Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chuck Edwards - Bullfight

chuck edwards
Chuck Edwards from PennSOULvania

Soul shouter and early local guitar hero Chuck Edwards was born Charles Edward Edwins in Pittsburgh (although there is some debate about whether he was born here or in Philly) on November 29, 1927.

He started playing guitar professionally in the late 40’s, eventually heading south and joining up with the popular Sonny Thompson Band. He cut his first piece of wax with them on the be-bop "Harlem Rug Cutter" around 1950.

Edwards struck out on his own, recording for Memphis' Duke Records, home of Bobby "Blue" Bland. As Charles Edwins, he released "Bong Gone" b/w "I Got Loose" (Duke 124) in 1954.

Dumping his given last name in favor of Chuck Edwards, he produced three more singles for Duke. The records were "If You Love Me (Like You Say You Do)" b/w "You Move Me" (Duke 159) in 1956, and and another pair in 1957, "Let's Rock" b/w "I'm Wondering" (Duke 163), followed by "Morning Train" b/w "Warm My Heart" (Duke 174).

Though none of them exactly flew off the shelves, they showed Edwards steady progression from a blues player to a rowdier R&B artist, where he would find his niche.

He switched labels to Apollo in late 1956, and released the doo-wop ballad "Just for a Day" b/w "She Carried Me All Over Town" (Apollo 495), and disappeared for a couple of years.

In 1959, Edwards cut the Alanna single "If I Were King " b/w "Lucy and Jimmy Got Married" (Alanna 577), backed on the latter by the Five Crowns, allegedly featuring budding soul master Ben E. King. The B side, as was commonplace back in the day, was the side the DJs decided to spill some radio love on, but it didn't chart.

Possessed of several dust-collecting disks and a better half, he moved back to the Steel City 'burb of Canonsburg, working a day job in a steel mill to pay the bills. Being a fair-sized fish in a small pond, he picked up a lot of local session work and was a regular on the hops circuit.

Edwards may not have slept much, but he saved up enough money to front his own label, Rene, named for his wife, Irene. He recorded a couple of other artists, but by and large, the Hill District label and its subsidiary, Punch, were Edwards' domain. Here's his personal discography on the Rene/Punch label:

Rene 1151 - Phil Lipari and the Chuck Edwards Band (1962)
"Please Come Back" b/w "Later for You Darling"

Rene 1152 - Chuck Edwards (?)
"Shake Baby Shake" b/w "Come On Babe"

Rene 5050- Chuck Edwards (1965)
"I Don’t Want No Company" b/w "Do Right Baby"

Rene 7001 - Chuck Edwards (1966)
"Bullfight" b/w "Chuck Roast"

Rene 20013 Chuck Edwards (1966)
"Bullfight #2" b/w "Pick It Up Baby (Your Love’s Slowing Down)"

Punch 11001 Chuck Edwards (1968)
"Downtown Soulville" b/w "I Need You"

He also had one other release during that span, for the national Kapp Records. It was 1967's "Sweet Sweet Love" b/w "You Got What I Need" (Kapp 2052). Like the rest of his major label vinyl, it went nowhere on the charts.

"Shake Baby Shake" and "I Don't Want No Company" were garage-style rockers, featuring Edwards' raucous vocals, and were popular at the dances in the region. But his claim to Tri-State fame was the instrumental "Bullfight."

"Bullfight" was a show-stopper for Edwards' live act for years, but was never etched in wax. The story goes that Travis Klein, of Itzy Record fame, prodded Edwards to record it. Klein booked some time at the old Gateway Studios for Edwards, who released the song on his own Rene label. The rest is Pittsburgh rock history.

The song became a monster regional hit, and was picked up for national distribution by Roulette (R-4705). It remains a Pittsburgh oldies radio fav to this day. In fact, George Benson was a fan, and he recorded it himself on his 2001 "It's Uptown" album.

"Bullfight No. 2," issued later in the year, added a Hammond organ to the original guitar, bass, and drum tune. Hey, gotta strike while the iron's hot, right?

While "Bullfight" cemented Edwards' name in Pittsburgh circles, his last local release, 1968's "Downtown Soulville," put him on the international map. The soul/funk title tune, backed with the ballad "I Need You," became a Northern Soul must-have across the pond.

The record never charted nationally, but UK soul impressario Dave Godin reissued it on his own Soul City label (SC 104) the following year, and included it on the compilation LP, "Soul From The City."

Edwards dropped from the radar recording-wise for a spell afterward, performing live. In 1972 he packed up his family - he had two sons, Les and Jeff - and moved to the San Francisco Bay area, living in a motel for several months. It was there that the Edwards family became the band The Edwards Generation.

They released a 45, "School Is In" b/w "Someone Like You" on Ghetto records (61?), and a LP in 1976, "The Street Thang" on Tight records. The group also appeared on television a few times, including the Mike Douglas Show.

Edwards performed locally, and released "Back Again" (Tight) in 1994, which has a mix of new and past material. His sons went on to form their own band, Movin’, and perform in the Bay Area.

Edwards and his wife retired to the San Jose suburb of Pittsburg, California, where he passed away in 2001.

Some of Edwards’ cuts are still available on compilations. "Bullfight" is on Itzy Records PGH I and Crypt Records "Pass The Soul." PGH IX features "She Carried Me All Over Town."

There is also the split-side CD "Billy Lamont Meets Chuck Edwards" (Official 5678) which features 13 of Edwards' early sides, including recordings from the Duke, Apollo and Alanna labels, some backed by Little Richard's band.

And his records go for a king's ransom overseas. Chuck Edwards may be gone, but his music rocks on across the continents.

Chuck Edwards - "Bullfight"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ward Darby And Willie Ward

Ward Darby and The Rocks (Darby is on the far right)

We recently did a post on Buddy Sharpe, Pittsburgh's rock-a-billy legend. The City's old R&R fans remembered him well, and a couple asked, now that they caught up to Buddy, whatever happened to Willie Ward, his compadre in the field.

We dug a bit, and here's the Willie Ward story:

He was born Ward Darby in War, West Virginia, near Bluefield, in 1939. He starting strumming at age 11, with his heroes being Chet Atkins, Bob Wills and Merle Travis. By the time he was 16, Darby had already made a name for himself locally, playing country guitar.

In 1954, he appeared on a Saturday morning 30-minute C&W program aired over radio station WELC in Welch. Darby could pick the strings, and helped by Porter Waggoner's fiddler, Mac Magaha, who took him under his wing, he was on local TV and a studio musician within a couple of years.

Darby started performing with Mel Street, a country up-and-comer that sadly passed away early. He then caught on with the West Virginia Mountain Boys.

They played for the Rural Farm District Jamboree shown on Channel 6 in Bluefield. It was a popular two-hour Saturday night TV show. The band performed with acts like Bill Monroe, Flat and Scruggs, and The Goins Brothers.

But like many other southern boys of the era, Darby was bitten by the R&R bug, and formed a group called The Rocks. The original members were Darby on lead guitar, Jimmy Robinette, Freddy Riffe, and Bill Rotenberry on rhythm guitar, with Jim Eanes on the drums.

The Rocks got to open for many of the RFDJ acts, and the exposure helped launch them. Once the country segment of the program was completed, The Rocks would take the stage and rock the joint with tunes recorded by Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and others early rock artists.

Ray Bowling, a musician and salesman for Pittsburgh's King Records, would sit in with the Rocks in impromptu jams. The group was impressed enough that they included him in several of their television appearances.

Bowling urged the Rocks to move to Pittsburgh because because of the media exposure its radio jocks could bring them. The band had some successful gigs there, and decided to make the move.

But several of the group decided to stay in West Virginia. The new edition of The Rocks was now a trio. Bowling did the vocals and played keyboard, Eanes played drums, and Darby played guitar.

There were other changes afoot, too. Bowling changed labels, moving to ABC Paramount Records. Darby took his spot with King Records through 1960. And Eanes didn't take to the big city; often the band had a fill-in drummer at the kit.

At any rate, Bowling felt the trio was ready to cut a record and contacted Bill Porter, who owned a small indy label. He had written two songs and they were taped at Porter's recording studio in Portsmouth, Ohio. The songs waxed were “Satellite” b/w “Arrow In My Heart.”

The two sides were released as Porter #10098 in November 1957 and the record sold well in the region. But that was it for the Rocks; they disbanded affably, all having different career goals.

Darby went to see Pittsburgh promoter numero uno, Joe Averbach of Fee Bee Records, introduced himself, and wrangled a recording contract from him. Averbach lined up a recording session to be held in Cincinnati.

Reuniting with Ward, for this session only, were Robinette, who played rhythm guitar, and drummer Eanes. They cut two sides reminiscent of the early Everly Brothers. In the summer of 1958, “Come Walk With Me” b/w “Emotions” (Star #227) was released (Star was a Fee Bee subsidiary) by the “Guitar Twins.” The record moved some wax in the Pittsburgh area.

Averbach sent Darby to the Bell Sound Recording Facility in New York City. The result was two Bowling tunes, “Iggy Joe” b/w “Be Mine” (Star #229). Chuck Jackson and the Five Playboys provided the background vocals.

The record was credited to Willie Ward. The name play was a common promotional gimmick used by Averbach, who tried to provide his acts with a catchy nom d' platter.

In August of 1958, “Iggy Joe” was being aired by Chuck Dougherty at KQV, Jay Michaels of WCAE, and Porky Chadwick of WAMO. The Platter Pushin' Poppa took Ward (we'll switch from Darby to Ward here), to his record hops and was a great aid in Ward's early career.

Ward changed directions for a few months, performing as Ward Darby and the Moore Brothers - who all happened to be black, and were actually brothers. They were managed by Bill Powell, a WILY DJ. They were a class act, with a floor routine and decked out in black tuxes, quite a sea change from rock-a-billy.

But while they were performing, Ward was also doing session work for Averbach as a guitarist, arranger and writer.

Ward, returning to his roots, recorded at Bell again . They cut “Ooo Wee Baby” b/w “I'm A Madman” (Fee Bee #233), released in October 1958. The same personnel from the “Iggy Joe” sessions were on this one as well, except that Averbach credited the Five Playboys as the Warblers. It was another local smash, but didn't have legs outside the Tri-State.

In fall of 1958, he put together a combo, Ward Darby and the Raves. Ward played lead guitar and sang, Leo Watkowitz pounded the drums, Ray Bowling was on electric piano, Jim Mendys honked on the sax, and Dave Baltos played rhythm guitar. The band was mainly instrumental; Ward decided to show off his guitar licks instead of his voice.

Averbach liked the sound, and taped the group at Universal International Recording Studio in Chicago. They cut their four tracks, and released “Safari” b/w “WHAM-O,” which would be issued on Averbach's Petite label (#509) in May of 1959. “Safari” was an instant hit, charting on the local charts of KDKA, WEEP, and WKQV.

Averbach released the sides to Dot Records for national distribution. “Safari” b/w “WHAM-O” was reissued as Dot #45-15942. The record broke open in the southern part of the country, especially in Texas & California. It nudged into the national charts.

But that was the first and last hurrah for the Raves. They had a steady gig at Bobby Star's Lounge in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh and did a lot of one-night stands and concerts.

In 1962, Ward went to Baltimore, where he ran into a dude named Charlie Daniels. Together they formed a group called Charlie Daniels and the Jaguars. The band toured heavily, and shared stages with Bruce Channel, Buddy Knox, and Roy Clark.

Ward remained with the Jaguars until 1965 when he and Daniels split to pursue individual careers. Daniels, of course, went on the form the Charlie Daniels Band.

Ward went to Memphis and did some concerts with Charlie Rich. He also served a short stint with the Bill Black Combo, playing in the “Shower of Stars” tour with Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Brian Hyland, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, the Crystals, The Reflections, and Dobie Gray. Hey, they even performed at the Syria Mosque.

He settled in Lexington, Kentucky. He remained there until 1980, when he moved to Florida. Ward is in Branson, Missouri, now, where he moved to in 1996. He's retired after many years of Nashville tapings, writing songs, touring and playing clubs; he's returned to his original love, C&W. He has 5 children and 7 grandchildren, and has recently remarried. As he says, he's "enjoying life."

As well he should. And now he can be just Ward Darby again, after years of being Willie Ward, the Rocks, the Guitar Twins, the Raves, et al. It's good to finally be yourself.

Willie Ward - Iggy Joe, 1958

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tommy Hunt: Pittsburgh Flamingo

Tommy Hunt

Born on June 18th, 1933, to Georgianna Derico, Tommy Hunt started out life as Charles James Hunt. He become Tommy thanks to his school mates, who didn’t think he looked like a Charles, and started calling him Tommy. It's stuck to him to this day.

He grew up in the northern suburb of Perrysville, where he sang for the Peace and Heaven Baptist Church as the youngest member of the choir. Hunt began singing for his family and his mothers’ friends at the age of 7, and entered some talent shows.

Despite his choirboy experience, Hunt was no little angel. He was sent to reform school after spending his school hours practicing his singing instead of attending his classes (school was a little more strict back in the Depression era). He was released when he was 10.

He and his mom moved to the Hill when he was a teen, and Hunt tuned in to WHOD DJ Mary Dee's "Movin' Around" on the radio and the harmonies of his favorite singers, renowned gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. He never missed a live performance of theirs at the Roosevelt Theater on Centre Avenue, even though he had to listen from the back door because he couldn't afford a ticket.

His mother relocated to Chicago in the early 50s, and he went with her. Hunt wasted no time finding a group to sing with - and getting in more trouble.

He joined the Flames in 1952, and they morphed into the Five Echoes in 1953, with soul superstar Johnnie Taylor and doo-wop legend Earl Lewis as members of the group. Uncle Sam intervened; Hunt was drafted into the Air Force - and went AWOL.

Hunt rejoined The Five Echoes while on the lam, and they recorded for the Sabre and Vee-Jay labels in the Windy City. But eventually, the law found him, and it was off to the stockade, or wherever it is they ship airmen gone astray. The Five Echoes disbanded in 1954, after he was hauled away and their label folded.

As for hard time, it appears Hunt didn't spend much time breaking rocks in the hot sun. It's said that he sang his way out of the hoosegow and was shortly back to singing for his dinner instead.

While performing later in a Chicago club, he was approached by Zeke Carey of the Flamingos to temporarily take his place with the group while he served his time in the Army. (They were once label mates for Chicago's Chance Records.)

So in 1957, Hunt became a Flamingo, and stayed one even after Carey's return. They moved to New York after signing with End Records, and released their biggest hit, the million-selling "I Only Have Eyes For You" (#1046) in 1958. Other strong songs for End were “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” (#1035) and “Mio Amore” (#1065)

After he had a falling out with the Flamingos in 1960, supposedly over religion - The Flamingos formed in 1952 in Chicago, where they sang together in the choir of the black Jewish Church of God and Saints of Christ - he went solo.

A&R man Luther Dixon of Scepter Records promptly offered Hunt a contract (the same dude and label that signed Chuck Jackson). He went on to have his most successful solo 45 for Scepter, “Human” (Scepter 1219), which charted (#5 R&B, #48 pop) in 1961. It became his signature song.

The song's lore has a twist to it. The record was slow to be picked up by the radio stations until a New York DJ accidentally flipped the wax to the B side - "Human." The phones rang off the hook after it was spun, and a hit was launched.

And a follow up, the Burt Bacharach composition, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” (Scepter 1231), released the following year, did well on the charts, too. Hunt became a fixture on many of the R&B caravans of the era and was a regular on the Chitlin’ Circuit. He was a fixture at the Apollo, which sports photos of him in the lobby both as a solo act and as a member of the Flamingos.

Hunt sang his uptown soul on stage with R&B acts like Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley & Sam and Dave.

Later in the 60s, he recorded for the Capitol and Dynamo labels without any major success. In 1969, he went on a USO tour of Germany (funny place for an old AWOL flyboy to end up, hey?) and found a new home.

Hunt decided to stay in Europe to take advantage of the Northern Soul craze which was sweeping the continent, and is still going strong. It also gave him a chance to get away from the now well-established British Invasion and the Motown Sound, both of which were making uptown soul a losing battle in America.

After hitting the UK club circuit, Hunt recorded for Polydor in 1972 and Pye in 1974. He was then approached by Russ Winstanly and Mike Walker of Wigan Casino fame and released a string of hits on Spark. They led to Hunt becoming the Brit's 1982-83 Male Vocalist Of The Year, presented by the Club Mirror Award.

He moved to Amsterdam in 1986 and traveled the world with his cabaret shows, where he was famous for his dapper, old-school outfits and pre-song patter. Then, the rewards for him and the Flamingos began to roll in.

In 1996, he won The Rhythm and Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award with the Flamingos. Hunt joined the Flamingos in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, followed by the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame in 2001. The Flamingos were then inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland that year, too.

Hunt now resides in England, and still performs with the Flamingos and as a solo artist while working on his autobiography. Not a bad little life for a reform school graduate from Perrysville, hey?

Tommy Hunt - "Human"

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Buddy Sharpe and the Shakers

buddy sharpe
Buddy Sharpe from the Rockabilly Hall of Fame collection.

Hey, everyone remembers Pittsburgh for its jazz, evolving eventually into a huge doo-wop and soul scene. But the roots of rock 'n' roll go back to the south, when the white guys started putting their spin on the blues.

And the Steel City, while never really embracing rockabilly, still had its' champions. Joe Averbach, promoter extraordinaire and the man behind Fee Bee records, might have been best known for managing groups like the Del Vikings and El Capris, but he hedged his bets, too.

His label had a good mix of early rockabilly acts like Davey "Diddle" Day of "Motorcycle Mike" and "Blue Moon Baby" fame and Willie Ward, who cut “Ooo Wee Baby” and “I'm A Madman”. The biggest roots rock group, though, was Buddy Sharpe and the Shakers.

Born Bernard E. Gareis in Atlasburg PA in 1937 (thanks to reader Ray for the bio info), Buddy Sharpe began playing in Washington County's Burgettstown in 1957, starting off with outdoor shows at the Slovin Drive-In, and made a name for himself within a matter of months. As Sharpe recalls "A man from Youngstown heard us and took us to New York's Bell Studios. We recorded 'Linda Lee,' which I wrote."

Averbach listened to the rocker's demo, and pressed it for his Pittsburgh-based Fee Bee label. "Linda Lee" b/w novelty song "Bald Headed Baby" (Fee Bee 230) was released in late 1958, and became a doubled-sided regional smash that got some national airplay.

They appeared at local sock hops with Porky Chedwick, and performed on Clark Race's "Dance Party". The Shakers shared the stage with Jimmy Beaumont and The Skyliners, The Del-Vikings, The Platters, The Stereos, and The El Capris, back in the day before groups were pigeon-holed by their musical style. They were either good or not.

In fact, Sharpe and the Shakers backed Butch Martin's soul group the Diadems, another Averbach act, during a recording session in 1963. As we said, you could play or you couldn't; there were no stylistic walls back in the day.

Reader T. Rebentine of the blog Thats All Rite Mama noted that Buddy Sharpe recorded "Please Please Please Please" b/w "(You Got Me) Movin' & Groovin'" (Spear 2) in 1961 and "I'm Lonely" b/w "The Shake" (Ramble 13132) in 1964.

They also recorded "Fat Mama' b/w "White House Twist" (FeeBee 901) and a reissue of "Linda Lee" b/w "Git It, Git It" (FeeBee 907) for Averbach in 1964.

Nick wrote in to Old Mon, and added these tunes to Sharpe's discography; "Toothache" b/w "Good Luck To You" (Star 312) and another version of Fee Bee 907, "Git It, Git It" b/w "One More Chance." It wasn't unknown for labels to reissue wax with different sides, and that seems to be the case here.

But that was a watershed year for American bands. Sharpe remembers the day the music died: "I stopped performing after The Beatles came to America with their new music because there was no place left that wanted to hear the original rock and roll."

Besides that, he adds that "Buddy Sharpe didn't make a penny ... everybody made money but me," a common lament of local bands.

Sharpe tried to make a comeback in 1979, when he recorded "Jump Into The River" b/w "Dry Your Eyes" (Bishop 1000) for the Carnegie-based label Bishop ("Dry Your Eyes" is a ballad, but not the Brenda and Tabs tune.)

Nick owns another bit of vinyl Sharpe did for Ray Bishop: a demo "Sleep All Day, Shake All Night" b/w "The Shakers Rockin' At 47." In 1981 he cut "Midnight Love" b/w "Who Likes To Work" (KIP 500) for KIP of Burgettstown, a Bishop subsidiary, the last record of his that we could find.

While those songs didn't exactly make him a household name, it did ignite his desire to make music again. Eventually, he put together a band, and as Sharpe said to the end "I am still playing and singing - mostly outdoor concerts, private parties and Holiday Inns."

Don't feel too sorry for Sharpe; his place in the Rockabilly pantheon is secure. His music lives on in a number of compilation albums (in fact, two cuts Averbach never released, "Rock and Roll Roman" and "Rocking Chair," were included in 1993's "Rock & Roll Fee Bee" album). His 45s are hot items for Euro collectors.

His band got to open for the Beach Boys in 1999 at Burgettstown's Pepsi Road House. And the crowning touch was his certification into Nashville's Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2004, along with artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis.

Buddy Sharpe died Wednesday, October 12th, 2011, in the Washington Hospital at the age of 73. And with him went the area's rockabilly era.

Rockabilly may not have been Pittsburgh's genre of choice, but it sure helped to spawn an explosion of garage bands, and the region was home to one of its great performers - Buddy Sharpe.

"Bald Headed Baby" by Buddy Sharpe (Crypt Records "Sin Alley" promo)

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

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lena Horne's Pittsburgh Years

lena horne
Lena Horne image from Star Pulse

The Lena Horne story starts in Brooklyn, where she was born in 1917 to Edwin "Teddy" Fletcher Horne, Jr., who worked for the New York State Department of Labor, but better known as a numbers writer and gambler, and Edna Louise (Scottron) Horne, an aspiring actress.

Horne's father and mother separated in August 1920 when she was three, and later divorced. Her father moved to Seattle before settling in Pittsburgh.

He ran the Belmont Hotel on Wylie Avenue in the Hill, home to the black entertainers who passed through the City (they weren't welcome at the Downtown hotels during the Jim Crow era), when he wasn't traveling to gamble on sporting events, his true love. His chief running mate was bookie and sportsman Gus Greenlee, owner of the legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team.

Horne lived from a suitcase with her mom, first with her grandparents and later with a variety of relatives and nannies when not on the road with her mother. Edna remarried and moved to Harlem, where Lena eventually joined her. When she was 16, she got a steady gig as a chorus girl at the famed Cotton Club for $25 per week.

She got a bit part in a Broadway play, and then left the CC to sing with Noble Sissle & His Orchestra. It was a decidedly inauspicious start to a fabulous career.

Around that time, Horne was introduced by her father to Louis Jordan Jones, a small-time Pittsburgh politico 28 years her senior. In January 1937, at the age of 19, she retired from show business to marry him (though some suspect it was just a bid to escape her home life and spread her own wings). Their daughter, Gail, was born December 21, 1937, in Herron Hill.

Jones, even though a college graduate, was a clerk in the Allegheny County coroner's office, a steady but low-paying patronage position. So in 1938, when Horne was approached by an agent with an offer to co-star in a low-budget black movie musical with a quickie ten-day shooting schedule in Hollywood, she had little choice but to accept the opportunity.

She just had her first child and wasn’t looking forward to leaving her to go to California. But her husband and friends encouraged her to do the film. The movie was "The Duke Is Tops," released in July 1938, and later retitled and released as "The Bronze Venus," with Horne's name prominently displayed on the top of the credits.

Horne was never fully paid for her role in this film and when the movie opened in Pittsburgh, her husband refused to take her to the premier because of the snub, despite being sponsored by the NAACP.

Later in the year, Horne was asked to take on a more time-consuming project in a black musical revue. Again, she accepted to boost the family income, spending months in rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts before "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939" opened on Broadway on February 11, 1939.

One of Horne's numbers was "You're So Indifferent," written by Sammy Fain and Mitchell Parish, a song she would keep in her club repertoire. The show ran only nine performances, calling it a wrap on February 18.

Horne returned to Pittsburgh, where she briefly separated from her husband. They made up pretty quickly. Lena became pregnant again, and her son, Edwin Fletcher "Teddy" Jones, Jr., was born in February 1940.

She took private house-party engagements (a common practice back in her day among both black and white artists; the soirees were hosted by families like the Mellons) to fatten the family take-home.

She also performed on the soul circuit of Hill District hot spots like the Leoni Club, the Bamboola Club, the Savoy Ballroom and the Crawford Grill, where she met locals Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn, who would become a life-long friend.

That fall, she split from Jones, this time for keeps - they were formally divorced in June 1944 - and moved to New York to rekindle her career. Teddy stayed with his father, and Horne took Gail with her.

The rest, as they say, is history. She became a world-trotting nightclub performer. Horne's recording career, spanning 1936 to 2000, earned her three Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She sang with Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnet, Benny Carter, and Billy Eckstine.

Lena appeared in 16 feature films and several shorts between 1938 and 1978. But her film career was hindered by a clause her dad had put into her MGM contract that she would never play a stereotyped servant role in a movie.

Her "no maid or mammy" rider was controversial, even among black performers, and the industry had trouble casting her in a highly segregated business. Hey, Hollywood's loss.

She performed occasionally on Broadway, including in her own Tony-winning one-woman show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," in 1981-1982. She often sang and acted on radio and television, and visited the occasional talk show.

In 2007, Horne's life story was told on stage via the musical "Stormy Weather."

Lena Horne was also a vocal Civil Rights supporter, having come up during America's unofficial apartheid era. She died at the age of 92 in her hometown of New York.

But for a brief period, Pittsburgh could call her its own, and her children are forever Steel City natives. For once, the Three Rivers took someone from the bosom of the Big Apple and launched her, even if in a small way, on her road to stardom.

Lena Horne singing "Stormy Weather" from the 1943 movie