Saturday, June 26, 2010


SpacePimps from Kick Rock Music

Hey, Shady Side Academy seems like an unlikely jumping off point for a punk pop band, but it's the alma mater of the SpacePimps.

Maybe it's not surprising; every school has its normal kids, jocks, frat guys, goths, and the boys in the band roaming the halls. They just preferred to party down at places like Laga and Graffiti instead of the keggers.

Lead singer and guitarist Rishi Raj Bahl hooked up with drummer Jared Roscoe there, and after their senior year added bassist Brian Cain. They've kept the same power-trio lineup ever since, six years and counting.

Bahl is the son of an Indian doctor and his mom is from Wilkinsburg, and the ringleader of the band. He caught the fever after moshing at the Warped Tour '96 as a pre-teen.

The fever didn't quite extend into a rebellious persona; he told Manny Theiner of the Post Gazette that he and the guys are "straightedge" - no dope or booze.

And they are a kinda role model trio. The group operates its own business end, including the booking, promotion, sales, and finances (both of their CDs, 2006's "Turn It Up!" and their recently issued "Stuck Here Forever" are self-released.) They are managed by Patrick Gillespie of Restless Management, their link to the outside industry

Bahl worked on a triple major in college, and is in line to pick up a PhD in business during the fall, a pretty handy background for a developing group. His bandmates are both working their way toward a degree, too, mostly on-line. So handling the business side may be hectic, but the guys are well suited for it.

In fact, their education earned them some national love from Newsweek magazine, who featured them in a 2007 article describing the struggle between getting a sheepskin and banging out chords for a living.

But while they may be called a college punk band, the music has been the focus, not the tassels and gowns. They've moved nearly 10,000 copies of their debut EP, no small task for an indie, and parlayed it into a big following in Japan.

A Tokyo indie label, Kick Rock Music, inked the Pimps and brought them over for a 2007 tour. They headlined four sold-out shows - Pittsburgh probably has more punk bands in town than Japan does nationally - and KRM is handling the newest release for the Nippon market.

And the boys do like to spread their sound around. After starting off with "battle of the bands" gigs and graduating to the clubs, the Pimps have gone on four national tours, and shared a stage with local band Punchline and bigger acts like Fall Out Boy, Reel Big Fish, The Starting Line, New Found Glory and Bowling for Soup. They even got a shot on The Warped Tour.

The latest tour launched with a CD release show June 18th at South Side's Club Diesel (the album’s first single, “Running Away (Leave the Light On),” has been released via iTunes) and takes them into the Midwest for the short term. And they still do it the old school way, piling into a van and schlepping their amps onto whatever stage will take them.

The band's goal, of course, is to get picked up by a label (that item hasn't gotten past the talking point yet) and see how far their music can take them. And with comparisons to groups like Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy, there's a good chance that opportunity will bear fruit.

One last question - how did a clean-cut group of punks become the SpacePimps? As explained to Manny Theiner:

In Bahl's senior year, he suddenly needed to come up with a band name. "We were practicing in Jared's walk-in closet," he recalls, "when Jared's little nephew, who was 6 or 7 and had been watching MTV's 'Pimp My Ride,' said, 'You guys look like a bunch of pimps from outer space.' Jared submitted the name without telling me, and we showed up to the high school battle of the band. The sign said 'The SpacePimps are playing Blink-182 covers,' and I was mortified."
But it stuck.

SpacePimps - "What's My Age Again"

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mumbling Word

The Stereos image from Doo Wop

Hey, since we've zeroed in on Canonsburg's finest, we thought we'd head forty or so miles west to the "Burb of the Burgh" Steubenville and their claim to oldies fame, the Stereos, an Ohio R&B group that epitomized The Pittsburgh Sound.

It started at Williams pool hall, where a few buds polished cue tips and did a little singing. They soon discovered that they sang better than shot pool, and formed a group in 1954, the Montereys.

The band members were Bruce Robinson (first tenor and lead), Tom "Tex" Williams (first tenor & originally from Fort Worth, hence the nickname), Leroy Swearingen (baritone), and Ronnie Collins (bass).

In 1955, the Montereys were booked into a show in Pittsburgh put together by DJ Bill Powell of WILY. However, they found out that they shared a stage name with another group that was appearing, the New-Jersey based Montereys. So to keep the gig, they became the Hi-Fis; not very original but it kept them on the playbill.

The Hi-Fi's became fixtures on Stan Scott's "9 Teentime" TV show aired on Steubenville's WSTV, which reached into Pittsburgh. And like many groups of the era, especially ones who earned their paycheck by gigging instead of record royalties, the turnover in personnel was sometimes dizzying.

In 1955, Williams went back to Texas and was replaced by baritone George Otis. But Otis was quickly drafted and his spot was taken by second tenor Samuel Profit. Then they added two new members, tenor Ray Manson and Esther Thompson, a girl whose vocal range covered first tenor to baritone. They were all neighborhood buds.

Then, in 1956, Profit left to join the army. Scorecard, anyone?

In the fall of 1956, Athena Dallas, their manager and local dress shop owner, got the group an audition with Atlantic Records. They went to New York and sang for the label's president, Ahmet Ertegun. He inked the Hi Fi's to a contract, but recommended they find a new lead singer.

They went home and enlisted Howard Alsbrooks of Earl Brown's Orchestra, a local band that backed up the national acts that hit town, to fill that request. The lineup was now Bruce Robinson, Leroy Swearingen, Ronnie Collins, Ray Manson, Esther Thompson, and Alsbrooks.

New lead in tow, they headed back to the Big Apple, and to their surprise, found out that Atlantic decided not to honor their contract. Welcome to show biz.

They headed to King Records, and had the fortune to run into an A&R man, Henry Glover, who hailed from nearby Zanesville. He gave them a two-year deal, and had them record at Regency Studios.

In November, they cut four songs with Alsbrooks on the lead. And while they were at it, Glover decided to rename them again, and presto, they were now the Buckeyes, in honor of their home state.

As soon as the session was over, the group lost its lead. Alsbrooks was a bit of an outsider for the 'hood gang that formed the band, and as the vocalist/pianist for the Earl Brown Orchestra, the Buckeyes were second fiddle to him. He cast his lot with Brown, having never made a live appearance with the Buckeyes.

In January 1957, "Since I Fell For You" b/w "By Only You" (Deluxe 6110) was released on King's Deluxe subsidiary, based in Cincinnati.

The record was played on local radio station WSTV (the TV station lost its call letters to radio by now) by DJ George Wilson, and on Pittsburgh's WILY by Bill Powell. In April, they followed with their other two cuts, "Dottie Baby" b/w "Begging You Please" (Deluxe 6126). The platters got little airplay nationally, but did help the Buckeyes gain a solid local rep and bookings around the region.

In early 1957, Manson left the group, to be replaced by Profit, who was booted out of the service for being underage. Thompson took a powder in 1958, and Otis returned after doing his military time. Now the Buckeyes were Bruce Robinson, Leroy Swearingen, Ronnie Collins, George Otis, and Samuel Profit.

Deluxe let the contract lapse, and the Buckeyes didn't record again until mid-1959. They trooped back to New York, sleeping in the car and looking for a label. They pitched a demo, and finally Newark's Gibraltar Records set up a studio session for them.

And with a new label came a new name, the Stereos. Gibraltar thought the Buckeyes were too jockish a name for a musical group; it conjured up linebackers instead of soulmen.

In July, Gibraltar released "A Love For Only You" b/w "Sweetpea's In Love" (Gibraltar 105) doing well locally in their hometown and Pittsburgh ("Sweetpea" was reissued on Ideal 1110 in 1965 and was covered by several groups), and again their area presence took off; they played Pittsburgh enough to make it their second hometown.

In late 1959, Swearingen called it quits, frustrated by the group's inability to chart, and his slot was taken by Richard Albritton, a tenor and guitarist, who was then quickly replaced by Nathaniel Hicks in 1960. The Stereos were now Bruce Robinson, Ronnie Collins, George Otis, Samuel Profit, and Nathaniel Hicks.

In 1960, Gibraltar went out of business, and Otis Blackwell, their A&R man, moved to Cub Records (a MGM sub) and took the Stereos with him.

The next year, Cub released the uptempo, foot-stomping "I Really Love You" b/w "Please Come Back To Me" (Cub 9095, reissued as Arista 1032). "Love You" became the breakout song they were looking for, hitting #15 on the R&B charts and #29 on Billboard. Ironically, it was penned by original member Swearingen, who left because of the Stereo's lack of national success.

The tune is still a highly sought Northern Soul collector record, and was covered by George Harrison on his 1982 album "Gone Troppo." And it took them off the regional circuit to the big-time black venues.

They played the Apollo and other stops on the Chitlin' Cicuit, like the Howard (D.C.), the Royal (Baltimore), the Uptown (Philadelphia), and the Regal (Chicago).

But that was their high water mark. They released eight more 45's on six different labels, but they were never again to chart.

The Stereos did release a couple of local tracks on Pittsburgh labels. In October, 1963, Lou Guarino's World Artist label, with bloodlines back to Robbee, released "Mumbling Word" b/w "Good News" (WA 1012). "Word" is still a hot Pittsburgh oldie, and is a track on Itzy's "Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits V-5".

In 1965, "Don't Let It Happen To You" b/w "The Best Thing To Be Is A Person" (Val 2) was released on Val Records, a City label operated by local florist Augie Bernardi.

They had moderate success in 1967 with "Stereo Freeze, Parts 1&2" (Hyde 101, reissued as Cadet 5577), which got them another invite to the Apollo.

But in 1970, the group folded; all the personnel changes and label jumping couldn't get them back in the national limelight. In 1981, the "Stereo Freeze" group reunited for an oldies show in Pittsburgh, and that was their final bow.

(Marv Goldberg has everything you need to know about the Stereos on his R&B site, and if he missed anything, Andrew Hamilton of the All Music Guide has it.)

Mumbling Word - Stereos (1963)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pittsburgh Scene - Be A Part Of It

Hey, Craig Anderson had a cool idea; why not get the up-and-comers from the Pittsburgh music scene and put their songs on one site, where they can be downloaded to your hard drive and iPod for free? You win, and the band gets some play, too.

He carries over 1,000 songs from area musicians in an array of genres. Old Mon has already fattened his iTune collection with Jimmy Adler, SpacePimps, Paul Luc, Lovebettie and a bunch of others; there is a lot of good stuff out there just waiting to flow through your buds.

The site can be found at The Pittsburgh Scene (; stop by and snag a couple of tunes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

BurghSTOCK - Make Music, Not War

VA Watchdog Organization

Hey, among all the things America is good at, making music and making war would be at the top of the list. And the City has combined the pair through an incentive called BurghSTOCK.

Our troops have been in every hot spot in the world, from the sands to the snow. And it's no secret some of them don't come back quite the same as when they left. The government often closes its eyes to the plight of many vets, homeless, often addicted, and without work after they've honorably served their tour. But BurghSTOCK hasn't forgotten them.

The cold, hard facts are that 30% of the homeless men in this country are military vets. There are reportedly over 2,500 in the Tri-State area alone, and those that assist them have waiting lists; the region has the 2nd highest percentage of homeless Vietnam era vets in the country. Ironically, some reportedly sleep under the Veteran's Bridge.

So on Veterans Day, 2008, BurghSTOCK was born of a conversation Mike Fornear had with Garth (The Band) and Maud Hudson, with Little Feat as its first draw. The concept is simple - raise a couple of bucks and get the loot to an organization that helps the homeless vets.

The group talks a band into scheduling a gig either for free or at a reduced rate. The act dedicates a cut of its fee, along with the fans' donations (they pass the hat or set up a booth at each show), to local non-profits that help homeless and disabled military veterans.

Last Tuesday, the New Riders of The Purple Sage made their second BurghSTOCK appearance at The Thunderbird Cafe; the idea has been embraced by national acts. Bands like the Little Feat (twice), Ekoostik Hookah (four times), Great American Taxi, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Donna Jean Godchaux & her band, and The Supersuckers (twice) have all played local gigs as part of BurghSTOCK, along with a handful of other performers.

Also, guys like Levon Helm (the Band), Doug Lubahn (bass player on many of the Doors records), and Bill Payne (Little Feat) have sent items for auction or door prize fodder. Payne is a respected photographer and donated a print of his work "A Sacred Calling" that raised quite a few bucks for the cause.

It's been supported by local acts, too; three dozen or so have taken part in BurghSTOCK shows, like 28 North, Steeltown, Psalter, and the Whiskey Outlaws. The area clubs have joined in the the campaign, and a couple of dozen have hosted events, among them Altar, Diesel, Mr. Smalls, the Thunderbird Cafe, and the Club Cafe.

The New Riders show was the 53rd time a band has taken the stage under the BurghSTOCK banner; that's a lot of acts.

Fornear (aka "BurghSTOCK Mike") is the frontman for the all-volunteer BurghSTOCK, and he's pushed a non-stop agenda. So far, it's a modest organization, raising over $13,000 in the past eighteen months. But they have bigger plans to up the ante.

BurghSTOCK will release a book "A Sacred Calling: Fifty Inspiring Profiles of American Military Veterans." Bill Couch of Roy's has given the organization an open stage once a month. Fornear is trying to reel in bigger local fish, like Norm Nardini, Todd Jones, and The Stickers, for future shows.

So hey, next time you see a band playing under the auspices of BurghSTOCK, stop by and enjoy some good sounds for a good cause. And bring an extra bill or two to stuff into the hat; after all, shouldn't every day be Veterans Day?

Little Feat - "Willing"

Friday, June 4, 2010

Four Coins


Canonsburg has a holy trinity of musical talent: Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, and the Four Coins.

The Four Coins got their start as members of Bobby Vinton's "Band of Tomorrow" back in the day before the Polish Prince was a household name. Jim Gregorakis, George Mantalis, and Jack Mahramas were horn players for Vinton's big band.

In 1952, they began doing side gigs as the Four Keys, joined by Mahramas' brother Michael. They became a vocal act, harmonizing along the lines of the Four Lads and other popular acts of the time.

In January 1953, the group performed on the "Wilkins Amateur Hour," a KDKA-TV talent contest in which listeners selected winners by phoning in votes. The group won the top prize for a performance of the Detroit-based Gaylord's 1952 debut "Tell Me You're Mine."

The ethnic mix in Canonsburg played a hand in capturing the cup. The Greek guys sang part of the song in Italian ("Tell Me" was lifted from an old Italian ballad), a "get out the vote" strategy that proved successful for the Wilkins' poll.

They left Vinton in 1953 to strike out on their own. The Four Keys became the house band at a Pittsburgh club called the Blue Ridge Inn for the next year, pulling down the princely sum of $250 per week.

George Heid liked their sound after hearing them cut a demo in his downtown studio, and signed them to his Corona Records label. He released their first wax, "Hot Toddy," in 1953 and the following year cut "I'll Make the Best Of It."

The recordings led to some regional gigs for the band, and they hit paydirt in Columbus, Ohio, when they impressed visiting General Artists agent Danny Kessler, who was there on his honeymoon. Kessler was also Johnnie Rays' rep.

Canonsburg orchestra leader Lee Barrett took them to Cincinnati for a contract-winning audition with Kessler. He became their manager, inked them to a Columbia Records deal, and they recorded the group on Epic, which would later become Bobby Vinton's label.

Of course, that called for another name change, and they became the Four Coins, influenced by the 1954 flick "Three Coins In A Fountain." Or maybe it was because of the Four Aces, who sang the movie theme. Take your pick; it was probably a combination of both.

The group’s first Epic single was 1954's "We’ll Be Married (In The Church In The Wildwood)," followed by a cover of Charlie and Ray's "I Love You Madly," and "Memories of You," which was the theme song for the movie "The Benny Goodman Story." All three tunes cracked the Top Thirty on the charts.

Their next hit (after a six-song drought) was to become their signature song. In 1957, the group released "Shangri-La," a powerful ballad that sold more than a million copies, earned the group a gold record, and just missed making the Top Ten, stalling at #11. It was the most-played record of 1957.

"Shangri-La" has been covered by several times over the years. Robert Maxwell rode it to a Top 40 instrumental hit in 1964, Vic Dana scored a Top 40 hit with it in 1964, and versions by the Lettermen and Al Capps appeared in 1969 and 1973. Jackie Gleason even used his melody for the TV theme of his Reginald Van Gleason III character.

The follow-ups fared well, too. 1957's "My One Sin" reached #28, while 1958's "The World Outside" peaked at #21, just missing becoming their second million seller, and "Wendy Wendy" charted at #22. They were so hot that they even turned down the chance to record "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which became a monster track for the Tokens.

But the hits stopped coming after that, and the label-jumping began. In 1960 they switched to MGM Records and later continued on to record for Jubilee, Vee Jay, Laurie, Roulette, and Columbia Records, undergoing personnel changes along the way. Jack Mahramas took his brother Michael's spot when Mike left to become an actor.

In the mid sixties, the Mahramas brothers George, Jack, and Michael, formed the Original Three Coins, later to morph into the Brothers James. Clevelanders Tommy Richards and Ronnie Fiorento took their spots. The group carried on until 1970, when they called it quits.

They left behind a sweet legacy. The Four Coins had ten hit singles which sold more than 500,000 copies each, a gold record, and eight songs that charted.

They appeared many times on "American Bandstand," twice on "The Perry Como Show," and three times on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They also performed on "The Patti Page Show," "The Tonight Show" with Steve Allen, and several times on "The Mike Douglas Show."

The group also appeared in the 1957 Warner Brothers rock and roll movie "Jamboree," singing "A Broken Promise," and performed in the nation's top nightclubs, including the Copacabana in New York and the top Las Vegas casinos. They worked 48 weeks per year, good for the bankroll but hard on the bod.

After the break-up, they scattered to Canonsburg, South Park, Phoenix, and Palm Beach. They took on careers as a laundromat owner, business manager, maitre d', and cell phone exec. For the next three decades, they carried on their everyday life.

Then, in 2003, they decided to get together for a farewell concert at the Pepsi Roadhouse in Hanover Township after a 33-year hiatus. The crowd convinced them they shouldn't be saying good-bye, but maybe starting all over again.

The success of that gig persuaded them to repeat the show in 2004 and eventually returning to the road for short, mostly regional, stints.

The revival was helped along when they took part in T.J. Lubinsky's 2004 PBS special "Magic Moments: The Best of '50s Pop." The Four Coins reunited for the taping in Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal, performing "Shangri-La" in their first appearance on television in more than 40 years and restoring their mojo.

So they're back on the road again, spacing out shows and traveling the country spreading their harmonies.

The Four Coins have played the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, Greensburg's Palace Theater, the Silks Lounge at the Meadows, Cleveland's Holiday Inn and St. Demetrios Church. They've also gigged at venues in the Poconos, Johnstown, and Columbus.

And never let it be said that the Coins are prophets without honor. They are inducted members of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and the Canonsburg civic fathers named "Four Coins Drive" for them.

Good music never ages; it just gets better, like a fine wine, over the years. Cent'anni!

Four Coins - "Shangra-La, 1957