Sunday, February 24, 2013

Marcus Meston - Not Yet, But Soon

 Marcus Meston image by Billy Sukitch

Marcus Meston, the teen multi-instrumentalist and song writer from Upper St. Clair, is following his 2011 LP "Everything Will be Fine" with the EP "Not Yet, But Soon." He'll be at the Hard Rock Cafe on Tuesday, February 26th, opening for Aaron Carter and introducing the new tracks.

He hooked up with Steve Soboslai, Punchline's frontman and owner of the label Modern Short Stories, in February of last year. The eventual result was the song "Scissors," which they co-wrote, with another tune in hand that may be released as part of a future project.

In May, Soboslai come to Meston's home studio and did some pre-production work. Soboslai suggested laying down tracks with Mike Ofca of Innovation Studios in Steubenville, who had worked with Punchline, and so Meston went to Ohio last summer. In four sessions, they recorded three tracks ("Scissors" and "Today is the Day" made the EP), engineered by Ofca and mastered by Randy Leroy at Airshow's Takoma Park Studios in Maryland.

Veteran (Bill Deasy, Maynard Ferguson) Dave "Throck" Throckmorton did the drumming, Ofca provided bass, guitars, and keys while Meston played guitars, shaker and did the vocal work. His dad, Tom, who played for Stir Fry and is a popular sideman, overlaid keys from the home base in Pittsburgh for the sessions.

The remaining songs were a virtuoso performance by Marcus. He wrote the songs, laid down all the vocal & instrumental tracks and mixed them. Who said one man bands are dead? Meston mastered the tracks "Before We Begin", "Eventually" and "Time" while Harrison Wargo of the local Bad Boxes Studios (and former member of The Morning Light) mastered "Not Yet, But Soon (Intro)" and "New."

The tracklist for "Not Yet, But Soon" is:
  • Not Yet, But Soon (Intro)
  • Scissors
  • Time
  • Today is the Day
  • Before We Begin
  • New
  • Eventually 
The stuff is a little New Wave, a little pop, and a little rock, and shows a growing maturity in Meston as a writer and performer. The EP will be available in all online stores on March 17th. So get down to Station Square Tuesday to get a preview. Hard Rock's doors open at 7:30 and the music starts at 8.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lennie Martin

Lennie Martin from Robbee Records

Lennie Martin was one of the key players in mid-fifties to early-sixties Pittsburgh pop music scene. His JEM label broke the ice for local R&B artists in the City, he was the A&R man for and part owner of Calico Records who arranged the orchestration behind the Skyliners, and was co-owner of both Robbee Records and World Records, Pittsburgh's first label to push beyond regional acts.

He was born Rinaldo Marino in 1916, and was educated at Duquesne University. He was a pianist, arranger and composer, and found work as a staff musician for KDKA and WCAE radio. Martin became an orchestra leader and highly sought after as a jingle writer for ads.

Martin entered the industry side in 1955 when he formed JEM Records, based out of his Carlton House office.

In 1955, the Smoothtones recorded two sides for Martin's JEM label, both written by Alfred Gaitwood, who would later hit it big with the Cuff Links' "Guided Missile." The 45 was “Bring Back Your Love” b/w “No Doubt About It” (JEM #412), backed by the Walt Harper Orchestra. The wax was released in June 1955. As a historical note, it's thought that slab of vinyl was the first song by a black R&B vocal group issued on a Pittsburgh label.

Also on the label were local artists The Wright Brothers and Patty Troy, who would record both separately and together for JEM.

As the A&R man for Calico (he was also part owner), Martin took a trip to New York City's Capitol Studios with Bill Lawrence and Joe Rock for Skyliners "Since I Don't Have You" session. Martin arranged the lush chart, later cited by wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector as an early influence on his arrangements. He and band manager Rock shared the musical credits for all the early Skyliner songs released on Calico.

Founded to promote Pittsburgh music, Calico was driven by the Skyliners success. They also recorded the Donnybrooks from Canonsburg, Chuck Johnson and Walt Maddox. After a two year run, Martin closed shop and moved on to a new venture after Rock took the Skyliners to Columbia Pictures Colpix label.

Martin and Lou Guarino founded the Robbee Record Label in 1960, named after Martin's youngest son, Robert. He didn't forget the rest of the family; his Mary Jo Publishing company was named after his wife, and Jeff-Paul Music was named after his eldest, Jeffrey. The Robbee label even tried to break out the region with a distribution deal with Hollywood's Liberty Records, which had Henry Mancini among its artists.

Robbee had one song that charted: Marcy Jo's "Ronnie" (#81 Billboard, #64 Cash Box/1961 R-110). The label, like Calico, was heavy with local artists - Lugee (Lou Christie) and the Lions, Holidays, La Rells, Chapelaires, Honorable Fats Wilson and the South Hills' Four Seasons recorded for Robbee.

Martin catered to the sports crowd, too, with Benny Benack's "Beat 'Em Bucs" (1960/R-108) and Pirates' pitcher ElRoy Face (he fronted a small jazz club on Grant Street that as memory serves was called The Bandbox, a few doors away from Martin's offices at the Carlton House) and catcher Hal Smith as part of  Robbee's stable of artists. Heck, Lennie even recorded "La Femme" with his Orchestra for the label.

In 1963, Martin and Guarino formed a new label, World Records. They had some local talent, like Lou Christie, the Laurels & Joe Negri, and with Guarino's discovery of English act Chad and Jeremy, the duo hoped to finally make Pittsburgh a destination point in the industry. That never quite happened, though Guarino is still in the industry and running WAE Records, short for World Artists Entertainment, today's remnant of World Records.

Unfortunately, World Records and Pittsburgh didn't have Lennie Martin around long. He died at West Penn Hospital after a long illness in 1963 at the age of 46 and was buried at Mt. Carmel cemetery.

Lennie Martin left behind quite a legacy for such a short spell - he owned parts of four labels, orchestrated the Skyliners, was a vocal coach to a lot of young area talent, and his jingles (he was said to have produced thousands of them) cemented media branding and moved lots of product on TV and radio.

Marcy Jo - "Ronnie" (1961)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bill Lawrence

Image from the Doo Wop Shoo Bop.

Back in the early sixties, it was easy enough for local groups to get recorded; there were studios and labels galore. The labels may have been regional in reach, but getting on vinyl could at least get a band some local airtime, and that led to steady gigs.

They could even launch chart-landing careers, like Joe Averbach's Fee Bee did with the Del Vikings, Herb Cohen and Nick Cenci's Co & Ce did with Lou Christie and the Vogues, Lou Guarino's World Artist did with Chad & Jeremy, and Lou Caposi & Bill Lawrence's Calico did with the Skyliners.

Today we're gonna take a quick peep at Lawrence, who is often the forgotten guy among Pittsburgh's early rock entrepreneurs.

Bill Lawrence was a South Side kid who came up when times were tough during the Depression, scuffling for nickels and dimes. Entertainment is often an economic driver out of the 'hood, and Bill had a voice that helped punch his ticket. He went from singing telegrams to a spot on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in New York, taking first place on the nationally broadcast CBS Radio show.

That led Lawrence on a barnstorming career as a big band leader, but making music wouldn't end up his calling card. As the curtain closed on the big band era, he moved on to the industry side of the business in the early fifties.

He started out as the sales director of Chicago's United Record Distributors, then went on to become CBS/Columbia Records as a Promo and Sales exec, pushing acts like Johnny Ray and Guy Mitchell. Next, Lawrence jumped to the new Epic label, where he became an A&R guy, the National Director of Artists Relations and was in charge of pop single sales.

But like many Pittsburgh guys, he discovered that the grass wasn't any greener in the outside world, and came back to the City in 1956. He converted partial ownership of Pittsburgh's Portal Distributorship into a company of his own, the One Stop Record Distribution Company. It had a pretty solid stable of labels to push, including Epic, ABC, London, Okeh, Vic, and Zephyr.

About the same time, Lawrence and attorney Lou Caposi set up Calico Records, with Lenny Martin as A&R head, arranger and part owner. In 1958, they fell into a rose garden when Joe Rock brought in the Crescents, fresh off a baker's dozen rejections from national labels, for a knockout demo. They quickly took them to New York's Capitol Studios and recorded “Since I Don’t Have You.” Oh, they also changed the group's name while in the Big Apple, to the Skyliners.

The Skyliners were the mainstays of the label, which also recorded local acts like Canonsburg's Donnybrooks and Walt Maddox. Then in late 1959, Lawrence pulled the plug on Calico after the Skyliners jumped to Columbia Pictures Colpix label and started Alanna Records, named after his wife. That label also focused on local performers like ElRoy (Leroy Grammer) & the Excitements, Chuck Edwards and Baldwin's Four Seasons.

He also started up the Western World label and its subsidiary Super M in the seventies with Lou Gaurino, veering off the beaten path by recording funk artists BlackLove and George Bacasa's cutting edge jazz group The Silhouettes.

While none of Lawrence's labels exactly sent shivers of fear up the spines of the national behemoths, there are two things that have to be remembered. His bread-and-butter was his distribution business, not the labels. And secondly, of all the labels that were jostling for acts in the sixties, Lawrence's Alanna is the only one that is still standing today.

By the early sixties (“Alanna Records Presents - Pittsburgh Rhythm and Blues/Rock 1959-1963” was their last pop release), Lawrence transformed Alanna into an almost boutique label. He made the Fifth Avenue shop a home for the music he appreciated - jazz, big band, swing and adult contemporary with a limited catalog of some 60 titles.

A niche market, to be sure, but one that supported itself. The label was even a pacesetter as a big fish in a small pond. Ed Salamon wrote that "Alanna’s success with The Spitfire Band and their Laurie Bower Singers almost single handedly reestablished the market for authentic Big Band music."

The independent model has its supporters. In 2005, Lawrence finally handed over Alanna's reins to Digital Dynamics Audio Inc., a recording and design group that wants to establish a jazz/classical label. Thomas Kikta, Digital Dynamics president, told the Pittsburgh Business Times that the deal enabled his company to "cover the chain from studio to retailer."

So when you look over your pile of old Pittsburgh-sound 45s, remember that Bill Lawrence not only was responsible for the music on a lot of those scratchy disks; his company was probably the one that got it to the store you bought it from. And of all those labels of yore, his is the only one left in the City.

We'd like to thank again Ed Salamon, whose article gave us a framework to built the post. Ed is a Brookline guy with a influential spot in radio broadcasting history and the author of "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio."