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


T said...

It was a shame when I heard of Sonny's death. My brother was in Sonny's last band and I went to see them often. He actually asked me if I was interested in joining the group! He was a true showman and had such a passion to perform. Funny sidebar; I ran into someone who knew Sonny and his sister way down in The Keys.....That was crazy, Sonny's legend lives on!

Ron Ieraci said...

T - yah, I think Sonny had one of the great rock voices the region ever turned out; he left the area a little bit poorer when he departed.

Karen said...

LOVED Sonny and all the boys. We would travel 4-5 nights a week to hear them, from New Kensington to Freeport road on the river to Millvale, to Papi's
in the South Hills and every place in between !! I still wonder how we got up the next day for work.

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, Karen, Sonny and his bands did that to people. They were a great draw locally.

Paula Michaels said...

Hi Ron:
Thanks so much for this article on Sonny. I had the privelege of working with him in Sebastian, and performing at his memorial concert. Even all these years later I think of him. He was a great man, and he taught me much. We lost him way too soon.

Stephanie said...

Sonny has been on my mind lately for some reason. Miss him and Ron and the rest of the guys. We went to all of the shows at Mancini's, Oriental Lounge, Staircase, East Pgh. VFW, and more. Always had a great time and fond memories. Playing frisbee in the street after Cid'sa place. Still listen to the albums.

Christine k said...

aunt Karen z is that you
.I never heard of sonny till recent mom was a groupie lol..

Joyce H said...

Joyce H. Sonny truly was a good friend of mine, he was like a brother, we could talk about anything. I saw him a week before the accident and when we said good bye, little did I know that would be the last time that I would see my best friend. I only wish I would have been there that dreadful night and maybe I could have talked him out of driving. My sister-in-law was there with her boyfriend and she told me she saw him. I always wish that I had the opportunity to sing with him, but, I know he looks down on me and sees me performing. I also know that he rides along with me in my car because I have had some close calls and I look up to the Heavens and say 'thank you, Sonny". He was a great vocalist and musician that was robbed of what he truly deserved. He was accomplished and should have made it. Happy Birthday, Sonny and RIP

Deborah said...

Thank you all for the heartfelt comments. I am happy to see my father is still alive in your hearts. I think of him everyday and while driving a song will just happen to play on the radio. I know he is up looking down and playing a vital role in our lives.
Debi DiNunzio-Worthing

Anonymous said...

Deborah. My mom was a good friend of your grandmother. We lived on Longfellow St, near hoppy. I used to go over there to listen to them practice. Your dad and grandmother were good people, who left us too early. Nick.

Anonymous said...

Just learned that long-time Fenways/Racket Squad guitarist Bob "Hop" Ainsworth passed away on January 13, 2018 at the age of 83. Condolences to his family and friends. Thanks, Hop, for all the wonderful music over the years.

Anonymous said...

Played football and basketball with Sonny at old Apollo High. He was quite an athlete and a friend. Sonny and some of the guys would entertain us in front of the old "Yum Yum" shop in Apollo. What a wasted talent.