Saturday, January 31, 2009

Play That Funky Music...

Wild Cherry from Wikipedia

Rob Parissi was raised in the Pittsburgh-Wheeling Steel mill town of Mingo Junction, Ohio, a place tough enough to be used as the backdrop for the movie "Deer Hunter." He graduated from Mingo High School in 1968, when rock, pop, and soul still shared the limelight.

He formed his first band in 1970 in Steubenville. The group's name, "Wild Cherry," was taken from a box of cough drops (geez, they were that close to becoming the "Smith Bothers" or "Ludens!") found laying around while Parissi was sick.

The band played the regional circuit of clubs in the Ohio Valley region, the West Virginia panhandle, and Pittsburgh. A pure rock act then, they self-released several singles, but none of them went anywhere. They even signed with Terry Knight's label, Brown Bag Records, but the records didn't chart any better.

The band broke up in 1975 when a disillusioned Parissi sold his equipment and got a gig as the manager of a Bonanza steakhouse. It was not an ideal mix. His enthusiasm for music magically returned, and he decided to get the band back together.

"So I got out of the steakhouses, got another bunch of fellows together, and formed a second attempt at Wild Cherry," Parissi recalled for Super Seventies. The new lineup featured Mark Avsec (keyboards), Bryan Bassett (guitar), Allen Wentz (bass) and Ronald Beitle (drums & percussion).

"We started playing all the rock clubs, but then they started to disappear, and we wound up having to work in discos, including a place in Pittsburgh called the 2001. We played too much rock, I guess, because people came up to us and said, 'Play that funky music.'"

Hey, not a problem. The band had rock roots, but a solid background in R&B, too. Parissi's seminal music was played by Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, the Animals, the Easybeats, the Yardbirds, the Ventures, and Sly and the Family Stone. Some rock, some soul, and some funk. It would prove to be a great mix.

After that show, Parissi said "In the dressing room, I told the guys that we had to find a rock'n'roll way to play this disco stuff. Our drummer said, 'Well, I guess it's like they say - "You gotta play that funky music, white boy."' I said, 'That's a great idea.' I grabbed a bar pad, the kind used to take down drink orders, and began to write."

A couple of months later, they were in a Cleveland studio. Wild Cherry planned on taping a demo of the Commodores "I Feel Sanctified" backed with Parissi's "Play That Funky Music."

A friend of the sound engineer heard the studio version of "Funky Music", and bird-dogged the band to Epic Records, which signed the group. Epic suggested recording the song as the A-side instead of the flip. Record companies sometimes know what they're doing.

"Play That Funky Music" (Epic 50225) became a monster when released in 1976, becoming number one on the Billboard R&B and pop charts. The single and Wild Cherry's self-titled debut album both went platinum.

The band was named Best Pop Group of the Year by Billboard, and received an American Music Award for Top R&B Single of the Year, as well as a pair of Grammy nominations for Best New Vocal Group and Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo that year. Pretty sweet way to break into the national scene, hey? Only Rare Earth could compete with them for the "Funky White Boy" title.

We hope they enjoyed the ride. Three more LP's failed to chart, and no other single ever cracked the Top Forty. Parissi takes the blame. "After that (first album), we started to overproduce our records, and that's probably why we never had another major hit. A lot of that was my fault, striving to sound different. We cut our last album in February 1979 and then just kind of fell apart."

He also had his head-butting sessions with Epic, which Parissi felt should have released a couple of more singles off the first album, "I Feel Sanctified" and "Hold On." He thinks that would have helped establish the band, and given him time to write instead of being rushed from tour to helter-skelter studio session and then back on the road in an endless and ultimately unsustainable cycle.

But some of the band played on after Wild Cherry went their separate ways.

Donnie Iris joined the group for their fourth and final album, and got his first taste of heavy national touring with the band. He scored big afterwards with the Cruisers, hitting the charts with "Ah Leah!" and "Love Is Like A Rock."

Mark Avsec teamed up with Iris after the break-up of Wild Cherry to form The Cruisers, released solo projects under the moniker "Cellarful of Noise" in 1985 & 1988, and wrote songs for LaFlavour. He's still a regular Cruiser, and teaches law at Case Western Reserve.

Guitarist Bryan Bassett kept on rockin' with Molly Hatchet, and now plays with Foghat.

Rob Parissi later became a disk jockey in Wheeling, West Virginia after a stint as a sideman for some other acts. And he still made a few bucks off the tune, and not just in royalties.

Vanilla Ice released a cover of "Funky Music" as the follow-up (and B side) to "Ice Ice Baby." His version hit #4 in the US, and was his last major hit. But for some reason, Ice didn't credit Parissi as a writer. Bad move. Parissi sued and got $500,000 as a settlement for the plagiarism.

He's semi-retired now, and still writes and records at his home studio in Florida.

Meanwhile, "Play That Funky Music" was covered by the rock group Roxanne in 1988, was extensively and expensively sampled by Vanilla Ice in 1990, is still played in dance clubs worldwide, has been used on TV shows, in ad campaigns, over two dozen movie soundtracks, and is on a zillion funk and disco music compilations.

Oddly, one of their lesser-known songs still has a following. "1-2-3 Kind Of Love" was a hit with the beach music clubs along the Carolina coast, and it continues to be popular there to this day. The song is even included in "Beach Music Anthology - Volume 3" released by Ripete Records.

"Play That Funky Music" - Wild Cherry on "Midnight Special"

(Old Mon came up with this post after discussing the acts of the 70's and 80's with cubicle bud Mike Broz. The conversation went from Donny Iris (Dominic Ierace, hey, maybe a cuz of Old Mon!) to Wild Cherry, and here's the result. And yes, we do work hard for the money in between break-time bouts of City music raps!)

Friday, January 23, 2009



Furloughed from their day jobs within weeks of each other, Lohio's Greg Dutton and Josh Verbanets decided to spend their unexpected free time by building a recording studio. They spent weeks in Dutton’s garage, and finally hammered together an operating record shop as the fruit of their labors.

And what good is a record studio without a record? Well hey, Lohio baptized the studio when it cut most of the band’s latest disk "History, the Destroyer" in the Dutton's garage.

"History" is sixties pop, with the sounds of country and 90’s Brit Pop mixed in. Since its November 2008 release, the CD has been named as one of the year’s Fav Twenty albums by Desolation Row.

Dutton, an architect by day, started Lohio as a solo project, and began recording his EP "Sleeping Stereo" at 3 Elliot Studio. He was a country-folkie then, showing his rural Ohio roots (he was raised on a family farm in St. Clairsville) and making music in the singer/songwriter mode with a little help from his friends.

He brought in some buds from other Pittsburgh acts to back the record, and all of them eventually joined the band. 2007's "Sleeping Stereo" (Golden Chilren label) earned comparisons to Chicago's early Wilco. The song "Sea and the Sun" was the track that generated the most buzz for "Stereo," while the EP won critical acclaim and some local love from the Post Gazette and WYEP.

Now featuring Dutton (vocals/writer/guitar), Verbanets (guitar/writer), Matt Miller (drums/ vocals), Liz Adams (vocals & bass), Erik Cirelli (guitar) and Craig Smith (keyboards), the band became a collective, morphing from country to pop for "History."

The record was a team effort, with Dutton and Verbanets sharing the producing and recording duties, while the pair, along with Miller, did the composing. The collaboration process was a natural step once Lohio became a full-fledged band with its members eager to toss their two cents worth into the final product.

Dutton told Scott Mervis of the Post Gazette that "Our middle ground is like the Zombies and old British Invasion, but also '90s Britpop." They've lost the Wilco comparisons, with their sound being likened now to the New Pornographers, the Clientele, and the Blur.

Be sure that alt country and folk are still in Dutton's genes, though. He's part of a swirling cast of characters, along with Miller, of Boca Chica, a local band that evokes Gillian Welch. They have a full-length album "Transform Into Beasts," released in 2007.

Since Lohio formed in 2006, they've been shared the stage with acts including David Bazan, The Avett Brothers, American Music Club, Tokyo Police Club, Ricki Lee Jones, Jennifer O'Connor and Ra Ra Riot. And they're itching to take their show on the road.

They're just coming back from an Ohio swing, and will play January 27th at the CMU Underground and on the 30th at Howler’s Coyote Cafe in Bloomfield with Boca Chica and Mariage Blanc.

The coming weeks will see Lohio in Philly, Brooklyn, Columbus, Athens, Louisville and Danbury with a couple of more Pittsburgh gigs squeezed into the schedule.

Expect them to keep piling up the mileage; nothing like supporting a new CD to keep a band merrily rolling along the interstates. "History" should prove well worth the journey.

Josh Verbanets and Matt Miller have since left the band to form a new group, Meeting Of Important People. Craig Smith also left because of time conflicts; he's playing with Blindsider and Victor. Sven Stens (drums) and Chris Ryan (keyboards) joined on; Dutton, Adams, and Cirelli remained.

That roster released an EP in November, 2009, called "Lohio." They produced it in the Gibsonia studio of Donora's Jake Hanner.

The band released a second EP in the fall of 2010, titled "Family Tree," a five song collection that's available on iTunes. It too was recorded at Hanner's studio, and is a return to folk-rock, rather than another pop set.

The band's roster for the CD are long-time mates Greg Dutton, Liz Adams, Erik Cirelli and drummer Paul Smith (Sven moved to Philly. Dutton knew of Smith and his work through Emily Rodgers.)

The CD's physical release will be October 3rd at Brillobox, where Lohio will perform with Donora. Afterward, the two will tour the midwest together, appearing in places like Columbus, Lexington, and Louisville.

Lohio - "Victim Is A Saint", from "Sleeping Stereo" and performed at Brillobox
(sorry about the chatter and the pyschedelics; YouTube isn't exactly MGM quality all the time - Old Mon)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Casey and Two Jakes - aka Donora

Donora from Donora Music

Hey, the indy trio Donora did it kinda backwards - first they cut their debut album, "Donora", then they went out and found a local label, Rostrum, to push it. They're the first pop band the label has signed; Rostrum is best known for breaking Wiz Khalifa.

It's working out OK, too - they released "Donora" last month at a coming-out party at the Rex in South Side, and the label has plans for full tilt distribution in the near future.

Don't accuse the group of not knowing the business. Jake and Casey Hanner, brother and sister, are the kids of country music man Dave Hanner, who wrote tunes for Mel Tillis, the Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Ann Womack, and showed his licks with the Corbin-Hanner band and Gravel.

They grew up with a recording studio in their Gibsonia basement, and put it to good use. In fact, they hooked up with their band mate, Jake Churton, while he was jamming in the cellar studio with another now-defunct act. Jake Hanner learned his electronic chops there, and co-produced "Donora" with his dad.

Casey, who started out as a solo acoustic act, does the lead vocals and guitar work, her brother Jake handles the skins and backup, and Churton adds the bass lines. But he's not just a background thumper. Churton plays the bass like it's a lead axe, adding to a full pop sound pumped up with Jake's mastery of sampling.

They came this close to naming themselves "Casey and the Two Jakes," proposed by Casey, of course, but ended up with "Donora" instead just because they liked it. While Donora was a tough steel town, this version is its bright, hook filled antithesis. And like the town, this Donora is a throwback to a different era.

They've been playing the local clubs for three years or so, and did some touring in places like New York, Indianapolis, Morgantown, and Dayton while releasing a couple of EPs and licensing some background music for films and vids, and a few of their songs have popped up on MTV and BBC shows.

Fans of Donora will recognize a lot of the stuff on their CD.

"Shh," "Weekend Tongue," "Shak'ida," and "The Chorus" are favs from their live sets. They added a couple of lesser known tracks, too. "I Think I Like You," was written for a film deal that fell through, and the ballad "London" goes back to Casey's solo days.

Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette picked the track "Shh" as one of the top ten singles of 2008 and the album as one of the "Best of the 'Burgh." The CD is getting a lot of love from WYEP. Sweet debut, hey?

How would you pigeon hole their sound? They've been compared to Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, and the Throwing Muses, and they consider themselves a garage pop band.

The siblings told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that "I would call us a pop band, but fun," Casey Hanner says. "We try to make music that's fun, but with the samples, there's a serious undertone. In general, it's about having a good time."

"And generating catchy melodies," Jake Hanner adds.

Mervis says it best: "The trio generates some of the poppiest songs this city has to offer, harking back to that golden era of New Wave/power pop when bands like the Go-Go's, Missing Persons and Blondie lit up the airwaves."

Donora - "Shh"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Gene The Werewolf

Gene the Werewolf from Gene the Werewolf's Face Book

Hey, only Old Mon would segue from the Hurricane Lounge and Billy Strayhorn into indy guys Gene the Werewolf, but the decades do march on...

When five guys from the Pittsburgh outliers of Irwin, Belle Vernon, and the South Hills decided that they wanted to start rocking, let the good times roll, and put some fun back into the local music scene, Gene The Werewolf was born.

Formed in 2007, GTW is made up of members that paid some Pittsburgh dues. Vocalist, guitarist & keyboardist Jon Belan moonlights with Punchline, played with The Berlin Project, and is now the band's frontman and hirsute namesake, Gene The Werewolf.

The other members are Tim Schultz (bass/vocals), Aaron Mediate (keys/snyth), Nick Revak (drums) - all three were former players for TBP, which broke up in 2004 - and Drew Donegan (guitar/vocals), who joined in from punkers Clearview Kills.

Though the group has only been together a short while, they've performed across the U.S., U.K., Canada and Japan for the better part of the last decade with their other bands, and shared the stage with acts like Eddie Money, the Clarks, and MxPx as GTW.

“The concept of this band is that people can go out to a rock show and have fun like they used to before the scene became all about hot dudes with tight abs and no talent being in the spotlight” says Belan.

Actually, what they are is a group of straightforward indy rockers with some power chords and without much in the way of pretense. “We want to play music that people can relate to, while still being ridiculous and awesome. I mean, we asked a werewolf to be our lead singer for crying out loud” says Nick.

During the summer of 2008, Gene The Werewolf recorded their first (and so far untitled and unreleased) album with producer Jamie Woolford, who's worked with The Gin Blossoms, The Stereo, and The Format, at Innovation Studios in Steubenville, with plans to stock the shelves in the first half of 2009.

“I think the record will be one half Kiss, one half The Darkness, and one half Foo Fighters” Belan explained. Hey, don't worry - he knows his bands better than his math. They also have a two-song sampler disk available at their shows.

The act has been performing live since its inception and is developing a regional fan base. "I think people have been excited to come out and see something new from the bands they have listened to for so long," according to Belan. They plan to spread the fun around later in the year when they take to the road in support of the CD.

So far, so good. The band’s first show at South Side’s Club Cafe in October, 2007, sold out in 20 minutes. GTW has strutted its stuff at the Homegrown Hoo Ha ‘08, an annual area festival that drew 12,000 local fans this year. They've been featured on 105.9 The X, 96.9 Bob FM, and 102.5 WDVE. Their show packs the area rock clubs.

First, a word of caution. The band refuses to play any shows during a full moon. “Its simply not safe”, says Gene. “I mean, one minute I could be up there playing, and the next minute I would have completely devoured 5 or 6 people in the first row of the crowd. I just wouldn’t be able to keep fans liking our band if I ate all of them when they came to see us play.” Word.

But when the moon is behind a cloud and Gene makes an appearance, the stage show is a sight to behold. GTW might use a drumline to open up the show, shoot a cannon filled with dollar bills into the crowd (there goes the gate) or have a werewolf dancing along with the band on stage, just to keep Gene company. And the music's pretty tight, too.

GTW will appear with The Space Pimps and RC Static for an all ages show at South Side's Diesel Club Lounge at 1601 East Carson Street on Saturday, January 31st. The doors open at 7:00, and the show starts at 7:30. It should be safe - you'll be under a quarter moon. Whew! Gene isn't supposed to transform into his fuzzy alter ego until February 9th.

So if you feel like lettin' the fur fly and howling at the moon with Gene the Werewolf...

"Superhero" - Gene the Werewolf

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Hurricane

Jimmy Smith at his Hammond from Wikipedia

The Hurricane Lounge opened for business in 1954 on Centre Avenue, between Roberts and Miller Streets, after spending its first 15 years of life as a Hill District after-hours club.

Anna Simmons "Birdie" Dunlap, a striking woman who according to local lore was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson's mistress, Sally Hemings, and her husband Shine owned the Lounge.

She was a hard-nosed business woman, and ran a tight ship with an iron fist. No credit, no idlers, and no fooling around in her place. Frank Bolden, the late Pittsburgh Courier editor, remembered in a Pittsburgh Post Gazette interview that the "Girls were safer at the Hurricane than at the YMCA."

Small and cozy - it sat 120 people, max - the Hurricane was often packed. It drew an upscale crowd, unlike Gus Greenlee's more diverse Crawford Grill up the street. The patrons were surrounded by a faux tropical setting, enjoying dinner and drinks while they grooved to the latest acts jamming away on its raised stage tucked against the back wall.

Bobby Layne, the old Steeler quarterback and well-known nightcrawler (he also frequented Dantes in Brentwood), was a regular. The clubs and the bands loved seeing him stroll through the door, because he was a big spender and tipper. It's said that the Texan once stuffed two C-Notes in the bell of Big Jay McNeely's sax for a Lounge gig well done. And that was in 1960 money.

The Hurricane was renowned for its food, too, with its Brazilian shrimp and fried chicken topping the menu, but it was better known for its sizzling music.

The club featured performers such as Stanley Turrentine, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Burrell, Bill Doggett, Jack McDuff, Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan. It was an established stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit" of black entertainers, and was especially noted for bringing in hot organists.

"All the organ players at the time came through there - Jimmy Smith, Johnny Hammond Smith, Wild Bill Davis, Timmy McGriff. People would be crowded in this little club and it was a swinging little club. And everybody just had a ball there," recalled Pittsburgh jazz musician Kenny Fisher for WYEP.

In fact, it was at the Hurricane that Gene Ludwig heard Jimmy Smith making some magical sounds that turned him on to the Hammond B3 organ. Ludwig told All About Jazz that "I met Jimmy Smith (at the Hurricane) and heard the Hammond...and I knew that's what I wanted to be: a Hammond organ player”. That's one wish that came true.

But like the other clubs born in the Hill's glory years as Little Harlem, it met the same inescapable fate. First, it had to deal with the massive upheaval brought about by the Civic Arena construction in the fifties. Then, a decade later, the Martin Luther King Jr. riots in 1968 drove the last nail home in the shuttering of the Hill.

Over 8,000 residents were gone, whites were leery to roam Centre Avenue, and the Hill businesses that weren't barred and gated were boarded up. The Hurricane joined the list of victims, closing down in 1970 and ending another chapter of Pittsburgh's jazz legacy.

But it's not entirely forgotten. The Hill House runs an annual “Jazz Live at the Hurricane” series, begun in 2007. They trick out the Blakey Program Center, the multi-purpose room of House, and transform it into jazz club setting inspired by The Hurricane Lounge with a little help from some CMU architectural dudes. A five-piece band of Pittsburgh all-stars, led by Kenny Blakey and Roger Humphries, performed the concerts last year.

So the Hurricane still lives on, even if in spirit only. And a thing remembered is never gone.