Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Bangers...

from Soul 45

R&B came of age in the fifties. It was the rhythm of the streets, and double entendre was the way a romp in the sack was depicted on wax and in the live acts.

Bullmoose Jackson released his "Big Ten Inch Record" in 1952, and Dinah Washington sang about her "Big Long Sliding Thing" in 1954. That same year, the Toppers came out with a song that would burn up Pittsburgh airwaves a decade later with a cover of its innuendo-laden "(I Love To Play Your Piano) Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box."

And don't think that these were just novelty songs. They became integral parts of R&B acts' live shows, and were covered endlessly. "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" was no different, and was recorded by legit bands, like the Toppers and Billy Ward and the Dominoes.

It was last done, as far as we can tell, by Daddy Cool Ross Wilson in 2000, and was a track on John Water's "A Dirty Shame" soundtrack in 2004. The tune was a staple of local party bands from coast-to-coast in the early 1960s.

In the summer of 1965, the Banger's version hit the Steel City. It was followed a year later by a Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts cover, both doing well in the Pittsburgh market, gleefully spun by its rowdy R&B jocks, who were then still somewhat in control of the playlist, and more importantly, at the hops.

Doug Clark was quite a performer. The Hot Nuts were from Chapel Hill, NC, and hit the clubs and college circuit with a risque song list and act, capped by their biggest hit, "Hot Nuts." Their albums were released on the Gross Label, formed solely for Clark and the band.

It was a subsidiary of Jubilee, which wanted the cash but not the notoriety generated by the Hot Nuts and their raunchy tunes, although it did stoop to releasing "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" on Jubilee 45-5536. Heck, it was the label that released the original Topper's vinyl. Money over morality.

(Gross went bankrupt in 1969 after releasing nine Clark LP's, effectively skimming all the money for Jubilee and cutting the Hot Nuts out of any future royalties. Ain't show biz grand?)

They were said to perform at frat houses wearing nothing but fur-covered jocks, a forerunner of the thong, we suppose. The group was supposedly the model for the "Animal House" band, and in fact, Clark said the greatest disappointment of his career was not landing the movie role for his troupe.

But the Banger's track was Pittsburgh's favorite. Some say it was a record released by Clark incognito to skirt Jubilee, but the versions are discernibly different, and the Hot Nuts cover came a year after the Bangers.

The Banger's record was released on the R&B Label, #65-101. The 101 would indicate that it's the first (and maybe only) release, and the label (see the photo) says it's from the LP "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box." It was distributed by Tulsa's Hit City USA.

It's still a hot disk on the collector's market, with prices ranging from $20-$300 on the web. As you may imagine, there are a zillion bootlegs out there, too, along with several anthologies that included the song.

But that's where Old Mon Music's trail runs cold. We can't sniff out any dope on the Bangers, their label, or distributor beyond the record info.

So today, instead of us giving you the story, we're counting on you to tell us the tale of one of Pittsburgh's biggest underground hits, joining the Arondies "69" and Ronnie Haig's "Don't You Hear Me Calling, Baby?" on parent's hit lists all over the region in the early-to-mid sixties.

If any of our dear readers know about the band, please give us a yell so we can share the story. We're sure it's a good one.

"Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" - the Bangers

Monday, August 25, 2008

Jero Concert at Pitt Wednesday

Hey, wanna catch Jero doing some enko?

The University of Pittsburgh welcomes alumnus Jerome White Jr.— better known as Japan’s pop sensation “Jero”— for a free concert at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 27 in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room, 3959 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

Though the concert is free, priority seating will be given to students and community members who reserve ticket passes, as seating is limited. Ticket passes may be obtained beginning Aug. 13 through the Asian Studies Center (4104 Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet St., Oakland). Doors at the performance will open at 7:45 p.m. to those with ticket passes, and limited general seating will begin at 8:20 p.m. For more information about tickets, contact the Asian Studies Center at 412-648-7426.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Graffiti Challenge

graffiti 1988
Graffiti Show Board from 1987
Photo by Cynthia Lammert from Pittsburgh Signs - Oakland

Opened and operated by Tony DiNardo in 1982 in an old warehouse on Baum Boulevard in Oakland, the Graffiti Showcase Cafe was where the action was for the Pittsburgh music scene from the mid-80's until it shut its doors in 2000.

He lost his lease to a Porsche dealership. It folded, too. 4615 Baum Boulevard must have bad karma for class acts.

Graffiti booked an eclectic mix of music, combining barely known local bands with alt rock, folk music and a steady parade of national acts addicted to the road. Where else could you hear R.E.M. one night and The Grass Roots the next?

Graffiti was the kind of place where Jimmy Beaumont could share a stage with the Affordable Floors. It was Pittsburgh in all its glorious musical diversity.

The first thing many Pittsburgh concertgoers remember about Graffiti was the club’s intimacy. It had a small bar area and cafe, but its 600-seat showcase room offered music lovers a view never further than 35 feet away from its raised stage.

The brick warehouse walls and its dark, cavernous industrial surroundings added the perfect ambiance to the whole setting.

“One reason I moved to Pittsburgh was that every time I went to a local show at Graffiti, it was sold out,” says Mike Speranzo of Mr. Small's.

In fact, Graffiti won various awards for its live concert settings, being rated in the top ten Showcase rooms in the USA by Performance Magazine and #1 for live sound in a concert setting by E.Q. Magazine.

Graffiti hosted over 1500 acts in its day, with biggies like Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana, Rusted Root, Hootie and the Blowfish, Tower of Power, Jerry Seinfeld, Little Feat, and a list of other performers as long as the arm of the law taking the stage.

When a little-known Nirvana played Graffiti in 1991, they set the dressing room on fire after feuding with the promoter over their fee. Talk about a hot act!

The name lived on through the Graffiti Rock Challenge. It started at Graffiti in 1984, but the cafe was too small to hold the crowds. It moved on to the Syria Mosque before it became a parking lot, and then to sites all over Western PA.

It was a wildly unpredictable event, with participation from national artists like Talking Heads members Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, Tommy James, and Jules Shear.

And while a great show didn't insure an act of fame and fortune, it did guarantee them a stage. And that's a valuable commodity to a young band. It did launch some groups to at least local glory, like The Clarks, Brownie Mary, the Buzz Poets, and Rusted Root, according to DiNardo.

The godfather of the Graffiti Rock Challenge was of course DiNardo, with a big hand from Charlie Humphrey. He had pretty much gotten out of the business after he turned the keys over to his club in 2000. But once a year, he emerged from his self imposed exile to run the Rock Challenge.

But like the club, the Rock Challenge died a natural death, too, the victim of too many imitators and too many venue switches. It called it quits in 2006, with Kill The Drama as the last Rock Challenge champion.

Creed doing "Torn" at the Graffiti in 1998

Saturday, August 16, 2008

My Huckleberry Friend Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini from Geneva College

Henry Mancini was born Enrico Nicola Mancini in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, on April 16, 1924, and grew up in the mill town of West Aliquippa in Beaver County.

His parents emigrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Mancini's father, Quinto, was a steelworker, who had his only child begin flute lessons at the age of eight. In fact, father and son played the flute together for a local Italian band, the "Sons of Italy". When Mancini was 12 years old, he began piano lessons.

But he was a bit more than home schooled. Max Adkins, a Pittsburgh concertmaster and jazz fan, taught Mancini, and among his fellow classmates were Billy Strayhorn and Jerry Fielding. Adkins introduced him to Benny Goodman, who encouraged Mancini to study at Juilliard.

After graduating from Aliquippa HS in 1942, Mancini took his advice and attended the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York. A flute & keyboard can get you out of a milltown just as well as a football scholarship, hey?

In 1943, after a year at Juilliard, his studies were interrupted when he was drafted during WW2. He participated in the liberation of a German concentration camp, so he didn't spend all his time with an USO unit, but toted a rifle some, too.

After his discharge in 1946, he became a pianist and arranger for the newly re-formed Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Tex Beneke (Miller died in a plane crash over the English Channel during the war).

Pretty good gig, too - he hooked up with his future bride there, singer Ginny O'Connor, who he married in 1947. It was a reunion of sorts; they had first met when she was a vocalist backing Mel Torme. What's meant to be...

In 1952, Mancini headed west and joined the Universal Pictures music department, where he honed his composing craft.

During the next six years, he contributed music to over 100 movies, mostly B flicks like "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," and "It Came from Outer Space," before finally landing some meatier cinema such as "The Glenn Miller Story" (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination), "The Benny Goodman Story" and Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

While there, he was credited with adding jazz scores to otherwise vanilla movie themes, bringing in outside sidemen to lay down a few licks with the studio players.

Mancini left Universal to free lance in 1958. Soon after, he scored the television series "Peter Gunn" for Blake Edwards, forming a partnership which lasted over 35 years and produced nearly 30 films.

Mancini's scores for Edwards included "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (with the classic "Moon River"), "Days of Wine and Roses," and all The Pink Panther films.

He also scored movies for Stanley Donen ("Charade," "Arabesque," "Two for the Road") and Howard Hawks, including "Hatari!" which featured the well-known "Baby Elephant Walk," among others.

Not everything was a bed of roses, though. Mancini's score for the Alfred Hitchcock film, "Frenzy", was rejected. Not weird enough for the master of suspense, we guess.

Mancini scored many TV movies and themes, including "Mr. Lucky," "Newhart," "Remington Steele," and "Hotel." He also composed the "Viewer Mail" theme for "Late Night with David Letterman."

Mancini recorded over 90 albums. Eight were certified gold by The Recording Industry Association of America. He had a 20 year contract with RCA Records, resulting in 60 pop albums that made him a household name whose music played in elevators the world over.

And it's a lucky speaker that has "The Love Theme" from Romeo and Juliet, "Moon River," "The Theme from Peter Gunn," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Dear Heart," and "The Theme from the Pink Panther" coming out of its tweeters.

Mancini was also a hard-working concert performer, conducting over fifty engagements per year, waving the baton and playing in over 600 symphony performances during his lifetime.

Among the symphony orchestras he conducted are the London Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

He also appeared in three command performances for the British Royal Family, and toured several times with Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.

Mancini had some TV & film cameos as an actor rather than showman, too. Most notably, he had an uncredited performance as a pianist in the 1967 movie "Gunn," the movie version of the series "Peter Gunn," which used a famous Mancini-authored theme.

Not enough? He also wrote two books - "Sounds and Scores," a music industry bible, and his autobiography, "Did They Mention the Music?"

Mancini was nominated for an unprecedented 72 Grammys, winning 20. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards, winning four Oscars. Mancini also won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for two Emmys. Not too shabby for a 'Quip kid, hey?

Henry Mancini died at the age of 71 in Beverly Hills of pancreatic cancer.

At the time of his death, he was still happily married to Ginny, with whom he had three children, Chris, Felice, and Monica, who's a singer. And like the folk in "Dear Heart," he was well known for shunning Hollywood's hedonistic lifestyle and staying a down-home, Western Pennsylvanian family guy to the end.

Scholarship programs have been set up in his memory at Juilliard, UCLA, and Southern Cal's music schools, among others.

"We're after the same rainbow's end
Waiting around the bend
My Huckleberry friend
Moon River and me..."

(There's a fairly elaborate Mancini web site at Henry Mancini.)

Moon River, with Andy Williams.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pittsburgh's Soul Station Bobby Wayne

Bobby Wayne from Dark End of the Street

Bobby Wayne has been belting out Pittsburgh R&B for the past 45 years. He's come a long way from his days singing in Wylie Avenue's New Canaan Baptist Church choir, along with future recording artist Terry Collins, and he's still spreading sweet soul gospel.

In 1963, Wayne started his career when he joined The Exceptions. The group included Rodney Mason, James Russell, Sherman McCrae and Floyd Beck. But two members were shipped to 'Nam a year later, and The Exceptions disbanded before they had a chance to record.

Wayne hooked up with Vann Harris (an old La Rell) & The Village Vanguards. The lineup included George Green, Larry "Butch" McGee, Eugene Smith, David "Sugar" Cain and Jimmy Norman, and were regulars on area stages, eventually becoming Bobby and the Vanguards.

Their revue opened and backed some of the top R&B acts of the time including The Five Stairsteps, The Vandykes, Billy Stewart, The O’Jays, Mary Wells & Gene Chandler.

On Fridays, they took the show to Cleveland and played at the House of Blues as the club band for acts like Fontella Bass and Kim Weston. In late 1964, the guys went north of the border to Montreal, spending the winter performing at Rockhead's Paradise and the Silver Dollar.

As the clubs' house band, they shared the stage with The Dells and Darrell Banks & The Artistics. Back home in Pittsburgh for the summer, Wayne was asked to sit in with Banks during a gig at the Hill's famed Hurricane Lounge.

A friendship developed and Banks signed Wayne to open for his show. These performances gave the young singer some professional tutoring, as Banks helped polish his act. School's nice, but nothing beats OJT.

Bobby & The Vanguards stayed busy on the local circuit through 1967. Then they returned to Montreal for a year's run at the Esquire Showbar. They shared the bill with The Sweet Inspirations, Etta James, and Carla Thomas.

Eventually the Vanguards drifted apart and Wayne headed back home to the 'Burgh.

He joined forces with popular WZUM DJ’s Al Gee & Bobby Bennett in 1967-68, when the station was in its brief soul mode. His band played shows at the Hill District's place to swing, the Savoy Ballroom, every Saturday night.

In 1969, Wayne went to LA to record his first songs, "Heart Of A Poor Man" b/w "Make Me Yours." Arthur Wright did the arrangements with The Leon Haywood Band providing the sound. The single was released by Atlantic Records (#2670) and was issued under Wayne’s given name, Wayne Boykin.

Wayne fronted the bands On The Corner in 1976 and Takin’ Names in 1977. From 1978-79, he sang with the Rhythm Kings. An album was recorded by the group, but was never released. Wayne also worked with the Marcels off and on during the ‘80’s and 90’s.

Jeff Ingersoll's local Bonedog Records released his first album, "Long Hard Road," in 1999 (BDRCD-03). The CD was well received, especially overseas where there's a great appreciation of American soul, and a single of the title track was released on the Grapevine 2000 label in the U.K.

His second Bonedog offering was "Hit That Thing," (BDRCD-14) released by the Bobby Wayne Band. The title track and "Homestead Greys" are especially strong cuts, along with a couple of very nice covers of lesser known but sweet R&B songs mingled among the original tunes, like The Masquerader's "This House Is Haunted."

He's just released "Soul Station," also on the Mon Valley's Bonedog label (BDRCD -26). The title track is an ode to the old AM heroes of soul. It's one of eight cuts penned by local songwriter and bassist Mike Sweeney, who's also crafted tunes for Billy Price.

The hot tracks are the title song, the upbeat "Leaving Signs", radio friendly, hook-filled "This Amazing Thing", rocker "Knowing You've Been Loved" and the ballad "Right About The Rain".

Pittsburgh has always been a R&B town, but sometimes it overlooks its own. He's bigger in Japan and England - and still tours overseas - than he is in his native Steel City.

Bobby Wayne can make you forget Motown in a heartbeat and convert you to a northern soul, chunky & funky rhythm, brass lovin' Stax fan in a New York minute.

He's still fronting the Bobby Wayne Band, and if you're a soul man, the group, featuring his sometimes silky, sometimes growling pipes, is a can't miss act.

Bobby Wayne - "Do I Love You?" from "Long Hard Road"

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Goddess of Love Phyllis Hyman

phyllis hyman
Phyllis Hyman from Disco Museum

Phyllis Hyman was born in Philadelphia on July 6, 1949, to an Italian American mother and African American father, but she grew up in St. Clair Village. She was the oldest of seven kids, and the home front wasn't all that. Her mother was manic depressive. Hyman would retreat into a world of music.

She started out as a another angelic voice in a local choir. It’s said that an elementary school teacher noticed and nurtured her singing talents, giving her the encouragement and direction her family couldn't.

She was never a headliner in Pittsburgh, but found enough work to keep her occupied, and noticed. Hyman became a fairly regular back-up singer at Steel City Records in East Liberty. Its studios were located in a now razed building that sat where the Farmer's Market is held behind the Home Depot on the old Sears site.

(Don't ask - East Liberty has been through more changes in the past 50 years, because of developers and urban planners, than the Pittsburgh Pirate lineup.)

She actually went to Robert Morris College to become a legal secretary, just in case the singing thing didn't work out. It eventually did, and big time, but she had to bolt town to achieve her goals.

She left Pittsburgh to follow a scholarship to music school. On graduation, she went on a national tour with the group New Direction in 1971. After the tour, she joined Miami's All the People and worked with another local group, The Hondo Beat. Hyman also appeared in the 1974 film "Lenny."

She fronted a band called Phyllis Hyman and the P/H Factor. Hyman's work impressed Sid Maurer and former Epic Records promoter Fred Frank. She signed with their Roadshow Records/Desert Moon label.

Hyman moved to New York City to work on her resume. She did background vocals on Jon Lucien's "Premonition" and worked in clubs. Her star was launched when a pair of NYC nightspots, Rust Brown's and Mikell's, located a few blocks apart on Manhattan's Upper West Side, started featuring Hyman.

It was during one of these performances that she was spotted by Norman Connors, who offered her a spot as a vocalist on his 1976 album, "You Are My Starship." Her duet with Michael Henderson, a remake of The Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow!," scored well on the R&B charts.

Hyman sang with Pharoah Sanders and the Fatback Band while working on her first solo album, "Phyllis Hyman," released in 1977 on the Buddha label. When Arista Records bought Buddah in 1978, her contract was transferred to that label.

Her first album for Arista, "Somewhere in My Lifetime," was released in 1979; the title track was produced by labelmate Barry Manilow. Her follow up disk "You Know How to Love Me," made the R&B Top 20 and also climbed high on the club charts.

Hyman married her manager Larry Alexander in the late 1970s, but both the personal and professional team ended in divorce. For the rest of the singer's life the search for love would cause her emotional turmoil, and it would just add to the list of problems she faced in her later years.

In 1981 Phyllis co-starred with Gregory Hines & Judith Jamison in the hit Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington, "Sophisticated Ladies" and continued in the role for two and a half years, garnering a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award for Best Newcomer.

The original cast recording was released by RCA and the CD is now out of print. Hyman's first solo Top Ten hit was 1981's "Can't We Fall In Love Again," a duet with Michael Henderson, on the album of the same name.

"Goddess Of Love, recorded in 1983, featured a sensational cover shot of Hyman at her most seductive, draped in a silver bugle beaded gown (which she said weighed thirty pounds) and sporting chandelier-sized earrings, a Hyman trademark.

At a striking 6'1" tall, Hyman would always sport high heels and later in life wouldn't be caught without her signature tall, bejeweled hats. She cut an unforgettable figure.

The "Goddess Of Love" became her nom d' plume for both music critics and fans. Of course, the old-school still just called her "The Sophisticated Lady." Both fit her well.

Hyman recorded "Never Say Never Again" in 1983 as the theme song for the James Bond movie of the same name, written by Stephen Forsyth and Jim Ryan. It never saw the light of day, though, because Michel Legrand threatened to sue, claiming he contractually had the rights to the title song. It wouldn't be her last industry battle.

Problems between Hyman and her label, Arista, caused a pause in her recording career. Arista, according to show biz legend, had promised her she would be the next Diana Ross, but instead put all its efforts into pushing Whitney Houston.

But she used the time well, appearing on movie soundtracks, television commercials and guest vocals, working with Chuck Mangione, The Whispers and The Four Tops. She toured often and did a college lecture tour.

Finally free from Arista's control in 1985, she released the album "Living All Alone," and scored on the torch song "Old Friend" and the melancholy title track, as well as "You Just Don't Know" and "Screaming at the Moon" in 1986. Hyman went back to her birthplace and recorded for Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

She appeared in the films "Too Scared To Scream" in 1983, the 1988 Spike Lee classic "School Daze," and co-starred with Fred Williamson in 1991's "The Kill Reflex." She collaborated with artists like Grover Washington, Jr.

By the late 1980s Hyman's live shows packed storied venues, like Harlem's Apollo, Oakland's Paramount, and the St. Louis Fox. Often dressed in African-inspired clothing, a fez atop her head, Hyman on stage had few peers, and she often took her act overseas with great fanfare and success.

Her next album, "Prime of My Life," released in 1991, was the biggest of her career and included her first number one R&B hit and first Billboard Top 100 Hit "Don't Wanna Change the World." The album spawned three more top ten singles "Living in Confusion", "When You Get Right Down to It", and the hit "I Found Love".

Just over a year later she appeared one last time on a Norman Connors album, singing the title song "Remember Who You Are", which became a minor R&B hit.

In 1992, she was voted "Number One Best Female Vocalist" in the UK by Blues & Soul magazine readers, beating out the likes of Anita Baker, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.

By now, her own personal problems were spinning out of control.

A never-ending battle with alcohol and weight (she sometimes packed nearly 300 pounds on her statuesque frame, even though she modeled in her earlier years), combined with money woes, were making life difficult for Hyman and those around her.

She was known as a controlling personality, and as a black female in the music industry, that caused her to bang her head against an unmovable wall innumerable times.

In 1993 Hyman was dealt another blow when both her mother and grandmother died within a month of one another. She diagnosed as being bi-polar. When it rains, it pours.

During this time, Hyman became involved in the AIDS campaign. She performed at numerous benefit shows and visited wards and hospices around New York, often at the patients' request. The personal touch took a heavy spiritual toll on her, adding to Hyman's other demons.

In 1995, while appearing at a series of shows at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, opening for the Whispers, she told a friend that this would be her last show. It was.

Her body was discovered the next night by her live-in assistant Lennice Malina, after Hyman missed her curtain call. She was surrounded by empty vials of sleeping pills and left behind a suicide note. Hyman was rushed unconscious to St. Lukes - Roosevelt Hospital, where doctors pronounced her dead shortly after arrival.

She was a week away from her 46th birthday.

Hyman's last album, 1995's "I Refuse to Be Lonely," was a journey into her personal life. Both the title track and the single "I'm Truly Yours" became minor R&B hits. It was an exploration in many ways of her burdens, and her hopes to overcome them. The music wasn't released until after her death.

She's credited with 18 albums, 7 of which were released posthumously, a credit to her star power passing the test of time. Hyman had 22 singles land on the R&B charts, including three top-ten hits. She appeared in four movies and three more TV specials.

Hyman was never easy to categorize. She wasn't just a jazz singer, pop diva, or R&B artist, but all of these, and maybe more. She falls into the class of greats like Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson and Roberta Flack. They're music's Muses.

To prove the timeless appeal of Hyman's music, A Tribe Called Quest remembered her in their song "Baby Phife's Return," with the lyric "Let me take this time to say R.I.P. to Phyllis Hyman/Who never got the props that she damn well deserved..."


(To find more about Phyllis Hyman, just visit Google - there's plenty of sites dedicated to her and her music. For an in-depth study, try the book "Strength of a Woman" by Jason Michael)

Living All Alone