Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bob Livorio

Image from Fifties Rewind

How many of you guys remember WKPA in New Kensington, 1150 on your AM dial? They had quite a roster of DJs stacking its on-air roster, with talent like Charlie Apple, Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins, Jeff "The Olde Rocke Shoppe" Allen, Phil Brooks, Alex Mellon, Sean Israel, Joe Fenn, Ford Shankle, Kelly Pidgeon, Mike Alexander, George Hart, Bill McKibben, Jim Dicesare, Terry McGovern, Jim Gray and their last morning drive guy, Ken Hawk.

But if you don't have Bob Livorio at the top of that list in bold red capital letters, shame on you.

The station began in 1940, located at 810 Fifth Avenue in downtown New Kensington, with the studio on the top floor of a two-story building known as the Paragon. The owner's Cooper Brothers music store occupied the street level. The building stood until 1994, when it was felled by flames.

The brothers operated the station under the Allegheny-Kiski Broadcasting Company banner. Like most small town stations, it was heavy on ethnic music, local news and sports at the beginning, but gradually made a move into the Pittsburgh area pop market along with its sister station, WYDD FM.

Now those jocks in the lead paragraph could spin some discs, but the undisputed leader of the WKPA pack and the Allegheny Valley teen club scene was the soft spoken Bob Livorio. He had picked up the turntable bug while in the service, and in 1957 or so landed a gig at his hometown station. Livorio would broadcast from WKPA's Fifth Avenue studio for the next 36 years.

The station started him off in the 3-8 PM slot, but he quickly claimed the Saturday morning position for his request show. Livorio was one of the groundbreaking Pittsburgh DJs who played "race" (R&B and doo-wop) music, though not as exclusively as Porky.

While he'd pop in a rocker or two like "Psycho" by the Sonics or "Surfer Joe"/"Wipeout" by the Surfaris (after all, he was a dance jock, too), he was best known for spinning ballads, airing the grinders "Forever" by the Marvelettes, "I Only Have Eyes For You" by the Flamingos, "Angel Baby" by Rosie & the Originals and "Have I Sinned" by Donnie Elbert.

Livorio also aired all the more obscure tunes Pittsburghers loved such as "I Need Your Love" by the Metallics, "My Confession Of Love" by City fav Elbert, "Bring Back Your Love To Me" by the local Smoothtones (which he broke), "Ankle Bracelet" by the Pyramids and "Valley High" by Bill & Doree Post.

Not one for gimmicks or catchphrases, his morning program was simply "The Bob Livorio Show." His calm conversational tone behind the mic was as much of a hit as his records, and he was deluged by kids who wanted a personal dedication during the show.

He received several hundred written requests every week, and his daughter Cynthia Brennan, a DJ and voice-over/ad spokeswoman, recalled for Rex Rutkoski of the Valley News Dispatch the times they were "sitting on the living room floor on Friday nights with her brothers, Bob and Frank, and their mother, Barbara, as her dad sorted the letters, and the family discussed them." What better way to choose a teen playlist than to have the kids help decide?

Livorio was so popular that when the Allegheny-Kiski Valley area highs had their Kennywood picnic outing scheduled for a Saturday in 1961, the students asked the park to broadcast his show through the PA so they wouldn't miss a Livorio spin while standing in line for a seat on the Racer.

He was just as popular with the local artists. When the British Invasion landed in Pittsburgh, Livorio stuck to his guns and his format by playing the Skyliners, Vogues, Fenways/Racket Squad and Lou Christie. And like any good jock, he issued a couple of vinyl LPs filled with songs he played on the show, which are now collector rarities.

But Livorio really hit his stride as a hop DJ in the Valley. Kids set their weekend calendars around his shows. On Friday night, his fans would follow him to Henry's in Tarentum or the Ridge Avenue School, Saturday morning was time to tune into the show, then catch Livorio that night at the YMCA and end the weekend on Sunday night when he jocked at the Birdville Fire Hall in Natrona Heights.

That intersection of radio and dance DJ also makes Livorio the most likely guy to have broken Tommy James "Hanky Panky." He's often credited with discovering the record, popularizing it at his dances and on his show before the 800 pound gorillas at KQV and KDKA, Chuck Brinkman and Clark Race (who also has dibs as the first jock to spin the 45 from a studio), blew it up on the Pittsburgh airwaves.

Bob Mack, who was huge playing Valley dances at the Tarena, also has a claim on it, as does Mad Mike, both of whom wore out the James' wax at hops. Livorio refuses to be drawn into the fray, although Ed Salamon, in his local mother lode of information "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio," mentioned him as a strong candidate to have first played the song. Where else but in Pittsburgh would guys still be trying to straighten out a 45 year old story?

(Ed wrote to let us know that there is still no definitive answer to the "Hanky Panky" mystery. He explained that "Bob Mack/Mad Mike make the claim and Clark Race believed he started it. "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio" mentions Livorio's story, which he gave me in writing, but was worded as not to preclude the Mack/Mike and Race's claims, as I believe they each could have been unaware of the others." Hey, maybe the Tommy James' hit is a case of spontaneous combustion on Pittsburgh's turntables.)

Livorio survived a pair of new owners and a format change or three at WKPA, but in 1992 the station was sold to a religious programmer, becoming WGBN, and that was the end of the oldies road for the jock. He's still living in New Kensington, and last we heard was the owner of the Dairy Queen on Freeport Road in Natrona Heights, still spinning the sweetest treats in the Valley.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dick Clark and Pittsburgh

The recently departed Dick Clark was arguably America's best known rock 'n' roll DJ in the sixties, with "American Bandstand" being the can't miss music show of the era. Its features - "The Spotlight Dance," "Rate-A-Record" ("I give it an eight, Dick. Good dance beat...") and "Top 10 Countdown" - were copied by local dance shows around the country.

The Philly guy didn't just push East Coast acts and music, though. He had his finger in Pittsburgh's musical pie, too.

He had a lot in common with Pittsburgh's radio jocks of that era. Clark appreciated and promoted both "race" and rock music before it was cool, pushed local players whenever he could, and loved putting together huge cards for his concert acts

He wrote in his 1976 "Rock, Roll & Remember" autobiography that while a WFIL DJ, he came to the City in 1954 for a short incognito visit to listen and learn from WCAE jock Jay Michael. Clark heard him playing the R&B records of the time, ignored by many stations of that era but de rigueur here, and adapted the sound to his show. Clark, like the Pittsburgh spinners, would be among the pioneers who broke the color barrier in music, according to Pat DiCesare in Scott Mervis' recent Post Gazette article.

He also helped spark Pittsburgh's popular "Shower of Stars" concerts, as DiCesare related to KDKA's Larry Richert. He didn't do as a promoter, but a competitor. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, Pittsburgh impresario Tim Tormey put together his local version of Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars." He even beat out the World's Oldest Teenager for the rights to a Gene Pitney barnstormer.

Clark was so impressed that soon thereafter he hired Tormey as his East Coast rep for Clark Productions, then based in LA.

And speaking of Caravans, Clark did have a couple of local acts tour with his show, which ran until the late sixties. The initial tour in 1959 snapped up The Skyliners, who headlined his first 66-stop Caravan of Stars and reigned as local heroes in the September concert at the Syria Mosque. Other area acts to perform on Clark's Caravan were Chuck Jackson and Lou Christie.

His long-running TV show did a little better job of representing the region. Tony Butala (with the Lettermen), Lou Christie, Perry Como, Jill Corey, The Del Vikings, Diamond Reo, Billy Eckstine, The Four Coins, Tommy Hunt (with The Flamingos), The Jaggerz, adopted son Tommy James, Henry Mancini, The Marcels, The Skyliners, The Tempos, Bobby Vinton, The Vogues, Adam Wade and Wild Cherry appeared on ABC during the program's decades-long run.

Doesn't sound like a lot for 33 seasons of TV, but there were a couple of good reasons for that. First, Clark took very good care of his Philly folk in the early years. Then he moved his operations to Los Angeles in 1964, putting quite a bit of distance between himself and the Pittsburgh Sound. And finally, the City scene went dry during the British Invasion, sticking to its jazz fusion, bluesy vocal roots while the charts went electric and Motown.

All in all, Clark showed a lot more love to Pittsburgh than our current Philadelphia contemporaries, the Flyers, have.

Taste of Brookline Festival Next Week

Thought I'd pass on a note from my bud Jack Stanizzo:

"Please join Paul Lowe and I for a night of wonderful food from 10 local restaurants in the Brookline area as we perform at the Taste of Brookline. The Taste of Brookline is the SPDC's (South Pittsburgh Development Corporation, a community non-profit) big fund raiser for the year. There will be a variety of beers and wine from local vendors as well. This is our First Annual Taste of Brookline event and we expect it to be a great time! We'll be playing 2 shows during the evening (including "Someone" of course). It's SUNDAY APRIL 29 from 6 to 9 pm at the Ritz Banquet Hall on Brookline Blvd. Tickets are $25 and available online at as well as Boss Optical, Cannon Coffee and Kribel's Bakery.
Seeeeeeeeee You There!!!!!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Allegheny County Concert Series

Joe Grushecky from Concert Boom

Here's the Allegheny County Concert Series schedule for this summer, featuring Jimmy Beaumont, Joe Grushecky, Mac Martin, Joan Osborne, Lucinda Williams, big bands, local heroes and the PSO, Opera and CLO among its great acts:

South Park Amphitheater:
June 1: Steve Moakler (7:30)
June 8: Pittsburgh Opera (7:30)
June 15: Glen Pavone Tribute featuring the Nighthawks (7:30)
June 22: Eden's Edge (7:30)
June 29: Delta Spirit (7:30)
July 7: Pittsburgh Symphony (8:00)
July 13: BNY Mellon Jazz - Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (7:30)
July 20: Joe Gruschecky and the House Rockers (7:30)
July 27: Lucinda Williams (7:30)
Aug. 3: Steel Wheels (7:30)
Aug. 10: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue (7:30)
Aug. 17: Mike Doughty (7:30)
Aug. 24: Duquesne Tamburitzans (7:30)
Aug. 31: The Hitmen - Tommy James/Four Seasons original members (7:30)

Hartwood Acres Amphitheater
June 3: Joan Osborne (7:30)
June 10: Pittsburgh CLO Presents "Another Gleeful Evening" (7:30)
June 17: Jimmy Beaumont & the Skyliners (7:30; Car Show 2-7)
June 24: Meshell N'Degeocello (7:30)
July 8: Pittsburgh Symphony (8:15)
July 20-22: Pittsburgh Blues Festival (time TBA, admission)
July 29: Toad the Wet Sprocket (7:30)
Aug. 5: BNY Mellon Jazz - Spyro Gyra (7:30)
Aug. 12: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (7:30)
Aug. 16: Pittsburgh Ballet (7:30)
Aug. 19: Hometown Music Festival with New Shouts, Joy Ike and more (5:00)
Aug. 26: Allegheny Music Festival (5:00, $20 per car)

Harrison Hills Park:
June 30: Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers (7:00)

Skating Rinks:
July 11: Tuesday Night Big Band w/Lori Russo (North Park Rink - 7:30)
July 25: Tom Evans Big Band (South Park Rink - 7:30)
Aug. 8: Graham Grubb Big Band (North Park Rink - 7:30)
Aug. 22: Joe Campus Big Band (South Park Rink - 7:30)

Admission is free except for the season-ending Allegheny Music Festival and the three day Blues Festival, both at Hartwood Acres.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Titanic Band

Image from the Titanic Universe.

Today, we're gonna take a little side trek away from Pittsburgh music and commemorate the most legendary gig ever performed, the closing act of Wallace Hartley's little band of musicians who played on while the Titanic sank exactly one hundred years ago.

Everyone knows the fate of the "unsinkable" luxury liner and how it met its destiny in the frigid North Atlantic. The story of the band going down with the ship is part and parcel of the Titanic's lore.

His group was a four piece orchestra. Leader Hartley was a veteran of trans-Atlantic trips, having played prior cruises on the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. The band's job on the Titanic was to perform at church services, during tea, and after dinner.

They were also accompanied on the trip by a string and piano trio that performed in the Titanic's upscale Cafe Parisien. The guys weren't making big bucks. In fact, they were hired through an agency and likely earned little more than the equivalent of scale. They did, though, have the perk of sailing as second-class passengers and the prestige of performing during the Titanic's maiden voyage. Little did they know that it would also be her last trip.

On that fateful April 14th, 1912, they played in an effort to distract and calm the passengers during the disaster until the end. As the too-few lifeboats were being filled, Hartley gathered the musicians at the First Class Lounge around midnight, later moving to the higher and drier Boat Deck as the liner continued to settle into Davy Jones' locker. It was the first time the men had ever played as a group.

And it was purely voluntary. Hired through a third party, they were not on the ship's payroll and couldn't be ordered to play by the Titanic's captain or even the White Star's owner, who was on board (and survived). The eight had every right to jump into a lifeboat, if they could find one, like any other passenger. But they all answered Hartley's call for a final encore.

The impromptu orchestra played waltzes, ragtime, and even requests. Survivors recalled hearing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "In The Shadows" from the band as they left the boat. The musicians' apparent game plan was to play upbeat melodies in an effort to lift the spirits of the passengers.

And that they did. Many of those rescued from the Titanic vividly recalled the gallant troupe making music as they left the ship. Even those who went down drew some solace from the octet. One of the last survivors to leave the vessel said that she saw men gathered by the ship's railing, smoking cigarettes and tapping their feet to the band's music.

The doomed boat gave up the ghost a little after 2 AM and slipped under the waves, as did the members of Hartley's band.  All eight members perished. It took two weeks for searchers to find Hartley's body, still dressed in his band uniform under an overcoat, along with his music case and, according to some versions, his violin.

30,000 people turned out for his funeral and procession from Bethel Church to the graveyard. He was laid to rest as "Nearer Thy God To Thee" played at the Colne Cemetery. A ten-foot headstone, containing a carved violin at its base, marks his grave.

His band was remembered, too, by a plaque erected at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall that survived a fire which destroyed the original building and later, Luftwaffe bombs during the Battle of Britain. There are annual concerts played in their honor along with memorials and dedicated bandstands scattered as far away as Australia. More recently, Steve Turner wrote a book of their final performance called "The Band That Played On."

Not everyone in the industry was quite as moved, according to the Southpoint Visiter. The musicians were employed by the Castle Street agency of CW & FN Black, which held a monopoly on booking band members for passenger ships. The firm became infamous for billing the Titanic's band families for the past due costs of the men’s uniform alterations after their deaths. Even the infamous money-grubber Morris Levy wouldn't stoop to that level.

One last note: "Nearer Thy God To Thee" was reported by the NY papers and some survivors as the last song the band played, and it would have been an appropriate selection for the devout Methodist Hartley. He had even told friends that if he were ever in that dire circumstance, that would be the hymn he'd play.

However, a rescued radio operator swore the last tune he heard before the ship went down was "Autumn," which was a hymn or perhaps a reference to the then-popular "Songe d'Automne." We'll never know for sure, and it really doesn't matter much.

What is sure is that Wallace Hartley and mates John Woodward, Theo Brailey, Jock Hume, Roger Bricoux, Percy Taylor, Georges Krins and Fred Clarke will be remembered forever as members of the world's most storied band.

From the movie "Titanic"