The Contrails 1966
(Jack Stanizzo, Dick Engel, Norman Denk, Carl Ruffing and John Ruffing from bottom to top)
Groups in the sixties knew how to write a love song. Some of them could even come up with a good unrequited love or "love gone wrong" tune. But when you can come up with a breakup song that's still spinning 45 years later, now that's one memorable ballad.
Jack Stanizzo of Mt. Washington and Dick Engel of Mt. Lebanon, writers and performers for the Contrails, did just that when they teamed up to pen "Someone," a song that hit the local charts in 1966.
As recalled by Engel, the Contrails first came together in late 1963. The group consisted of rhythm guitarist John Budnick (whose father managed the group), Bill Viviano on Cordovox, Engel on lead guitar, and "Speedy" McMann on drums. Because of Speedy's habit of accelerating tempos (which is how he earned his moniker), their first record, "Slinky," was recorded with a studio drummer, Jimmy Interval.
It was released in early 1964 on the Ideal label (#94696), and if memory serves Engel right, Porky was the first to play it. Two drummers were later hired to replace Speedy, Dave Beabout and Dave MacIntyre, known by the group as Big Dave and Little Dave, and they played together ala Santana.
Budnick's dad eventually quit as manager because of family issues and the group restructured in the mid sixties, emerging with Jack Stanizzo as lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Norman Denk on bass, brothers Carl Ruffing on keyboard and John Ruffing on drums, and Engel remaining on vocals and lead guitar.
The band originally released the song "Someone" on Odell Bailey's west coast Reuben label (#711), backed by the instrumental "Mummy Walk" in the fall of 1966. The Pittsburgh band cut the master at Gateway Studios above the old National Record Mart in Market Square, and Bailey himself was from Beltzhoover. But there was a reason they pasted a Los Angeles label (Reuben's only release, as far as Old Mon can tell) on their purely local wax.
Bailey and The Contrails thought the tune had a better chance of getting airtime if they weren't competing with the heap of local songs already stacked up in front of the region's radio and hop jocks. The plan worked to perfection. "Someone" broke here and was then picked up by NYC's Diamond label (#213).
It took off, especially in Western Pennsylvania, where it became a Top Five song and stayed on the area charts for 15 weeks. The dance hall jocks couldn't spin it enough, and Clark Race pushed it hard on KDKA.
The group scored a couple of more local hits with "Why Do I" (1966) and "Make Me Love" (1967), both Stanizzo-Engel compositions. They opened or shared a stage with some of the eras great acts like Smokey Robinson, David Ruffin, Three Dog Night, The Marcels, Gary "US" Bonds, The Sweet Inspirations, The Brooklyn Bridge, Sonny & Cher, The Yardbirds and The Grass Roots. But in 1969, their run came to an end.
Old Mon came up empty trying to track the Ruffings and Denk. Engel recalled that the Ruffings were into jazz, and speculates that was the direction they went after the band's breakup. Denk, who Engel called "one of the most creative bass players I had ever worked with," played with the Skyliners band for awhile and filled in club dates as a side man, but has been out of contact for years.
Engel joined the Skyliners as an arranger/conductor/guitarist and spent some 35 years with the group before retiring and moving to South Carolina with his wife Cathy.
He was born with music in his blood. His dad played tenor sax with Art Giles and his Everglades Orchestra and later with Bert Lowe and his Hotel Statler Orchestra. The sheet music laying around the house helped to pave Engel's future path, as he would dissect the piles of arrangements sitting on his dad's baby-grand as a youth.
With that background, it's not surprising that the big bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Count Basey were his musical influences. His gig with the Skyliners and their large backing orchestra was a match made in heaven.
Stanizzo formed a band called Thy Brothers Blood in 1969, and they spent the next decade plus touring and playing locally at clubs and venues like the Civic Arena and Syria Mosque, where they opened for acts like Chicago, Jimi Hendrix, BS&T and Janis Joplin.
He still makes appearances with guitarist Paul Lowe, gigging in the Tri-State area. Stanizzo and Lowe recently released the CD "Heart of the City," a collection of soulful, jazz-influenced ballads on his Ozzi Nats label (OZN - 1911). You can catch a couple of tracks at Jack's My Space page. (In 2006, the band released a 40th anniversary CD with the old hits and some unreleased cuts.)
Stanizzo came about his love for music honestly. His uncles, Fred and Art, were accomplished jazz guitarists, and he learned some of his earliest licks from Joe Negri, using a guitar he bought with his First Communion money (proof that not everyone in Pittsburgh still has it squirreled away.) He cites as influences performers like Louie Prima, Little Richard, Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago, Santana, and Sting.
Jack and his wife Lois live in the city's South Hills. He earns his daily bread in construction and design now, with a list of professional certificates as long as your arm.
Old Mon met him once at a Christmas party hosted by his brother Rich, head of the Construction Trades Council in Pittsburgh and another very excellent dude. We got to talking about "Someone," and Jack mentioned that the song still was being aired by American oldie stations, and is played to this day in Europe. He grinned and said he had just received a royalty check from Italy to prove his point.
And that proved our original point, too. A good breakup song outlasts even a broken heart.
1966's "Someone" performed by the Contrails