Sunday, December 14, 2008

Joe Rock

jaggerz-joe rock- james darren
Joe Rock with James Darren and the Jaggerz from

On May 16th, 1936, Joseph Vincent Rock made his first appearance in the world, the youngest of five kids. By the time he left this vale of tears, the South Sider's career as a songwriter and promoter were firmly established, hitched forever to the Skyliners, but extending further afield than you may think.

Joe had the music in him, and was a member of the Marquees (a session group that did backing vocals for Willett Studios) and a session singer early on. But his true calling was as a tunesmith and tub-thumper, and that's how he left his mark on Pittsburgh music.

He used to haunt the local hops, checking out the area talent. Rock listened to a group from St. George's in Allentown called the Crescents as a favor to their manager, and took them under his wing. Later, while at a hop hosted by KTV's Al "Nickels" Noble of "Jukebox" fame, he was wowed by a singer from the Monterey's, Brentwood's Jimmy Beaumont.

He added him to the mix, along with South Hill's High guitarist Jackie Taylor, and the Crescents were ready to rock. Rock wrote his first song, "Be Mine," for the group, and it took off locally. It was recorded (no, we couldn't find the label) and became a Pittsburgh hit. The Crescent's had a fan club of some 2,000 members after that song hit the 'Burg airwaves, and they were starring at clubs all over the region.

Striking while the iron was hot, Rock sent the demo to ABC Records. The story is they offered the group a contract, but the Crescents dallied over the terms and ABC threw up its hands and withdrew the offer. Somehow, another contract, this one with Atlantic, who had promised to have Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller pen songs for the group, also slipped through their fingers. Some guys would kill for a contract. Rock and the Crescents weren't apparently among them.

The likeliest explanation for the bumbled deals was that there was an internal debate over which offer was a better fit for the Crescents down the road, but eventually both labels tired of the wait and moved on. We'll never know for sure, though Rock's management cred was a little shaky at that point.

Rock would find the road to promotion becoming even, well, rockier. He brought in an advance man from Specialty Records to hear the Crescents audition in person. Only three of them - Beaumont, Taylor, and original member Wally Lester - bothered to show up. The others were allegedly out joyriding, demoralized over the blown deals.

Rock made sure they had all the cruising time they needed. He canned the AWOLs and brought in a pair of El Rios, Janet Vogel and Joe Verscharen, to replace them.

Then, according to Pittsburgh R&B legend, lightning struck. Rock had driven out to see his squeeze, and she told him it was over - she was headed to stew school in Tulsa. His broken heart kicked into songwriter mode on the way back home, and while he was stopped at a red light, the lyrics for "Since I Don't Have You" popped into his head.

He had jotted down some words at every stop - God knows there are enough traffic lights in Pittsburgh to give a guy time to write an opera - and showed them to Beaumont. He came up with the music, and one of the City's signature tunes was born.

This time, the contracts didn't flow. Rock sent a capella tapes out to thirteen labels (maybe on review, he could have picked a different number than 13), including Chess, RCA, Imperial, and the now gunshy ABC. They all said "no thanks," citing everything from negativity to too many you's at the end. Ouch.

But Rock had his local contacts on speed dial, or whatever its 1958 equivalent would have been, and got in touch with Lenny Martin of Calico Records. He arranged an audition that almost never came off - the group was so revved up that they crashed their car on the way to the try-out, but still managed to make it on time - and sang "Since I Don't Have You" and "One Night, One Night," selling Martin.

The gang went up to Capital Record's studio in New York City in December, cut the songs, and the rest is history. He even gave the group its new name, based on a 1945 Charlie Barnet hit, "Skyliner." Rock got the group on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and eight dates at the Apollo Theater. They charted on both pop and R&B charts. Now he was managing in high gear.

Now some say Rock couldn't take the group to the next level, and he did have a fairly bitter split with Calico Records in 1960. But the truth of the matter was that not many groups broke out of Pittsburgh, much less white R&B performers. The Skyliners went further than most.

He managed the Skyliners until his death, and formed a strong writing team with Beaumont, who scored Rock's lyrics on "This I Swear," "I'd Die," "Lonely Way," and "It Happened Today," along with every original song the group did on Calico and many beyond that time.

But the Skyliners weren't Rock's only claim to fame. In 1963, he produced "Let's Be Lovers" on ATCO 6272, a local hit that reminded listeners of New York's Flamingos. And it should have; Rock brought in Nate Nelson and the group to record under the alias of "The Starglows," earning them both a few bucks under the table.

He also penned the Joey Dee and the Starliters song "Lorraine," their first release in 1958.

He was the manager for the Jaggerz when their song "The Rapper" hit #2 nationally in 1970 on the Kama Sutra label. He also represented soul man Johnny Daye, and landed him a gig with Stax Records. In fact, he co-wrote "I've Got Dreams To Remember," the Otis Redding classic. He was out with Redding the night before his fatal plane crash.

Eventually, Rock moved away from R&B in Memphis to country in Nashville during the early 1990s. Plagued by failing health, he died in Baptist Hospital after quadruple bypass surgery on April 4, 2000.

It's been said that as long as the Skyliners are remembered, so will the memory of Joe Rock. But his passing marks a countdown to the end of the R&B era in Pittsburgh music, one of the town's craziest and most creative periods.

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