Saturday, February 26, 2011

Clark Race

Clark Race image from Jeff Roteman

Hey, everyone of a certain age recalls the glory years of Pittsburgh radio with the likes of Porky, TL and Mad Mike. But the guy that drew the listeners of the Steel City en masse was KDKA's Clark Race.

He started out by making rather than spinning music. Race was the youngest of eight children growing up in the Depression era, but his parents always managed to scrape together enough coin to keep him in instruments.

As a kid, he played trumpet, accordion and trombone, and led his high school band. Race and his folks attended a fundamentalist church when he was a boy where he developed a love of gospel music.

Race even tried his hand at the tunesmith's craft, writing and recording the ballad "Shy Boy" in 1959. Though it was never released, his wife still has the demo tape.

Like many radio jocks, the Hudson, N.Y., native started his radio career in 1958 as a sportscaster doing local baseball games in Albany. His career as a vinyl spinner began out of the blue when his station manager told him that he wanted him to DJ.

It was the era of jock-driven programming, so he went out to an Albany record store and bought some disks of the songs he liked. Listeners liked the tunes, too, and his show caught on.

Westinghouse heard of Race's popularity and offered him a job at KDKA-AM as part of its effort to attract a younger audience. The 26 year-old came to Pittsburgh in 1959, and hosted a drive time show that owned the City's ear and car radios until 1970.

His opener of "Hi!" - "Hello Clark Race, Hello" (sung), - "And welcome to the show" followed by his theme song, "String of Trumpets" by Billy Muir was burned into the memory of virtually every teen AM radio listener in the sixties. So was his signoff "It's so nice to know so many nice people," lifted from noted DC jock Eddie Gallaher.

At its height, Race's show captured more than 50 percent of the audience, a huge number in the competitive local market. Like the other DJ's, the Top 40 was whatever he decided it would be, and his tastes covered the board.

Following the suburban jocks, Race brought the music of black artists to his mainstream audience. His playlist mixed pop, rock, soul, country and standard hits, and featured local artists like Lou Christie, the Vogues, the Electrons, the Racket Squad and Bobby Vinton.

Race was a master of evaluating songs, breaking Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes," Bobby Vinton’s breakout tune, "Roses Are Red" and even the novelty ditty of the Royal Guardsmen, "Snoopy and the Red Baron."

He helped create huge local hits by spotlighting "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James, "Because Of You" by Rome & Paris, "It Ain't No Big Thing" by the Electrons, "Cross My Heart" by Billy Stewart, "Hung Up" by the Racket Squad and many others.

How big was he? Beatles manager Brian Epstein invited Race to go to London and meet the Beatles along with Murray the K. That eventually led to one of the few one-upped moments of his life.

The "Fun Lovin' Five" of KQV were KD's main music radio rivals. Their station manager finagled a plane ride from New York to Pittsburgh for Chuck Brinkman and Dexter Allen with the mop-tops that had been promised to Race, who got rudely bumped off the passenger list, along with intro honors (which hadn't been promised; the promoters had a KQV tie-in) for the Beatles' 1964 Civic Arena show. He made sure his audience knew all about the slight, too.

And Race wasn't just a studio wonder. His hops drew kids from all around the region, and in 1963, KDKA-TV began airing Clark Race's "Dance Party," a knock-off of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (he inherited the show from Randy Hall) every Saturday until 1966. To get some camera love on the show was a big thing to a high school pair. He drew all the top acts for his fans' dancing pleasure, like the Supremes and Chubby Checker.

His most memorable moment may have been when he had the Strangeloves of "I Want Candy" fame on the show. They had an elaborate cover story of being Australian brothers named Strange. It was concocted by their producers to create a little cachet; in reality they were just touring session players from New York. One part of the tale was that one of the members was a boomerang champ from the Land Down Under.

Live on air, Race handed the guy a boomerang for a demonstration. Never having so much as seen one before, the Strangelove promptly threw it into a camera, knocking it over. Clark asked if that was really the right way to toss the boomerang, and the quick-witted if somewhat sassy reply was "That's why I'm the champion and you're not." Now that's reality TV.

Heck, he even started one of his brother KD jocks on a second career. The late Bob "Tiger Troop" Tracey saw Race ride his Vespa, one of his passions, into the station lot one Saturday. Tracey borrowed it over the weekend, and his love for two-wheeled vehicles was born. He operated Bob Tracey's World of Cycles in Moon for twenty years after he got out the business.

But all things come to an end, and after eleven years in Pittsburgh, Race joined KMPC, owned by Gene Autry, in Los Angeles in 1971. Race was widely considered to be the heir apparent to the station's morning top dog Dick Whittinghill. He got to moonlight, too, when in 1972 Race became the host for ABC-TV's game show "The Parent Game," produced by Chuck Barris.

But working the overnight shift, he never connected with the Southern Cal listeners like he did with his Pittsburgh audience.

Race left the station in 1978 and drifted to gigs in San Francisco and San Diego, finishing his West Coast broadcasting in 1980 working mornings for contemporary Christian music station KBRT on Catalina Island. Like many radio jocks from the early years, he left the business because the power had switched from the DJs to the programming directors.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1986, opening a bed and breakfast in Sewickley with his wife Diane, and in 1993 they bought another B&B in Amish country, New Wilmington. The Lawrence County inn became Clark & Diane's home. It was actually a dream vocation for the pair, who could often be seen tooling around the area, running errands and giving local tours to their guests.

Race had offers to return to local radio, but always with an oldies format. Race turned them down, not wanting to be caught in that niche; he was listening to Natalie Merchant, Enya and Kenny Rogers, not Bobby Vinton and Lou Christie, in the eighties and nineties.

In 1999, Clark Race died at the age of 66 after a heart attack and a lengthy battle with throat cancer. Diane Race said one of her husband's last hopes was that he could scare off others from smoking, a long-time habit of his.

He had an impressive send off. After all, as Clark Race always said, "It's so nice to know so many nice people." They knew and remembered him.

"String of Trumpets" by Billy Muir

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Best Pittsburgh Oldie...

OK, we're gonna try something a little different today. Old Mon is posting five oldies - the cut off date is 1961; only fifty year-old+ songs need apply - and letting his readers select the top one. Three were chart busters; two were purely local hits. The voting box is on the right; here are the tunes:

The Chaps (Sonny DiNunzio) "They'll Never Be" 1960

The Del-Vikings (Norman Wright) "Come Go With Me" 1957

The Marcels (Cornelius Harp) "Blue Moon" 1961

The Skyliners (Jimmy Beaumont) "Since I Don't Have You" 1958

The Splendors (Herb Marshall) "The Golden Years" 1958

Vote early and often. It's the Pittsburgh way.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rich Engler

Rich Engler from Whirl Magazine

Rich Engler, a Creighton native, discovered the joys of music while a student at Deer Lakes HS. He was the drummer for the garage band Grains of Sand (Engler was also said to be the session drummer on the Vogue's "Five O'Clock World.") He started banging the kit as a junior, and hey - Engler brought home $25 a gig. Life couldn't get better.

The group eventually became a popular act - Hermie Granati of the Granati Brothers/G-Force was a member - and started getting more offers (and money, we'd hope) than they had nights to play, riding the area auditorium/college circuit. So Engler started up a sideline booking/management company and doled out dates to other bands, while getting his boys gigs as the opening act for some of the bigger area shows.

A Yes show in Erie was the tipping point. The GOS was the warm up act, and the agent for Yes was looking all over the sold-out Erie Civic Center for the promoter, no doubt to gripe about something or other. The house people told him he'd have to cool his heels a bit; the promoter, Engler, was on stage with the band. The storm blew over, but...

An agent friend from New York City called and told Engler that the two hats he was wearing was one too many, and from that day on, he was solely a promoter. Engler called his now full-time agency Go Attractions.

He brought in acts like David Bowie and Velvet Underground, but his Pittsburgh options were somewhat limited. Engler could only book his shows at the Stanley. The 800-pound gorilla in Pittsburgh bookings, Pat DiCesare, had exclusivity clauses in the other major City venues.

Go Attractions used the ol' end run, aggressively working the region's secondary markets in Johnstown, Erie, Altoona, and Hagerstown. And it paid off in spades over the long haul.

Engler had caught DiCesare's eye as an up-and-comer, and in 1973 he got a call to combine forces. Both recognized that the other was his main competition, and turned their energy into synergy. The pair decided to let Engler focus on bookings and DiCesare the other opportunities, split the profits 50-50, and then launched the rock era in Pittsburgh. In 1974, DiCesare-Engler was born, destined to become a top twenty concert promoter in terms of gross in the US.

It quickly became renown as a promoter of rock and pop concerts at the Civic Arena, Duquesne's Palumbo Center, the Amphitheater at Station Square, Star Lake Theatre, Three Rivers Stadium, the Benedum Center/Stanley, Soldiers and Sailors Hall, the Syria Mosque and Metropol. They also booked shows in the regional outliers, where Engler had hung his hat, and opened venues in Wilkes-Barre and Vegas.

DiCesare-Engler brought in acts from Judy Collins to Metallica, Aerosmith to Al Jarreau, Courtney Love to KISS, Elton John to Billy Joel, Springsteen to the Stones, Led Zeppelin to Bon Jovi...well, you get the picture.

Engler has bands he personally likes; after all, he was a rock drummer. But what he liked best was a successful show, from an artistic, financial and market standpoint. So he would book Red Skelton, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Bolshoi Ballet or a Broadway show if there was an audience. Heck, he even got acts for the Regatta.

DiCesare-Engler managed that for a couple of years after it had broken down among internal accusations and over a half mil in debt. In two years, it was back on its feet.

The acts weren't all musical. Dicesare-Engler put together ethnic festivals, seasonal happenings like the Hartwood Acres Celebration of Lights and Station Square fright nights. They were even considering getting into real show biz - the movies. It wasn't to be, though.

When the partnership of Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler marked its 20th anniversary in 1994, it was big news, rating a nice sized article in Variety. But there wouldn't be a 25th to celebrate.

SFX Entertainment bought DiCesare-Engler Productions in July of 1998. Engler stayed on to act as president and CEO, as well as executive director of the I.C. Light Amphitheatre; DiCesare, a decade older, walked away from the new agency. In 2004, Engler joined him, for undisclosed reasons.

Like his old partner Pat DiCesare, he too is out of the biz, making his living as the VP of Targe Energy and serving as a repository of Pittsburgh's rock beginnings. He and his wife Cindy still meet weekly with DiCesare, his wife Kathy, and some other industry old timers in the Strip for that great yinzer pastime, coffee and BS.

He has terrific yarns to spin, too. There's the time his better half doubled as the limo driver and KISS tried to kiss up to her, Motley Crue running blue films on the stage during their set, Madonna insisting that everyone turn their backs when she entered the arena for her sound check, Stephen Stills and David Crosby arguing on stage, Van Halen returning some of its guarantee after the "Monsters of Rock" show bombed...there was never a dull moment.

The couple even hosted an "Urban Garden Party" at the Warhol, a museum fund raising event, where the draw was the dish on the bands as only Rich and Cindy could deliver.

As DiCesare will be remembered for partnering with Tim Tormey to bring in the Beatles in 1964, Engler may end up forever linked with Bob Marley's last concert, which he booked for September 23rd, 1980 at the Stanley Theatre.

The day before the concert, Engler was told that Marley was ill and might not be able to perform in Pittsburgh. But Marley soldiered on and played the sold-out house, because, as he told Engler, his band mates needed the money.

In truth, he was so sick before the show that his wife, Rita, called his mother from the dressing room, begging her to help dissuade her son from performing. A few months later, on May 11th, 1981, Marley died from skin cancer. The Pittsburgh performance was his final set.

His estate has just released a 2-CD album titled “Bob Marley & The Wailers - Live Forever” from that show to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. They also staged a Marley memorial concert at the Stanley last year, which was the brainchild of old DiCesare-Engler partner and current Point Park prof Ed Traversari and promoted by Engler.

His other show memory is the one that got away, and just like the old fisherman's tale, it was a big one. Engler was dotting the i's and crossing the t's to have John Lennon and Yoko Ono include Pittsburgh as a stop on their proposed 1981 "Double Fantasy" tour when the former Beatle was assassinated in NYC in 1980.

"It would have been my dream to see the Syria Mosque" Engler told the Post Gazette's Scott Mervis.

But one thing Engler will never have problems with is forgetting the old days. He's amassed a huge collection of rock memorabilia from his days in the biz, transforming his modern Sewickley Heights home into Pittsburgh's version of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. One of his prized possessions is an autographed guitar from Sir Paul McCartney.

A white '57 T-Bird is parked near the entrance of the Engler's crib; Engler got the car when he swapped his '52 MG TD roadster with Sha Na Na for it. Almost every piece in the Engler home has a great story behind it. Rich and Cindy used to host after-concert parties there, and boy, if those Sewickley walls could talk...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tommy Charles

Guy Remonko, drummer for the TCQ

We've been kinda City-centric in most of our posts, but the Pittsburgh region overall has been embarrassingly rich in talent: Donny Iris, the Granati Brothers, The Four Coins, Bobby Vinton...well, there's a long, long list of guys from beyond the Allegheny County border that have set the region's feet to tappin'.

One of those groups from back in the day hailed from the Uniontown area, the Tommy (sometimes Tomme) Charles Quartet. Formed in the late fifties, the original band consisted of its leader and namesake Tommy Charles George (lead vocals/piano), Johnny Gallice (sax), Guy Remonko (drums) and Joe Sangston (lead guitar/bass).

They performed through high school, college, and beyond in several configurations, and no matter what form they took, the dance floor was jumping to their beat.

The TCQ wasn't an old doo-wop posse, but played rock 'n' roll. Heck, Gallice alone was worth the price of admission, playing two saxophones at once for some numbers.

Starting as a warm-up act for Brownsville's short-lived but popular Lochinvars, they scored a lot of headline gigs through the late WCVI (Connellsville) jock Leon Sykes, who had a rep for pushing local acts. They also performed at hops held by Jay Michael, Barry Kaye, Porky Chedwick, Rich Richards, Sheb Abi-Nader and Johnny McFadden.

But they didn't just set up speakers in gyms, fire halls, vet clubs and after proms; they had dates at places like the Plaza Theater in Brownsville, and later Morgantown's My Brother's Place. The band was also Bobby Vinton's lead act in Butler (although that was before he hit it big.)

A number of their bookings were handled through the Philadelphia-based Nino Bari Agency, and they traveled throughout the east and midwest. Early on, that was sort of a drag - their parents didn't allow them to drive very far, so their first out-of-town gig in Scranton found them stuffing their equipment and fannies in a Greyhound bus.

George, Gallice and Remonko all went on to West Virginia University, with George and Gallice ending up roomies. That's where a lot of the group's shaking and baking took place.

Sangston left the group in the summer of 1960, and was replaced by WVU's Leo Blair on the bass. In 1964, Guy Remonko left to join The Joe Belcastro Trio, and the band added drummer Russ Lewellen, who later played with Harold Betters. George, Gallice, and guitarist Arne Lindquist, another Mountie, eventually split off and former the TC Trio. A year later, they added Robbie Dosier on drums, and the TCQ was intact again.

After graduation, the gang found a second home of sorts in Wildwood, New Jersey. There they opened for Paul Anka, and the DeJohn Sisters. Other acts they played with in Jersey were the Platters, Buddy Knox, Neil Sedaka, the Crests, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Big Bopper, the Skyliners, and Kenny Ambrose.

They were inked by Mon Valley impresario Elmer Willett and recorded "Hey There Baby" b/w "Playgirl" in 1959 on his label. The song got some local play on the radio, and the band was on the magic screen, performing on Jay Michael's Bandstand on WTAE-TV. The group also wrote and held the publishing rights to three instrumentals, "Sputnik I and II" and "The Chase," which was on their playlist but apparently never recorded.

The TCQ segued into several different directions after a seven year run. The original members now, as best we can run down:

Thomas Charles George was 63 when he died September 7th, 2004, in his native Uniontown. He was back home performing as a single act, playing piano and doing comedy routines.

The Uniontown High grad had lived and worked in the Poconos for years prior to his return, where he used his pipes regularly in theater performances.

Johnny Gallice is a Brownsville native now living in Laytonsville, Maryland, near Rockville. His first job was with group from Brownsville called the Alan Warchak Trio before joining Charles. Gallice left the quartet in 1964 to form his own Johnny Novelle Group.

Gallice played in the U.S. Army Field Band from 1966 to 1969. He also played in combos in the D.C. area and managed a music store before going into wholesale. He owns RJ Marketing, which moves audio/musical equipment and instruments.

Joe Sangston, a Smithfield native and South Union High (now Laurel Highlands) product, was a high school classmate of Guy Remonko and played with him in a band called the Meteors before joining the TCQ. They first met when they were members of an ethnic/polka band; Joe played clarinet. He was the first to leave the act in 1960, and dropped out of the music world in 1968 after working with various other groups. Sangston is now an insurance agent in Cooksburg.

Guy Remonko, like many Pittsburgh artists, ended up passing on the musical torch in an academic setting. He's a professor emeritus of music at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He also is an affiliated studio instructor of percussion at Denison University in Granville, and offers private lessons.

He's performed with a variety of well-known artists including Pearl Bailey and Diane Schuur. Remonko also has performed with the Rochester Philharmonic and Montreal Symphony Orchestra and has appeared on a number of NPR and TV broadcasts.

The drummer is a two-time recipient of the Who's Who Among America's Teachers Award. And if that's not enough, he sits with the Los Viejos Blanquitos, an Afro-Cuban jazz band based in Athens, The Jazztet, the Lenox Avenue Express and is a freelance jazz percussionist and writer.

He left the TCQ in 1964, and became the percussionist with the Twin Coaches house band (1964-66) and the club's house drummer (1967-69), where Remonko backed acts like The Supremes, Jack Jones, Tony Randall, Pearl Bailey and Phyllis Diller.

Their full bios are here, in a 2006 Uniontown Herald-Standard article by Ron Paglia. His articles were the mother lode for TCQ information.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Slim and Duke Team Up

Slim Forsythe

A little more news on Pittsburgh's cowboy troubadour, Slim Forsythe:

Last September, Mark and Maria Dudash, the owners of Duquesne Beer, stopped in for a night at Neid's Hotel in Lawrenceville to catch Slim Forsythe and the Beagle Brothers on stage. Forewarned, they sprung the song "Why Can't I Get Duquesne on this Sad and Lonesome Train?" on the pair. The Duke Dudashes liked it so much that they've taken it as the theme song for their beer's ad campaign.

It's a case of the circle being unbroken. Frank Forsythe, Slim's dad, was a jazz singer and big band crooner in Pittsburgh night clubs, radio and television back in the day. In fact, he often performed on KDKA TV's "Duquesne Showtime" sponsored by the brewery in the early 1950's. He was even one of the models for Duke Beer's "Prince of Pilsener." The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, hey?

Speaking of Apple, iTunes offers the song for download, just in case the urge strikes to drop 99 cents on the Forsythe/Beagle Brothers song.

"Why Can't I Get Duquesne on this Sad and Lonesome Train?" snippet