Friday, March 27, 2009

Norm Nardini

Norman Nardini

Homewood native Norman Nardini sang "I've Been Doin It For Years Before Ya' All Was Here” in 1979. And he's still doing it, three decades later.

Nardini started playing covers with long-time collaborator Robbie Johns in 1966, when Johns was the guitarist and Nardini tickled the keyboards for a band called the Yardleys. (Johns eventually switched to drums and Nardini became an ax man).

In 1971, living in Boston and attending the Berklee School of Music, Nardini spent a week playing guitar for Big Mama Thornton and George "Harmonica' Smith at The Jazz Workshop. Then, in 1974, Nardini, Johns, and Bob "Bubs" McKeag recorded the Marvin Gaye hit "Ain’t That Peculiar" at East Liberty's Red Fox Studios, and a Pittsburgh rock legend was born: Diamond Reo.

"Ain't It Peculiar" became a top 40 hit and the band soon had a national deal with an Atlantic Record's subsidiary, Big Tree Records. They added Frank Czuri of the Igniters & Jaggerz on lead vocals, Warren King on guitar, and cut "Diamond Reo" (BT8950).

Diamond Reo schmoozed with Dick Clark on American Bandstand and opened shows for Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Kiss, Rush, Canned Heat, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, and other seventies' rockers as they relentlessly toured and lived the high life.

Life on the road brought pressures and changes to the group. First, McKeag left to form the McKeag/Lawson Blues Band. Their format progressed, too. Diamond Reo became less top 40 and moved towards the metal/punk music emerging from the era.

Nardini thought they were introducing their fans to the future of rock, but many of their followers couldn't figure out what band they were listening to from album to album.

Their second album, 1976's "Dirty Diamonds" (Kama Sutra #B0016PC7EA), was heavy rockin' and featured King wailing on his ax. As they moved towards the 80’s, they became a punk/new wave band, capped by the 1978 "Ruff Cuts" for Piccadilly (PIC3311).

But living large was taking its toll on the group, and dabbling with drugs wasn't helping the cause. In 1979, Nardini left the band to start Norman Nardini & The East Side Tigers. He thought the time was ripe to step out and become a frontman and writer for his own group. (Czuri and King went on to form the Silencers.)

The 1981 release "Eat'n Alive" (Sutra #SUS 1012) was recorded live at Cleveland’s Agora Club and earned a 4 Star Review from Rolling Stone. In 1983, the band released "Norman Nardini and The Tigers" (CBS #BFZ35497), which featured Jon Bon Jovi on background vocals. In 1987, CBS released "Love Dog" (#BFZ40435), which had Rick Derringer, Dr. John and Paul Schaeffer scattered among its grooves. Warren King even added a few chops to the tracks.

But Nardini and the Tigers were given no radio love at home, in spite of the CBS record deal, Rolling Stone's rave, and playing to packed houses. Hey, Pittsburgh doesn't eat its young; it just ignores them. The Tigers did their last tour in 1986.

But Nardini soldiered on and released 3 CDs on the New York City's indie Circumstantial label. 1991’s "This Ole Train" (#28121-1001-2), with an appearance by his old buds Bon Jovi, led to a German tour with the Blues Brothers. Circumstantial also issued the 1994 "Breakdown In Paradise" (#28121-1004-2) and 1996’s "It's Alive" (#28121-1008-2).

In 1998, Moondog Records released "There Was A Time," followed by "Redemption" in 2004. Subtitled "Best of 1977 – 1988" Nardini went back to the studio and recut the tunes from his heyday when he ruled the town from Swissvale's Fat City stage.

There was a time when Norm Nardini and and the Tigers, along with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, were the heart and soul of rock in Pittsburgh. Grushecky and Nardini had a reunion gig at Altar in the Strip in early 2009; it was a real trip for Old Mon to see the bands together once again just like back in the day.

But Nardini is hardly retired. He's still a hard-working regular on the club circuit, performing from his home base of Moondogs in Blawnox and gigging in the Southside, Uniontown, Mon Valley, Wexford, Corapolis, eastern Ohio, and anywhere and everywhere in between. He never held a day job; his music is his life.

And he still puts on a great show. Nardini became a prolific writer, and his stage personna has evolved from an acrobatic wired guitarist thrashing his tiger-striped ax to a comfortable frontman that connects with his fans. The music still pulsates, too - no musings from a guy that's seen it all, but straight ahead rock.

To demonstrate the point, he just opened for Jon Bon Jovi when the band stopped at the Consol Center in early 2011 in front of 17,000 fans. They're long time friends, dating back to an Asbury Park meeting in 1980. In 1987, Nardini played on stage with Bon Jovi doing CCR's "Travelin' Band" at the Civic Arena. That same night, they hooked up again at the Decade, where Bon Jovi joined Norm Nardini and the Tigers for an impromptu set.

He also came out with a new LP, "Bone A Fide," in 2011, his first album of original material since 1998 (he has dozens of unrecorded songs he's written in the past decade).

Hey, the days of Fat City and the Decade are behind us. But at least Norm Nardini is still around to remind us of the home-grown rock glory that was once Pittsburgh's.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Original Stadium Rocker

Iv6Fdjvj Vince Lascheid from
Hey, when you think of stadium rock, Springsteen and the Stones immediately leap to mind. But they didn't originate the genre.
Old time sports fans in Pittsburgh couldn't imagine going to a ball game - or for that matter, a hockey night in Pittsburgh - without hearing the organ of Vince Lascheid extorting the team or blasting out a player intro.
Vince died late Thursday at the age of 85, ending an era in Pittsburgh sports. He was much more than a house organist; he played for big bands like Tex Benecke and Glenn Miller before deciding life on the road wasn't for him and returning to the Pittsburgh club scene. But stadium and arena rock would make his reputation.
Lascheid was the first to tie a player and song snippet together, and some were classics. He played "Brian's Song" for Brian Giles, snake-charmer music for Dave "The Cobra" Parker, "My Favorite Martian" for Al Martin, "Elmer's Song" for Elmer Dessens, and "Jesus Christ, Superstar" for the Great One, Roberto Clemente.
Opposing players were fair game, too. Mark "Big Mac" McGwire was greeted by the McDonald's ad theme "You Deserve A Break Today," Mark Grace was introduced with "Amazing Grace," and Old Mon's favorite was for Oriole Benny Ayala who played against the Bucs in the '79 World Series to the strains of "Tie Ayala (A Yellow) Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree."
When the opposing manager would go to the bullpen, the yanked pitcher would head to the dugout accompanied by Vince gleefully pounding out Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" or the Beatle's "Fool on the Hill."
He was just as rascally at the Arena. Lascheid would welcome the refs with "Three Blind Mice" until the NHL made him stop. He tickled the keys into "Let There Be Peace On Earth" whenever a brawl broke out on the ice.

And hey, the Igloo still plays "Let's Go Pens," the long-time rallying cry of the Penguin faithful. His taped "Let's Go Bucs" rings out in the North Shore during every Pirate rally to this day.
We'll miss Vince, as we have over the years when his witty (or corny; take your pick) organ interludes were replaced by three-chord rock anthems. But the Pirates stuck with tradition long enough to record him playing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," and at least that lives on, played during every PNC seventh-inning stretch.
Lasheid was born in 1923 in Cleveland, where his Pittsburgh-native dad had landed for work, but soon returned to his family roots (Lascheid Bottling in Southside, which bottled, among other things, turn-of-the-20th century St. Vincent's Beer, was operated by his kin) in the City. His folk moved to Mt. Lebanon when he was five, where he lived until pitching tent in Scott a few years ago.
He began gigging in high school, and his career was launched when he joined the Navy while in college. He played for Tex Benecke, and joined the Glenn Miller band for the Chesterfield tour, doing live broadcasts across the country.
Lascheid tired of the Greyhound trips, and came back home after nine months of non-stop touring. His replacement wasn't exactly chopped liver - his seat at the piano was taken by Henry Mancini.
Vince ran a record shop for a decade, he gave keyboard lessons throughout his life, and played the St. Bernard church pipes every Sunday. Locally, he was a regular at Lenny Litman's old Downtown jazz club, the Midway Lounge, where he met his bride of 61 years, Linda, and later at the Colony in Scott Township. He even recorded an LP, "Vince Lascheid at the Colony" and in 1996 released a CD titled "Double Play" (Alanna ACD5564).
The Colony is where he scored his long-time Pirate gig, opening up Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 after playing some requests for Pittsburgh Pirates' then-GM Joe Brown, who was at the lounge and was impressed by his keyboard work. That eventually led to the Arena job.
Lascheid never went national, but by some estimates, his work was heard live by over 50,000,000 listeners during his 35-year career, and countless more heard his organ on radio and television. His taped snippets are still played today by the Pirates and Penguins, and he's even in the Pen's Hall of Fame. And that sounds like a big-time career to us.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Walk With Sonny DiNunzio

The Fenways

Hey, Sebastian "Sonny" DiNunzio always knew he was cut out for stardom, even way back in the late 50's when he was a high school running back for Apollo in Armstrong County. But he'd make his name on the stage, not the gridiron.

He joined his first band in 1959, while still in high school. DiNunzio threw in with the acappelo Three Chaps (Joe Cesario, George Esposito, and Bob Savastano, all from Vandergrift), who became the Chaps thereafter. They played the Kiski Valley hop circuit, until Sonny's sister gave them their big break.

She worked for Nick Cenci, half of Co and Ce Records, the local launching pad for the Vogues and Lou Christie. Cenci liked a couple of the demos, and they cut "One Lovely Yesterday" b/w "Perfect Night For Love," released on NY's Brent label (#7016) in 1960.

They followed with "Heaven Must Have Run Out Of Angels" b/w "They'll Never Be," (the B Side became a favorite Pittsburgh grinder) released by Matador Records. Despite the fact that Lou Christie sang back-up for the record, it never went anywhere except locally, and the Chaps folded.

The original Three Chaps moved to the west coast, and they eventually called for DiNunzio. They became, of course, the Four Chaps. The group got its 15 minutes of fame when they appeared on Shindig. But family matters beckoned DiNunzio home, and that was the end of the Chaps era, except for one tune he brought back with him.

He wrote a song called "True Lovers," (Co & Ce #231), a great mid-tempo soul song that was later covered by the Vogues.

DiNunzio's 1965 Four Chaps version still lives on, enjoyed by Northern soul fans through the decades, particularly the Brits. It was the flip of a Merseybeat tinged tune called "Will Ya Or Won't Ya".

Firmly rooted now, Sonny got back in the business, forming the Townsmen. They eventually became the Fenways, consisting of DiNunzio, Ron George (bass, backup vocals), Bob "Hop" Ainsworth (lead guitar, backup vocals), and three drummers: Alan "Dale" Bills, Joey Covington, and Gene Molenaro. The Fenways were a typical Steel City garage-rock act, but separated from the pack because of the great R&B pipes of DiNunzio.

They got their start in 1964 on Ricky C, a Cenci label, with "Nothing to Offer You," and quickly became the hottest local act of the mid-sixties in Pittsburgh.

They made so many appearances on Terry Lee's local TV dance show "Come Alive" that they could be mistaken for the house band. The Fenways featured hot guitars (Di Nunzio, who played several instruments, shredded with a Rickenbacker) and cool clothes (guitarist Ainsworth was always wrapped up in a serape while the rest of the band was Barnaby Street).

In the summer of 1964, the Fenways opened for the Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five. Other acts they shared a bill with were the Shangri-La's, Lee Dorsey, Lou Christie, Chad and Jeremy, and the Skyliners. They worked the clubs, too, sometimes playing seven nights a week. It's great to be young.

They became recording workhorses for Cenci. They cut "Be Careful Little Girl," "The Number One Song In The Country" b/w "Nothing To Offer You," and "Humpty Dumpty" b/w "Nothing To Offer You" (hey, it must have been a great B side) for Co and Ce subsidiary Bev Mar in 1964.

They had their day in the sun when they recorded "Walk" b/w "Whip and Jerk" (IR-66082), released on Imperial in 1965.

"Walk" topped the charts on both of Pittsburgh's major pop radio outlets, KQV and KDKA, along with WMCK. It helped that MCK's primo jock, Terry Lee, was also DiNunzio's cousin. "Walk" flirted with breaking out nationally, edging barely into the Top 50, but never really became anything more than a 'Burgh monster. It did kept the Fenways working.

They also issued a song they cut for Blue Cat, a Red Bird subsidiary operated by George Goldner, "The Fight" b/w "Hard Road Ahead" (BC #116). Throw in "True Lovers", and it was a very good year for DiNunzio.

The Fenways did well enough that Cenci put them on his primary Co and Ce Label, along with the Vogues. The C&C discography is "Satisfied" b/w "I'm a Mover" (#233), "Love Me For Myself" b/w "Satisfied" (#237), and "A-Go-Go" b/w "I Move Around" (#241), in 1966, with "Theme For Pammy" b/w "I'm Your Toy" (#243) the following year.

There's one famous tale of the Co and Ce era. The Fenways were working with Cenci, and taped a Tony Hatch/Petula Clark song called "You're The One." Legend has it that Cenci thought the tune fit one of his other acts better than it did the Fenways, and he gave it to them.

So Sonny DiNunzio's vocals were zapped, and replaced by the harmonies of the Vogues from Turtle Creek. The band's instrumental backing made it on one version, but later, it was overdubbed with strings.

The Vogues were off and running after the huge hit. But some folk say that DiNunzio felt he was robbed of his shot at national fame and fortune by Cenci's switcheroo.

Would a guitar driven, R&B version of "You're the One" had nearly the success of the lush Vogue production? We'll never know, but it's not hard to figure out what the Fenways thought.

By 1968, the group evolved into The Racket Squad, a hard rockin', psychedelic act going with the flow of the times. They released two LP's on the Jubilee label. The first LP was self-titled, and the second was called "Corners of Your Mind."

1968's "Racket Squad" was laced with covers. It's best tune was "The Loser," a spacy remake of a Skyliners song, with "Romeo and Juliet," "We've Got A Groovy Thing Going," and "No Fair At All" being pretty fair remakes. The "Corners of Your Mind," released the following year, was a mixed bag of tunes, most of which tried a little too hard to be cool. "Suburban Life" and "Sweet Little Smoke" stand out.

Jubilee issued "Hung Up" b/w "Higher Than High" (Jubilee 45-5591), "Just Like Romeo and Juliet" b/w "Little Red Wagon" (Jubilee 45-5601) and "Suburban Life" b/w "The Loser" (Jubilee 45-5638) as singles from the LPs.

After that, the Racket Squad toured and released four more 45's, 1969's popular "That's How Much I Love My Baby" (written for his wife LaVerne) b/w "Moving In" (Jubilee 45-5628), "I'll Never Forget Your Love" b/w "Maybe Tomorrow" (Jubilee 45-5657), "In Your Arms" b/w "Cool Town" (Jubilee 45-5682), and their final release, 1970's "Coal Town" b/w "Roller Coaster Ride" (Jubilee 45-5694).

Frustrated by the failure to chart records, the Racket Squad unplugged their amps in 1970.

Drummer Joey Covington, from East Conemaugh near Johnstown, carved out a nice career with the Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and Jefferson Starship.

DiNunzio put together a lounge act called Sebastian, and continued to play the Pittsburgh area, going solo after awhile. He released an album under his own name. But the singer had run his race; Sonny DiNunzio died in a car wreck in 1978.

His memorial concert at the old Stanley Theater was a fitting affair. Anyone who had a link to Pittsburgh music performed: on stage were the Skyliners, Vogues, Marcels and his final band, Sebastian. TL released a memorial tribute LP called "Sonny," a mix of original tunes and covers.

If you want to hear Sonny DiNunzio again, Collectibles Records has a Racket Squad CD, which includes both Jubilee LP's and some singles, including "That's How Much I Love My Baby," a Sonny R&B special, and one of Old Mon's favorites, "I'll Never Forget Your Love." As for the earlier stuff, well, it's tough to come by.

And that's a pity. Sonny DiNunzio was at his best as a frontman for a R&B garage band, not as a member of the Woodstock generation. That was the Pittsburgh sound of the times, blue-eyed soul backed with a rock beat, not heavy metal and electronics.

Maybe now that TL is culling his record collection in Arizona, he can find enough material laying around to put together a CD of Sonny DiNunzio at his soulful best. Now that would be a fitting memorial.

"The Loser" by the Racket Squad

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Terry Lee

Terry Lee from WIXZ 1360 Memories (Photo provided by Jim Metzer)

Hey, we never got a chance to run a post on the guy Old Mon listened to religiously during his cruisin' years, Terry Lee of WMCK and his "Music For Young Lovers." It's time to catch up with TL.

The New Eagle (just outside Monongahela) native's given name was Terry Lee Trunzo. He credits his radio name to his mom, who told him that it had a nice ring to it. And like most moms, she was right. As TL, he was one of Pittsburgh's ruling radio jocks in the decade between the sixties thru the mid '70's when the kids spent their weekends on the dance floor instead of playing "Guitar Hero" on their X-Box.

Lee became a DJ when he and some bandmates from Mon Hi played a dance at the Finleyville Community Center, and the scheduled DJ didn't show. In between sets, Lee plugged a turntable into his guitar amp and let a local girl play some records she ran home to fetch, according to Ron Paglia of the Tribune Review.

He enjoyed the experience - you didn't have to know the chords to play the song or worry about hitting the right harmonies, and could switch moods in a heartbeat - and traded his ax for a turntable. In fact, he rented the FCC the next week, his first gig as a DJ and the segue to a storied radio career.

He spun wax for WESA in Charleroi ('59-'63, as Tim Lee), WZUM in Carnegie ('63, briefly), WARO in Canonsburg ('63-'64), WMCK in McKeesport ('64-'69), WIXZ in McKeesport ('69-71; '73-'74), WLSW in Scottdale (briefly in '74), and WRUA in Monroeville. He also had recent gigs on 1320 AM WJAS and WLSW 103.9 FM, Stan Wall's station.

Lee later became a local promoter and producer while running a Charleroi record shop after WRUA folded in the seventies. Then, *poof*.

TL became one of the great mysteries of Pittsburgh radio when he dropped off the face of the Tri-State map in the eighties. The question of "Where's TL?" spawned a ring of conspiracy doo-woppers who had him doing everything from DJ'ing under another name to owning a farm in West Virginia.

The truth is that Terry Lee Trunzo did what so many other Pittsburgh area folk did - he ended up out west where the sun shines all day, syndicating a show based out of Phoenix's KOOL FM. Oddly, no one in the Pittsburgh market ever picked up the program to air. Or for that matter, seemed to know it even existed. Now's he settled down in nearby Ohio with his bride, a short hop away from Pittsburgh.

TL's "Music For Young Lovers" was one of the great baby-making radio shows of the sixties, and was the top-ranked program in the area during the era. For those of you old enough to remember red lights inside the cars, China Wall in South Park, Hurst five-speeds, and reverb speakers, no evening was complete without snuggling up to your sweetie while TL spun those lover's concertos over the nighttime AM airwaves.

Heck, part of his echoing on-air rap was the line "If you happen to be out in your car, take it easy," a double entendre if there ever was one. It covered everything from drag races roaring down Route 51 from the Eat 'N' Park to Streets Run Road to submarine races in the backseat of the buggies hidden away in South Park's dark and private expanses.

TL was on six nights a week from WMCK's Elk's Temple studio, with a four-hour Sunday afternoon show. You would win any bets that the weekend gigs were taped, along with many of his weekday night shows.

He did so many dances (he regularly spun three on Friday, three on Saturday, and three more on Sunday, plus weekday gigs) that it was impossible for him to be in the studio during prime hop hours. Lee would show up at the studio after his DJ duties were over and tape the next day's program, along a few tracks from whatever bands he happened to be managing at the time; he was a sort of local lo-fi recording pioneer.

He also hosted "Come Alive," a local version of "American Bandstand" on WIIC, and "The Terry Lee Show" on KDKA and WPGH.

According to local lore, Lee turned the Swamp Rats, whom he managed, over to Nick Cenci for an audition spot for "Come Alive." TL got the gig, and Cenci got the Swamp Rats, perhaps the first Steel City punk act. Lee got the better of the deal; the band broke up shortly after switching to the Co-Ce label.

WMCK became WIXZ in 1969, and according to Mon Valley legend, the owner first offered the station to TL, but he turned down the deal because of the time commitment. TL was raking in more benjamins at the hops and with his Night Train club in West Elizabeth than he would have ever made as a radio suit. (He would, after he left town, own stations in Naples, Florida and Mansfield, Ohio.)

Whether that tale was so or not, a group of Top-40 guys from Cleveland bought the station and turned it into WIXZ. TL was the only DJ they kept from the old roster when they changed the format, and he switched from a grinder to a rocker to keep up with the station's frenetic pace.

In truth, he always had a soft soft for a heavy beat. Lee managed and produced the Arondies ("69"), the Fantastic Dee Jays ("Love Is So Tuff"), the Swamp Rats ("Psycho"), the Fenways ("Walk"), and the Racket Squad ("The Loser"). He even had his own Sherry and Stone labels to break a song locally.

Lee was a fan of anything that got a place jumping, especially if it featured a tight harmony or a garage rock beat. And he would parlay that formula into a sizzling dance hall resume.

TL, although a huge radio presence in the region, really hit his heights as a hops' host. Lee was one of the kings of the dance scene, along with Mad Mike and Porky; not only did he have the hot wax, but he could lure some of the big groups of the era in for a quick set, too, helping to sell his shows (and their records) to his teen followers.

If he gigged a dance, rest assured that it sold out. Tales abound that TL pulled in so much long green at his events that he had to travel with a bodyguard to get the night's take home intact.

He often drew over a thousand fans to his dances at venues like the Night Train (which he owned), Redd's Beach (now Pine Cove Beach), the Wildwood Lodge, the White Elephant, the Linden Grove, Burke Glen Ballroom, the Red Rooster, the Lebanon Lodge, the Blue Fox and the Varsity House, along with fire halls and social clubs throughout the Mon Valley. Heck, he even once did a show from a ferris wheel!

Lee left the business in 1992 after selling his Florida radio station. But he's back, after a rousing reception for 2010 hop he spun at the Palisades. According to his web site:
"Some of the projects I'm working on are transferring my record collection to CD, pulling all the photographs from the 60's and 70's for a book that I am in the process of writing, and editing radio specials that I produced in 1969 on various Pittsburgh groups including the Jaggerz, Vogues, Racket Squad, DeeJays, Swamp Rats, etc. Also, I'm working on a Skyliner special that I produced at the network studios in Phoenix with Jimmy Beaumont in 1988."
Additionally, he has several CD's of his shows available for the discriminating oldies fan, jingles, commercials, and all along with the music from some of the bands he managed/produced.

Best of all, Lee is back on the airwaves, now using 21st century technology. He streams "Terry Lee Live" every night from 8-11PM, of course saving the last hour for his "Music for Young Lovers" segment. His Magic Communications Network is on the air 24/7. Just click on his website (link above), then hit "Live Feed," and you'll be transported back to the halycon days of sixties and seventies. And yes, he still takes requests, although by e-mail now.

As an added bit of sugar, every Friday afternoon at 4PM, Pittsburgh Oldies Radio features Porky Chedwick spinning for three hours along with Lee's show. There's a treat that's hard to resist - the Magic Memories man and the Daddio on the dial together.

TL is behind the turntable again on the hop circuit, too, hosting shows at McKeesport's Palisades, Castle Shannon's Linden Grove, Stockdale Fire Hall, Monessen Elks and Troy Hill's Most Holy Name, spinning records to a packed house, sometimes with his brother legend of the era, Porky.

And hey, whatever he's up to, it's good to have him back. As he used to say every night: "On behalf of Terry Lee and WMCK, goodnight and God bless you." We add God bless us oldies fans, everyone.