Friday, November 16, 2012

Joe Kennedy Jr.

Joe Kennedy Jr., photo from The Richmond Times Dispatch

You've seen the "most interesting man in the world" commercials, right?

Well, what would you consider someone who has a masters degree, traveled the world, was on national TV, played for a pair of symphony orchestras, formed and fronted a jazz quartet that featured Ahmad Jamal and Ray Crawford, was a member of Benny Carter's All-Stars, performed with The Modern Jazz Quartet, was on the stages of national and international jazz festivals, has a sterling list of recording credits, led a marching band, was the director of both high school and college music programs and composed be-bop and classical scores? Well, even if he's not the most interesting man in the world, Joseph Jerome "Joe" Kennedy Jr. was surely its most interesting violinist

Most of the references say he was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, but his childhood friend Ahmad Jamal said he was from McDonald. His self-taught musician grandfather Saunders Bennett (early jazz trumpeter Cuban Bennett was Joe's uncle) tutored young Kennedy on the violin during the early thirties, and we know McDonald is where Bennett lived.

But whether he was from the City or a bedroom community doesn't make much diff to us; he was raised a Western Pennsylvania boy either way. His ear was drawn to classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz pianist Art Tatum, and Kennedy would hold true to those seemingly opposite musical poles all his life.

Kennedy served his stint with Uncle Sam as a member of the Camp Lee Symphony Orchestra in Petersburg, Virginia, during World War II, then he returned to Pittsburgh. He played locally in small combos until 1946, when he formed the Four Strings, a jazz quartet.

The original group consisted of Kennedy, violinist and leader; Ray Crawford, guitar; Sam Johnson, piano and Edgar Willis, bass (who went on to play for Ray Charles & Sonny Stitt). Pianist Ahmad Jamal and bassist Tommy Sewell were later replacements for Johnson and Willis.

The group was the house band at Local 471, the Black Musicians Union, for a year and were active in the Hill hall's renowned late night jams. Beside club dates, the Four Strings appeared at Carnegie Music Hall and earned some side money by taping background music for syndicated radio shows.

While playing the local circuit, the band found a huge fan in East Liberty pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams. She arranged and produced a recording session for the Strings with Moses Asch in New York that resulted in the 1949 album "Trends" on his Disc label. Down Beat magazine gave it a strong review and called Kennedy's work "the cleanest violin we've ever heard."

Asch, whose main label was Folkways, would later include a couple of Four Strings tracks ("Patches" and "Desert Sands") on the LP "Jazz Violins Of The Forties" in 1981, featuring Kennedy with other fiddle pioneers Stuff Smith and Paul Nero.

But the group dissolved in 1950 "because of a lack of employment" as Jamal so delicately put it. Actually, it didn't put much a crimp in Jamal's future. He formed his Three Strings combo in 1951, taking Crawford with him. Jamal added that his breakout hit “Poinciana” was a part of the repertoire that bandleader Kennedy had in the Four Strings play book.

Kennedy would rejoin Jamal and Crawford in 1960 as a sideman on the "Listen to the Ahmad Jamal Quintet" album, and appears with his bud on 1995's "Big Byrd: The Essence Part II" and the following year's "Ahmad Jamal a Paris." He also helped Jamal with composition and arrangement chores on his early LPs, and played with him regularly throughout his career.

But education, near and dear to Kennedy's heart, was the road he chose after the Four Strings. He studied applied music at Carnegie Tech (now CMU), headed back to Virginia to complete his BA at Virginia State College (now University) and planted his roots in the Old Dominion.

After graduating, he joined the Richmond Public Schools system, eventually becoming the Supervisor of Secondary Arts and Humanities (tennis star Arthur Ashe was one of his students), and moonlighted as the Director of Band at Virginia Union University. During the summers, he returned to Pittsburgh to earn his Masters in Music Education from Duquesne University.

He was as much an academic as a musical star. He became a faculty member of Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973, developing coursework in African-American music history until 1984, when Kennedy was chosen as the Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Tech and retired as a Professor Emeritus.

But never fear; he kept on his dual track musical career. In 1963, Kennedy became the first African-American member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, along with Dr. Thomas Bridge, and remained their resident violinist for 18 years even with his scholastic workload. From 1993-94 he served as Composer In Residence for the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, for which he wrote a full-length jazz and gospel fantasia. One of his compositions, "Sketches for Solo Violin, Jazz Trio, and Symphony Orchestra," has been performed by several orchestras.

Kennedy was considered the first violinist to fully buy into bebop, and you can bet all his academic endeavors and symphony work didn't diminish his jazz jones. Just to keep his hand in the pot, he was a board member of the Richmond Jazz Society, which eventually named the jazz performance stage used during the town's annual music festival after him.

In 1962, Kennedy recorded the LP "Strings by Candlelight," with pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and bassist Milt Hinton. In 1980, he recruited bassist Major Holley and drummer Oliver Jackson to join with him and Jones to record "Magnifique!," later reissued in the US in 2002 as "Falling in Love with Love." He was the bandleader for both albums.

As a sideman, he can be heard on Toots Thieleman's "Accentuate the Positive" (1962); John Lewis' "Kansas City Breaks" (1982); The Heath Brothers' "Brothers and Others" (1984) and Billy Taylor's "Where've You Been?" (1989).

He got his share of TV love, too. Kennedy was part of a BBC documentary "Fiddlers Three," appeared in "A Salute to Duke Ellington" at the Kennedy Center, which was televised nationally on "Kennedy Center Tonight" and performed with Jon Faddis and the Great American Jazz Ensemble on PBS.

Wax and vids are nice, but Joe Kennedy's milleau was the stage, where it was said that he could play his violin like a horn. He performed live primarily with Jamal and cousin Benny Carter's All-Stars, and appeared with John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Internationally, he toured Japan and played the North Sea Jazz Festival at the Hague, the Grande Parade du Jazz, Nice, France; and the Birmingham, England, International Jazz Festival. And he hit the US festival circuit hard, too, performing at the Concord, Monterey, San Francisco and Kool Jazz Festivals, the Aspen and Richmond Music Festivals and at Carnegie Hall.

His honors include a City of Richmond "Joe Kennedy, Jr., Day" (1996), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts (1999), the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation's Living Legacy Jazz Award (2001), and commendations from the Virginia General Assembly (2002 & 2005).

Joe Kennedy passed away in his adopted hometown of Richmond in 2004 at the age of 80.

Joe Kennedy Jr. with John Lewis on "Django."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Back To Normal...

Sorry, guys, the blog was hijacked earlier this week and it took Old Mon a couple of days to root out the offending code. But we're back to normal, and we're sorry for the redirect.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pittsburgh TV Dance Parties

Terry Lee's "Come Alive" from TL Sound Company

Back in the early days of TV, local channels used to churn out their own programming to supplement the shows that the networks provided. And one of easier, low-budget productions was a live teen dance party.

It was a great way to draw the kids from their transistors and car radios to the new medium for an hour, combining records with free live acts promoting tour and club dates. What high-schooler of the late fifties-to-mid sixties wasn't on a show, or at least tuned in to catch one of his buds going all herky-jerky to the latest dance craze on TV with his babe?

As far as we can trace, the first live TV dance show to reach the Pittsburgh market was from Steubenville, Ohio, when WSTV (now WTOV) aired "Nine Teen Time" with hosts Stan Scott, George Wilson and Del Curtis. The show was first broadcast in 1955 in glorious black and white, and lasted until the late sixties. Some local acts that played there that you may recall were soul man Johnny Daye, Canonsburg's Donnybrooks, and the Stereos, a Steubenville group with a big following in the 'Burg.

A couple of years later in 1957, the 800 pound gorilla, Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," roared out of the City of Brotherly Love, lasting into the late eighties. It started in Philly as a local show in 1956 after Clark had expanded his play list to include "race records" - R&B - inspired by Pittsburgh's top-rated WCAE DJ Jay Michael, who in fact hosted a Bandstand show in the summer of 1959 when Clark was on vacation.

Jay Bird began his TV career in late 1954 as a rotating host of Thrift Drug Store's "Lullabye In Rhythm" on station WDTV (the forerunner of KDKA-TV), along with WJAS' Barry Kaye, WWSW's Art Pallin, and maybe KQV's Joe Deane (we can't confirm him). The show was on Thursdays at 11:45 PM, and starred  pop recording artists who were appearing in Pittsburgh area clubs.

Michael started his own show, the "Jay Michael Bandstand," in 1958 on WCAE-TV (now WTAE) and it ran throughout 1959. It aired from 3-to-5 PM every Saturday. Ricky Wertz, locally known as the hostess of the sixties Ricki and Copper show, began as Jay's on-air assistant on Bandstand. Del Taylor took over the hosting duties in 1960 when Michael left Pittsburgh for San Diego.

Among the performers Jay highlighted over the years were Fats Domino, Bobby Rydell, Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee, Johnny Preston, Desi Arnaz, Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme, Debbie Reynolds, Jeff Hunter, Jerry Vale, Dorothy Collins, the Platters, Vaughn Monroe, Julius La Rosa, Tab Hunter, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, the Ames Brothers, Sophia Loren, Connie Francis and locals like Johnny Jack, the Skyliners, the Orlandos and Tomme Charles.

Another early TV dance show was the "6 O'Clock Hop"/"Daily Dance Party" that aired M-F on Channel 11, then WIIC, and had Chilly Billy Cardille as host. That Dance Party likely began sometime in 1957. Bobby Rydell and Connie Francis were among the acts that appeared on Cardille's card. Unfortunately, we can't dig out much on the program; it seems Cardille's incredibly diverse career is forever defined by "Studio Wrestling" and "Chiller Theater" to the exclusion of everything else he did - and the radio/TV pioneer did a lot.

The dance show that everyone remembers was Clark Race's KDKA "Dance Party." He took over the reins in 1963 from KD's Randy Hall, the original host, and the show went on until 1967. It aired on Saturday afternoons from 2:30 to 4:00 PM. "Back in those days, he was the biggest thing in town. He was the Dick Clark of Pittsburgh," Dance Party's director Victor Vrabel told the Post Gazette's Adrian McCoy.

The show opened with Race's familiar "String of Trumpets" radio theme by Billy Mure. Then local teens got down to the Twist, the Shimmy, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, the Limbo, the Swim, the Boogaloo, the Frug, the Watusi, the Hitch-Hike...any sixties move that was hot was busted on "Dance Party." The program was held in what is now KDKA's evening news set (usually live, sometimes taped), fitting enough as the show was headline teenage news.

Among the acts that Race hosted were the Supremes, Buddy Holly, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, the Hollies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Strangegloves and Neil Sedaka. Some local artists that appeared were Lou Christie & the Tammys, Bobby Vinton, the Vogues, the Donnybrooks, Buddy Sharpe & the Shakers and Johnny Daye.

Its successor on the Pittsburgh airwaves was "Come Alive" on WIIC (now WPXI), a show that began in 1966. Taped Fridays in the Channel 11 studios (the show aired Saturdays from 12:30-2 PM), it sometimes presented a timing conflict for original host Chuck Brinkman of KQV, who had a Friday night radio gig.

He thought he solved that problem the following year, when he switched to a Saturday afternoon radio slot, but instead ran into deeper doo-doo: His KQV show was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and "Come Alive" was backed by Pepsi Cola. *Awkward* So WMCK's Terry Lee became the host in 1967 until the show ended in 1970.

Whether Chuck Brinkman or TL hosted, the show drew some big acts: the Four Seasons, Moby Grape, Junior Walker, Tommy James & the Shondells, Gene Pitney, Paul Revere & Raiders, the Blues Magoos, the Association, the Animals, Iron Butterfly, the Turtles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the American Breed, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, Shadows of Knight, the Monkees, the Temptations, the Human Beinz, ? and the Mysterians, the Easybeats, Canned Heat, Archie Bell & the Drells, the Four Tops, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Edwin Starr, Herman's Hermits, the Fenways, Racket Squad and the Electrons.

Lee returned to the tube on WPGH in 1976, when he hosted the “Terry Lee Show.” The program ran for two years on Channel 53 and then moved to KDKA where it aired until 1980. TL helped the action along, putting his featured TL dancers on a platform to get the dance floor hopping. Lee still has clips and slides of his TV show that he incorporates into his hop appearances to this day, and may be the only DJ with video existing of his show. Most of the tape reels of the various shows were erased and reused rather than archived.

He brought in acts like the Rolling Stones, Shazam, David Bowie, Boz Scaggs, Kool and the Gang, ConFunkShun, the Grateful Dead, the Rhythm Kings, and Sweet Breeze, playing between a heavy dose of dance tracks.

That was the last hurrah for Pittsburgh dance shows; local programming, once a cut-rate proposition, was now a drag on the bottom line. The music industry changed too, as national shows like Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Shindig and Soul Train all went off the air as dances were no longer the end-all of the biz.

But there was an era when the point of music was to make you grab a partner and move your feet. Pittsburgh teens from the late fifties through the sixties did just that, and made some memories on live TV that still linger.

(Old Mon would like to recognize reader Craig for suggesting the topic, along with Ed Salamon and his book "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio" and Paul Carosi's web site "Pittsburgh Music History" for providing us with some background stuff we'd otherwise have never found.)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

AFM 471 - The Black Musicians Union

 Program from 1962 AFM Convention in Pittsburgh with Local #471 officers
 including Joe Westray, Ruby Younge & Walt Harper; from Pitt Labor Legacy

The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was founded in October 1896 as a national, and soon to become international, labor union for the musical profession. The Pittsburgh Musical Society Local 60 was chartered in 1897 to represent the white musicians in the Pittsburgh area.

The Pittsburgh African American Musicians' Association was started in 1906, and in 1908, the American Federation of Labor granted the group a charter to form Local 471 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), also known as the Musicians Protective Union. The locals became "separate but equal."

Locals 60 & 471, as were all locals in the AFM, were charged with the following duties: setting and enforcing scale for members' services, settling beefs between members or members and the venues, and to generally protect their members' professional interests.

The presidents of Local 471 were elected for a two year term, with no term limits. Sadly, the earliest leaders names have been lost in the mists of time. The first known president was Henry "Prez" Jackson, who held office from 1938 to the mid-forties when Stoney Gloster took the reins until 1954. Then Carl Arter held the post until 1958 when Joe Westray became the union's last president, heading the local until the 1965 merger with AFM 60. He then became one of the three reps from 471 to serve on the joint board, along with Carl Arter and Ruby Younge Hardy.

The unwritten but nevertheless fiercely protected boundary was above Grant Street. Black bands could play at clubs above Grant in the Hill and in parts of the North Side, Homewood and Wilkinsburg.

The union protected its members by confronting and, if need be, physically yanking performers from the bandstand who weren't dues-paying members to protect the $50 tor $60 per gig the players generally received. And Local 60 watched its clubs like a hawk too, picketing and more whenever a group from 471 or any other outsider infringed on one of their stages.

Local 471's hall and Musician's Club was located on 1213 Wylie Avenue by Crawford Street. The club had offices and a bar/restaurant on the first floor, with a piano bar and rehearsal space on the second floor.

The building came complete with a storied musical past. It had originally been the Collins Inn, an early Pittsburgh jazz club where Lois Deppe and His Serenaders started in 1919. Then numbers king Gus Greenlee bought the Collins and renamed it the Paramount Club in 1922.

The dance hall/speakeasy featured the Paramount Inn Orchestra, proclaimed by the Pittsburgh Courier to be the city's best band. The club was a bit rowdy; it was shut down by the police twice. And both were "Black and Tan" clubs, catering to an integrated crowd. Local 471 took over the building in the early-to-mid thirties after Greenlee left to open the Crawford Grill in 1931.

First and foremost, it was a hiring hall for black artists. The dressed to the nines musicians used to gather on Wednesday and Thursday on Wylie and Fullerton Streets - better known as "The Crossroads of the World" - as a cattle call location for club owners looking to fill a date. Now both the players and the bookers had a place to do business. The hall signed on players for not only concerts and gigs, but placed them in touring bands and shows, too.

Noted card carriers of Local 471 included George Benson, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Art Blakey, James "Blood" Ulmer, Tommy & Stanley Turrentine, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Ponder, Billy Strayhorn, Grover Mitchell, Ray Brown and Ahmad Jamal.

It also included local stalwarts like Leroy Brown, Walt Harper, Harold Betters, Ruby Younge Hardy, Joe Westray, Honey Boy Minor, Roger Humphries and Nelson Harrison, along with hundreds of meat-and-potato musicians. Common Pleas Judge Warren Watson, who was player in his younger days, served for a spell as legal counsel for Local 471.

It was also a general hang-out for the members, who loafed, shot the breeze, ate, drank, jammed, rehearsed and auditioned in the hall which served as a virtual home away from home. And then there was the Musician's Club.

Its renown as a music venue came about thanks to Prez Jackson, who had the foresight to add a liquor license and associate memberships (earned the same way as in most clubs: a hopeful was vouched for by a member and confirmed by the board, which then issued a card) in 1941, turning the union hall into one of the Hill's most popular - and legal - after hours clubs. And in keeping with the tradition, it was a "Black and Tan" building for both patrons and musicians.

In fact, much of Local 471's reputation came through its Musicians Club. Performers and fans mixed to drink, eat and be entertained in the bar and restaurant on the first floor, then catch the acts in the second floor Musician's Club. LeRoy Brown played Sunday nights, when the regular clubs were closed, other bands played contemporary sounds on the weekend to draw in the customers, and there were regularly scheduled "talent nights."

Wednesday's were "Celebrity Night" with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Wynonie Harris, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster, Cab Calloway and Coleman Hawkins, with the shows sometimes running from ten at night to four in the morning. And you didn't want to miss the wee hour jams.

The headliners would join with locals like George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, and company to trade licks, especially those from the bebop school, which was pushed hard by Tommy Turrentine. Some of the guys that played downtown, like members of the Claude Thornill or Charlie Barnet bands, would head to the Hill after the show to jam with the Pittsbugh cats, as would artists after playing one of the Hill jazz houses. So would some of the more hep members of AFM 60, who eschewed the Dixieland style of jamming at their downtown hall (on 9th Street and Penn Avenue) and trooped to the Musician's Club.

The music created was enthralling, and it kept more than the customers on their toes. The locals would often play a number and switch keys to tweak the sound, and if you were asleep at the wheel when they did, well, your record contract wouldn't save you.

One famous story told by Joe Negri, related in "Crossroads of the World" by Colter Harper, had a tipsy Stan Getz joining the stage to play with Jamal, who he had irritated by calling "kid" once or twice. Ahmad played “The Song is You” in an off key, and Getz tripped over a bridge, picked up his tenor and slunk out of the club, tail tucked between his legs.

But the jam sessions were much more than a chance to trade chops. The interaction between local musicians and touring band members also served as an introduction and sometimes an impromptu audition for a ticket out of Pittsburgh. The union also had a moment in the spotlight when it co-hosted the AFM International convention in Pittsburgh in 1962 with AFM 60.

Changes, though, were in the air, and they wouldn't be good ones for AFM 471.

The Musician’s Club building on Wylie Avenue was torn down in the fifties after 25 years of service for the Civic Arena project. Local 471 moved to a Centre Avenue storefront in 1954, then to a bar on Frankstown Avenue in East Liberty. It moved again in the late fifties to Westray Plaza on Lincoln Avenue in Larimer until the 1965 merger.

Yep, the merger. During the late fifties, the AFM international began to pressure white and African-American locals to consolidate. Simply put, the union realized that regions could no longer operate separate locals on the basis of race alone. But it wasn't until 1966, as a result of the new AFL-CIO desegregation policy brought on by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and after a year of negotiations, that black Local 471 was merged with white Local 60. The two became AFM Local 60-471, aka the Pittsburgh Musical Society and then later the Pittsburgh Musicians Union.

Leadership positions remained for the most part in the hands of the white musicians. The numbers were stacked against the black musicians, with 2,000 AFM 60 members (it also represented groups like the PSO and CLO) compared to 300 card-carriers for AFM 471.

To make matters worse, many of 471's membership records were lost during the merger, and that cost many musicians their seniority rights and benefits. (Although it should be noted that the club moved four times in a decade, and that was probably part of the problem).

But there were so many SNAFUs during the transition that many African American musicians quit the union. The result was a virtually five year drought of black union musicians playing in the City following the merger.

In fact, a handful of black musicians took the merger to court in 1970. The initial five year plan insured black representation until then, but when it expired, no black members were elected to fill any union positions. The US Third Appeals Court ruled that the merger didn't discriminate against the black musicians on that basis, and the Supreme Court refused to act on the case, letting the decision stand, and that was that.

Things are better now, after nearly fifty years of operating under the AFM 60-471 banner. But the history of the Black Musician's Union was all hearsay until former member and trumpet player Charles Austin decided it was time to get it down in black and white as part of the mission of the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, which he helped found.

Austin recorded seventy-four interviews of members regarding the lore of Local 471, preserved in the University of Pittsburgh Archives as part of the AAJPSOP Oral History Project.

This summer, members of the Society held a memorial for Austin, who passed away in May, while unveiling a state historical marker at Crawford Street between Wylie and Webster Avenues to commemorate AFM 471.

It reads "Organized in 1908, this local was one of the first African American musicians unions in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was at the forefront of the jazz world in the mid-20th century, & jazz greats Mary Lou Williams, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, & George Benson, among others, were members. A controversial merger with the white union local in the 1960s ended one of the oldest black union organizations in the US. Headquarters was nearby, 1940-1954."

And that, in a nutshell, contains the 65-year history of the Black Musicians Union, AFM Local 471.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Record Mart

 The birthplace of NRM on Wood Street from Life in Western PA

In 1937, the record industry was just beginning to sprout, and juke boxes were popping up all over town, spanning malt shops and night clubs that were spinning the music of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Bing Crosby. East End brothers Howard and Sam Shapiro were in on the ground floor of the action, servicing the machines.

Then the bulb went on: why not make a buck off the used records they pulled from the music boxes? There was virtually no record sale competition at the time other than variety and department stores, and the cost was little-to-nothing for the second-hand shellac, which the owners considered warehouse clutter.

That year they opened the tiny Jitterbug Record Mart shop at 424 Wood Street on the corner of Diamond (now Forbes Avenue) and Wood in downtown Pittsburgh. They were backed by their dad Hyman and eventually brought in younger brother Jason, who was still at Peabody High at the time. The store started out selling used 78s: Bluebird, Decca and Vocilion labels sold for a dime/three-for-a-quarter, while Victor and Brunswick discs went two-for-a-quarter.

Business took off, and after the store became established, a distributor arranged for them to add new records to their offerings; they got up to 50 cents per disc for them. They gradually eased out the less profitable used discs and added foreign and classical record departments on the second floor to attract Pittsburgh's melting pot.

By the early forties, Hyman started two more locations in East Liberty and town (he ran the operation while his sons were in the service during WWII with the help of their wives and family) and changed the name from Jitterbug to the National Record Mart. When the boys returned to civilian life, they each had their own store.

During the postwar economic boom the business became a door-buster, and the stores began offering both 45s and LPs. They added a key and long-time staffer, Frank Fischer, to the payroll. He was a North Side kid from North Catholic High who started out with NRM by washing windows at the East Ohio Street store in 1951 and left the chain as president in 1994.

By 1958, they had at least 19 shops in their chain: Six were in town at 234 Forbes Avenue, 701 Smithfield Street, 930 Liberty Avenue, 100 Smithfield Street, 507 Market Street, and 540 Liberty Avenue, back in the day when Pittsburgh's center city didn't roll up the carpet after happy hour.

Others were at 1723 Murray Avenue (Squirrel Hill), Great Valley Shopping Center (E. McKeesport), 347 Fifth Avenue (New Kensington), McKnight-Siebert Shopping Plaza (North Hills), Banksville Plaza (Banksville), 5927 Penn Avenue (East Liberty), 500 East Ohio Street (North Side), 3715 Forbes Avenue (Oakland), Whitehall Terrace (Brentwood), 2889 West Liberty Avenue (Dormont), Heights Plaza (Natrona Heights), 300 Mt. Lebanon Boulevard (Mt. Lebanon) and on Chestnut Street in Washington.

More shops were added in quick order in places like McKeesport. NRM also operated a half dozen Gimbels' music departments and managed the music sales at several other general retail outlets. Adapting to the times, many new NRM stores were opened in malls instead of adhering to the old business district/shopping center model, setting up outlets first in the partially enclosed Whitehall Terrace in 1952 and later at Eastland (1963) while adding true mall shops at Northway (1962), South Hills Village, Greengate and Shenango, the last three all in 1965.

And they learned how to protect their growing turf. The Shapiros cut back their orders of records from the Columbia, RCA Victor and Capitol labels by nearly half in 1959 to protest their record clubs, which were undercutting NRM's prices. While not exactly sure that one thing led to the other, it was also the year that they began to discount albums at a dollar under suggested retail, approximating record club list prices. It eventually led to a meeting of the minds, peace in the valley and merrily ringing cash registers once again.

Entering the sixties, the National Record Mart chain operated 25 stores, all located in and around Pittsburgh. They were headquartered in their 18,000 square foot Forbes Avenue flagstaff store (it even had listening booths for the customers) by Market Square. It also served as a retail site and storehouse, with Gateway Studios on the third floor.

In 1978, the offices and distribution facilities moved to 5607 Baum Boulevard - the building is now The Offices at Baum Boulevard, across from the old Day Auto lot - after a seventies record boom fueled by discomania overwhelmed the old downtown warehouse, and then to Carnegie in 1991 to take advantage of the new airport.

They pumped music throughout the store to help drive sales subliminally, and their sales list was widely distributed to the radio stations. They had their own label, which produced records like Jimmy Pol's "Pittsburgh Steelers Polka" and DJ Mike Metrovich's "Mad Mike's Moldies." (Mad Mike worked for NRM in the sixties, after Bob Mack's downtown Tri-State Record shop closed down.)

During this period, the chain hired another key North Side guy, Oliver High's George Balicky, as an oldies buyer. He would spend over 30 years with NRM, leaving in 1999 after serving as a senior VP of Marketing and Merchandising.

1964 was the year they entered the ticket sales business with promoter Tim Tormey. It was for a Civic Arena show featuring some Brit mop-tops called the Beatles, selling the tickets out of a cigar box. They were the first local outlet to move tickets outside a venue box office and the first to take mail orders.

In the sixties it was common to see lines forming outside a store the night before a sale, complete with sleeping bags. No, it didn't start with Black Friday midnight madness - it was a NRM phenomena first. And for years, they handled the duty without a service fee; NRM eventually added one when they realized the ticket crowd didn't often hang around the record store to browse and buy after they paid for their concert passes, starting at a quarter and going up to $1.25 during the Shapiro's tenure.

The chain expanded big time in the seventies, establishing locations in Roanoke, Buffalo and Chicago to become the first truly national music chain. Up until then, all the company's stores were within a four-hour drive of Pittsburgh, set up regionally like the other larger music outlets. The Shapiros grew NRM to a total of 57 stores by the end of the seventies.

The hot issue then was hot records. The bootlegging industry, working out of car trunks (always a thriving Pittsburgh underground option, then and today) was claimed to be cutting retail sales by a third. NRM survived that bump nicely, thank you, as did the record pirates.

In 1978, the Shapiros opened the company's first entertainment superstore in Pittsburgh, Oasis Records and Tapes, adding videos to the record stock and introducing the dollar-per-night movie rental when the going rate in other shops was $3.99. It got its name from its first location in Bloomfield, across from the bridge, when a NRM scout reported back to the office and said the site was "an oasis" (and it was for a while, between the '78 closing of the old Bloomfield Bridge and the 1986 opening of the new span.)

The impetus was a southern outlet called Peaches that was aggressively expanding, taking over old A&P markets and filling them with records sold off wooden pallets, along with vids and merchandise. Peaches moved one store into Bethel Park at 5253 Library Road (Route #88), and that got the Oasis ball rolling.

NRM opened superstores in Bloomfield and McKnight Road, eventually buying the Peaches store in Bethel Park, too. Oasis always had the biggest record selection and the most one-off merchandise like tees, posters, etc. to offer of all the NRM stores because of their size.

Shelly Berman, a Columbus adman whose firm now operates as SBC Advertising, undertook a study that was completed in 1978 and determined National Record Mart as a name was outdated and clunky (Records were being replaced by tapes and later CDs, and Mart was associated with big-box stores), but NRM was sleek and sexy, foreshadowing the Kentucky Fried Chicken conversion to KFC in 1991. So the National Record Mart became NRM.

The company remained a privately held family operation into the eighties, and store expansion was deliberate, usually limited to no more than a half dozen carefully vetted new sites annually. The chain had grown to 75 shops by 1986 with annual sales of $40 million.

That's when the Shapiro brothers, then in their sixties, decided it was time to retire. By now, they were spending more and more time on near-to-the-heart community projects. Business required sharper pencils and longer hours, too. Mall expansion was becoming increasingly expensive to ramp up as square footage costs shot through the roof and discount retailers like Sam Goody were circling the boat like sharks, engaging in tactical price wars. Still, the brothers knew NRM was in good financial shape.

They could pass the torch and keep the business bloodlines intact, but with various kids and cousins in the mix, they feared creating a family feud. So they put the business up for bid, and a group headed by Bear-Stearnes' Bill Teitelbaum put together the top offer of $10 million.

The thirty-something Teitelbaum had little experience in the music industry, and had been unable to cobble together a package for the CBS music library in his first effort to break into the biz. But he still wanted in the door. Teitelbaum felt with the technology of CDs and laser discs on the horizon and some Big Apple marketing innovations that he could lead NRM to the top of the retail music food chain. His plan was to tap into the first wave of savvy music fans as they made the transition from tapes and wax to more modern media.

Teitelbaum had several other irons in the fire in New York and so wasn't a day-to-day presence at HQ. In fact, it took him a couple of years to become a hands-on owner.

He formed an executive committee of holdover NRM vets to help in the decision making. They were Fischer (President), Balicky (VP Marketing & Advertising), George Tunder (Merchandising director), Lori Winterburn (Operations manager) and newcomer Mary Ann Miller (VP Finance). Jason Shapiro stayed aboard as an adviser. Fischer and Balicky, with the ear of both the Shapiros and Teitelbaum (Fischer in real estate and new locations, Balicky in marketing and strategies), would be the only ones of the committee to make it into the nineties.

His plans for growing the company included the expansion of NRM stores through the acquisition of other smaller chains, heavy advertising campaigns, personal & knowledgeable service (the staff bought into the concept, and many ended up NRM lifers, from floor help to managers) and the introduction of a new concept store called Waves, which eliminated record sales entirely in favor of CDs and cassettes.

The new NRM opened the upscale Waves Music, featuring “Tomorrow’s Sights and Sounds Today,” in Columbus in 1987 and eventually thirty shops marched under the banner. Waves later featured its "Wave Net," a computer that accessed the Muze record database and additional info on a company intranet. A decade later, the store was retasked to appeal to adult consumers as the boomers began to gray.

Teitelbaum's NRM had a solid financial return from 1986-88, but the following couple of years were almost his last. Teitelbaum left his New York sanctuary after two years of absentee ownership to visit Pittsburgh for weekly executive meetings beginning in 1989, but the company went tumbling downhill even during his more active watch - or maybe because of his presence; that's a topic of some debate, with good arguments made either way.

The investors had incurred a heavy debt load from the leveraged purchase, and with the additional cost of its expansion, NRM was approaching a financial abyss. But Teitelbaum neatly sidestepped that approaching freight train. In 1991, facing predictions of bankruptcy, he sold 20 stores to WH Smith's record chain "The Wall" for about $12 million, generating enough cash for National Record Mart to go public.

In June 1993, NRM, trading on the NASDAQ under the symbol NRMI, was infused with a fresh $10 million after its IPO, and that payed down the debt. The company negotiated a $17 million line of credit, and then purchased the Leonard Smith Inc.'s "Music For You," "One Stop Entertainment Center" and "Merle's Record Rack" shops located in New York and New England, increasing the number of NRM stores to 115. The turnaround was so dramatic that the chain was nominated for the "Retailer of the Year" award.

Teitelbaum's expansion blueprint wasn't to enter new markets with NRM's bread-and-butter record stores and butting heads with the locals, but to buy up smaller competitors with an existing reputation, shops and customer base. And he did have some specialized concept projects in mind to target a now segmented customer profile as the market matured beyond kids buying records. Waves was the tip of the iceberg.

NRM launched the Music Oasis in Canton the following year, a membership club featuring more than 30,000 CD titles with “The Coolest Prices in Town.” Its appeal was to cost-conscious customers as a response to the big box retailers. NRM also opened its college-oriented Vibes Music stores (so named from a meeting where an exec noted the idea gave him "good vibrations") at Princeton, Penn, Boston U and IUP, eventually serving 15 campuses.

The company joined forces in a cross-promotional venture with alternative radio station The X (WXDX). In 1994, NRM opened Music X stores in Monroeville Mall and on Forbes Avenue in Oakland near Pitt and CMU to cater to the grunge generation. Music X was a regional shop, mostly mall-based.

The Record Mart had several other smaller brands in the marketplace, tailored to a narrow customer base. In fact, one of its sales pitches to potential operators was that NRM offered an outlet for every demographic.

NRM even entered into the brave new world of online music starting during the Christmas sales season of 1998 when it launched two web sites: and The Record Mart thought it could outperform pioneer e-tailers like Tower, K-TEL and CDNow, and that the web offered an untapped opportunity to cross promote with the existing shops.

They offered over 28,000 titles as downloads of current sounds. They sold used and overstocked CDs, taking a percentage of the sale for their cut. NRM even featured World Wrestling Federation products in a mutual back-scratching deal with Titan Sports, jumping the hits and sales from their site by 40%. While forward-looking, the site was too-little, too-late, and never really took off, earning $400,000 in 1999.

In addition, Teitelbaum started a "frequent buyer" discount program, giving regular NRM customers a break on the prices as both a reward and an enticement for brand loyalty. But the storm clouds were beginning to gather.

While some in the company felt it was time to retrench, cut stores and find focus, Teitelbaum instead expanded NRM to the West Coast and added eight stores, including four in Hawaii and another in Guam when it bought California's Tempo One Stop Records in 1998. National Record Mart operated 175 stores under its umbrella in 30 states that year. That expansion was funded by borrowed money, and within a very quick time, that debt would become a cash flow game breaker.

No matter how hard NRM tried to turn the tide, the era of the retail music store was ending, dying from a thousand cuts by the turn of the century. There was an industry-wide drop in record sales as the market flew into a million sub-genres. Discount retailers were selling CDs as a loss leader at prices the record retailers couldn't compete with, and at a volume that gave them favored nation status with the labels.

Walmart became the world's largest music seller for years. It was a boomerang for the business, too, as the big boxes preferred to carry just a hot 100 titles during the "Top Forty" heyday. So the labels cranked out wax from a few chart-topping stars, but put developing new acts on the back burner, with the unintended consequence of torching their bridges to future sales. And the discount marts weren't the only retail interlopers.

There were superstores like Media Play and Best Buy to compete against. Borders and Barnes & Noble found CDs to be a cozy fit with their book and magazine business. Heck, within a handful of years, coffee houses like Starbucks would serve CDs with their lattes. Other entertainment media began to muscle into the leisure marketplace, from cable TV to video games.

The final straw was piled on by the nascent downloading/streaming sites on the web. Everyone from Napster to Amazon took a bite out of the shops, and as of today, iTunes is the world's largest music retailer. Without major brick-and-mortar overhead or inventory/distribution logistics as headaches, the web took down the music retailers one by one. The overall result was that The Record Mart, like most record chains, was waist deep in red ink.

NRM was hounded by creditors, had too many shops over too wide an area, and lost some of its identity through all its niche stores, trying to be all things to all people. And it wasn't entirely the economy. Teitelbaum held what senior execs called "blame-storming" sessions, during which he would try to bully his staff by catching them off guard with loaded or leading questions at the weekly meetings, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.

He decided not only to add stores but also items like scooters, lava lamps and incense to the sales mix. The internal bone of contention was that NRM's local honchos wanted to consolidate and Teitelbaum wanted to expand. In hindsight, his managers may have been on the right side of that debate. So at a time when senior leadership needed to be on the same page, Teitelbaum and the investors were reading from a different book than the operational staff.

The turbulent climate of the music industry and within the company itself formed a perfect storm that roared over the retailer. Its stock was delisted in 2000 after dropping to under $1 per share and the company recorded losses of $10,000,000 in 1998-99. NRM went into bankruptcy, and while rumors of mergers, buyouts and white knights were swapped around the water cooler, there would be no cavalry charging down the hill to its rescue. In early 2002, they auctioned off their final assets and shut their doors forever.

Not only was the company shuttered, but its founders were gone, too. Hyman had went to his reward in the sixties, while Sam and Howard died within months of each other in 1998. Jason is the sole Shapiro remaining from the infancy of NRM, living in Santa Monica. But the Shapiros can rest easily with the legacy they left behind.

National Record Mart stayed true to its roots as a Pittsburgh area company during its entire 1937-2002 life span, even as the first national music chain. NRM was also the first satellite ticket and mail order outlet. It peaked at 178 stores in 30 states with 1,200 full time employees, and was once the fourth largest music retailer in the nation.

Pittsburghers didn't go to the music store; they went to The Record Mart, where generations of music collectors flipped through NRM's racks of CDs and records, choosing from rock to rap to Rachmaninov.

RIP, National Record Mart. It was more than a fond memory; NRM was as much a part of Pittsburgh music history as were Mad Mike, The Skyliners, Groovy QV, the White Elephant, Syria Mosque, Civic Arena and all the other icons of the city's glory days as Hittsburgh.

Main National Record Mart outlet by Market Square
picture by rhondamarierose

We've identified some local store sites, and our incomplete list is below. Please let us know if you're aware of any of the many area shops we've missed:

 * Altoona: Park Hills Plaza * Aspinwall: Waterworks Mall * Banksville Plaza * Bethel Park: 5253 Library Rd., South Hills Village * Bloomfield (no address) * Brentwood: Whitehall Terrace * Bridgeville: Great Southern * Butler: 2800 Pullman Sq., Clearview Mall * Carnegie: 507 Forest Ave. * Center Twp: Beaver Valley Mall * Clarion Mall * Clearfield Mall * Cranberry Mall * Dormont: 2889 W. Liberty Ave. * Downtown: 234 Forbes Ave., 540 Liberty Ave., 930 Liberty Ave., 507 Market St., 100 Smithfield St., 701 Smithfield St., 424 Wood St. * East Liberty: 5927 Penn Ave. * East McKeesport: Great Valley * Edgewood Towne Center * Erie: 5800 Peach St. * Greentree: Parkway Center * Harrison Twp: Highland Mall * Hempfield: Greengate Mall * Hill District: Centre Ave. * Indiana Mall * Johnstown: Galleria, Richland Mall * Lower Burrell: Hillcrest * McKeesport: 211 Fifth Avenue, later relocated across street * Meadville Mall * Monroeville Mall * Mt. Lebanon: 300 Mt. Lebanon Blvd. * Natrona Heights: Heights Plaza * New Castle: 2553 W. State St. * New Kensington: 347 Fifth Ave. * North Side: 500 E. Ohio St. * North Versailles: Eastland * Oakland: 3715 Forbes Ave.* Penn Hills: East Hills * Ross: McKnight-Siebert, North Hills Village, Northway Mall, Ross Park Mall * Shadyside: 5524 Walnut St. * Sharon: Shenango Mall * South Strabane: Washington Mall * South Union: Uniontown Mall * Squirrel Hill: 1723 Murray Ave. * State College: 232 E. College Ave. * Washington: Chestnut St. * West Mifflin: Century III Mall *

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pittsburgh's Silhouettes

George Bacasa, Ronnie Thomas and Al Secen were inseparable Lawrenceville buds. They went to high school together, and formed a polka trio during their senior year, practicing in George's basement. In 1953 they auditioned for Uncle Sam, and enlisted as members of the 536th Air Force Band.

In exchange for a four-year stint, they were stationed at Cape Canaveral, Florida (or maybe nearby Patrick AFB). When on-base, they showed VIPs around the rocket facility. But most of the time, they were out entertaining the troops, doing PR-type tours, performing on radio and TV and for recruitment drives. Their final year saw them recognized with the Roger Award, the Air Force's honor for its most talented airmen.

They came back home a little more sophisticated musically and morphed into a jazz group, with Bacasa on flute and reeds, Secen on vibes (he played the squeeze box when they were a polka band) and Thomas on bass. They eventually added jazz drummer Lenny Rogers (who went to Duquesne and later taught there) and vocalist Cathy Martin, though they would run through a number of singers over the years.

The band called itself the Silhouettes, sometimes messing with the minds of vocal fans who expected Bill Horton/John Wilson and the Philly harmonizers of "Get A Job" fame. Pittsburgh's Silhouettes were anything but doowoppers.

They had a funky, bossa-nova sort of sound with a mellow side. The group played the college and jazz circuits, and gigged at local clubs like the Red Door, Casa Di Monzo, Pilot House, Escapades, Encore, the Hilton and the Holiday House, going strong from the late fifties into the early seventies. While their Latin beat was infectious, they're remembered today because the Silhouettes left behind some great vinyl.

The first single was released on Bacasa's Bye George label (#1000). It was "St. Thomas," a remake of the Sonny Rollins piece, backed with a cover of John Phillip's song "Monday, Monday," released in 1967.

But their piece de resistance was the Segue release of 1969, their LP "Conversations With The Silhouettes." (SEG-1001) Segue was a local jazz label owned by WRS Labs and run by Basaca and Nathan Davis. (It would later fold when the owners switched from jazz to rock unsuccessfully.) Bacasa produced the imprint's first release, Davis' "Makatuka," and Davis produced the Silhouettes' "Conversations," their one and only album.

The band added Willy Smith on congas and percussion for the session, and tossed in a little lo-tech electronic trickery while recording. The tracks included on "Conversations" are Young Blood, Time To Fall In Love, Norwegian Wood (Lennon/McCartney), Sally's Tomato (Mancini), Question: Why?, Fonky First, Hashi Baba, Conversation, Sesame, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) and Lunar Invasion, with most of the tracks written by Al Secen.

It was quite well received critically - Norwegian Wood was especially popular among affectionados - but as often happens, the wax didn't sell at the time though it's worth a small mint on today's collectors' market. Several of the tracks have been downloaded to by funk fans, as have the 45s.

The last single by this group was 1969's "Oh What A Day," an upbeat pop tune sung by Carol Christian and produced by Bill Lawrence for his Canonsburg based Western World label (WWS-5503). The B-Side is "Red Snow," a composition penned by the band. The record companies at the time were trying to get the jazz guys to cross over by leading with a pop side in exchange for the flip being the group's choice. And as it ended up, "Red Snow" is the more remembered song.

Bacasa and Secens fronted a group called New Horizons into the early-to-mid eighties, playing clubs like Cunimondo's Keyboard in Verona. And that is about where Old Mon's trail runs cold. George Bacasa suffered a heart attack in 1976 and passed on in 1988 while still in his early fifties. Ronnie Thomas met his maker in 1991, while he was in his late fifties. The last we heard, Al Secen is still hanging in there and soaking up the sunshine in Palm Beach.

If anyone can help us fill in the missing pieces of Pittsburgh's Silhouettes, give us a yell so we can finish the story.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Loendi Club

Loendi Club on Fullerton Street
 from the Carnegie Museum of Art Teenie Harris collection

The music never stopped in the Hill for most of the twentieth century, and one of its famed venues was The Loendi Social and Literary Club. But the Loendi wasn't an organ house or one of the famous "Black and Tan" clubs like the Crawford Grill or Hurricane Lounge. In fact, it was so exclusive that you and I probably couldn't get past the doorman.

The club dates back to August 13, 1897, when it was founded by George Hall, best remembered today as the father of one the City's best athletes, Sellers "Sell" Hall. Sell pitched for the Homestead Grays, was a standout in hoops (he played for the Loendi Five, which regularly whipped college teams), football and track, and eventually became a music promoter for black acts.

The Loendi was named for an East African river that flowed from Lake Nyassa until it joined the Ruvuma River, and was mentioned several times in David Livingstone's (As in "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") 1872 journal.

It was the Duquesne Club for the black elite. Its membership included Pittsburgh’s African American doctors, profession folk, business owners, entrepreneurs and celebrities. The Loendi offered lectures, music, and sponsored athletic teams beside providing a refuge from the teeming masses and a quiet meeting place for the area's black movers and shakers to do business.

The Loendi's early presidents were William Maurice Randolph, Esq., George Hall, WH Patterson, William Stanton Esq., Eddie Johnson, Captain CW Posey (Posey Steamboat Company), Samuel Pangburn, Ollie Jones, James Peck, John Henry, John Anderson, Sylvester Jones, William Hance Sr., Eugene Lewis, and Robert Vann (lawyer and Courier editor), all well established luminaries in the City's black community. William Taliaferro, Teeny Harris' uncle and mentor, was a founding member.

The original building was a converted three-story structure on 83 Fullerton Street (erased by the Civic Arena project, on the same street that former City Councilman and stage actor Sala Udin, then known as Sam Howze, was raised) on the corner of Wylie Avenue, a block below Crawford Avenue. The members bought it in 1902 for $100,000.

It didn't look very special from the street, but the local kids used to hang around outside just to watch the limos pull up to the nondescript clubhouse. If they could only have seen the inside... It had an atrium, a rosewood piano, artwork by Henry O. Tanner, plush carpets, tapestries on the walls and a library/reading room, along with billiard and card rooms. Its dining room had a steward.

As a private hall, the Loendi didn't hold many public events. They would hire local bands, never larger than quartets, to play for the members during weekends, for dances or for special events. More often than not, they just brought in a solo pianist. The club never had a bandstand, and as an older building, its rooms weren't particularly spacious. And it was most certainly not a venue for hard bop or Mississippi blues; the musicians played or reworked standards and the classier contemporary pieces, as befit the club's image.

Outside groups with the right connections could rent the building, too. For example, the FROGS (Friendly Rivalry Often Generates Success) society had many members with ties to the Loendi. They held dances there until the Arena project nuked the neighborhood and the club moved. FROG events were front page news for all the local African-American press (they still are), and usually quite a bit livelier than Loendi acts.

While they may not have been on the cutting edge, the Loendi could roll out the carpet for the big-time performers, and that's how it earned its rep in the Pittsburgh music scene. An invite to one of their private artist parties was a guarantee for a night to remember. The club featured or honored musicians like Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong. High brow or not, the members did enjoy their swing, and sometimes even shared the swag.

According to Colter Harpers 2011 dissertation "The Crossroads of the World," here's what they did to celebrate Billy Eckstine (a bit redacted): "In 1952, the Loendi sponsored a week of events for Pittsburgh vocalist and bandleader Billy Eckstine, who was returning to the city to perform in downtown’s Stanley Theater...The events included the Loendi Formal at the Fort Pitt Hotel honoring Billy Eckstine; open house for Billy at the Loendi Club; teen-age party for Mr. B; Loendi press, radio and TV party at the club, and the big salute to Eckstine at the Famous Door (in East Liberty).” It's a wonder Mr. B got to perform while he was here!

But like everything else that got in the way of the Civic Arena, the Loendi's days in the Lower Hill were coming to an end. In 1958, they opened a new building at 841 Ledlie Street in the Upper Hill (off Bedford Avenue at the end of Cliff Street), an impressive and modern one story structure. It wasn't the same, though. Membership became easier to come by, and it eventually turned into more of a social club than haven for the elite.

Still, it had its moments. The biggest may have been on April 8, 1967, when 400 people elbowed into the Loendi to celebrate "Bill Powell Night," honoring the career of the WAMO/WILY DJ and Courier columnist. But as time went on, the club was suspected of harboring gambling and other illicit activities, and was sometimes even under police surveillance, who came to regard the Loendi as a party bar by the seventies.

It soldiered on into the early eighties. The last band we could find to play the club was Jothan Callins and the Sounds of Togetherness, featuring saxman Kenny Powell, and they may have sounded taps on the Loendi era in Pittsburgh music history.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Deuces Wild

Deuces Wild: Flo Cassinelli, Spider Rondinelli, Dan Mastri, Bob Negri

The Deuces Wild were Pittsburgh's hottest local jazz band in the late forties throughout the fifties and into the early sixties. The roster changed more times than a runway model and the group split into competing bands, but the Deuces always took the stage with the area's top talent laying down the swing.

The quintet more or less morphed into existence. As far as we can decipher from our jumbled notes, Tommy Noll, a popular City drummer, founded the band, then Reid Jaynes took the reins, followed by Jon Walton and finally Tommy Turk became top dog all within the span of a couple of years.

Trombonist Turk (who recorded with Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald) joined the original quartet of pianist Jaynes (who had a double keyboard act with Erroll Garner at Al Mercur's), local drummer Noll, bassist Cliff Hill (who famously plucked the stand-up in the Benny Goodman flick "One O'Clock Jump") and tenor sax Walton (who blew with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw). Bassist Joe Wallace (who also played in the PSO) is often considered an original member too, so it's likely the Deuces' roster was fluid from its inception.

Old Mon speculates that the band's name was taken from Artie Shaw's 1942 hit "Deuces Wild" and is credited by some to Dick Brosky. That tale's a coin flip since he wasn't an original member, but replaced Noll early on in the band's tenure. (Walton played with Shaw and helped found the band, so he seems a likelier suspect.) Then again, the phrase is common enough, so roll the could just as easily been determined during a little penny ante action.

Over the years, the Deuces Wild bandstand was home to a who's who of local jazz greats. Its regular musicians included trombonist Turk, sax players Fiorvante "Flo" Cassinelli & Walton, pianists Bobby Negri, Ray Crummie & Jaynes, bassists Danny "The Fox" Mastri, Harry Bush, Wallace & Hill, and drummers Arnold "Spider" Rondinelli, Carl Peticca, Brosky & Noll.

Cassinelli, Crummie, Jaynes, Negri, Rondinelli, Turk and Walton are all members of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame. That's flexing a lot of jazz muscle for one band.

Other local luminaries either sat in as featured sidemen or were session players for the band. Some of the artists were vocalists Tiny Irwin & Jeanne Baxter, trumpeters Roy Eldridge & Hershey Cohen, pianists Chuck Cochran, Beverly Durso & Dodo Marmarosa, and drummers Art Blakey, Terry McCoy, Bill Price & Rodger Ryan.

They first played at Lenny Litman's Liberty Avenue Carnival Lounge after the war in the forties before moving on to his Penn Avenue Midway Lounge in 1950, becoming Pittsburgh's can't miss act. Billboard noted that the Deuces had "built up a fanatical following" by 1947. After their run in town, the group split into two in 1955 and changed venues (Harold Betters took over their gig at the Midway) but not names.

The breakup could have been caused by the dreaded "artistic differences," or perhaps by too many players for too few seats, or just maybe the schedule caught up to them. They played Monday through Saturday from 9-2 with Saturday matinees, their sets every hour, 40 minutes on, 20 off, and they were well known for their after-hours jams with the other cats.

Whatever the reason, Tommy Turk's version with Harry Bush, Dick Brosky and Jeanne Baxter headed to the South Hills and settled in at Brentwood's Point View Hotel on Brownsville Road. Flo Cassinelli's Deuces with Bobby Negri, Danny Mastri and Spider Rondinelli played the Hill jazz club circuit while summering at The Cowshed in the Conneaut Lake resort region.

Both Deuces' outfits co-existed just fine in Pittsburgh's small pond, unlike the bitter battles fought by groups riding today's oldie circuit. They all ran in the same circles and their daily bread was earned through non competitive bookings and not record royalties, eliminating most of the potential backsplash.

In the 1950s, the Cassinelli Deuces did self-release at least four 45s on their own vanity record label. The first record was released in 1955, and the band wrote the sides with the exception of Harry Jame's swing favorite "Ultra," which they recorded twice. The two slabs of wax we could trace were "Ultra" b/w "Down Home" and "Ultra" b/w "That’s All That Matters to Me." If you know of the others, give us a yell.

By the early 1960s, the Deuces Wild era had run its course. Turk's move to Vegas in 1959 was one trigger, though he did return home often to play until his death, while Cassinelli and Negri formed their own groups. In June, 1972, they had a final reunion gig during The Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, playing a tribute show for Roy Eldridge.

Couldn't find any band vids, so here's Artie Shaw's "Deuces Wild."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ya Gotta Regatta!

The Delaneys

Chris Pastoirus, the Director of Viral Communications with the 2012 EQT-Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, dropped us a note to help spread the word about this year's show. The annual happening brings 600,000 visitors to the Point and town to party around the showcase river racing contests. This year, there will be plenty of bands jamming to add to the action.

In celebration of its 35th year, the Regatta will run from June 30th to July 4th. For this anniversary, the event also returns to its old musical roots. They're particularly pumped about tribute acts Abbamania and Beach Party Boys, but have a boatload of local and national bands making music, too.

The shows start Saturday, June 30th, at 4PM on the Point State Park (PSP) lawn when the US Marine Corp Drum and Bugle Corp strut their stuff.

Sunday, July 1st, will feature "Dancing Queen" Abbamania on the PSP Main Stage at 8PM. The opening acts will be country rockers John Kiger and the Kiger Band at 12:45PM followed by local rockers Bishop Clay at 2PM

Monday, July 2nd, will start with rock 'n' roll locals The Delaneys at noon on the PSP Main Stage. Country singer Jamie Bruno will appear at 2:15 PM. The main act will be The Ernie Fields Show Band, an oldies group famous for doing the original "Some Kind of Wonderful," who will begin at 8PM.

On Tuesday, July 3rd, Springsteen tribute band Asbury Fever and Jimmy Buffet tribute gang Parrotbeach will perform at the Rivers Casino Amphitheater at 7PM. For those enamored of the California surf sound, Beach Party Boys will sing at the PSP Main Stage at 8PM. That card will open at noon with country band North of Mason Dixon (NOMaD). Jamie Bruno will be the afternoon show at 2:50PM and then indy rockers Music From Another Room play at 4:30PM.

On Wednesday, July 4th, America will be at the Rivers Casino Amphitheater at 8PM with their "Horse of No Name." Playing opposite them will be the Air National Guard Band at the PSP Main Stage at 8:15PM. Bishop Clay will be the first group at 6PM.

There will also be dance ensembles prancing around, so it will be a great long weekend of contemporary performing arts to go with powerboat displays.

The last bands of the night will be followed by a laser show at 9:30PM, except on the Fourth when the EQT "Flashes of Freedom" Fireworks Fantasia will blast away with the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air. Admission, as always, is free. Hey, ya gotta regatta!

NOMaD - "American Boy"

Monday, June 4, 2012

City 2012 Concerts In The Parks

Mellon Square Concert, image from City of Pittsburgh Citiparks

Hey, the county released its list of summer shows. Now it's the City's turn:

Bach Beethoven and Brunch, held Sundays from 10:30-noon at Shadyside's Mellon Park:
June 17th - Edgewood Symphony Orchestra
June 24th - Eastern Watershed Klexmer Quartet
July 1st - Carnegie Brass
July 8th - Allegheny Brass Band
July 15th - Cello Fury
July 22nd - River City Brass
July 29th - Aeolian Winds
August 5th - Cincopation
August 12th - East Winds Symphonic Band

Mellon Square Downtown, held Thursdays from 11-1 (incomplete schedule):
June 14th - TBA
June 21st - Ben Valasek & the Growlers
June 28th - TBA
July 12th - Tarra Layne
July 19th - Nick Marzock
July 26th - The Game Changers
August 2nd - Bluz Machine
August 9th - Sleepy V
August 16th - TBA
August 23rd - TBA

The Reservoir of Jazz, held Sundays from 5-7 at Highland Park (Highland Ave & Reservoir Dr):
August 5th - Spanky Wilson 
August 12th - World Jazz with Preach Freedom & Friends
August 19th - Kenny Blake
August 26th - Dave Throckmorton featuring bassist Tony Grey

Stars At Riverview Jazz Series, held Saturdays from 7-8:30 at Riverview Park:
June 9th - Roby "Supersax" Edwards
June 16th - Roger Humphries
June 23rd - Alton Merrell
June 30th - Chico's Quintet
July 7th - Jevon Rushton
July 14th - George Heid III
July 21st - Mark Lucas
July 28th - Poogie Bell
August 4th - Cecil Brooks II
August 11th - Mark Strictland
August 18th - Eric Johnson
August 25th - Sean Jones

All the shows are free, and weather dependent.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chuck Austin: Keeper & Mainstay Of Pittsburgh Jazz History

Chuck Austin from Pittsburgh Musicians Union

Chuck Austin could play that horn.

A trumpeter who could blow jazz, big band, blues or soul equally sweet, Austin worked with Dakota Staton, Paul Williams, Ruby Younge (in 1953, the trio opened the Hurricane Lounge), Joe Westray (on brass player & later judge Warren Watson's recommendation), The Apollos (with Art Nance, Spider Lindsey, Doc Miller and Horace Parlan), Rogers Humphreys, Jack Purcell, George Gee Orchestra, Balcony Big Band, 'Burgh Big Band and OPEK.

He also backed some of the biggest names in music. Austin appeared with Lloyd Price on The Ed Sullivan Show (he also toured & recorded with him on the LP "Personality" after being hired on Hill trombonist Sam Hurt's word), Count Basie's last concert at the Savoy Ball Room on Centre Avenue in the Hill, Diana Ross at the Civic Arena and Liza Minnelli at Heinz Hall.

As a member of the Stanley Theater pit band, he played sweet soul music behind headliners like Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, James Brown and The Temptations. Austin turned down a gig with The Ray Charles Revue in the sixties because he was tired of touring and wanted to stay home with his family.

That decision may have cost him a chance at the big time. Austin never did get on vinyl as a lead man, hidden in the brass section of bands or as a sideman. He had to hold a day job with his cleaning company to keep his clan fed and weekends free for music. But it paid big dividends for the local scene.

Always known as a true gentleman among brother players, Austin was a member and mentor of Local 471, the black musicians' union where he met running bud Stanley Turrentine. Not only did he hone his chops while jamming at the hall, but he helped the younger guys on their career road.

After the white Local #60 took in #471 in 1966 at the national union's prodding, Austin served as an ex-facto rep to the black players who didn't feel they were getting a very fair shake in the new set-up. Since 2003, he's served officially as a board member of the Pittsburgh Musician's Union 60-147.

The black union's demise led to Austin's tour de force, The African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, established in 1996 to save the history of jazz, blues and gospel musicians in the City. Austin was one of the founders and long time president.

The organization produces shows, a newsletter, collaborations with other artistic fields like dance and poetry, education programming, books and A/V presentations. One of the primary tools was an Austin-led effort to tape the oral histories of local jazz greats. They have about 75 completed now, stored at University of Pittsburgh Archives as part of the American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh Oral History Project.

In a turnabout-is-fair-play bit of justice, Austin's remembrances were recorded as part of the Smithsonian Jazz and Manchester Craftsman Guild Jazz Oral History Project. A portion of his interview recalling his upbringing is on youtube under "Chuck Austin Final." (see below)

While Austin, who began by playing at his hometown Ben Avon Elementary School band, swam in the small Pittsburgh pool (he later moved to the Hill), there's no denying he was a big fish in local waters. He's a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame, was named as a Pittsburgh Jazz Legend by the Manchester Craftsman's Guild, and was honored by The City of Pittsburgh in 2011 when City Council proclaimed Chuck Austin Day.

Austin passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer in the early hours of Saturday at the Aspinwall Veterans Administration hospice at the age of 84. His going away ceremony will be held tomorrow at the Mt. Ararat Baptist Church on Paulson Avenue, where he'll be remembered as a family man and friend, leader, musician and historian.

There will be one more ceremony next month that he'll be at in spirit.

On June 23rd, a Pennsylvania historical marker will be dedicated in the Hill on a spot by the now-demolished offices of the African American Musicians Union Local 471. It took two years of toil by the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh to make it happen. And you can bet that one way or another, Chuck Austin will be there.

(Much of the article was written from bits and pieces from various sources across the web, but Steve Twedt's Post Gazette obit in particular provided tons of useful stuff that Old Mon shamelessly, uh, "borrowed.")

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bob Schmertz: Banjo Folklorist

Robert Watson Schmertz was born in Squirrel Hill in 1898, and would become a sort of renaissance artist in the City. He was the grandson of Robert Schmertz, the owner of Schmertz & Company, the Duquesne Glass Works and a director of the Pittsburgh Bank For Savings in the late 1800's. Might not mean much to us now, but back in the nineteenth century, granddad was the real deal.

The gilded Schmertz family had a mansion in Oakland on Fifth Avenue and Craig Street that stood until 1956. That's when the manor met the wrecking ball, to ultimately be replaced by the University Square Apartments. Our Bob Schmertz entered the world a little more humbly as a resident of 5427 Wilkins Avenue, an East End house he'd never leave.

He found his musical jones when the clan Schmertz would gather for family orchestras, a sort of inter-generational hootenanny where he would sing and strum the banjo with the kin. The banjo was copacetic; someone left it at the house and young Schmerz, who had never played an instrument, picked it up. Little did he know then where that long-necked, five-string banjo would lead.

Schmertz went to Peabody HS, where he first met his love Mildred, who was destined to become his bride. He then moved on to Carnegie Tech (now CMU), where he was part of its first school of architecture class and co-wrote the Tartan spirit song "Fight for the Glory of Carnegie."

That led to his bread and butter gig. Schmertz taught as a professor for 35 years in the School of Architecture at Tech and operated a thriving private practice out of the Seventh Avenue Century Building in town, a few short blocks from where his grandpap ran his business.

He planned St. Michael's of the Valley Church in Rector, Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church's Education Building, Morewood Gardens in Oakland, the renovation of Latrobe's Unity Chapel and was part of the Saxonburg Cyclotron design team (it closed in 1969; it was a nuclear lab campus for Carnegie Tech, complete with its own atom-smasher, that was situated at the spot where KDKA once broadcast) among his many projects. He also designed homes for several prominent local families during his career.

So Schmertz was a first class artist in the business world, drawing up buildings that adorn our cityscape today. Music and architecture are both members of the same artsy family, and he was equally as talented in another creative genre, Americana roots music. His reputation as a composer and folk performer spread by word-of-mouth beyond the city, with many of his tunes based on Pittsburgh's own lore.

But he hid his light under his hat; it took years for his friends to convince Schmertz to get his music on vinyl. Finally, in 1949 a group of buds tossed in and bought Schmertz some recording time to get his work out of the parlor and on wax. The resulting 78 LP was only pressed 300 times, not much more than a demo, but had a big influence. It traveled well and served to enhance his down-home rep.

People in folk circles likened him to a contemporary Stephen Foster, and his earthy lyrics won him the title of "Troubadour of the Two by Four." None other than Pete Seeger recalled that "Bob Schmertz was a very good songwriter."

And that Schmertz was. Sometimes derivative in his music, his writing was a brilliant example of the genre. He could rhyme any couplet, keep the words in appropriate dialect and make them flow off a singer's tongue. Telling a simple folk story through song was his forte, and not one easily mastered.

Pete Seeger put his money where his mouth was when he recorded "Monongahela Sal," a song Schmertz had written in 1947, on the "Story Songs" album from 1961. Here's a few verses from his vintage "he done her wrong" song (tune vaguely similar to "Red River Valley"):

It was love, careless love, by the river
It was love, careless love, by the shore
And I'm sure that the good Lord will forgive her
For she never knew what love was like before.

He swore that he always would love her
As they locked through the old Emsworth dam
But that night, overboard he did shove her
And then Moat Stanley took it on the lam.

Then Sal jumped a freight for Rochester
She swore she would have Moat Stanley's gore
From a yard bull who tried to molest her
She went and took a great big .44.

So raisin' that big shooting iron
Sal pumped six bullets into Moat
And when she had finished her firin'
She'd sure messed up that fancy sporting coat.

Now Sal to the judge said, "Good Mornin!"
The jury foreman said," Not Guilty, gal"
So let all you pilots take warnin'
Don't mess around Monongahela Sal!

Sweet, hey? He did have a softer side to his songs. Burl Ives, Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Statler Brothers and Gary Crosby all recorded versions of "Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord." Ives was a particular fan of Schmertz, recording his "Angus MacFergus MacTavish Dundee," "The Lock Tenders Lament," and "Quack Quack Paddle-Oh." Local folkies The NewLanders included "Monongahela Sal" on their 2003 CD "Where the Allegheny Flows."

But Seeger is the guy who shined the spotlight on Bob Schmertz. Beside "Sal," he played other Schmertz compositions all around America, and always credited the writer. He wasn't alone; every folkie that came through the City visited and often played alongside Schmertz.

Seeger appeared with the American Wind Symphony in the early sixties, performing from their floating stage "Point Counterpoint," which was moored at Point State Park. He brought Schmertz on stage to join him in singing "Monongahela Sal" and several other songs.

But most of Schmertz's performances were at small stages and often concluded in the wee hours at local homes after the gig. He also collaborated with Chatham College's Viv Richman, who recorded 1959's "Vivien Richman Sings Folk Songs of Western Pennsylvania," a Smithsonian Folkways release.

Schmertz did eventually give up his studio shyness in his later years. He recorded three albums, 1955's "Robert Schmertz Sings His Songs," 1959's "Sing Oh! the City Oh!: Songs of Early Pittsburgh," and 1960's "Ladies Beware of an Architect: Songs for Architects and Their Girlfriends."

His first real LP, "RS Sings His Songs," was a George Heid Productions disc, assisted by Carnegie Tech. His daughters Gretchen & Mildred, son Jack, and Richman all contributed, and it had a couple of his better known songs, "Monongahela Sal" and "Angus MacFergus MacTavish Dundee," included on its thirteen tracks.

The album "Songs of Early Pittsburgh," is a collection of tunes Schmertz wrote to celebrate Pittsburgh's 200th birthday bash. The songs featured the rock stars of pre-revolutionary Western PA like George Washington, Christopher Gist, General John Forbes and Seneca Queen Aliquippa. Some of its other tracks were "La Vierge de la Belle Riviere," "Flintlock Finnegan," and "The Prettiest Girl in Pittsburgh Town." This LP is the only one of his works to make a transition from wax, reissued as a CD by the Smithsonian Folkways label.

His final "Ladies Beware" was a tongue-in cheek sort of release, and was distributed by the Pittsburgh Architectural Club during its 70th anniversary. It had tunes commemorating Frank Lloyd Wright, IM Pei and Lorenzo Di Medici, along with "The Doric Column Is Coming Back," "Industrious Carpenter Dan" and "Queen Anne's Front" that played to the whimsy of the blueprint set.

He also authored "A Picture Book of Songs and Ballads." That's all the body of work that Bob Schmertz, who passed away in 1975, has left behind.

Alas, except for the "Songs of Early Pittsburgh" CD, it's quite a chore running down Schmertz's stuff. The few remaining LPs are mostly in hands of collectors who avoid e-Bay and mostly trade tapes back and forth. Other individual tracks are scattered about at digital download sites. There is one collection left that we've found where his wax is stored, at CMU's Ryan Library. Somewhat oddly but fittingly, it's part of the school's architectural archives.

Pittsburgh tells a rough and rowdy tale. It spent a long, long time as a beefy, brawling town before the more genteel ed and med folk softened its smoky, steely edges. The area's hard past has been covered by many a historian in books enough to fill a library. But if you really want a feel for our region's roots, you need a troubadour with the same roots, and Bob Schmertz was that man.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jon Rinaldo & Joker Productions

Jon Rinaldo

Born in Syracuse, Jon Rinaldo's family moved to Squirrel Hill in late 1977, and a few years later he attended Allderdice High. In 1985, the Rinaldos moved once again, to Mt. Lebanon and a new high school for Jon. How does a kid get himself noticed in a new school? Easy enough - find some classmates with an ear and join a band. Jon became the lead singer for a new wave group - think Depeche Mode - called the "Wallflowers" (Jakob Dylan, you're welcome).

Beside Rinaldo, the band consisted of Joe Matzzie (Guitar), John Trivelli (Keyboards, Drum Machine), Jim Nix (Keyboards), Ric Nix (Bass) and Glen Fisher (Drums). They did a handful of live gigs and cut a demo. It was just a four song tape, consisting of the tracks "Walls," "Flowers," "This Time," and "Let The Snow Fall." They recorded their tunes at Heart Sound Studios and had the tracks remastered at Air Craft Studios, both of which are now gone.

Then the Wallflowers went their separate ways to school. Rinaldo took his studies to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. But unknown to the band at the time, a friend had sent the demo to NYC for the "Snickers New Music Search," a sort of radio-based American Idol program of the era sponsored by a group called Campus Voice.

Pushing the tracks "Walls" and "Flowers," (kinda copacetic, considering that the band was the Wallflowers) the radio voters pushed the group through the quarterfinals, then to the semis, and eventually the band ended up runner-up in the contest after the final tally. Not too shabby, considering there were originally 10,000 participants.

After a couple of A&R guys called following their Big Apple success story (including reps from Elektra, Virgin and A&M), Rinaldo moved back to Pittsburgh. The band reunited briefly in 1988 before breaking up for good when the brass ring eluded their grasp. He eventually graduated from Pitt in 1993 with a BA in Art History, and got his first taste of the industry as a college DJ and promotions director at UP radio station WPTS-FM.

He and a bud chose Graffiti as their college hangout. The room was a break-out venue that furnished a stage for bands like Hector in Paris and The Affordable Floors while providing a mid-sized club venue for local promoters such as Mike Elko, Jack Tumpson of Next Big Thing and PJ McArdle. Rinaldo though he could do that promoting thing, too.

Tony DiNardo, who owned the club, wasn't so sure. He wasn't very receptive to Rinaldo's request to let him book an act or two for Graffiti. Rinaldo kept banging the drum and finally wore down DiNardo for some dates. He worked the phone hard to bring in a couple of bands; his first show featured Peter Case of The Plimsouls.

That was the genesis of Joker Productions, formed in 1989. One of Rinaldo's friends was watching "Batman" and thought Joker would be a good name, not particularly because of the character but because it started with a J and ended with an R, the initials of Jon Rinaldo. His first logo became a dancing joker from a deck of cards before morphing into its familiar black and white trademark.

Over time, Rinaldo went from booking seven shows during his first year to well over 200 annually. He did it the old fashioned way, through countless phone calls, miles of pavement pounding, and building personal relationships with the artists and their managers. Rinaldo also forged working ties with the local print and radio media, a necessity in the days before web-based promotion and distribution were options.

It wasn't easy. He only booked two national acts that first year, and managed to burn through the $10,000 his grandma had fronted him, rarely netting more than a C-Note or two per show. It took him a couple of years to finally break out to the point where he didn't need a day gig.

But Rinaldo eventually turned Joker Productions into a Pittsburgh contender, working the local radar beneath the DiCesare-Engler/SFX juggernaut at the club level. He brought the Goo Goo Dolls, 311, The Toasters, Michelle Shocked and other national acts to Graffiti, and served as the club promoter/producer from 1994-96. He also picked up a rep as the "ska king" because of the brand of bands he brought into town.

Things were beginning to bottom out in 1996. His business relationship with DiNardo was unraveling as he began to expand to stages other than Graffiti, and the ska wave had crested. Rinaldo needed something different.

After talking to hall owner Ron Levick, the someplace different popped up: Club Laga in Oakland. The pair hit it off from the start. Rinaldo said "We were the same age and had the same vision." As for genres, he began to book a mix of emerging and indy college acts, mostly national with some local performers sprinkled among them.

Joker Productions left Graffiti ("tossed out," as Rinaldo recalls) to book at Club Laga in 1997. Acts such as Macy Gray, Wu Tang Clan, Blink 182, Maroon 5, The Roots, Dashboard Confessional, Smashmouth, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, George Clinton, Less Than Jake, Death Cab For Cutie, and Chevelle performed at the club. It became one of the city's big time all-age stops on the indy circuit.

That groove at Lago ended when Levick, without much warning, told Rinaldo in 2004 that he was selling the building. The clubs it housed were creating messy situations with both the police and his insurance people, playing heavily into Levick's decision. The emphasis on all-age cards also figured into the equation. Over-21 shows and their beer sales were any rock club's biggest profit center, and the house couldn't fully tap into that make-or-break revenue stream.

So Rinaldo bought the defunct Rosebud in the Strip and renamed it The World, after the old New York City club. The World was Rinaldo's stage for a year before the promoter pulled the plug; the story in the Strip then was more centered on the late-night violence rather than the music. But he had other irons in the fire.

Club Café became the Joker hall from 2003-07. He brought in 1,300 acts during that time, booking both national and local performers. Rinaldo also was the prime mover for "Club Café - The Next Stage In Music" TV showcase. The series ran from 2005-06 on UPN-TV and Comcast On Demand.

It wasn't, of course, his only house. He regularly placed acts at the Upstage, 31st Street Pub, Diesel, Thunderbird Cafe and Ches Arena.

He brought in shows for other venues, too. In 2009, Joker Productions booked outdoor concerts at the Riverplex Amphitheater featuring Neko Case, All Time Low and Gov't Mule. That year, he also promoted a sold out concert with Morrissey at the Carnegie Music Hall, the first Pittsburgh performance by the singer since his days as the frontman for The Smiths in the eighties.

Rinaldo also booked groups at Metropol, the Byham Theater and Benedum Center. He figures he put together about 6,000 shows during Joker's 22-year lifespan, igniting quite a bang for the city scene. Rinaldo was selected as one of "Pittsburgh's Top Fifty Cultural Brokers" from 2001-04 by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and in 2003 ranked as one of the Top 50 Nationwide Concert Promoters (Overall Sales) by industry bible Pollstar Magazine.

For a club promoter, Rinaldo got noticed. From 2000-2010, at least one of Joker's acts made the Post Gazette's "Concerts of the Year" list. Three performers (The Avett Brothers, Macy Gray and the Donnas) cracked the top five, while Erykah Badu was ranked as the top show in 2003. It's not an easy task to consistently lure hot acts when you're going tête-à-tête against arena and amphitheater cards, but Joker and Rinaldo pulled it off.

In spite of his success, in June 2011, Rinaldo and Joker Productions closed down shop.

The game had changed over the past two decades, explained the promoter. "Bands still wanted to play," Rinaldo said, "but now there are no ties. It used to be that bands rarely left their local promoters. Now whoever writes the biggest check gets the acts." He even got into the bidding wars, trying to lure acts away from their traditional Pittsburgh backers.

The new paradigm hurt him a couple of ways. First, it obviously cut down on the promoter's share of the concert take. But he was also hampered as a solo operator, not having the deep pocketed sponsorship support or outside investors of some other promoters who could spread out the financial risks.

The market was static and also becoming more segmented, with more promoters and venues hustling for a slice of the pie. So pocketbook issues were a big factor. As he told Scott Mervis of the Post-Gazette "I was bleeding to death."

And the kicker - well, hey and congrats, Jon. He and his bride Tanya are proud parents of a pair of one-year old boys, Nicholas and Alexander. Now Rinaldo's life is boisterous enough baby-sitting his own clan without grinding 24/7 as part of the industry rat race.

He's looking to segue into a steady day gig. It's an on-time transition for Jon, who's now 43 and been in the promotion biz since his late teens. And Rinaldo can rest easy on his laurels, knowing that Joker Productions and its run at Graffiti, Club Laga, Club Café and other city venues wrote a lasting chapter in Pittsburgh music history.