Saturday, November 28, 2009

Flashcats and Bull Moose


The Flashcats got together in 1978-79 thanks to the efforts of manager/drummer Carl Grefenstette. You might recognize Grefenstette now as the owner of Pittsburgh Guitar on East Carson Street and Bogus Records, but back then, his main claim to fame was the Flashcats. In fact, he believes the band paid the bills for his business at the start.

The band mates are Grefenstette (drums), Skinny Dave Kent (guitar/vocals), Jim "Junior" Fanning (bass/vocals), Miss Cindy Sotak (guitar/lead), Phil "Harmonic" Brontz (sax), Brian "Crusher" Onater (brass), and departed original member Sweet Pete Loria (brass/vocals), who passed away in 2001.

They developed a high energy stage presence to match the intensity of their R&B-driven rock, and worked virtually non-stop; they were one of Pittsburgh's premier live acts during their heyday.

The music was excellent stuff on its own, mostly original tunes with an occasional cover thrown into the playlist. But geez, the shows...

Giant Toothbrush Night, Miss Cindy's Bug Opera, Throw-A-Pie-At-Pete Night, Mexican hat dances, members of the audience taking the stage to sing "Bonanza," Flashcat kazoos and 3-D glasses, Sweet Pete, dressed as a bee, famously tying himself to a beam one night and swinging over the crowd, blowing his trumpet to the tune of "Flight of the Bumblebee" or hanging from the balcony...

Grefenstette explained "We've done a million gigs, and the best way to keep it exciting is to throw in some surprises. Generally, only half of the band knows what's going to happen next, so it's as much fun for us as it is for the audience!"

Needless to say, they always played to a packed house. They didn't need the novelty, though. Their sound was enough to draw a crowd wherever they set up their amps.

Billboard Magazine first mentioned The Flashcats in 1981 after the release of their first 45, "Baby Baby Ooo." Music News magazine called "Twelve Arms To Hold You," the band's first LP, "the finest independently released album of 1982." Trouser Press said, "The LP is chock full of mid-60s type R&B so good you'd swear the tunes weren't originals."

In 1983, The Flashcats won a national Warner Communications award for the video of their second single, "Appetite For Love." The next album, 1984's "Show Me," was described by The Detroit Monitor as "some of the best juke-joint music in America today."

They had a huge regional following, and were working five or six shows per week. Then they revived a dormant legend and took their act to another level.

All their recorded material was original, except for one old Bull Moose Jackson song, "Nosey Joe," the B side of "Appetite For Love." They also did a cover of his "Big Ten Inch Record" during their gigs.

One night, they played "Nosey Joe" and R&B jock Howard Kozy, better known as Bumble Bee Slim (he hosts WYEP's Saturday night "Blues and Rhythm" show), was in the audience. He told Grefenstette that Bull Moose was still around and kickin' in DC.

Life hadn't been treating Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson so well right about then. After decades as a King Records hit maker, with a mix of risque and standard songs to his credit, the rock 'n' roll parade had passed him by.

In 1958, at the age of 39, Jackson was semi-retired and running a bar in Philadelphia. By the early 1960s, he took a job with a catering company at Howard University in Washington. When the Flashcats called, he was working in the college's cafeteria.

Grefenstette got on the horn with the all-but-forgotten rhythm and blues singer and coaxed him into appearing with the band. He said, "We thought it would be the thrill of a lifetime to play with him."

So in 1984, the sixty-something Jackson flew to the Steel City to do a show with the Flashcats. It turned into a four-year gig. The Moose was loose once again.

The Flashcats' also cut some wax with Jackson. The recordings, a single that became a Pittsburgh classic "Get Off The Table Mable (The Two Dollars Is For The Beer)" and the 1985 album "Moosemania" were his first tracks in 30 years, and restored the luster of his career and R&B legacy.

They appeared together from coast to coast, and Bull Moose won over an entire new generation of fans. He and the Flashcats appeared at New York's Carnegie Hall, in Hollywood, and toured Europe with Johnny Otis.

Jackson credited the Flashcats and the city. He became a virtual cult hero in Pittsburgh, and said, "I'm elated that I can still perform and I'm very proud that people still remember." He added "They've resurrected an old man. I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. They dug me out and here I am."

Bull Moose continued to perform regularly until 1987 when his health began to fade. His last performance was on April 23rd, 1988. It was a birthday gig with the Flashcats in Pittsburgh.

After that concert, Bull Moose went home to Cleveland and moved in with an old flame. He died of cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital on July 31st, 1988.

All of his studio sessions with The Flashcats are available on the CD "Bull Moose Jackson, The Final Recordings," along with "Moosemania."

After the Bull Moose era, the Flashcats continued entertaining the city. But 25 years in the business without a deep breath finally caught up to them. In the early 1990s, the Flashcats decided to take a break and pursue other projects, and that effectively put an end to the act.

They did get a nice going-away present, though. In 1994, "Appetite For Love" was selected by Pittsburgh Magazine as One Of The 10 Greatest Pittsburgh Rock & Roll Classics.

But they didn't fade entirely into the City mist. In 1981, they began to release Christmas albums as gifts to their fan club members. And ya know how it goes with home-grown holiday traditions; once ya start one...

The Flashcats gather locally in a studio every year to cut a new record. Some hold three or four songs; others are full length productions. They're recording their 29th without a miss, and in fact will get together tonight to tape it.

And while they're all in one place, they try to book a reunion show or two for their fans, an even better gift. The 'Cats don't have any holiday gigs on tap this year because of scheduling clashes, but Grefenstette wrote to say "we're going to made it up to everyone with a big show next summer."

If you'd like any of the Flashcat recordings, Christmas or otherwise, they're available at Bogus Records. Grefenstette also features the Spuds, the Frampton Brothers, and the "Made In Pittsburgh" compilations through his impress. (Some of the stuff is old-school, recorded on vinyl or cassette, so make sure you're ordering the right medium.)

Flashcats - "Best Girl"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Swan Silvertones

swan silvertones
Swan Silvertones from

One of the seminal gospel groups, along with the Dixie Hummingbirds and Soul Stirrers, called Pittsburgh home during the fifties and sixties - The Swan Silvertones.

They were led by Claude Jeter, who formed the a cappella quartet in 1938 as the Four Harmony Kings while working as a miner in Coalwood, West Virginia. The group changed its name to the Silvertone Singers to avoid confusion with another group riding the same circuit, the rival Four Kings of Harmony from Texas.

The Silvertones were a jubilee, or uptempo, gospel group, although they later included sentimentals (ballads) and chop jubilees (also known as “shouts”), sowing the early seeds of R&B.

After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1942 and landing their own radio gig on WDIR, they became the Swan Silvertones because Swan Bakeries sponsored their show. Their radio exposure - WDIR was aired over much of the south - eventually earned them an audition and contract with Syd Nathan, owner of Cincy's King Records.

They developed a national reputation during their contract with King Records from 1946 to 1951, releasing 45 titles for the label. But they were bumping heads with King's management, which wanted nothing more than old-timey gospel from the band.

They packed up and moved to Pittsburgh in 1948. No reason was ever given that we could find, but it wasn't unusual for black groups during that era to head north for both better opportunity and a smidge less race-based hassle. The Dixie Hummingbirds made the same move, from South Carolina to Philly, a few years before the Swans.

Freed from the King impress, they signed a deal with Art Rupe's Hollywood-based Specialty Records, an arrangement that lasted from 1951 to 1955. But that adage about the grass being greener proved true again.

The Silvertones taped 25 tracks for Specialty, but the label issued only four singles (later releasing compilations in 1972 and 1991) that featured a more up-to-date style of music before the group was dropped by mutual agreement. But the singers had developed a sound much like the popular doo wop groups of the day during that period.

The early Silvertones had lead singers Jeter and Solomon Womack (Bobby's uncle), tenors Robert Crenshaw and John Manson, baritone John H. Myles, and bass Henry K. Bossard.

But in 1956, the band made what for them was a sea change. They began adding instrumentation to their songs, which had previously been backed by a lone guitar or snare and vocal bass lines.

The Silvertones brought in guitarist Linwood Hargrove, jazz sidemen Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums, to back their recordings. Louis Johnson had by then taken the place of Robert Crenshaw, who became a minister and wasn't pleased with the groups secular direction.

Then they signed with Chicago's Vee-Jay gang, and recorded with that label from 1956 through 1964. Their popular Vee-Jay sound was mainly credited to arranger/tenor Paul Owens, who joined the group in 1952, replacing Womack, who was having health issues.

Influenced by groups like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, Owens, who had performed with the Nightingales and Dixie Hummingbirds, made the music more contemporary, developing a prototype R&B sound for the Swan Silvertones.

Perhaps their greatest hit was "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," released in 1959. It's during this song that Claude Jeter adlibs the phrase "I'll be a bridge over deep water..." that inspired Paul Simon to compose "Bridge Over Troubled Water" some years later.

In fact, Simon's first choice to join him on 1973's "Loves Me Like A Rock" wasn't the Hummingbirds, who backed the tune, but the Silvertones, though they never hooked up. However, Jeter did make it on the album that song was on, "There Goes Rhymin’ Simon," credited with the falsetto vocals.

When Vee-Jay closed down in 1965, the group moved on to Detroit's gospel label, HOB Records, where they did one last album before Claude Jeter left to record on his own and focus on his ministry in 1967.

After his departure, Louis Johnson led the Swan Silvertones, which continued to make records through the 1970s. He tried to put the group back together again in 1984, but stopped the project after six months; Johnson couldn't find the voices to duplicate the old sound. They joined the oldies circuit, as Jeter occasionally reunited with his colleagues for reunion concerts through the 1990s.

Nobody could go from a smooth tenor to a piercing falsetto like Claude Jeter did. You can hear the phrasing of his leads echoed in the singing of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks. Jeter's later interplay with the other Swan Silvertone vocalists is reminiscent of Sam and Dave and the Righteous Brothers.

Yet Jeter more or less walked away from the music business, cutting one solo album after his departure and making a few appearances. He had been ordained as a minister by The Church Of Holiness Science, and generally limited his singing to services.

Jeter ministered quietly in Harlem before his passing on January 6, 2009 at the age of 94. His trade may have been music, but his calling was to serve a higher cause.

But the good Reverend Jeter did hang around long enough to see the Swan Silvertones inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. Oh, and in 1996, he was elected into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame.

The legacy continues, though. Pittsburgh-based Rev. R. L. Bush & The New Swan Silvertones, consisting of Eddie Houston, Lorenzo Rideout, Ron Womack, and Ricky Mathews, are keeping the tradition of the original Swan Silvertones alive.

"My Rock" - Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones

Friday, November 13, 2009

Marcy Jo

Marcy Jo from Robbee Records

Hey, for a while in the early sixties, Pittsburgh had its own Leslie Gore. She performed as Marcy Jo(e).

The singer was born Marcy Rae Sockel in 1944 in Oakland, and she was known by her buds as Marcy Joe. Every week for four years, she headed downtown to the Carlton House on Grant Street, where she took voice lessons from Lennie Martin, a noted local songwriter, arranger and music entrepreneur.

In 1961, she penned a song as a 17 year-old high school senior. It was written for her sweetheart, Howard, but she changed the title to "Ronnie." Hey, she may have loved Howard, but even he had to admit the name didn't have much of a musical ring to it.

As luck would have it, her old vocal coach, Martin, had just founded Robbee Records the summer before (named for his son, Robbie) and booked a recording session for her.

Martin and co-producer Lou Guarino set up shop at the nearby United Recording Service studios with back-up singers Lou Sacco, his older sister Amy, Kay Chick and Bill Fabec, who performed then as a Robbee act known as Lugee & the Lions. Later, Moon High's Sacco would change his stage name and cut some wax as Lou Christie.

Robbee released the ballad in March, and "Ronnie" was a Pittsburgh smash, reaching #7 on the National Record Mart sales rankings. Liberty Records picked up the disc for national distribution.

By the end of May the record was #81 on Billboard's Hot 100, #64 on the Cash Box charts, and #27 in Variety, not a bad debut.

Her April follow-up, "Since Gary Went In The Navy," was also backed by Lugee & the Lions. The tune was dedicated to the military bound Gary Troxel of the Fleetwoods. Another version was released at the same time (Troxel was quite a teen heartthrob back in the day), and the competing songs canceled each other out.

Even then, you had to support your records, and Marcy Joe went on a tour of one-nighters throughout the East that summer with Del Shannon and Johnny And The Hurricanes.

She came back and did one more Robbee 45 in September, "Jumping Jack," but it didn't move either, and Marcy Joe looked across state to find another label after Robbee folded its tents.

In 1962 she signed with the larger Philadelphia-based Swan Records, who released the singles "I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All" and "How Softly A Heart Breaks," losing the "e" of her name in the process.

The label then teamed her with singer/songwriter Eddie Rambeau for a duet medley, "Those Golden Oldies." Sticking with the same format, the duo's next release was "Lover's Medley," combining "The More I See You," which became a top 20 hit for Chris Montez in 1966, with "When I Fall In Love," a top 10 hit for the Lettermen in 1961. It was one of Billboard's "Regional Breakout Single" picks, but it stalled at #132.

Rambeau would later have one hit in 1965, doing a remake of the Unit 4+2 smash "Concrete and Clay," which topped out at at #35.

Lennie Martin, her business agent, passed away shortly after the release of "Lover's Medley" at the age of 46. Marcy had one song left in her, a solo effort called "The Next Time," but there would prove to be no more next time; Marcy Jo never recorded again.

But all's well that ends well. Remember Howard, Marcy's teenage sweetheart? Well, she married him, so we'd have to say she had a pretty successful career all in all.

MARCY JOE DISCOGRAPHY (from Spectropop):

Ronnie/My First Mistake (1961) Robbee R-110

Since Gary Went In The Navy/What I Did This Summer (1961) Robbee R-115

Jumping Jack/Take A Word (1961) Robbee R-117

I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All/First Kiss (1962) Swan S-4116

How Softly A Heart Breaks/Night (1962) Swan S-4128

The Next Time/How Sweet It Is (1963) Swan S-4148


Those Golden Oldies/When You Wore A Tulip (1963) Swan S-4136

Lover's Medley/The Car Hop And The Hard Top (1963) Swan S-4145

"Ronnie" by Marcy Joe - 1961

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kenny Fisher

Kenny Fisher image from the New Pittsburgh Courier

Kenny Fisher may not have been an everyday name to current music fans in Pittsburgh, but to players in the Steel City's jazz scene, the 69 year-old was a bridge to the golden age.

The self-taught tenor saxman (he also played flute, clarinet, recorder, and composed) died a couple of weeks ago from cancer, and with him went a page from Pittsburgh's jazz history.

Fisher grew up in the Hill and went to Weil Elementary and Schenley High. As a teen, he would hang outside the Crawford Grill with his buds, listening to the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, peeking in the back window to catch the acts.

“Fish” was a throwback to the days when the Three Rivers was a blues hot spot. He played the late great club circuit, places like the Loendi Club, the Hurricane, the Crawford Grill, the Too Sweet Lounge, Mason's Bar, the Homewood Bar, Gail's Lounge, and the Diplomat Lounge, while perfecting his licks at the Musician Unions' Club.

He fronted the Kenny Fisher Quintet, made up of Jesse Kemp (piano), Wade Powell (trumpet), Tony Fountain (percussion), and Howard Russell (bass).

The KFQ toured Europe and the Caribbean in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and scored regular dates in the Big Apple and California. After the band broke up, Fisher went to DC and gigged with Max Roach.

Then it was back home to stay, and he became much more involved in the area's jazz community than just honkin' at the local venues.

Fisher played at the African-American Jazz Festival, was noted in the book "Pittsburgh Jazz" by John Brewer, and received an award from the Legacy Arts Project. He also was a member of Nathan Davis' Pitt Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra. Fish was a regular at Pitt's jazz seminars.

For decades, Fisher taught the sax, clarinet, flute and recorder to hundreds of children, teenagers and adults at the Homewood Carnegie Library on Saturdays and evenings for the Jazz Workshop.

He and the other instructors often gave free lessons - their version of scholarships - to kids who couldn't afford the $65 tuition, in trade for chores such as emptying waste baskets or making copies. They knew that a little discipline and structure goes a long way not only in music, but in life, too.

Fisher was a recognized elder statesman and mentor for Pittsburgh's jazz legacy. Why so little love for Fish's work?

It's probably a combination of Fisher's quiet nature, the years gone since he was regularly performing at the clubs, and the fact that even though they busted down the doors to see him live on-stage, he never recorded. Plus, of course, staying and playing in Pittsburgh for the past four decades tends to put a bucket over one's light, too.

But hey, at Wilkinsburg's Mt. Gilead Church, he was escorted to the afterlife with a celebration befitting a jazz king. There were performances throughout the service, and he was taken to his rest at Greenwood Cemetery accompanied by a New Orleans "funeral with music" done up Pittsburgh-style.

Among the luminaries to see Fish off were Roger Humphries, Dr. Nelson Harrison, and Tim Stevens.

Kenny Fisher is now reunited with his love, Jeannette, who passed away in 2001. And he doesn't have to be a back door man to catch Coltrane; he's sitting in with him.