein/ Gottehrer (aka The Strangeloves) song was first recorded by The Avons in 1964 and eventually by the The Strangeloves themselves in 1968. In between that time it was recorded by others – Upstate and Western New Yorkers probably know it best by local guy Bobby Comstock – but it was especially popular played by garage bands for wild frat parties. It had mildly risque lyrics which may have been altered for live performance. And a rollicking rhythm which probably broke them up at the keggers!

This 45 appears on Buddha. The flip was a cover of the Zombies’ “You Don’t Need Any Reason”. Next for them was the The Rooster Song on Krishna Records. The label reads “In album ‘The Roosters Live At The Appollo’ (sic)” but no such album ever existed. In a nod to the changing sounds of the day there’s a Yardbirds-sounding guitar riff from Trey Lotz.  John Lotz apparently played piano on this track (promo photos also show him playing rhythm guitar in the band).

Last came “Midnight Green” b/w “Hurry Sundown”, again on Krishna. Following that the band broke up.

John Lotz made his way back to WNY. There’s a lot of info missing but he must have stayed in the music scene and was known to the guys in The Road to the point that he wrote songs for them. I have a feeling he may have PLAYED music here too, in some capacity, but no one seems to know. Eventually John and Trey Lotz seetled in the L.A. area and I have no further info on them.

Ex-Rooster Ralph Guastaferro returned to Buffalo and played with a commercial band, and I have no further info on him.

So, three Buffalo musicians made good records in Upstate NY in the mid-Sixties with no apparent impact on the WNY music consciousness. And one of them has song writing credits on an album by a legendary local band (issued – coincidentally? – on Kama Sutra/ Buudah ‎records). Yet there seems to be almost no info on him or them!

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Thanks to Rich Sargent for leading me down the Roosters trail, and to Chris Bishop’s excellent blog at http://www.garagehangover.com/roosters/ for providing much of the info.