Friday, July 25, 2008

The Holidays Miss You

The New Holidays

In 1958, five teens from Clairton started harmonizing, and before long the Holidays were born.

The classic lineup consisted of Charlie "Corky" Hatfield (tenor), Frank Gori (bass/baritone), Barbara Jo Lippzer (alto), Francis "Franny" Grisnik (baritone/bass) and Ramon "Ray" Lancianese (tenor), the lead singer. They were soon gigging at hops and shows all over the Pittsburgh region.

Singing in a style reminiscent of Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, The Holidays scored some popular local tunes in the early 1960's.

They recorded and performed titles like 1960's "Then I’ll Be Tired of You" b/w "Lonely Summer" (Robbee 107), "One Little Kiss" b/w My Girl," (Nix 537), "A Love I Never Had" b/w "It's the Same Old Dream" (Robbee, unreleased) and their biggest hit, the first record they cut, 1960's "Miss You" b/w "Pretend," on Robbee 103.

Lennie Martin of Robbee gave their productions the same distinctive wall-of-sound string arrangements that he used to create his Calico label's Skyliner recordings.

(If you want to hear the original sounds, the group's Robbee discography can be found on "Best of Robbee Records," issued by Dead Dog Records.)

But their career was short-lived, as were many of the era. In 1962, the group disbanded after enjoying their run of local success and its members went their own ways, some off to raise families and some off to boot camp. The Holidays would lay dormant for much of the next four decades.

In 1995, Hatfield and Gori resurrected the Holidays, with new members Ralph Falk, George Price, Lisa Mineri-Kilmer and Sam Ferrella. They started by cutting a CD of the songs they had done 40 years ago, this time for Heid Productions, "The Holidays by Special Request."

It included the unreleased Robbee sides "It's The Same Old Dream," written by Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn, "A Love I Never Had," written by Joe Rock and Jimmy Beaumont, and the unrecorded "One Little Kiss," along with their other recorded tracks and songs from back in the day.

Ferrella, who sings tenor and lead, was the keystone of the retro act. Not only did he perform, but he also managed and promoted the group throughout the Pittsburgh area from 1999 to this day.

The Holidays performed at various venues and were part of the PBS/WQED TV “The Sound of Pittsburgh" showcase. In 2001, Lou Ann Shields joined The Holidays when Mineri-Kilmer left, and her first performance was at the old Allegheny County Fair opening up for Chubby Checker. Not a bad way to start, hey?

In 2002, the group recorded it’s first original CD, "For Your Love," at West Hills Productions, produced by Radioactive Gold DJ Dave Justice. In February, 2005, The New Holidays released their second CD called “Keepin’ the Sound Alive”. Their latest CD is entitled “Here and Now,” and was released in March 2007.

By 2004, Hatfield and Gori had hung it up, and the current group now goes by Pittsburgh's Own New Holidays. They've performed with acts such as Chubby Checker, Gary Puckett, Lou Cristie, The Marcels, The Skyliners, Bobby Rydell, The Vogues, and others while riding the local oldies circuit.

The group now consists of Ferrella, Shields, Mickey Carr, and Bryan McLain. (Holiday original Franny Grisnik passed away on July 21, 2008. He suffered from Multiple Sclerosis.)

Everything old is new again (and we wouldn't have it any other way!)

You can get a taste of history and catch up on the current Holidays at The New Holidays

original holidays
The original Holidays, from left to right: Frank Gori, Barbara Jo Lippzer, Charlie Hatfield, Franny Grisnik, with Ray Lancianese at the piano from Doo Wop Jukebox

Holidays - "Miss You" (1960)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Everybody Knew the La Rells

la rells 1960
The La Rells, from David Parr's collection

This story begins in 1956, in Homewood, where teens Frankie Flowers (first tenor), David Parr (second tenor and lead), Robert Thompson (second tenor and lead), and Wilton Anderson (baritone and bass) got together. They called themselves the La Rells.

They came up with the name to separate themselves from the then-current rage of "bird" groups, like the Flamingos, Penguins, etc., and they liked the sound of La Rells. First they tried to use the name Laurels, but couldn't get anyone to pronounce it the way they wanted. They solved that by performing as the La Rells. Nothing like spelling it out, hey?

They were inspired by songstress Dakota Staton, who had a string of hits for Capitol Records starting in the mid-1950’s, and like them, was a Westinghouse High grad. Parr was also a fan of Harlem’s Frankie Lymon, who started out with the Teenagers before going solo.

From the very beginning the La Rells were busy gigging at various shows and record hops throughout the area. But like most groups of the era, they had trouble keeping the players in one place.

Get the scorecard ready. First, Frankie Flowers moved to Boston, and then Robert Thompson left the group. (A year later, in 1958, he became a member of the El Moroccos, later famed as The Diadems.) Reuben Taylor became their lead singer and Carole Washington came aboard to sing soprano.

This version of the La Rells remained together for nearly a year. But Carole Washington died and Lafon McKellar, a second tenor, took her place. The La Rells also added Alex Richburg on guitar and Vann Harris, who played drums.

In late 1957, the La Rells appeared on a talent show at Holy Cross Church along with a group from Penn Hills, the Links. The Links featured a silky lead, Frank Avery, and the La Rells sweet talked him into throwing in with them.

He replaced Reuben Taylor, who left the group. Coming over with Avery was Bob Best, the first tenor of the Links.

The new edition of the La Rells featured Frank Avery on lead, Bob Best (first tenor), David Parr (second tenor), Lafon McKellar (second tenor), Wilton Anderson (baritone and bass), Alex Richburg (guitarist) and Vann Harris (drummer). This group formed the classic La Rells line up.

In 1960, KQV DJ Larry Aiken hooked them up with Lennie Martin of Robbee Records. He liked their demo tape, and cut the ballad "Everybody Knew" b/w the up-tempo "Please Be Fair," released as Robbee 109. The song was a big local hit.

Their career took off in the region. They did hops and shows for Clark Race, Larry Aiken, Porky Chadwick, Bill Powell, and Sir Walter at places like the Savoy Ballroom, Diamond Roller Rink, White Elephant and Twin Coaches. Parr joked that their car knew the way to the Twin Coaches without the help of the driver.

In 1960 they won Bill Powell's prestigious "Pittsburgher" Award. And if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, they were flattered to death when another group performed as the La Rell Juniors. No, they never shared a bill, and probably would have met in court in this era, but coexisted just fine back in the day.

In 1961, they cut another record, "Public Transportation" b/w "I Just Can't Understand," released as Robbee 114. The music tracks were laid by the Rock 'N' Bluesmen, the La Rell's choice over Martin's house band.

They were an R&B group originally out of Buffalo, NY, that performed throughout the Pittsburgh area. They recorded a couple of tunes as Rabbit and Geno, and the La Rells repaid the favor by backing them on "Deep In the Night" b/w "Never Before," set up by Pete Tambellini.

"Public Transportation" didn't move for the La Rells. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights era, and the intoned "please move to the rear of the bus" by Dave Parr smacked a bit too much of reality, and made the record too hot to handle for the DJ's of the early 1960's.

Still, it didn't hurt them locally. The La Rells were the first Pittsburgh group to appear on a rock 'n' roll show at the Civic Arena. On October 20, 1961, they were on the same bill with Fats Domino and Brenda Lee.

In fact, they met Lee and her mother at the airport and had lunch with them. Young Parr picked up a life-long habit from her when he noticed her cleaning her silverware with her napkin after each course. He had never seen anyone do that before, and before long, it became ingrained with him, too.

But they soon tired of the peanuts they made playing area shows for the DJ's, and decided to beef up the band with some brass and hit the college circuit. It was a good decision. They were a hit with the students, and actually got to keep a fair portion of the gate they drew.

In 1962, the La Rells signed with Liberty Records and cut "I Guess I'll Never Stop Loving You" b/w "Sneaky Alligator" in the Big Apple (Liberty 55430, reissued as Robbee 120 in 1991.) The Liberty session players backing the band were pretty solid. King Curtis was on the sax, and a young Roberta Flack sat in on piano.

But the disk received little airplay, and signs of dissension and career frustrations started to bubble up within the group.

It didn't help when Bob Best left the band to join the military shortly after the record's release. His place was filled by Ronald Bentley. Then David Parr received his "greetings from Uncle Sam" notice and traded in his microphone for an M-16 in March 1964. His departure was the death knell of the La Rells.

From the very start, the La Rells tried to wrest some artistic and financial control of their group from the suits, but in that era, it was next to impossible.

Their first run-in with the controlling nature of the industry was in 1959, when they cut “One and One Is Two” b/w “Sputnik – Part I.” Their first manager, whom they prefer not to name, wanted them to enter into a contract that was tantamount, in Parr’s words, “to signing our life away. He wanted to own us.”

They didn’t sign, and the record was never released. Even in the Larry Aiken days (whom they still recall warmly) their ability to shape their own future was minimal.

“The first record we released, ‘Everybody Knew,’” Parr recalled, “was arranged by Lennie Martin and Robbee to make us sound like Little Anthony and the Imperials.”

Their next release, the ill-fated “Public Transportation,” tried to cast them in the Coaster’s mold. Imagine how insulting it must have been to hone your craft in countless rehearsals and live shows over the years, and then have a suit try to make you over into the flavor of the month.

Parr ticked off several examples of careers gone astray because of mismanagement, including his first role model. “If Frankie Lymon would have been handled right instead of being abused,” Parr said. “He would have been bigger than Michael Jackson.”

He also pointed out the legal entanglements that left many singers lurching in the wake. “The artists don’t even have a right to their own name,” Parr explained. “How many different versions of the Platters and Drifters are out there performing?”

“Look at the Vogues. One of them has the rights to the group’s name within a 50 mile radius of Pittsburgh, and another group gets to tour the rest of the country as the Vogues.” In fact, until last year, the nationally touring Vogues didn't have a member that recorded any of the Vogue hits.

Chuck Blasco, an original member and leader of the local Vogues, lobbied Congress to make changes in trademark laws to prevent others from misrepresenting themselves as being original artists, and Parr agrees there oughta be a law to protect the groups. What a tangled web we weave...

We won’t even get into the Benjamins. The 66-year old Parr says “I’m at a point of my life where the royalties don’t make any difference.”

But he made it clear that the system back in the day was an inverted pyramid, with the venues, DJ’s and managers getting the gravy while the groups were the bottom feeders of the money machine they fueled.

David Parr's cause celebrite is to get some recognition for the fathers of R&B, the fifties and sixties vocal groups. "Oprah had the Osmonds on, " he said. "Why wouldn't she feature some of the artists of my era?"

As he pointed out, Betty Everett, Bo Diddly, Pookie Hudson, and a host of the old stalwarts are in rock 'n' roll heaven now. He thinks it's time to recognize the real roots of soul, while they're still here to enjoy a moment in the sun again and tell their tales before they're forever forgotten.

There aren't many of the old La Rells left anymore, either. Parr lives with his wife Charlie in Penn Hills, and was a recording engineer. He worked at Steel City Recording in East Liberty with TL back in the day, recording the "Midnight to Daylight" tapes.

He also met the late Phyllis Hyman while producing a tune at Walt Maddox's old Carnegie studio in 1974. She sang backup on the song “Dancing on a Daydream” by Flora Wilson.

The song has an interesting history. It was first penned as "Flower Child" and a demo tape was made by Stevie Sawyer, Billy Eckstine's niece. She shopped it around, even taking it to Nashville, but her voice and the notes didn't quite mesh.

But the Crawley, Greenley and Richburg song was a good tune, and Parr got the instrumental track recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios when he piggybacked some time on Vann Harris' "Stop Your Cryin" session. It was laid down by the Sound of Philadelphia Orchestra.

When he got back to Pittsburgh, he brought in a very pregnant Wilson (she had her baby the next day) to do the song, backed by Hyman and some other girls, and then dubbed the SOP track, with George Green on sax and Gene Ludwig on organ added in.

The instrumental became the flip side, as was common in those days, and the credit was given to the "Soulvation Army Band," the name of the label (Soulvation Army #742).

The song was renamed "Dancing on a Daydream," and though Wilson did a great job on the A side, the instrumental version is what still gets played today.

Frankie Avery makes his home in California, and Vann Harris still lives in the area, and was the driving force behind the 60's group Bobby and the Vanguards. The rest are gone to their reward.

The group has popped up sporadically. Avery is still in the business, and had a minor hit with the NYC group Chocolate Syrup in 1971 with “Stop Your Crying.”

The La Rells had reunion gigs in 1994 at Henry DeLuca's “Roots of Rock and Roll, Vol. 20” concert, and in 1995 and 1997 at the Belle Vernon-based SOC (Society of Oldies Collectors) shows (SOC band bio). The La-Rells appeared in the 2001 PBS program “The Sound of Pittsburgh”.

Also in 2001, Avery and Parr got together to cut a Porky tribute b/w an updated “Tomorrow Will Only Bring Sorrow,” but Avery wouldn’t commit to staying in Pittsburgh – 40 years in the California sun will do that to a man – and that was that.

Now David Parr is the institutional memory of the La Rells, keeping their songs, stories, and good times alive.

They did receive one of Pittsburgh’s greatest honors, along with their earliest inspiration, Dakota Staton. They were selected to Westinghouse High’s renowned “Wall of Fame,” along with all the other storied Bulldog achievers to come from the hard streets of Homewood.

Their work is available on "The Best of Robbee Records," issued by the Dead Dog Records label, which features seven La Rell tracks from Lennie Martin's vaults, as well as on compilation albums like "Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits" from Itzy Records and "Doo Wop Collectors Classics," among others.

And, of course, the original vinyls are selling like hotcakes to collectors on sites like E-Bay, especially overseas.

(Old Mon Music would like to thank David Parr for taking the time to tell the story of the La Rells. It’s a great tale of the 1960’s music industry, and David was most gracious and forthcoming in sharing his memories and insights with us.)

La Rells - "Everybody Knew" 1961

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Boss Hoss Retires...


Porky Chedwick, who introducing generations of Pittsburgh teen-agers to R&B, is heading to the sunny shores of Florida at the age of 90. He and Jeannie are retiring to Tarpon Springs next month.

Porky plans to stay active, doing some cruise-line gigs and coming back home for the oldie shows.

He spun wax for 60 years at an untold number of stations, including WHOD's successor WAMO, Jeannette's WKFB, McKeesport's WEDO, and God only knows how many hops.

Pork the Tork had a farewell hop at Jimmy G's Restaurant in Sharpsburg on Sunday. If you want to catch him on the air once more before he leaves, the Daddio will be on WKFB-AM's (770) "Morning Memories Show." The three-hour tribute to Your Platter Pushin' Papa will air Friday, from 7-10 AM.

If you want to refresh your memories of the Boss Man's career, read the Daddio of the Raddio

(Edit - the Pork Man and Jeanne plan to return Pittsburgh to stay.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Slim Forsythe

Slim Forsythe

Kevin "Slim" Forsythe mosied down from the Bradford county Northern Tier in the seventies to head to Pitt, and hasn't left his new stompin' grounds yet - well, not for long anyway.

Forsythe now leads a western swing band, but his life reads more like the C&W songs he and the group perform.

While working his way to his J.D., he was a maker of Zippo lighters & Dresser couplings, warehouseman for an industrial supply company, roustabout, janitor, night shift attendant at a beer distributor, book store clerk, driver and mover for a hauling company, life insurance salesman, house painter, typewriter cleaner, summer school gym teacher, and a few other things that he'd rather forget about. But it all paid the bills.

His career took a decidedly more white collar turn when he passed the bar in 1984. After a stint at Rothman Gordon Foreman & Groudine, Forsythe spent the next couple of decades working in the City Controller's Office.

He was deputy School Board Controller, audit manager, lead attorney for the assessment appeal brouhaha, and helped implement and then supervise the People Soft section, the City's accounting software heart. Since he left the conference rooms and pinstripes in 2006, he's been following the bohemian beat of an artist. It's not a new life-style.

Forsythe's written articles in three different law reviews, and published a set of novels, "The Pittsburgh River Trilogy," along with "The Three Boys: A Winter’s Tale of the Northern Tier."

His personal life has also followed a novel's plot line. He's been married three times - though he's quick to point out, not at the same time, whew - and was part of the Communal Farm Experiment in Turtlepoint, McKean County, from 1977 to 1981.

Forsythe was president of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Alliance in 1983. He took a quick hiatus from the work world to serve as a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying in Calcutta for two months in 1988. He served with the Catholic Workers.

And as with any good country singer, he earned his blues when he served as a guest of the government in the Allegheny County Jail for 30 days in 1989. Forsythe went to the big house for his part in an anti-nuke protest, though, not because he shot a man just to watch him die. Oh well, no one's perfect.

And yah, he's had the music in him for a while. It's probably genetic. Frank Forsythe, Kevin's dad, was a jazz singer and big band crooner in Pittsburgh night clubs, radio and television back in the day. He often performed on KDKA TV's "Duquesne Showtime" sponsored by the brewery in the early 1950's, and was even one of the models for Duke Beer's "Prince of Pilsener."

The 52-year old Forsythe was with the late great ATS, dabbling in keyboards, sax, vocals, management, copyright & trademark, booking, and PR, while "losing my shirt on three nationally released albums" from 1990 to 1995.

He hosted "Slim Forsythe’s Old Time Country Western Radio Hour" on WEDO for a while, and now is the frontman for Slim Forsythe and the Parklane Drifters.

It's a country swing band that's heavy on the sounds of the old icons - Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Bob Willis and that crew of cowboy cats. In fact, his nom d' music of Slim came from local country legend Slim Bryant.

You can find them at clubs, parties, and radio gigs across the area, with their homebase being Neid's Hotel on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, where Forsythe lives. The group consists of guitarist and old ATS bud Evan "Big Rock" Knauer, bassist Craig Roberts and fiddle player Erin "Scratchy" Hutter.

Slim and the Parklane Drifters released a full length album, "Bury Me Up On That Northern Tier" in 2009. Sound Engineer and Producer Sam Matthews at Holmes Street Sound mixed it, and the CD features ten Forsythe compositions, including the title cut.

He also has a couple of singles out, 2011's "Why Can't I Get Duquesne on this Sad and Lonesome Train?" done with the Beagle Brothers (and now part of Duke's ad campaign) and a holiday tune with the Parklane Drifters called "Steeltown Christmas" that helps support the Cathy G Charities.

Forsythe also plays with a variety of musicians, like Nied's house band, The Stillhouse Pickers, The Beagle Brothers and The Surf Zombies.

Hey, not every group is on Billboard; heck, ol' Slim is drivin' a bus now as his day job. But if they have the talent - and Kevin does - they'll find a niche in the City.

Slim Forsythe and the Parklane Drifters live - "Up On That Old Northern Tier"

Friday, July 4, 2008

Thunderbird Cafe

Thunderbird Cafe

The Thunderbird Café, located at 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville, is Pittsburgh's home for straight-up American music. The T-Bird lineup runs the musical gamut, from karaoke to Slim Forsythe and Parkland Drifters, down-home funk to urban blues.

Every Monday night, musicians can join the open electric jam session. Tuesdays are set aside for karaoke night for wanna-be singers. On Wednesday nights, the volume drops for an acoustic open mike night. (Warning - any of these are subject to being bumped if there's a band in town.)

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, you'll get fed a steady diet of rock, blues, funk, and jazz - the Americana smorgasbord. The sound system is excellent, too. Most evenings you can just mosey on in; other nights there's a cover charge, depending on the band.

Play your cards right, and you may be lucky enough to run into one of the national acts that pop in every so often, like singer/songwriter Graham Weber, bluesman John Nemeth or funksters Aphrodesia, all playing at the T-Bird this month.

The cafe is split into three distinct sections, with the front area being the street level bar, with fairly limited seating outside the stools. Go up a half-flight of stairs to the mezzanine and you'll find the stage area. The stage itself is small, but the bands all manage to fit. There's some seating there, too.

Continue up the steps, though, and there's a second small bar with much more room than downstairs. It's dimly lit and overlooks the stage area, giving a great vantage point to groove with the band. These are the best seats in the house.

The crowd is friendly, laid back, and a cross section of the town. You’ll find standard bar-food favorites until 1 AM and a decent selection of brew. There's a pool table, too. After all, the place is a neighborhood bar during the day, and Lawrenceville is about as down-home as a Pittsburgh community can be.

So if you're looking for a little slice of Americana in da 'Burg, both musically and crowd-wise, the Thunderbird is your place. Visit it at My Space - Thunderbird Cafe.

Good Night States at the Thunderbird in 2009 doing "Killer Of The One"