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.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bloomfield's Five Playboys

Five Playboys image from White Doo-Wop Collector

Starting out in Bloomfield in the early fifties, Meraldo "Tony" Bertoni and Sam Juliano were sidewalk doo-woppers, singing with a group of local guys known as The Sonny Boys. They never really took off, with their highlight being a performance on the Sunday evening "Wilkens Amateur Hour," and drifted apart.

Tony and Sam had the harmony bug, though, and in 1956 they put together another group, The Five Playboys. The members were Tony (1st Tenor), Sam (Bass), Mickey Sands (Lead), Eddie Lucente (2nd Tenor) and Joe Fabry (Baritone).

Promoter and Fee Bee label owner Joe Averbach heard them, and lined up an audition in 1957. They sang "One Summer Night" (more on that later) for him, and were signed. He sent them to George Heid’s studio on the Club Floor of the Penn-Sheraton (now Omni William Penn) Hotel in June, where they recorded their first song, "Pages of My Scrapbook," with jazz man Hosea Taylor Sr. providing the alto.

The song was a hit in the region, and Averbach pressed a second run with a different B Side ("When We Were Young," which also sold well locally) and licensed it to national label Dot Records, an impress he had a working relationship with. The Playboys hit the area hops circuit and even got to perform at a Syria Mosque show.

The Five Playboys went to Chicago's Universal Studios in February of 1958 to cut their next record, "Time Will Allow," released by Mercury Records. It didn't move, and that would be the group's last slab with a national label.

But one of their songs did have a pretty good run. The story goes that Tony and Sam were driving around one day, and heard "One Summer Night" on the radio, their song from the original Fee Bee audition the year before. It was a huge hit for the Danleers in 1958, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot Hundred list.

The Five Playboys claim, according to one source (Tony's son) that Joe Averbach sold their song without the group knowing. "One Summer Night" is credited to the Danleers manager Danny Webb on the record, not the group. No credit, no royalties, just nada. And yah, that's how the business ran back in those days. So instead of launching The Five Playboys, it launched Brooklyn's Danleers.

Later in 1958, Fee Bee Records issued "Angel Mine," with the Del Viking's Chuck Jackson signing the falsetto. In the summer of 1959, "Mr. Echo" was released on Averbach's Petite label. That was the last hurrah for The Five Playboys, who called it a career in 1960.

1957 - Pages Of My Scrapbook b/w Love Me Right (Fee Bee 213)
1957 - Pages Of My Scrapbook b/w When We Were Young (Fee Bee 213/Dot 15605)
1958 - Why Be A Fool  b/w Time Will Allow (Mercury 71269)
1958 - Angel Mine b/w She's My Baby (Fee Bee 232)
1959 - Mr. Echo b/w She's My Baby (Petites 504)
1959? - Never Let Her Go b/w Spring Is Here (Fee Bee - unreleased)