Friday, August 7, 2009

The Igniters Redux

The Igniters from Bestrocknrollband

Bob "Bubs" McKeag and "Little Joe" Arena (Orina) started jamming together as teens in Penn Hills. Though just 14, they recruited Bill Flowers and Joe Santivica in the summer of 1963, and the Igniters were born, named after a bra ad that Arena saw a classmate eying in a Sears Catalog (after all, they were just 14, remember?)

McKeag provided the vocals and lead guitar, Arena played rhythm guitar, Santivica was on bass, and Flowers banged the kit.

Arena was called "Little Joe", well, because he was little - about 4'11". He moved to the area from Fort Lauderdale and left a local band there called the Kingsmen. Two years later, they became the face of sixties garage rock when they released "Louie Louie." Right place, wrong time.

Still, he was a showman and would often get mobbed by the girls who couldn't get enough of him. He and McKeag played like they were joined at the hip. and had a dynamite stage presence together. Sadly, the pair eventually had a falling out, and Arena left the band in a huff in late 1964.

That opened the door for Frankie Czuri, who replaced Arena in 1965. Czuri gradually changed the playlist upon his arrival, from Beatles and Kinks stuff to Young Rascals and Byrds material. He also became the lead singer.

McKeag had great pipes, but was more of a blues guy than soul man, and Czuri had one of the top R&B voices in Pittsburgh. Czuri, in fact, received repeated offers to leave for greener pastures while with the Igniters. But he was tight with the rest of the group - he and McKeag were buds from St. Bart's grade school days - and secure where he was, so he hung on to the end.

Dan Valerio joined in 1965, as the band's switch toward an R&B playlist called for an organist, and he was a good one.

The group sounded more polished with the additions, and it showed in the bookings.

Valerio won a free ride to the Julliard School of Music after high school, but his dad steered him to a CMU scholarship in Engineering, figuring that was a better career choice for his son than rock 'n' roll. After one term, it became obvious, grade-wise, Valerio wasn't cut out to be an engineer.

He left the group to work on his GPA, and graduated from Carnegie School of Music with a music major.

Jeff Bobula took over as organist and also played rhythm guitar in 1966. The band was set, and began making decent money, but at a price. They were constantly on the road, and it was a killer, taking its toll on the teens. The group had signed on with promoter Pat DiCesare, and he booked them throughout the region.

Santavica joined the navy in '67, and Mike Connell took his spot for the rest of the year. Flowers left the act in fall of 1967, and Jackie Kier replaced him on the drums.

Their play set was almost entirely covers, first featuring the Brit Invasion songs of the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks, later switching to blue-eyed soul and folk rockers.

Czuri told Ed Masley of the Post-Gazette that "We went through a lot of phases. Bob and I loved the R&B stuff when we were kids. Then we went through this British phase - 'You Really Got Me' by the Kinks, the Who - just because it was cool. I was the first kid thrown out of Penn Hills High School for long hair."

Actually, he graduated from PHHS in 1966, but we catch his drift.

Though they were a mainly a cover band, the Igniters would twist a song around and make it uniquely their own. They'd play fast songs with a down beat, slow songs uptempo, and would throw a rock riff behind a soul tune.

The Igniters quickly made a name for themselves at the local clubs, no matter if they were playing soul or Brit rock. They became regulars at the Varsity House in Oakmont, and the place was SRO when they were on the stage, often turning fans away at the door.

The band scored a local hit with 1963's "High Flyin' Wine," written and pushed by DJ Charlie Apple and credited to "Inflammable Dan and the Igniters." It was released on the Teen Label, b/w "Angel," performed by a Motown group, the Satintones. It wouldn't be their last slab of wax, although it was their only record cut as the Igniters.

Atlantic Records signed the band to a record contract in 1968 but with a proviso - they had to lose the Igniter name, for some reason known only to the label's suits. The band became "Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory," compliments of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, we assume.

Maybe the name change was for commercial reasons; then again, maybe it sounded too rock 'n' roll for the label; the Igniters were only the second white band inked by Atlantic, a huge soul label during the sixties. The first group was the Rascals.

They released their only Jimmy Mack Atlantic single, "Baby, I Love You" b/w "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," (Atlantic #45-2552) which became a regional hit. Later that year they joined the hippie revolution and became "Friends," settling into a folkie/psychedelic groove.

They recorded another Atco single under that name, with, for a change, a pair of original songs. Frank Czuri reports that "The sides were 'Gonna Try,' inspired by Gentile's then-recent leaving the group as well as McKeag's 'So Long Mama.' The group consisted of Bob McKeag on guitar, vocals and over-dubbed bass, Ron 'Byrd' Foster on drums and vocals, Fred Delu on Hammond organ, and Frank Czuri on vocals and electric piano. It did not receive as much airplay as "Baby I Love You" but was a good representation of what the Psychedilly-years Igniters were about!"

They played the Psychedilly club regularly for awhile, plus their road gigs, and in early 1970, they called it a day.

Not that they had much choice. DiCesare dropped them when they missed a show. The story, as related to Flowers by Bobula, was that the group was playing in West Virginia and had to get to a gig in New York that was scheduled three days later.

Their 1956 Caddy hearst (didn't every band in the 60's drive one?) broke down en route, and they failed to notify DiCesare that they were out of commission.

He, in turn, was sued by the venue when the group didn't show up, lost his cool, and axed the band, making each of them buy their contracts back. The military took care of the rest. McKeag joined the Navy, and Bobula was drafted.

They got together for a reunion concert in 2003 at the Harmar House, featuring "Little Joe" Arena, Bob Briede, Stu Heirs, Bubs McKeag, Joe Santavica, Ronnie "Byrd" Foster, Gary Gentile, Fred DeLu, Frank Czuri and Jackie Keir (who combined are more or less the last version of the Igniters et al), and sounded just as good as ever.

The band's cast over the years: Ron Abberzizzi, Joe Arena, Jeff Bobula, Bob Briede, Mike Connell, Frankie Czuri, Fred Delu, Ray Falcsik, Bill Flowers, Ronnie "Byrd" Foster, Gary Gentile, Stu Heirs, Jackie Kier, Paul Martello, Bob McKeag, Richie Rubin, Joe Santavica, and Dan Valerio.

As for the early members:

Frank Czuri is still making a living with his golden pipes. He's been with the Jaggerz, Diamond Reo, The Silencers, and now sings with Pure Gold. (EDIT - Czuri left Pure Gold and is back with his first love, the reformed Igniters.)

Bob McKeag joined Czuri with Diamond Reo, did some solo work, then moved on to the McKeag/Lawson Blues Band, and has gigged under his own name since that band broke up in 1999 after Lawson's passing. He still plays some shows with old bandmate Norm Nardini and plays with bands like the Rhythm Aces and Lou Ross. Bubs represented the local Blues Society in their national competition in 2008-09, and recently released a solo album, "Around the Bend."

Joe Arena, except for the reunion show, has dropped under Old Mon's radar.

Bill Flowers lost interest in R&B after he left the band, and is currently into Beethoven, Mozart & Vivaldi. He worked at the Weirton Steel's Tech Center as an automation control supervisor, and is now an adjunct professor of Statistics & Quantitative Analysis at Franciscan University in Steubenville.

Dan Valerio graduated from CMU's School of Music, and we haven't been able to track his whereabouts since.

Jeff Bobula, like too many guys from the sixties, died in Vietnam as a Marine. Before that, he was a session player for Capitol Records in Greenwich Village.

Joe Santavicca is still playing bass. The last band we found him hooked up with was Detroit's "Some Assembly Required," a REM-like group that released the CD "Stray Cliches" in 2007.

Jackie Kier stayed behind the kit, playing for a number of bands. The last we heard, he was pounding the skins for local classic rockers "The Poor Souls."

And hey, they're not quite done. They held three reunion shows, the last a December holiday bash. And that gig may have been more a revival than reunion. Frank Czuri left Pure Gold in 2010 to focus on putting The Igniters back together. Now they consist of Czuri, McKeg, Delu, Breide, Paul Martello and Ray Falsic. May the circle be unbroken.

(We reposted this after Ron Flowers hooked us up with his brother Bill, and we got a couple of more names and a bit more history to pass on, for which we are most appreciative. If any of you have any Igniter tales or know where the members ended up, give us a yell.)

Igniter medley


Kevin McKeag said...

Thats my uncle bob mckeag!!! His brother is Jim McKeag, never new this much info on him

Ron Ieraci said...

Kevin - your uncle Bubs is on the short list of great local musicians. The Igniters are just where he got his start.

Frank Czuri said...

Actually the Friends' single on Atlantic WAS released in 1969. The sides were "Gonna Try", inspired by Gentile's then- recent leaving the group as well as McKeag's "So Long Mama." THe group consisted of Bob McKeag on guitar, vocals and over-dubbed bass, Ron Byrd Foster on drums and vocals, Fred Delu on Hammond organ, and Frank Czuri on Vocals and electric piano. It did not receive as much airplay as "Baby I Love You" but was a good representation of what the Psychadilly-years Igniters were about!

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks, Frank, I added the note to the post.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record,I played with the band during the summer of '67 (after Joe S. left to join the Navy).
I am glad they have reformed. They are great players. Mike Connell

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks, Mike. I updated the post; looks like I had Joe's service date messed up.