Friday, December 31, 2010


Johnny Costa

Johnny Costa

Johnny Costa is another in a long string of Pittsburgh musicians who decided that the road wasn't the life and came home to play. It may have put his light under a basket nationally, but make no mistake - Costa was one of the top jazz pianists of this era, even though he eschewed modern fusion-style jazz forms and stuck to the standards, playing the music of Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, mercer, Porter, and Rogers & Hart.

Born in 1922 in Arnold, an Allegheny River town 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Costa never roamed far from his birthplace.

Costa's dad was an immigrant coal miner, and he wanted his kids to lead a life that kept their hands clean and back straight. At age five, Costa began playing the violin. When he was ten, his neighbor Fred Petri taught Costa to play the accordion.

Costa's father actually sold his house so he could buy his son a $500 accordion. Costa credited that early training with developing his skills with the right hand.

But when he reached high school, his music teacher, Frank Oliver, suggested that Costa dump the squeeze box and switch to the piano. The idea made sense to Costa, and after he heard some Art Tatum recordings, he was sold.

He taught himself to play Tatum's songs (in fact, Tatum himself would one day dub Costa "The White Tatum"), and his first teacher, Martin Meissler, came to Arnold a couple of times a week to coach him. And Meissler knew his stuff; he was Oscar Levant's piano teacher, too. Costa's left hand soon caught up to his right.

Costa joined the New York City-based clarinetist and bandleader Tommy Reynolds and his orchestra after graduating from high school. He returned to Pittsburgh soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to marry his sweetheart Helen before leaving for the Army.

He was a corpsman in the "Tough Hombre" 90th Division, and took part in the brutal Utah Beach assault on D-Day. Within a few months, rheumatic fever sent him to a series of military hospitals for a year.

Discharged from the army, Costa auditioned for admission to the music department at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie-Mellon University. He played Antonín Dvořák's "Humoresque" ala Tatum before a school panel. A music committee member reportedly said afterward "That was not 'Humoresque,' Mr. Costa, but what you played was wonderful. Of course, we'll accept you."

At Carnegie Tech, he studied music composition under Nicolai Lopatnicoff, a composer of the central European avant-garde style. Costa's personal influences were classical composers, particularly Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, and straight-ahead jazzmen Tatum and Fats Waller. The mash-up created Costa's great and unique style.

He earned two bachelor's degrees at CMU, in music composition and music education. Costa's been quoted as saying he needed the sheepskins "in case I was a flop as a professional musician." Fat chance of that happening, but better safe than sorry.

On the day he graduated in 1951, Costa began a sixteen year stint as musical director of KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. He played the organ for "Meet Your Neighbor." On Josey Carey's "Funsville," he created the memorable character of Indian Mary, who wore a straw hat with two braids hanging out and a huge feather in back, chewed on a cigar, played the piano, and never said a word. Costa also starred on his own show, "The Wonderful World of Johnny Costa," where he spotlighted a composer and played his songs.

During the fifties, in addition to his TV duties, the Johnny Costa Trio with Jim DeJulio (bass) and Chuck Spatafore (drums), rode the MCA circuit, playing in Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New York several times a year. Costa was on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show."

The busy pianist also recorded for NYC labels Coral and Savoy. "Johnny Costa Plays Piano Solos" (1955), "Johnny Costa Plays for the Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (1955), "Costa Living" (1955), "A Gallery of Gershwin" (1958) and "In My Own Quiet Way" (1959) were released by Coral; "Introducing Johnny Costa" (1955) and "The Amazing Johnny Costa" (1955) (reissued on CD as "Neighborhood" in 1989) were on Savoy. Sadly, they're all out of print.

But recording and touring weren't Costa's bag. Before the decade of the fifties closed, he quit a brief stint in Philadelphia as the musical director of Mike Douglas' weekday show and returned to Pittsburgh for keeps. Costa was tired of living out of a suitcase, and he and Helen had two kids, Debbie and John Junior, to raise. He gave up chasing the brass ring to sink his roots deep into home turf.

He gigged regularly at Mercur’s, a downtown club which had featured jazz players like Erroll Garner, at the William Penn hotel, and he still had his KDKA duties. But his KD days were soon to end when he found a new TV challenge in 1967.

That's when "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" first aired. Costa became the show's musical director. His music opened and closed the program, he arranged the music, accompanied guests, and added background melodies during the show's segments.

Costa met Fred Rogers five years before the show was a thought through Josey Carey. When Rogers began planning "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," he offered Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for 100 episodes. Costa accepted the job in a heartbeat. At the time, he needed exactly that amount to pay his son's college tuition. God works in mysterious ways.

Who knew that it would end up the most successful children's show ever broadcast, and that Costa would be introducing generations of kids to jazz improvisations? There were no kiddie ditties played on MRN; neither Rogers nor Costa would condescend to their audience, young as it may have been, that much.

None of the music was canned, Rogers allowed him complete freedom, and Costa, along with "Handyman" Joe Negri, created a playlist that led Branford Marsalis to say "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is the best jazz show on the air anywhere."

Costa and Rogers collaborated frequently on the show's music, with Costa harmonizing and arranging Rogers’ melodies. It's well known that Fred Rogers had degrees in psychology and theology, but maybe not so well known that he also had a degree in music composition.

In the seventies, Costa recorded on a string of LPs released by Rogers featuring Pittsburgh jazzmen like Negri, Bobby Boswell and other contributors.

The first, in fact, was released in 1967, when The Johnny Costa Trio (now with Carl McVicker on bass and Bob Rawsthorne doing percussion, both who performed with him on MRN) on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Records with tunes like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Like his other LPs, it's no longer available.

It was a match made in heaven. Rogers got first class musicians, while Costa (and Negri) got steady work, a regular paycheck, and some notoriety to allow them to maintain a club and concert schedule of their chosing.

He was appreciated by his hometown boys for his outside work, too. The City Theater honored Costa as the first recipient of its Performance Award, presented to an outstanding performing artist from western Pennsylvania. The presentation featured performances by Dick Hyman and Peter Nero. Costa was also elected to the Hall of Fame of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society.

Oh, about his discography. Dick Hyman, jazz pianist, keyboardist, composer and Costa admirer, contacted Hank O'Neal, president of Chiaroscuro Records (which had recorded Mary Lou Williams and Earl Hines), and sent him an unlabeled cassette of Costa recordings in 1990.

O'Neal signed Costa after a brief listen, and released four recordings: "Classic Costa" (1992 - American songbook tunes), "Flying Fingers" (1992 - jazz standards), "A Portrait of George Gershwin" (1994 - Gershwin), and "Dream" (1996 - Johnny Mercer).

Heck, even his liner notes are classics. They were written by folk like Elsie and Henry Hillman and Henry Mancini. Along with L&M Records 1997 release of "Christmas Reflections," these LPs are all that's left of Costa's musical legacy.

Johnny Costa died of anemia at the age of 74 on October 11th, 1996.

His personal legacy is that of a regular joe. Costa lived within a few miles of his family home, and used to meet his high school music teacher for breakfast. He never had an agent; Costa just gave out his phone number - unchanged for 30 years - and booked his own gigs. His kids lived nearby. A beautiful musician and beautiful person is how his friends and family describe him. And they're right.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas!!!

image from The Society

"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - Mormon Tabernacle Choir

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - Giorgio Tozzi

"The Christmas Song" - Mel Torme

"The First Noel" - Natalie Cole

"White Christmas" - Bing Crosby

"Adestes Fidelis" - Andrea Bocelli

"Deck the Halls" - Smithfield Fair

"Joy to the World" - Anne Murray

"Jingle Bells" - animation, artist unknown

"Silent Night" - Libera

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bob McKeag...McKeg...Bubs!

Bubs McKeag

Bob "Bubs" McKeag started out like many Pittsburgh music legends - he and a bud, Little Joe Arena, put together a garage band in high school. They formed the Igniters, and the Penn Hills musicians became local club heroes in the sixties.

The Igniters were the house band at The Varsity House in Oakmont, and their early Brit/R&B rockin' style regularly filled the club. McKeag was the lead singer (although Frank Czuri, an old St. Bart's pal, would eventually fill that role in what would become a recurring theme) and lead guitarist.

Atlantic Records signed The Igniters to a record contract in 1968. They were the second white band signed to the label, following the Rascals; they had the soul sound, even if blue-eyed, that Atco pushed. That made the way Atlantic handled the act a bit of a mystery.

The label changed their name to Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory for reasons unknown. They released the poppish "Baby, I Love You" b/w "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game" in 1968, and it got a little love, but not much outside the region; maybe the label thought the B Side Marvelette's cover would qualify as R&B. It did get a lot of play in the region.

So they changed names again, now performing as the more psychedelic "Friends." They cut another single that went nowhere, effectively ending the Atlantic connection. After a couple of years of touring and playing The Psychedilly club as their local home base, they disbanded in 1970. McKeag joined the Navy.

After seeing the world on Uncle Sam's dime, he played with various bar bands in the area. Then, in 1974, McKeag hooked up with Norm Nardini and Robbie Johns to record Marvin Gaye's "Ain’t That Peculiar" at East Liberty's Red Fox Studio. A Pittsburgh rock legend was born that day: Diamond Reo.

Diamond Reo signed a contract with Big Tree Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, added Czuri as a vocalist and Warren King on ax, and became the next big thing. Oddly, for all the smoke their only top 40 hit was their first tune, "Aint That Peculiar," with McKeag working the "talkbox" guitar and singing lead.

The band schmoozed with Dick Clark on American Bandstand and opened shows for Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Kiss, Rush, Canned Heat, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, and other seventies' rockers as they toured non-stop and lived large on the road.

Life on the bus brought changes to the group. McKeag was the first to leave Reo as the band moved from Top 40 rock to punk/metal. He recorded another top 40 hit, "Gimme Some," for Buddah in 1977 as Bob McKeag and later recorded for Phantom Records under the easier to spell (and pronounce) name of McKeg.

He then hooked up with James Lawson to form the McKeg/Lawson Blues Band, and the group became a popular local blues mainstay. In 1994, Lawson lost a battle with cancer; McKeag kept the MLBB going for five more years before they broke up.

For the past decade or so, he's been mostly gigging solo. His EP "McKeg on Tap" is a Pittsburgh hit (of course, one of the tracks is the Heinz Field tailgate favorite "Go Steelers." Guy knows the market, hey?)

And he's a full-time bluesman now; he even has a trademark porkpie hat, though it's overshadowed by his ax. McKeag is a two-time winner of the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania’s International Blues Challenge for solo/duo artist, taking the 2009 title with Dr. Blue as a duo and as a solo act in 2008.

McKeag has taken a couple of side trips to Finland, too. He performed during the 30th Annual Helsinki Blues Heritage Festival. In 2007, he went to Finland for an international songwriting competition in the blues category, and placed fourth.

Bubs is a teacher, too. Beside performing in the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, he worked the Blue's Society "Blues In the Tent" project. McKeag presented “Story Telling in the Blues," where kids focus on their life stories of heartbreak, loss, or just the day-to-day grind. Then they write them down, and have the framework for some blues lyrics.

But ya know what? Sometimes the old days are the best days. McKeag just joined with his old Igniter bandmates at the Palisades last week for a holiday reunion gig. People came to town from all over the US to catch the act again, only the third time that the band has gotten back together since they went their separate ways in 1970.

And hey, after four or five decades of making that ax sing, it's sweet to know that Bubs McKeag's first chord was just as popular as the next one will be.

Bubs McKeg with The Sweaty Betty Band - "No Baggage"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bill Toms

Bill Toms from Music Club

Bill Toms is a full fledged member of the Bruce Springsteen and Joe Grushecky singer/songwriter school of narrative Americana rock, and small wonder - his influences are Leadbelly, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, and he was the lead guitarist for Grushecky's Houserockers for nineteen years, beginning in 1987.

While the band may not have rocked the national airwaves, it ruled in the Steel City. During his two decades of playing guitar and singing back-up harmonies, Toms recorded seven albums with Grushecky and the Houserockers.

They opened for groups like The Band, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat and Stevie Ray Vaughn and toured the United States and Europe.

Toms eventually started up his own band, Hard Rain, named after the old Bob Dylan song, made up of Houserockers. And guess what - he's still a local phenomena with an international following, just like during the Houserocker days.

They've played local venues like Moondogs, the Altar Bar, Frankie & Georgie's, Cefalos, Club Cafe and festivals such as "Guitars Over Cancer," the Flood City Music Festival and the Carnegie Arts & Heritage Festival.

Toms and the band have performed in West Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, New York and Virginia with a couple of road trips to Italy and Spain with Marc Reisman, his old Houserocker bud harp man, and sax blower Phil Brontz. His European exploits have made him a movie star of sorts.

Tomorrow night (Saturday December 11th), he's having a film release party at Frankie & Georgie's 4 Wood Grill (formerly PD's Pub) on Forward Avenue in Squirrel Hill, where he'll debut "A Troubadour's Journey."

The documentary film was shot during Toms' 2008 Italian tour, capturing band footage, the road diary, and a side bar story of how the band helped inspire a filmmaker. The party starts at 10 PM, with Toms and Hard Rain performing as the flick rolls, we assume.

Hard Rain is a pretty sweet collection of local players, all former members of the Houserockers. It consists of Toms (vocals, guitar), Tom Breiding (guitar, vocals), Phil Brontz (sax), Scott "Scooter" Tamulinas (bass), Bernie Herr (drums) and "Sudden" Steve Binsberger (keyboards).

Breiding, a Wheeling native who lives in McMurray, has several albums to his credit: Railroad Town (1992), The Next Heartache (1997), Guitar and Pen (1998), Happy Hour in the Round Hotel (2000), American Son (2001), Two Tone Chevrolet (2004), Guitar and Pen Volume II (2005), Time to Roll (2006), and The Unbroken Circle (2007).

His style has been compared to John Mellencamp's. He also operates the AmeriSon Studios and label that Toms uses to record.

Brontz has tooted on more than a dozen albums himself, playing since 1983 with artists like Jill West, Norm Nardini, Glenn Pavone, Erin Burkett and Gary Belloma beside Toms and Grushecky. He also performs with 8th Street Rox.

Scott "Scooter" Tamulinas has played with Bill Deasy and Patti Spadaro. Bernie Herr has spent most of his career as the Houserocker percussionist, and recorded eight albums with that band. Philly's Sudden Steve also plays with Jill West & the Blues Attack, and was a member of Billy Price's band and 8th Street Rox.

And then there's the 49 year old Bill Toms. Beside his band, he can be found on stage with "Friends" or sponsoring community events with his wife, Joyce. The Scott resident also teaches guitar as his day job, both to individuals and in workshops.

His discography is pretty lengthy, as this list will bear out:

With Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers:
“Rock and Real” - Rounder Records, 1989
“Swimming with the Sharks” - Rounder Records, 1991
“End of the Century” - Razor and Tie, 1992
“American Babylon”- Razor and Tie, 1995
“Coming Home” - Big Star, 1997
“Down the Road Apiece, Live” - Schoolhouse Records, 1999
“True Companion” – Schoolhouse Records, 2003

Bill Toms & Hard Rain:
“Paradise Avenue” - Schoolhouse Records, 1997
“My Own Eyes” - Moondog Records, 1999
“This Old World” - Moondog/Schoolhouse Records, 2001
“The West End Kid” – Moondog Records, 2005
“Spirits, Chaos, and a Troubadour Soul’ – AmeriSon Records, 2008
“Live at Moondogs: Another Moonlight Mystery” – AmeriSon Records, 2010

Bill Toms Solo:
“One Lonesome Moment” - Out of the Rain Records, 2002

Bill Toms & Hard Rain Documentary:
"A Troubadour's Journey" - 2010

At the end of January, Bill Toms and Hard Rain will start recording their new and as of yet unnamed studio CD. They may not have the national rep of Springsteen or the local cachet of Grushecky, but Hard Rain is on the same short list.

Bill Toms & Hard Rain - "Move It On Down The Road"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Anne Feeney Benefit Boogie

Wanta get into the Holiday Spirit? Kick off Christmas with a star-studded show of local acts getting together to party - and help Anne Feeney with her medical bills.



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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Pittsburgh Christmas

Hey, wanna get in the holiday mood? Try spinning one of these CD's performed by local artists while sipping your eggnog:

-- BE Taylor "Christmas" & "Christmas 2" The first album consists of a dozen traditional songs; the second has a trio of Taylor tunes among its eleven songs.

-- Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, "Ah Leilulah!" Rock in the holidays with "Hallelujah Chorus," "Blue Christmas," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Emmanuel" and original song "This Child."

-- Joe Negri "Guitars For Christmas" Twenty songs by the jazzman, a mix of traditional and pop.

-- Jackie Evancho "O Holy Night" Four-song, fully orchestrated EP featuring "Silent Night," "Panis Angelicus," "O Holy Night" and "Pie Jesu"

-- Pittsburgh Symphony Brass "Spirit of Christmas" Twenty-one traditional holiday airs.

-- Rosa Colucci "The Gift" Thirteen tracks, a mix of traditional and lesser known carols, delivered with blues/jazz/folk arrangements.