Monday, April 28, 2008

The Daddio of the Raddio

Porky Chedwick poster from South Pittsburgh On Line

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a relatively unknown DJ named Porky Chedwick was making quite a splash here in Pittsburgh. He was a white man broadcasting "race" music; blues, R&B, doo-wop, gospel and jazz.

Some parents went as far as to call him a satanic influence on their children. In fact, the nuns that taught his future wife said he did "the devil's work."

The innuendoes were put to rest when he was commended by Senator Estes Kefauver for his work organizing youth baseball teams to combat juvenile delinquency. He even had a few kids remanded to his custody from juvenile court.

Actually, Chedwick was one of the first DJs to promote a Christian lifestyle, free of alcohol, drugs and tobacco (By his own admission, Porky's only vice was girls, although his friends say the only thing he really can't resist is coconut creme pie!)

His generosity is legendary. He's made millions, and given away whatever business leeches didn't swindle from him. One well known story tells of Chedwick giving a homeless man some change. The change was his bus fare, and he walked home so the more unfortunate guy could eat.

In a time when Frank Sinatra, crooners, and big bands reigned, Chedwick broke all the radio rules, and the kids flocked to him and his shows.

"Pork the Tork", the "Daddio of the Raddio," your "Platter Pushin' Papa," the "Boss Hoss with the Hot Sauce," the "Pied Piper of Platter," had rubbed the magic lamp, and the R&B genie would never get stuffed back into the bottle. "Porky's golden ear, breaking hits from year to year," was his credo.

He was born George Jacob Chedwick on February 4, 1918 in Homestead, one of ten children of a steelworking father. His mom passed away when he was still a child. He was raised in a close-knit, culturally and racially diverse neighborhood, which he often compared to "a secluded island," where skin color didn't matter.

As Chedwick told Wikipedia, "We all had one thing in common - poverty." The origin of the nickname, "Porky" remains up for debate, but he insists it was given to him by his mother because he was a stubby youngster.

His old Munhall high school classmates claim it was because...ah, we won't get into that, hehe.

He had changed his first name from George to the more flowing Craig Chedwick when he got his first job as a sports stringer for the Daily Messenger in Homestead and as a PA announcer at local sporting events. Then he heard about an opportunity to broadcast on the new Homestead radio station.

And so his career in radio began on August 1, 1948 with a stint on WHOD, a tiny station located behind a Homestead candy store known as "The Station of Nations," doing a 10 minute sports and music program. The station was the forerunner of WAMO.

Chedwick began playing blues and R&B records by musicians like Bo Diddley and Little Anthony and the Imperials. He introduced the new material as his "movers and groovers," and never pushed any vinyl because of payola. Chedwick spun his beloved oldies, too, his "dusty disks." He appreciated soul and put it on the air.

Most of his listeners, who tuned in for Chedwick's music and off-the-cuff rhymes and patter (he claimed "I had more lines than Bell Telephone. I was the original rapper," or "I'm going to shatter this platter and make your liver quiver"), had no idea that he was white.

A sizzling performance from a band would make him say, "This record is on fire. We're burning," (which once led to a listener calling the Homestead fire department!) or just alerting the audience that he had a "hot platter." He'd infuriate labels by turning a record over and featuring the B side if he thought it was a better song.

And Chedwick refused to play covers of those songs copied by white musicians on the big labels. As the told the Tribune-Review in 1998, "I wouldn't even play Elvis Presley's version of 'Hound Dog.' I played Big Mama Thornton's."

To this day, many of those black artists pay tribute to Chedwick for giving them their first air play and sticking with them. As Bo Diddley said "Any entertainer of my era who say they don't know who Porky Chedwick is ... they're damn lyin'! That's the cat that played the records. I know."

Besides Diddley, some of his R&B admirers are Smoky Robinson, Hank Ballard, and Little Anthony.

Chedwick essentially invented the concept of oldies 60 years ago with his "dusty disks." They were oldies even when Chedwick first played them. He bought or was given unwanted 78s, records by black acts, and dropped the needle on them.

"The falsettos, the bass, the togetherness. They wrote about poverty and handicaps I could understand. This was a message nobody was getting. I blew the dust off them. I was giving kids the music. One day they would know I was speaking the truth." He had invented his signature "Porky Sound."

Chedwick is responsible for making Pittsburgh "The Oldies Capitol of the World," a reputation it still carries today in the music industry.

Chedwick's career moved from WHOD and WAMO to KQV in 1972, and then to WNRZ from 1985 to 1986. After a 10 year hiatus, Pork returned to WAMO in 1996, then moved to WWSW in 1998 and to WLSW in 2000. Chedwick is currently spinning disks for WKHB.

Luigi Sacco, aka Lou Christie, said being cool when he grew up meant listening to Porky Chedwick. His hops and R&B revues were on the must-see list of every Pittsburgh teen. Chedwick still likes to say that he has seen "more hops than the Easter Bunny." He estimates he's done well over 7,000 of them.

It's reputed that his excellent physical condition (except for his eyesight and bad hearing - not bad for a 90-year old man) is partly due to the times he had to resort to taking the shoe leather express to his record hops. Many nights he’d walk for miles, lugging along his records, when he couldn’t bum a ride.

He did have one health bump in 1991, when Porky had a benign brain tumor removed. The troops held a benefit for him at the Syria Mosque, and they couldn't keep away the acts: Wolfman Jack emceed the show, and Jim Quinn, Bob Livorio and Charlie Appel said a few words.

The performers were Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Moonglows, Lou Christie, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, the Vogues, the Marcels, the Cleftones, Johnnie and Joe, Bobby Comstock, the Contrails and the Elmonics. Others sent their wishes by tape and letter, including the Coasters, Bo Diddley, Dick Clark, the Chirelles, Bobby Vinton, the Penguins, Danny and the Juniors, the Cadillacs, the Chantels, Marv Johnson, Phil Phillips, the Tune Weavers, Lenny Welch, Jerry Blavat, Jay Michael and Barry Kaye.

His best known story is of the time when Chedwick did a live show at the Stanley Theater. An hour before he went on the air, 500 people crowded around the building. Before the show was over, 10,000 people surrounded the theater. Downtown Pittsburgh became a parking lot.

Kids were stuck on buses in the logjam created by Chedwick's appearance. They got off, crossed the bridges and walked to the Stanley Theater to see him. He told the teens pouring into town to stop their cars and listen to the music wherever they were at because there was no more room for the fans of Porkology in the Golden Triangle.

They did. Chedwick spun "Dancin' in the Streets," and they hopped out of their cars on streets all over the city and started dancing. Pittsburgh was tied up for hours. Porky-mania had taken control. It still rules.

Chedwick has been recognized on the floor of the United States Congress for his pioneering contributions to radio and rock and roll (and countless times around Pittsburgh, including a 50th anniversary oldies concert called "Porkstock," in 1998 at Three Rivers Stadium.)

A bronze plaque commemorating Chedwick and WAMO was placed on the building that housed WAMO on 107 E. Eighth St., near the Homestead Grays Bridge. The plaque is partially dedicated to "The Bossman." September 23, 2006 was declared “Porky Chedwick Day” in Allegheny County by the elected suits.

WQED-TV has featured Chedwick on their nationally broadcast PBS R&B/doo wop television specials, taped at The Benedum Center.

He's the only Pittsburgh DJ to be recognized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At age 88, Chedwick celebrated his 58th anniversary on the air at Hall of Fame's Alan Freed Radio Studio on August 12, 2006.

He'll be the subject of an upcoming documentary that was begun that day by Emmy Award winning producer Daniel Friedman, the son of one of the original owners of WAMO in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburghers can still find him packing local nightclubs with his sock hops, just as he has since the late 1940s. He lives in Brookline with his wife and business manager, Jeannie, and their two little dogs. (As of this writing, he's back in Florida.) The two met at a hop at the Linden Grove in 1990, and were married a few months later. His surviving sons are Paul of Mount Washington and Michael, who lives in Atlanta.

He decided to move in 2008 to Florida to soak up the sun in his twilight; Porky decided instead to come back home for good before the year ran out - there were too many old people in the Sunshine State to suit his taste. (He did move back, and is said to be looking to return to the Steel City. With our recent winters, we'd strongly suggest dual residency!)

Hey, Porky Chedwick did more to put Pittsburgh on the music map than any other performer in the City. R&B acts opened here because he made the 'Burgh the hottest soul market of his time. Oldies radio began because of his playlist. Everyone made money off of Chedwick - except Chedwick. He doesn't care.

He's what everyone in Pittsburgh aspires to be - a honest, hard working family man with a soul (and ear) of gold, talkin' trash and boppin' through life. Porky will always be the city's "Boss Hoss."

(A portion of this post and a very good bio of Porky is available South Pittsburgh on Line - "Daddio of the Raddio")

Dave Crawley KD Country report on Porky from 1989

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mr. Small's - Music and More

Mr. Smalls from Pop City Media

St. Anne's in Millvale used to be filled with the joyful sounds of a choir and pipe organ resounding through the building every Sunday. And though the church has gone the way of the steel mills, it's still shaking its' walls with music.

"When I saw the church, I said, 'My God, it's my dream come true,'" said Mike Speranzo to the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Speranzo and his wife, Liz Berlin of Rusted Root, along with partner Peter Beckerman, make up Together Holdings Inc., which operates Mr. Small's SkatePark and Funhouse, a collaboration of businesses in Millvale and North Side.

Mr. Small's features a skatepark, headboard shop, concert facility, recording studio, production offices, art gallery, and apartment complex.

It's a karmic combo of talents - Sperzano and Berlin had band and industry experience, while Beckerman was a New York sound engineer. They have extensive national music connections. All their talents came into play in forming the hodge-podge know as the Funhouse.

First, why Mr. Small's? It's the nickname Speranzo and Berlin came up with for their son, Jordan.

Together Holdings paid $85,000 for the church, and sank six figures worth of bucks into the Funhouse complex.

Mr. Small's Funhouse began as a single recording studio and has evolved into a vast network of businesses. The heart of Mr Small's Funhouse is its 650 seat theatre. It hosted Ryan Adams for a month of rehearsal before his tour with the Rolling Stones.

National artists such as Rusted Root, They Might Be Giants, Anti-Flag, the Donnas, Puddle of Mudd, Girl Talk, and Ziggy Marley have played there along with dozens of touring major label and indy acts.

MTV also stopped by to film an episode of Advanced Warning. Heck, Bill Clinton even made an appearance there to sing the praises of his wife last week during the presidential primary.

They also have a set-up where the performing bands can get a top flight live recording of their Mr. Small's gig on the cheap, no little thing for an aspiring act.

Expanding its' Millvale presence to the central North Side, Mr. Small's switched the sound back on at 922 West North Avenue, previously AAM (Audiomation) Studios, and new home to Mr. Smalls Funhouse Studios. Rapper 50 Cent and the Black Eyed Peas have recorded in its' Millvale studios.

Their Millvale facilities will re-open as the new Creative.Life.Support Center providing developmental and educational resources for new musicians. The renamed Real.Life.Recording Studio will occupy the Rectory House recording studio.

It will function primarily as a demo EP studio offering a studio rate of $25 per hour. Also, it will continue to offer the live-show recording packages, with a price of only $150. Basically, Mr. Small's is giving new bands a chance to record and forge a name for themselves without busting the bank.

The Rectory House is now Recording Studio B and the Rock Hostel for Artists. What once was the priests' living quarters now offers 6 bedrooms for musicians.

St. Anne's Schoolhouse, located beside the Theatre and Rectory House, was redesigned into Small's main offices, Recording Studio C, Opus One Productions, an art gallery, and a pair of two-bedroom, low-income apartments that are specifically geared towards artists high on talent but low on bread.

Mr. Small's SkatePark is located along the Allegheny River, three blocks from the Theatre. It offers an in-depth street course with a quadzillion skateboarding ramps, and in-line and freestyle biking, including a 40 foot wide vertical ramp, ala the X-Games. It also features a rock climbing wall.

How's this fit in with the music biz? Well, Speranzo spent nearly 10 years as the director of one of the largest summer skateboarding camps in the country. And hey, entertainment is entertainment, no?

The SkatePark is host to many summertime demos and workshops like the ZooYork Tour. It also has a cafe overlooking the Allegheny, a handy spot for locals and for parents to hang out while their kids are playing their gnarly games.

Segments from the monthly Sonic Funhouse series hosted by Mr. Smalls will be available on Comcast's "On Demand" service under the "Your Town/Local Music" categories. There are also plans afoot for a Mr. Small's folder that will include concert footage and band interviews for cable viewers.

Mr. Smalls employs 30 staffers, and every year it draws 80,000 folk to its music and skatepark venues. So next time you think of Mr. Small's Millvale stage as just a rock hall, think again. It offers it all, and may be the best thing to ever hit the 'Burgh as far as nurturing local bands hoping to make the scene.

Mr Small's helps its' fans keep up with all the action at My Space Mr. Smalls

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Your Home


When six year old Bill Deasy was growing up in Penn Hills, he had a revelation. No, it wasn't religious, but musical. He heard the King, Elvis Presley, and caught the feeling bad.

Young Deasy would bop to Elvis in his bed so hard that his parents would have to turn the mattress over every so often so he wouldn't wear a hole in it. He'd beg to stay up and watch Elvis movies. And he's still got the feeling.

In 1991, Deasy put together his first group, Shiloh, which took top honors at the Graffiti Rock Challenge. Then it was on to one of Pittsburgh's great bands of the 1990s, The Gathering Field.

The band began in Grove City when Deasy, Dave Brown and Jim DiSpirito (now the Rusted Root percussionist) sat down for a weekend with guitars, tequila, and recording gear. The resulting Glory Bound Sessions led ultimately to the formation of The Gathering Field and its' self-titled debut disc in 1994.

It added bass player Eric Riebling, founder of The Affordable Floors, and took off. By 1996, the band consisted of Deasy, Brown, Riebling, drummer Ray DeFade and keyboard player John Burgh. Gathering Field got it's big break when it sent a copy of their "Lost In America" CD to the program director of WDVE.

It made it's way into the rotation and the rest was history. The band's name was made when DVE began playing the title song "Lost in America." It became one of the most requested songs ever aired by the station.

A bidding war was fought over them by the major labels, and the band signed with Atlantic Records in 1996, which re-released the album. But the label underwent re-structuring, deciding to put its marketing efforts behind Matchbox Twenty, and The Gathering Field struggled for several years to be released from their contract.

Once they won their freedom, the group put out "Reliance" in 1999 followed by "So Close To Home" in 2001, an album of songs they’d played live for several years but had never recorded.

The band had a loyal following in the Pittsburgh area but after the release of 2001's "So Close To Home" record, Deasy knew the time had come to strike out on his own. (The band did get together, though, for a Thanksgiving reunion concert in 2010)

Deasy released a semi-acoustic solo album, "Spring Lies Waiting" that year, a collection of songs that didn't quite fit in with The Gathering Field's rock style.

"Going solo wasn't a decision so much as a natural process," he recalled for Andrew Ellis of Ink 19. "That being said, it's hard leaving the security of something so strong and familiar." But it was decision that paid off for him.

His songs have been recorded by an eclectic mix of artists including Howard Jones, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kim Richey, Martina McBride, Bijou Phillips, and Michael Stanley, as well as local bands like The Clarks.

Deasy has also appeared on national television singing one of his songs, “Good Things Are Happening”, in a commercial for Good Morning America that ran for four years. His "Your Home" tune has become KDKA-TV's theme song. "This is My Day," a song he wrote with Odie Blackmon, is the theme music for the Country Music Television series "Working Class"

As a performer, he's opened for acts like Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Roseanne Cash, John Hiatt, World Party, and Warren Zevon.

He's been busy recording, too. In 2003 he released "Good Day No Rain." In 2005 came the follow-up, "Chasing Down a Spark," featuring appearances by Donnie Iris and the Clarks' Scott Blasey. It was mixed by Joe Blaney, whose resume includes work for The Clash, Blues Traveler, and The Raveonettes.

Deasy released his fourth CD last year, "The Miles," and followed with "A Different Kind of Wild" in 2009. His singer/writer style is somewhat reminiscent of John Mellencamp, and that's not bad company to be in. As a writer, Deasy is especially inspired by Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, who he refers to as his "holy trinity of songwriters".

He's also written more than songs. In August, 2006, Deasy published his first novel, "Ransom Seaborn", which went on to receive the web-based Needle Award.

Bill Deasy is as Pittsburgh as a yinzer can be. He grew up in Penn Hills, and his dad Bill worked for Westinghouse while his mom, Judy, taught at nearby St. Barts. Naturally, he went to St. Barts, Central Catholic, and then Grove City College.

In fact, he penned his first tune at St. Batholemew's for his future wife. As he told KDKA: "I met my wife there when we were in the fourth grade. She inspired my very first song – "She's a Big Jerk" which I still dust off from time to time. We lost touch through our formative years but reconnected in our twenties."

Now he and Paula live in Shadyside with their three sons. His parents are in Oakmont, and all his brothers and sisters still live in the area. Deasy wouldn't have it any other way. When KDKA asked why he didn't move off to a songwriter's mecca like Nashville, this was his reply:

"Pittsburgh inspires me. Plain and simple. I'm always traveling away to tour or write with people in other cities and each time I return I think something along the lines of, 'Man, I love this town.' I love the rivers and the view of the city through the tunnels and the kind people and the cool neighborhoods."

And hey, a writer gotta know where his muse is, right? Bill Deasy knows where to find his.

(You can keep up with the busy Bill Deasy schedule and news at My Space - Bill Deasy)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny...

Slim Bryant and the Wildcats from Pittsburgh Magazine

Thomas Hoyt "Slim" Bryant, the first of six sons, was born in Atlanta on Dec. 7, 1908. Bryant's dad was an electrician who played the fiddle and mandolin. His mother was a poet, sang and played guitar and piano. "I think that's where I got my songwriting ability," he said of his mom to Rich Kienzle of the Post Gazette. "She lived to be 104 years old."

Bryant lives in Dormont, a bedroom 'burb he's called home for 59 of his 99 years. The Gibson L-5 guitar he played for the past seven decades sits in a corner of his dining room. His late brother, Raymond, better known as "Loppy," was one of his band mates and later became a Dormont councilman. And who sez the City can't attract people?

He grew up listening to country acts such as Fiddlin' John Carson and Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, but didn't decide to play guitar until after he spent some time plying his father's trade after high school. Sixteen months of studying with Atlanta jazz banjoist-guitarist Perry Bechtel gave him a broad musical background and a jazzman's licks.

In May 1931, Bryant gave up his day job to join Clayton McMichen's new band, the Melody Men. He spent the next six years with McMichen and his renamed Georgia Wildcats at radio stations in Kentucky, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland and New York.

In mid-1932, Bryant was at WTAM in Cleveland with McMichen when Jimmie Rodgers, who knew McMichen, invited the fiddler to accompany him on some recording sessions in August. McMichen suggested using Bryant as a guitarist.

He and McMichen bused to Washington, D.C., met Rodgers and traveled to RCA-Victor's Camden, N.J., studios in the singer's chauffeured limo. "Producer Ralph Peer heard 'Mother, the Queen of My Heart,' and I was in," he told Kienzle. "Jimmie Rodgers liked it."

Bryant wrote the song when he was was sitting in an Atlanta diner and overheard two men talking about the previous night's poker game. "One guy said, 'You know, I'm never gonna play any poker again. I'm through with it.' And he told the story: He drew this card and saw his mother's picture."

"I thought, 'Ahh ... this would make a hell of a song.' So I went home and I wrote it." It's the most popular of his tunes, and was covered by everyone from Lonesome George Gobels to Merle Haggard to Jerry Lee Lewis.

At the time of the 1932 session, Rodgers, who was fighting tuberculosis, had eight months to live. Bryant is the last living musical link to him.

The Georgia Wildcats' hip, swinging style, totally different from the Western Swing music of Texas, reflected McMichen's and Bryant's love of jazz. In fact, Bryant was an early pioneer of using jazz chords in country songs. In 1934, younger brother Loppy became the Wildcats' bassist.

But in 1937, when McMichen formed a 12-piece dance band in Louisville, both Bryants, guitarist Jack Dunigan and several others amicably parted ways.

After hiring Louisville banjoist Jerry Wallace, they returned to KDKA Radio as Slim, Jack and the Gang. Apollo fiddler Kenny Newton joined the group in 1938. Reclaiming the name Georgia Wildcats, the band left Pittsburgh and moved to Richmond.

After a musicians' strike put them on the unemployment line, Loppy and his wife, originally from Zelienople, used the time off to visit Pittsburgh. When he made a courtesy call at KDKA, program director George Hyde invited the band back. They arrived on Aug. 10, 1940.

"I liked Pittsburgh," Bryant said with a smile. "I liked KDKA's 50,000 watts."

In June 1941, they joined the new "KDKA Farm Hour" Mondays through Fridays and played 11 songs between the day's news and farm reports. When Wallace joined the Marines during World War II, KDKA bandleader Maurice Spitalny suggested local accordionist Al Azzaro as his replacement. By then, they were simply the Wildcats.

Bryant and the Wildcats never became national stars, and in fact never even played at the Grand Ole Opry. But from 1940 through the '50s, on radio and local TV, Slim Bryant and his Wildcats were the face and sound of country music in the region. They were sort of country crossover artists of their day.

Only one Bryant tune, "Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny," ever became a hit (in 1946), but its' success was limited by the tiny label the Wildcats were signed to, Majestic. RCA had artist Zeke Manners cover the song, and his version outsold the original 2-1. So it was a big seller, just not for the Wildcats. Such is show biz.

But their legacy lives on for country fans and historians. The Wildcats recorded 287 songs in New York for Thesaurus Library, which supplied radio stations with early versions of EPs they could use as prerecorded 15-minute show segments. Those tracks still survive.

Those vinyls covered the gamut of the group's varied stylings: country, pop, swing, Western, polkas, and a bit of gospel and jazz. The band harmonies compare to early Sons of the Pioneers. Bryant's Wildcats played so they could catch the ear of the city slicker as well as the farmers, crossover artists before crossover was a concept.

When television came to Pittsburgh, on Jan. 11, 1949, Slim Bryant and his Wildcats performed on the very first program aired, a musical variety show live on WDTV from the Syria Mosque in Oakland.

The next day, ad agency executive Vic Maitland, who handled Duquesne Beer's account, offered Bryant a five-day-a-week, 15-minute show the brewery was sponsoring. But WDTV didn't have a decent studio yet, and he passed on the offer.

But when Maitland created the weekly "Duquesne Showtime" featuring rotating acts two years later, Bryant agreed to host the program once a month. They had added popular local singer Nancy Fingal to the group, and were versatile enough to serve as a house band, too, when vocalists like Rosemary Clooney came to town.

When Iron City took over the show, it grew to a half-hour and moved from Thursday to Friday nights, and they kept the slot even after WDTV became KDKA in 1955. Iron City added a Thursday night show from WTRF for the Wheeling market.

The mid-50s were the Wildcats' halycon years. Though a MGM recording contract flopped, they occasionally appeared on the ABC network's "Jubilee U.S.A." They also played at local amusement parks (don't snicker - they were big venues back in the day) and at East Coast and Midwestern fairs.

By 1958, network programming replaced local prime-time TV, and the Wildcats' days on the "Farm Hour" ended. In 1962, Bryant and his missus Mary Jane opened Slim Bryant's Card and Gift Shop in Dormont. He started teaching guitar in a studio he built in the shop.

The Wildcats scattered to the wind. Azzaro continued playing locally. Newton moved to California and Wallace left for Vegas. Loppy died of lung cancer in 1968. Now they're all gone, except for Slim.

He and his better half ran the gift shop until 1980, and Mary Jane passed away in 1987, survived by their son Tom, a college prof teaching in Kansas. Bryant still teaches guitar - no rock and roll, though - and performs at the occasional festival.

It's been a good career. Bryant's played with Joe Negri, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, Les Paul, Burl Ives, and Rosemary Clooney. Duquesne University honored him with the Pittsburgh Legends Award

Les Paul called him his idol since he heard him play guitar back in the early 1930's. Bryant still opens the mailbox and pulls out royalty checks. And he's not retired quite yet.

Bryant released a CD last year of his old favorites. It's called "Hoyt 'Slim' Bryant & His Wildcats," and has 31 songs on it. Maybe he'll tour to support it...

EDIT - Slim's touring days are have come to an end. He passed away on May 29th, 2010, at the age of 101 after a prolonged illness.

(A lot of this post and the quotes used were lifted from "A Life In Tune: The Real Slim's Heyday" from the Post Gazette, Sunday, August 11, 2002, by Rich Kienzle)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Vitamin L

b e taylor
BE Taylor from Wikipedia

William Edward Taylor - B.E. to Pittsburgh music fans - was born and raised in Aliquippa.

He was struck with Bright's Disease at the age of 11. Taylor was shuttled between the hospital and home for a year, pretty much on his own because of the constant threat of infection. He passed the time by reading and listening to music.

His parents bought him a guitar, and that's where it all began to fall in place. By the time he recovered, Taylor was on the road to becoming Pittsburgh's pop master.

After high school, he formed the B.E. Taylor Group with the Crack The Sky trio of guitarist Rick Witkowski, bassist Joe Macre and drummer Joey D'Amico.

The band's debut album, Innermission, was produced by Mark Avsec and Donnie Iris, of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers renown. The pair also sang some background vocals.

The group was an AOR smash. They released three major label albums in six years, had several regional top ten hits and charted twice on Billboard with the singles "Karen" on Epic Records and "Vitamin L" on the MCA label.

1986's Our World album on Epic was the last gasp of the B.E. Taylor Group. Taylor left and launched himself as a Christian artist. During 1994-97, he was the music director of the cable show LightMusic, and toured with Kathy Troccoli. He and Troccoli performed in Central Park for Pope John Paul II's visit in 1994.

Taylor wrote, performed, and produced for LightMusic, which won the award for best Contemporary Christian/Mainstream Video Show in 1993, 1994, and 1995. LightMusic aired on over 1000 cable systems in America and nine foreign countries in its' heyday.

Taylor has kept busy doing spots for Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Old Navy, the Cleveland Indians, and others. He was part of the WWWS morning show and performed live from Disney World and on the Disney Cruise Ship.

He's also been featured on several rock compilation albums put out by WDVE. But now he's really known for his holiday albums. B.E. Taylor Christmas, on Chrishae Records, was released in 1994 and became a Tri-State Yuletide favorite. It's even gotten some national play, with "Silent Night" leading the request list.

Taylor makes the rounds every Christmas season, playing in regional venues large and small. He'll be at Heinz Hall this year in what's becoming a local Christmas tradition.

In 1996, Taylor reentered the studio with Rick Witkowski and released Try Love on Chrishae Records in 1997. Try Love featured "This Time," and "Love You All Over Again," a pair of big Adult Contemporary hits.

He followed that with another holiday special, B.E. Taylor Christmas 2. Then Taylor released a couple of more albums, One Nation Under God in 2004 and Love Never Fails in 2006 (the name is a reference from Corinthians in the Bible.)

Besides gigging with Witkowski (who reformed Crack The Sky), Taylor dedicates a lot of his time to charitable and educational functions around the area, and still cranks out his Christian rock.

So hey, if you're looking for some sounds to sooth the savage breast, run down to Heinz Hall. He'll be there December 1st & 2nd and is guaranteed to get your holiday off to a joyous start.

If you want to scope out Taylor's bio and upcoming gigs, stop by B.E.

(BTW, we took a couple of days off - the tax procrastinator in us couldn't put off pulling out the shoebox and filling out the ol' 1040 any longer.)

BE Taylor - "Karen"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Love (and Music) Is Tuff...

swamp rats
Office Naps

Formed in McKeesport, the Fantastic Dee-Jays started as Bob and the Highlanders, and then became the Larks, with Denny Nicholson on lead guitar, Dick Newton on rhythm (those two were the remnants of the Highlanders), and Tom Juneko on drums. They were 16 years old.

In early 1965, WMCK jock Terry Lee caught their act, and was impressed enough to become their manager. The band changed its' name to the Dee-Jays, maybe as a nod to TL. After school they practiced in the basement of Newton's family home.

TL would show up, working them hard. The Dee-Jays would gig on the weekend, and Lee was their Svengali. He made sure the sets were no longer than a half hour, because he wanted the audience to be left wanting more from the group.

They'd record in the WMCK studio (the old Elks's Temple Building in McKeesport) after midnight, when the hops were done, and were on the air all day. Their songs featured lots of reverb, one of Lee's favorite touches.

That's the nice thing about having a DJ run your act. The guys didn't have to worry about studio time or promoting their act. TL took care of the business end. Lee began his radio hype with an urgent "You've got to see the Dee-Jays. They are fantastic!" The name stuck, and they became known as the Fantastic Dee-Jays.

They were a big draw on the local circuit, and were regulars at Elizabeth's Night Train teen club, conveniently owned by TL. They were kinda a pop group, playing in a British Invasion style, although the WMCK recordings were crude enough to qualify as garage rock. Their label was Sherry, Lee's personal wax domain.

One of their first singles was 1965's cover of the Golliwogs's (later to be known as CCR) "Fight Fire" b/w "Get Away Girl", issued after they released a version of "Apache" b/w "This Love Of Ours" (#196).

They scored a local hit with "Love Is Tuff" (#200), and "Mr. Sad" got some Pittsburgh airtime, too, as did "Two Tymes Too" and "You're The One." The highlight of their career was opening at the Civic Arena in 1965 for the Rolling Stones.

After five singles and an album ("The Fantastic Dee-Jays," Stone #44, 1966, reissued on EVA #1202 in 1983 and Millenia in 1996), the group disbanded and morphed into the Swamp Rats when Junecko went to college and Nicholson was drafted.

The full line-up was now Dick Newton, Donny Shriner and Dave Gannon. Bob Hocko of McKeesport trio The Chains and Paul Shalako would later join the group as replacement players.

Newton left the Rats when he bumped heads with TL, who wanted the group to stick to tried and true covers while he wanted to write more original stuff. Newton also had a clash with Hocko, who was looking for a harder edge for the Rats.

Harder edge? They became the godfathers of punk in Pittsburgh. The Rats played twin fuzzed guitars, drums and no bass (the Dee-Jay's never used a bass, either.)

Their first record, "Louie Louie"/"Hey Joe," was grunge at its' best. They did a version of "Psycho" (St. Clair 2222) that made the Sonics sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Many compare their sound to the Stooges and the MC5.

Lee eventually dropped the rockers from his roster. Punk didn't fit in with the mainstream TL sound, and the Rats didn't move much wax, working for the tiny St. Clair label. According to local lore, Lee signed the band over to Nick Cenci for an audition spot for "Come Alive," a TV dance show Lee would host.

Cenci released "In The Midnight Hour" b/w "It's Not Easy" (Co and Ce 245) in 1967. But they would only last a few more months.

Although wildly popular in the region, Cenci couldn't get them on the national map. It may be their music was a decade ahead of acceptability, or maybe Newton was right.

The Swamp Rats did basically all covers ("Till The End Of The Day," "No Friend of Mine," "Here, There, and Everywhere," and "Tobacco Road" among others) and a lack of an original signature tune may have cut them out of consideration by major labels.

Whatever the reason, they disbanded shortly after Newton's replacement, Joey Guido, fled to Canada to avoid the draft, replaced by ex-Fantastic Dee-Jay Denny Nicholson for their two final gigs. The Swamp Rats had a shelf life of 18 months.

A couple of decades later, collectors began to sniff around the seminal punkers, and there was renewed interest in the Swamp Rat's stuff.

In 1980, Keystone released a bootleg album of old cuts, demos, Fantastic Dee-Jay songs, and a couple of Galactus tunes (Hocko's later band.) It was called "Disco Sucks" (Keystone 111541-39), but in truth, it was the album that sucked, though it did come on a nice red vinyl slab.

Far better was the 2003 compilation from Canonsburg's Get Hip label "Disco Still Sucks!" (GHAS 5067) issued under the name Bob Hocko & the Swamp Rats.

It had all their singles (except "Two Tymes Too" and "Mr. Sad," which had already been reissued under the Fantastic Dee-Jays name.) It also included lengthy liner notes and several outtakes. Richie Unterberger of the All Music Guide gives this CD a thumbs up.

That would be it for Bob Hocko, too. He passed away from lung cancer that same year, at the age of 54.

If you're into the roots of Pittsburgh rock, dig up a copy of "Disco Still Sucks!" and listen to the progression of a Brit-pop band gone punk. It's good head-banging stuff.

"Love Is So Tuff" by the Fantastic Dee-Jays, 1965

Thursday, April 10, 2008

from atlantic to pacific...

Jero from Gaijin Pot

Jerome White Jr., 26, is a Steel City ex-pat making it big in Japan. Jero, as he's known there (his hometown nickname was Rome), combines a modest hip hop presence with the traditional Japanese genre of enka.

It developed after World War II and features teary ballads about life and love gone bad. In fact, Jero's hit song is about a spurned lover contemplating suicide.

He was born here (and no, we have precious little personal info on him. Presumably it's on his web site, but since it's in Japanese and we're not, um, exactly fluent...) to a half Japanese mom and black dad. Her mom, Jero's grandma, was a war bride that came here after WW2 with her sailor hubby.

Jero learned Japanese from his nana, and used to sing to her as a kid. After graduating from Pitt in 2003 with a degree in Information Science, he moved to Japan, looking for his roots and teaching English, translating, and putting in a gig as a systems engineer in Osaka to earn his daily bread.

Jero got turned on to enka as an exchange student, when he spent three months at Kansai's Gaidai University. When he arrived, he entered all the national NHK karaoke contests (it's much bigger there than here, where karaoke is just Friday night bar entertainment.) Jero did pretty well, placing high in showcase competitions and winning one of the biggies, attracting the attention of Victor record company execs in 2005.

An enka tune called "Umiyuki" (Ocean Snow) was his debut single early this year, and talk about hitting the charts with a bullet! It started off as #4 on the playlists, selling 3,500,000 copies in its' first week, a record for an enka song. Nothin' like starting off your career with a gold platter.

But it's his live show that draws raves. Enka is generally the domain of older music fans, but Jero's drawing some young 'uns to the scene. He drops some hip hop style on the audience, and dresses in a doo-rag, baseball cap, hoodie and baggies.

How much of a cultural sea change is that? Jero's also know as the "Kurofune" (Black Ship), a reference to Admiral Perry's fleet that opened up Japan's doors to the West. As karma would have it, Chris Briem of Null Space adds that Jero graduated from Perry High in the Northside, named for the good admiral.

Will he became a Japanese institution? Who knows? The shelf life of enka performers is notoriously short, and whether his style translates into long term success or just another flavor of the month will be seen. Jero is working on a full length album now, and its' sales will show if he's still hot or not.

He's getting lots of love from the Japanese press and the international set. His story's been covered by Reuters, CNN, AFP (the French news agency), USA Today, and Business Week. Here, Jero's not getting much attention, a familiar story for local artists. As the Good Book says "A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country..."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

the voice of pittsburgh

diamond reo
Frankie Czuri, Warren King, Norm Nardini & Rob Franks
from Emmett Frisbee

The Igniters were a mid-60s group from Penn Hills, and they used to pack 'em in where ever they played. Formed in 1963-64, their repertoire ranged from British Invasion to R&B - whatever they could cover. It was the classic "Animal House" garage band.

The group's front man was Pittsburgh rock legend Frankie Czuri, who joined the Igniters in 1965. By that time, Czuri and bandmate Bob McKeag had been singing together for years, ever since fifth grade at St. Bart's where they were choirboys.

The Igniters were the house band at the Oakmont teen club Varsity House, and sold the place out, often leaving a couple of hundred frustrated party animals milling outside. They recorded “High Flying Wine," a huge regional hit in the day when DJs weren't shackled to a playlist and could push the local bands.

Atlantic Records signed the Igniters to a contract in 1968. They were only the second white band on the label, along with Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals, another blue-eyed soul group.

The label made them change their name from the Igniters to Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory. It was that or Mack's Factory. Not a very imaginative bunch there at Atlantic.

The label would release one 45 by the band -- "Baby I Love You/The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," a Marvelettes hit. The record cracked the top 50 before sputtering out.

Deciding that Jimmy Mack wasn't doing it for the them, the band became known as Friends (what the heck was wrong with the Igniters, anyway?) They cut another single for Atlantic Records under that name and then disbanded.

The end of the Igniters was just the beginning for Czuri. In 1975, he joined the Jaggerz. After that - it was long after their "Rapper" days, though he did play on the "Come Again" album - he joined Diamond Reo, along with another trio of well traveled and respected 'Burgh rockers, Norm Nardini, Warren King, and Robbie Johns.

They had a top 40 hit in 1975 with a version of the Marvin Gaye song, "Ain't That Peculiar." Diamond Reo went on to record three albums: 1975's "Diamond Reo," on the Big Tree label, 1976's "Dirty Diamonds," on Kama Sutra, and 1978's "Ruff Cuts," on Piccadilly.

Diamond Reo appeared on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and toured with Kiss, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Frank Zappa, Kansas, Ian Hunter, Blue Oyster Cult, and Canned Heat.

Nardini left to form the Tigers, and Czuri and King struck out on their own. They signed drummer Ron "Byrd" Foster from Roy Buchanan's band, bass guitarist Mike Pela, and Dennis Tacos on the keyboards to form the Silencers.

It took them a while to get going, but eventually CBS Records signed them, before they ever played their first show in public at Fat City (the old Oriental) in Swissvale, where they would become the house band.

In 1980, the Silencers recorded the album "Rock N Roll Enforcers," which produced four local hits: "The Peter Gunn Theme," "Modern Love," "Shiver and Shake," and "Head On Collision." In 1981 the album "Romanic" produced another popular single, "Sidewalk Romeo."

The Silencers had a great producer, Bob Clearmountain, who would later work with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Pretenders and Bruce Springsteen. Songs "Sidewalk Romeo" and "Shiver and Shake" got respectable radio airplay. Their music videos were in heavy rotation on MTV back in the day when it was a televised vid jukebox, playing four times daily.

The Silencers toured extensively too, opening for Hall and Oates, ACDC, Heart, Foreigner and others. Their live show featured original songs as well as R&B covers.

"Not a lot of bands had videos then," Czuri says about his days on early MTV. But it wasn't just a case of supply and demand - the vids were good. The Silencer's videos were featured on MTV's tenth anniversary show, easily passing the test of time for first wave video productions.

King, one of Pittsburgh's great blues guitarists, left the band in 1984. Czuri joined the vocal group Pure Gold in 1985, and continues doo-wopping and covering the old R&B standards with them to this day.

It's quite a journey from garage/punk rockers like the Igniters, Diamond Reo and the Silencers to the harmonies of Pure Gold. Frankie Czuri has the pipes to front any band.

But it looks like he may be returning to his roots. Czuri left Pure Gold in 2010 and focused on putting back together his sixties band, The Igniters. May the circle be unbroken.

Frank Czuri and Pure Gold at the Benedum Center "Roots of Rock 'N' Roll" show - "Can't Help Lovin' That Girl of Mine." Quite a change from the Silencer days, hey?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

where live music lives

31st street pub

Where has rock n' roll gone in Pittsburgh? Not far - just to the Strip and Harry & Joel Greenfield's 31st Street Pub, beside the bridge. Their motto, "High Octane Rock and Roll," pretty much says it all about a place that crackles with more energy than Dr. Frankenstein's lab.

The Pub has featured live music for the past decade. It opened in 1962, when Harry, now 81, bought the bar to cater to the mill crowd. But when big steel went down, it was time to move on and find new fannies to fill the barstools.

Son Joel helped plot the bar's outlaw future. He turned the pub into a biker bar, bringing his Harley buddies in to fill the joint. Now it's home to indy, alt, punk and guitar abusing bands of all stripes. But the crowd isn't much different from the early days.

Bikers, spiked-and-studded punkers, long-haired metalheads, rockabilly cats with leather jackets and greased-back hair, garage rockers and a few music geeks show up. Despite their decidedly hide the women and children looks, the bar regulars are a pretty sociable bunch to party down with.

The beer's cheap, the room is small and smoky, and the cover is generally $5. The music is loud and grungy, like it was back in the glorious garage days. The Pub is everything a rock club should be. Heck, they even have free wifi.

The Pub doesn't push its' bands; it gives them a venue and leaves the rest to them. The group has to pass Joel's sniff test to get a job, and he makes them stop in and sell themselves before he unleashes them on Pub loyalists.

Then the band promotes the gig itself. So not only does the Pub provide a stage, it force feeds the fledging groups into learning Music Industry 101 ("How to Pack a House") before they unload an amp. The course grade is pass/fail. If you draw, you can come back. If not, see ya' later. The pay is the cover, minus the stage techie's cut.

The White Stripes played there twice in 2001, arguably the club's biggest moment. But the locals play it hot and heavy too - ATS, Anti-Flag, and Plastic Jesus have raised the Pub's roof. Don Cab will be there May 3rd, and the Midgetmen, indy punkers from Texas with CMU roots, will highlight the May 10th show.

And while you're there, don't miss "The Skull Room." Yep, there's a wall full of skull-shaped stuff, like mugs and candles, Mexican Day-of-the-Dead figurines, and what appear to be actual human skulls. Just a little touch of atmosphere to get you in the mood for the evening's festivities.

So if you're looking to check out the up and coming regional and national touring bands before they hit it big (and the price of a show is three figures), stop by the Pub. You'll enjoy the experience - and it is an experience.

(31st Street Pub My Space. It represents the Pub; where else are you gonna get greeted by Supersucker's "Pretty F****d Up, a great tune.)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

to russia with love...

Anti-Flag from Aversion

OK, we've been meaning to write about these guys for awhile. But every time we're ready to post something, someone in the real media beats us to the punch (curse you, Scott Mervis!) Go figure. Anyway, we give up - read all about them here:

Anti-Flag/My Space.



Music Preview: Pittsburgh Punks Blast Anti-War Message to the World Thursday, April 03, 2008 By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Anti-Flag: Frequently Asked Questions Thursday, April 03, 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Anti-Flag Rockin' Russia Thursday, March 06, 2008 By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh-Post-Gazette.

Anti-Flag Ready for 'Bright Lights' Date in Moscow Thursday, January 10, 2008 By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Anti-Flag's A-F Records Gives Incommunicado a Boost Thursday January 17, 2008 By Manny Theiner, City Paper.

Not Anti American, Just Anti Stupid American May 18, 2001 Synthesis Interview.

Hey, a quick and easy post for your blogmeister, and for once you'll get some good writing! But don't get too spoiled; we'll be back on the beat next post.