Monday, March 31, 2008

mr. bass man

ray brown
Ray Brown from Hopper Management

Raymond Matthews Brown was born in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, 1926. His father was an avid jazz piano fan, and Brown grew up surrounded by the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller and Art Tatum. He began studying the piano at 8.

He decided to switch to the bass while in high school. After noticing how many pianists were in the band (14!), he had thought of taking up the trombone, but couldn't afford one. The school orchestra needed a bass player and had an extra one available. Talk about serendipity.

Brown was allowed to bring the bass home on weekends. The band director figured he was practicing. But after Brown’s picture was published in the local newspaper showing him playing the school's bass at a gig, he had to keep it at school. His dad shelled out and finally bought him one.

Drawn to Duke Ellington tunes playing in the city's jukeboxes, Brown locked in on the bass lines of bass legend Jimmy Blanton. He would practice Blanton's lines every day. He plucked at the bass strings like he was gonna yank them off of the fret.

Brown quickly became so good that he had to turn down offers to join touring bands. He had promised his parents he would finish high school. In the meanwhile, Brown became a star in the Pittsburgh jazz scene.

After high school, Brown joined the Jimmy Hinsely Sextet and traveled with the group for six months. The following year, he joined the Snookum Russell band, playing larger clubs throughout the United States. He left Russell's band while in Miami to make his way as a freelance musician in New York City.

Stories about 52nd Street from the pages of Down Beat drove him to buy that one-way ticket to the Big Apple. On his first night in the city, he bumped into a friend from the road, pianist Hank Jones, who introduced him to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

“That night, I saw Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Billie Daniels, Coleman Hawkins, and Hank Jones. I’d known Hank before. While we were talking, he said ‘Dizzy Gillespie just came in.’ I said, ‘Where? Introduce me! I want to meet him.’"

“So Hank introduced us. Hank said to Dizzy,‘This is Ray Brown, a friend of mine, and a very good bass player.’ “Dizzy said, ‘You want a gig?’ I almost had a heart attack! Dizzy said, ‘Be at my house for rehearsal at 7 o’clock tomorrow.’"

“I went up there the next night and got the fright of my life. The band consisted of Dizzy, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Parker - and me!” Brown was only eighteen years old. A few weeks later, Milt Jackson was added to the band, and he and Brown became very close friends and roomies, so inseparable that they were called “the twins.”

He soon began playing with such established musicians as Art Tatum and Charlie Parker and his jazz rep took off.

From 1946 to 1951 he played in Gillespie's band. Brown, along with the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Kenny Clarke, and the pianist John Lewis formed the rhythm section of the Gillespie band. Their work together was the genesis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Brown met singer Ella Fitzgerald when she joined the Gillespie band during a tour of the southern United States in 1947. The two married that year, and together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister Frances, whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1952, but Ray Jr. is carrying on the family tradition as a jazz/R&B vocalist.

In 1949, Ray began an 18 year partnership with Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic. With JATP, Brown took the stage with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips, Benny Carter and numerous others, including pianist Oscar Peterson on a fateful night at Carnegie Hall.

When drummer Buddy Rich cancelled at the last minute, Brown and Peterson were suddenly a duo, and they were magic together. He went on to play with the Oscar Peterson Trio for 15 years. The group consistently ranked as among jazz's most popular groups during the 1960's.

Following the example of another great bassist, Oscar Pettiford, he took up the cello, and in 1960 Brown jury rigged a hybrid instrument combining features of the cello and double bass, the forerunner of the piccolo bass.

After the Trio disbanded in 1966, he became a manager and promoter as well as a performer. He settled in Los Angeles where he free lanced and did gigs with the TV bands of the time. Brown accompanied some of the leading artists of the day, including Frank Sinatra (he played in all his TV specials), Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson.

He also managed his former group, the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as a young Quincy Jones, produced some shows for the Hollywood Bowl, wrote jazz double bass instruction books, and was the music director of the Concord Summer Festival in 1976 and 1977.

He composed music for films and television shows. Brown was awarded his first Grammy for his composition, "Gravy Waltz", a tune which would later be used as the theme song for The Steve Allen Show.

In 1973, he recorded an album with Ellington, "This One's for Blanton," a tribute to his musical roots. From 1974 to 1982, Brown performed and recorded a series of albums with a quartet called The L.A. Four.

He joined up with Jackson again to record the classic "Jackson, Johnson, Brown & Company" (1983), featuring Jackson and Brown with J. J. Johnson on trombone, Tom Ranier on piano, guitarist John Collins, and drummer Roy McCurdy.

In the 1980s and 1990s he led his own trios and toured extensively with pianist Gene Harris. In the early 1980s, he discovered Diana Krall in a restaurant in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He heard her playing and was so impressed that he took her under his wing. Brown suggested Krall move to LA, and her career flourished as he mentored her.

He continued to perform until his death. On Tuesday, July 2, 2002, Brown was in Indianapolis, Indiana for a gig. That afternoon, he played some golf, his favorite pastime. It was said that if there wasn't a course nearby for him to play, a club owner had no chance of booking the legendary bassist.

After his round, Ray returned to his hotel to catch a quick nap before performing at the Jazz Kitchen that night. When he missed the sound check, a band member went to his room to check on him. Ray Brown had died in his sleep.

In 2003, Brown was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. He received many awards, including the All-Star Poll Award in Playboy nearly every year since its inception in 1958 until he died.

He also won Down Beat's Reader's Poll Awards, several Grammy's, Jazz Critic's Poll Awards and many other honors. Along with Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, and Charles Mingus, Brown established himself one of the legends of bop bass.

And no, we never did figure out what high school he went to. Give us a yell if you know.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

come go with me...

dell vikings
The Del Vikings from Amazon

The Del Vikings formed in 1955 at Pittsburgh's Air Force Base in Coraopolis when five airmen, Corinthian “Kripp” Johnson (first tenor), Clarence Quick, who had sung with his cousin William Blakely in Brooklyn with a group called the Mellowlarks, (bass), Don Jackson (second tenor), Bernard Robertson, and Samuel Paterson, began singing together at the camp hall.

Their name came from...well, who knows? Maybe it was from stories the guys had been reading about Vikings. It may also have come from the the publisher of some of the paperbacks that they liked to read, the Viking Press. The Vikings was also the name of a basketball playing social club in Brooklyn that Quick belonged to.

No matter where it came from, they threw in a "Del" for some alliteration, and a group was born.

They won a talent contest on the base in early 1956, and then competed nationally in New York and Bermuda, where they placed first and second out of 700 groups. By that time they were drawing local attention, and DJ Barry Kaye of WJAS wanted to record them and get their sound on the air.

In 1956, Robertson and Paterson left the group when they were transferred to Germany. They were replaced by Norman Wright (lead tenor) and David Lerchey (baritone). Wright grew up in Philly and was a product of Northeast High School. Upon graduating from high school in January 1956, he was sworn into the Air Force and stationed in Amarillo, Texas.

Wright transferred to Pittsburgh, where he hooked up with the other members of the Del Vikings. He auditioned and was picked to join the group because, as he recalled, he could "sing 'Hey Senorita' better than any of 'em." Quick liked what he heard and Wright became the group's new lead singer.

David Lerchey was white, and when he joined the Del Vikings, they became one of the earliest integrated doo-wop groups along with the Meadowlarks and the Mariners. They also were the first integrated group to ever score a Top 10 hit

Kaye recorded nine accapella songs, including a version of "Come Go With Me" written by Quick. All the tracks were taped in Kaye's cellar. It was so small that several members had to sing from a closet (it was cramped, but did provide a nice reverb.) It was probably a good thing for them that he didn't have a basement bathroom.

Major labels passed on the chance to sign the group. Band manager Kaye finally settled on Joe Averbach, the owner of a small Pittsburgh label called Fee Bee. He cut their tunes in a hotel room/studio he kept, backed by a pickup band of Air Force buddies.

The group recorded a fully scored version of "Come Go With Me." Wright sang the lead and it was released late in 1956. The song took off, and Fee Bee proved too small a label to handle the demand. Averbach passed it on to Dot.

The record exploded onto the national scene and remained on the charts for 31 weeks, reaching #4 on the pop chart and #2 on the R&B chart.

The group was booked on tours across the country and was featured in one of Alan Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount shows. They would end up doing TV shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show", "The Tonight Show", and Dick Clark's "Bandstand."

Wright recalls that being in the service made it hard for the group to tour. "If everyone had enough days, we could get away for a weekend gig." But extended tours were hard to plan because if you weren't on base, you were AWOL. And that's not a good thing, show or not, for a military man.

The group tried to sing in uniform but this practice was stopped by the Air Force. It wanted to use the group as an official service act. Rather than be transferred to a special services outfit to recruit, the group's members stayed at their regular posts. They did do some unofficial recruitment tours around Pittsburgh to satisfy the brass.

The make-up of the group would once again change, with its second white member, Gus Backus, replacing Don Jackson as second tenor after he was transferred. With a hit record under their belt, the group was about to cause mass musical confusion.

The group's manager Alan Strauss was wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, and most of the Del Vikings went to Mercury Records. They had been underage when they signed up with Fee Bee, and Strauss used that loophole to lead them to greener pastures. Kripp Johnson, however, had been legal and had to stay at Fee Bee/Dot.

The resulting split resulted in one group calling itself the the Dell-Vikings (the spelling of the group that released "Whispering Bells") on Dot Records, with Johnson and the returning Don Jackson. The other rival Del-Vikings, as their name was spelled, recorded on Mercury, led by Quick and featuring Wright, Lerchey, Backus and new member William Blakely.

But Johnson's group had an advantage. He had been discharged and his group could tour freely, while the original group still needed leave time in order to tour.

The Mercury Del-Vikings released "Cool Shake" in 1957 with Backus on lead, but record stores were confused by the presence of two different groups. Court action ensued, with Mercury winning the rights to the group and the name the Del Vikings, starting in December.

Mercury didn't wait until December, judges order notwithstanding, before renaming the group the "Del Vikings." The result was that Mercury's Del Vikings and Dot's Dell-Vikings had singles released the same week in June. Mercury's "Cool Shake" sold moderately well. Fee-Bee recorded "I'm Spinning" in October on Dot with Johnson and the Dell-Vikings listed as the artist.

The Fee Bee/Dot Dell-Vikings released a single "Whispering Bells," written by Quick, in the late summer of 1957. It reached number nine on the pop charts.

Kaye also joined the action by taking the original Del Viking demo tape and dubbing a band over the vocals. He sold the album tape to Luniverse Records as well as a 45 with "Over the Rainbow" and "Hey Senorita."

"Over the Rainbow" is one of the great doo wop songs, but never hit it big, probably because of the plethora of Del Vikings floating around when it was released.

With records being issued on four labels by three groups of Del Vikings, they managed three charted singles in August of 1957. No singer before Elvis had charted three times in a month and no artist would do that again until the Beatles in 1964.

Yet another group lineup (with band guitarist Joe Lopes replacing Backus, who was transferred) played alongside Fats Domino and the Diamonds in the movie The Big Beat in 1957. These guys had more spin-offs than "Happy Days!"

The Dot version of the group with Kripp Johnson became known as the Versatiles (a judge's order banned them from using any Del Viking spinoff name), featuring Chuck Jackson, Chuck Jackson, Arthur Budd, and Ed Everette, and recorded without much success. The group broke up, with Jackson going on to a successful solo career as an R&B artist with Scepter/Wand and Motown.

Johnson's contract with Fee Bee terminated in 1958 and he rejoined his original Del Vikings buds at Mercury, effectively killing off the second group. But while the nucleus of the group was back, it never scored another big hit.

Quick restructured the group with new talent from the Pittsburgh area (Willie Green, Douglass White, Billy Woodruff, and Ritzy Lee), and inked a contract with ABC-Paramount, but still had little recording success. The group had a brief revival under Quick in 1972 when they recorded a new version of "Come Go With Me" for the New York-based Scepter label.

In 1980, Kripp Johnson formed his own Dell-Vikings with Wright, Lerchey, Ritzy Lee, and John Byas. Quick passed away in 1985 and Johnson in 1990.

However, Wright continues to keep the original Del Viking's name alive today, performing with his sons Norman Jr. and Anthony along with Mike Machado. And he makes a point of it, so audiences know that he is the only original Del Viking still standing. (EDIT - Norman Wright, Sr. passed away during April of 2010 at the age of 72, the last of the original Del Vikings. His sons are keeping the group going.)

Of course there's a competing Dell Vikings on the oldies circuit. It consists of Arthur "Kooky" Martinez, Les Levine, Ron Coleman, Reggie Walker and Louis Velez, the old Clarence Quick version of the DV's, and still maintains a racially mixed group.

Whether they were spelling their name Del-Vikings, Del Vikings, or Dell-Vikings, the group left behind a great body of R&B and doo wop work. The Del Vikings were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2005 (although we have no idea what the lineup would be. Good luck on that.)

"Come Go with Me" and "Whispering Bells" are still popular movie fodder, included in the soundtracks American Graffiti, American Hot Wax, The Hollywood Knights, Diner, Stand by Me, and Joe Versus the Volcano.

If only they could have stuck together, the Del Vikings could have been one of the great R&B groups of the era, bridging the doo wop sound to Motown. And as is, they created enough music to almost justify them being four groups at once. It was worth the confusion.

Friday, March 28, 2008

prince of pistolvania

wiz khalifa
Wiz Khalifa

Cameron Thomaz was born in Minot, North Dakota in 1987 to military parents and moved to Pittsburgh at the age of 2. You probably know him as Wiz Khalifa. His show biz name came from Khalifa, an Arabic word meaning "successor", and Wisdom, which was shortened to Wiz when Khalifa was 15.

He roamed all over the world during the next thirteen years as an Army brat. He would move between Pittsburgh and South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Germany, Japan, and England as his family hopped from one military base to another.

In October of 1990, Khalifa was separated from his mother, who left him in the hands of her sister while she served in Operation Desert Storm. He was always in new schools, and friends would come and go. And like many kids in unsettled circumstances, he developed an identity through music. (Today he's 6'5" and has ink from neck to toe; Wiz would be a standout with or without rap.)

By the age of 14, he had a few songs under his belt. Ready to move on up, Khalifa began to record in Lawrenceville's ID Labs, where owner Eric Dan recognized his talents with a beat. Along with Chad Glick of ID Labs, they turned to another Pittsburgh native, Benjy Grinberg, to take the next step.

Grinberg was a former executive assistant at Arista Records who had started up a new independent label, Rostrum Records, in Pittsburgh. Signed to Rostrum, Khalifa built a buzz in town.

He began to draw serious notice during his senior year at Allderdice (the same school Pittsburgh Slim went to, making it the hip hop high of Pittsburgh) with his first mixtape, "Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania", in early 2006. (No, "Pistolvania" isn't a Khalifa invention. We can't trace its' orgin, but think it started out east, as in "Kiladephelia, Pistolvania.")

Khalifa has released an album, three mixtapes (EP's), and a half dozen singles for Rostrum so far. Following the release of his full-length debut, "Show and Prove," later in 2006, major music publications began to beat a path to his door.

Rolling Stone called him a “New Artist To Watch” and his "Pittsburgh Sound" video was selected for the Editor’s Hot List a few months later. Mass Appeal featured him as its' lead artist for 2007’s “Next of Kin.”

He was written up by VIBE magazine as “an East Coast star in the waiting,” while also featured as a “Next” artist. Major Euro magazines also took notice of the 20-year old with features in UK’s Hip-Hop Connection and France’s RAP US.

In early 2007, Khalifa won “Best Male Artist” and "Lyrcist Of The Year” at the Pittsburgh Hip Hop awards. A couple of months later, he made hip hop history for his home town by signing a major record deal with Warner Brothers, the first 'Burgh-based rapper to ink a national contract. In summer 2007, Khalifa and Rostrum joined Warner and cut his first major label single, "Young'n on His Grind."

Besides heavy local and some national airplay, plus touring exposure, he has leaned mightily on the web to spread his sounds. Khalifa gets lots of love back from the online hip hop community. named him as one of the Best New Artists of 2006. His debut street album “Show and Prove” was labeled by as “arguably the best hip hop release of the year”. The "Prince of the City" had nine songs featured on’s “Bangers” section and seven on’s media zone.

Khalifa premiered his video “Pittsburgh Sound” on the Net and it took off. In the spring of 2007 FUSE TV debuted it on cable, and it was chosen by the fans as an "Oven Fresh Keeper." In the summer of 2007, he put out a new mixtape, “Grow Season,” with DJ Green Lantern, performed on the DUB tour, and released another Net video for “Youngin On His Grind."

He's also getting his music out by playing live with national acts such as Nas, T.I., Rich Boy, Lil Scrappy, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, The Clipse, Ghostface, Lupe Fiasco, Styles P, and Bone Thugs N Harmony.

In late 2009, he parted ways with Warner Brothers; it seems the original suits he dealt with are no longer with the label, and they never released a Khalifa CD.

So Wiz is back on his own, releasing some mix tapes and redoubling his web efforts (he did keep control of his Warner material). In fact, his Tweeter account alone has over 40,000 subscribers. He's recently released "Deal or No Deal," through Rostrum Records, Frank Radio and iHipHop Distribution.

"Deal or No Deal" hit the #1 spot on iTunes Top Hip Hop/Rap Albums in November. It was followed by "Kush & Orange Juice," a mixtape that became the rage of the Internet. An readers poll voted him the Hottest Breakthrough MC of 2010; he outpolled 19 other artists, including Nicki Minaj.

He appeared at New York's annual Rock the Bells festival in June, and began his 70-city "Waken Baken" tour in Philly in September of 2010. Beside getting Khalifa busted for weed, which is about as hard as getting Santa arrested for reindeer abuse, it also left a series of packed houses in its wake.

Khalifa helped christen the Northshore AE Amphitheater in mid-December with a couple of sold-out shows, and released a new album, "Rolling Papers," on the Atlantic label in March, 2011.

The 'Burgh anthem "Black and Yellow," from his Atlantic/Rostrum debut, was top ten on the iTunes hip-hop chart, and it vaulted into the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, making him the first Pittsburgh-based artist to crack the Top Forty since X-Tina, Christina Aguilera. After 18 weeks on the Hot 100, it finally hit the top spot, one week after the Super Bowl.

Recognition for the artist just kept pilin' up. The Pittsburgh rapper won the 2010 Woodie "Artist of the Year" honor, awarded by mtvU at the SXSW Music Conference in Austin, outpolling Arcade Fire, Black Keys, LCD Soundsystem and a college fan vote.

Khalifa's sound has been compared to Bone Thugs N Harmony, but it's distinctly his own, rap with a sort of dance hall ambiance and some great wordplay in the lyrics. Wiz Khalifa has broken out of the local market and is a national phenomena now - all because of a home town rap.

Wiz Khalifa - "Black and Yellow"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

stay baby stay

otis, johnny daye, steve cropper
Otis Redding, Johnny Daye & Steve Cropper from Stax Records

Johnny Daye (born John DiBucci) was one of the top white soul singers of the '60s. He made the rounds of the the Chitlin circuit (he performed at the Apollo several times as part of Bobby Bland's review) and did the college gig scene. He had an electrifying stage act that was compared to the Godfather of Soul's performances.

Daye would slide, dip, and strut on stage just like a blue eyed James Brown (without the falling down and being dragged off stage by his cape bit). Born and still living around Pittsburgh, he did a lot of the local shows as a headliner.

Johnny Nash signed him to Jomada Records where he cut "Marry Me" b/w "Give Me Back My Ring" in 1965 (quick engagement, hey?) and "A Lot of Progress" b/w "You're on Top" for Parkway Cameo Records in 1966. Both were produced by Nash. He also recorded on Blue Star Records, taping "I'll Keep on Loving You."

Otis Redding, who befriended the singer and served as his mentor, as he did with Arthur Conley, brought Daye to Stax Records. He released a pair of powerful 45's for the label, produced by Booker T's sideman Steve Cropper.

"I Need Somebody" was the flip to "What I'll Do For Satisfaction" (which Janet Jackson covered in her Janet CD of 1993 and shows up in several Stax retrospectives) featuring the Muscle Shoals beat, brass, and Daye's great pipes.

The second, "Stay Baby Stay" b/w "I Love Love," is a deep soul ballad. The tracks were recorded live, with backing from the Sweet Inspirations.

The label didn't push any of his songs, and none of his records ever charted. The Stax sides were Daye's last known recordings. He never cut an LP, and seemed to have fallen off of the face of the earth after the death of his sponsor, Otis Redding, much like Conley.

That is, until last year, when a Mon Valley blues label, Bonedog Records, released “Stirrin’ Up Bees,” Robert Peckman's first solo album. He's yet another underappreciated soul man from the City who somehow stirred Daye out of his self imposed deep freeze and back to the mike.

Bonedog honcho Jeffrey Ingersoll managed to coax Daye out of retirement to sing two songs. "He was a little reluctant,” Peckman told the Beaver County Times. “He told me he hadn’t been in a studio in more than 30 years and I said, so what, let’s just have some fun.” And they did.

Daye's two tracks, "Let's Talk It Over" & "Stop And Take A Look," just about steal the album. He never missed a beat; it was like 1965 all over again.

And like all fairy tale endings, our hero resurrects his career ala Roy Orbison and reclaims his rightful spot in the Pittsburgh blues Olympus, right? Well, not exactly. Johnny Daye is still in the area, doing whatever it is he does. His entire recorded discography now consists of 12 songs. And that's a pity for the local soul crowd, as the vid below proves:

Monday, March 24, 2008

No, Not Much...

The Vogues from Wikipedia

Formed in Turtle Creek in 1960 at the height of the doo-wop era, The Vogues were one of Pittsburgh's hottest vocal groups. The original lineup was Bill Burkette (lead baritone), Don Miller (baritone), Hugh Geyer (first tenor), Chuck Blasko (second tenor), and Neil Foster.

They originally called themselves The Val-Aires. Their only record they put out under that name was "Launie, My Love"/"Which One Will It Be?" It was released by local label Willett Records, owned by the group's manager, Elmer Willett, in 1959. It was distributed nationally on Coral Records in 1960.

They also cut "I Go Lookin' For Jeanie," a previously unreleased Val-Aire track featured on the Itzy CD Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits Volume III.

The Turtle Creek High School classmates dug the sounds of such groups as The Four Lads, The Four Freshman and the Dells. “We tried to develop the same kinds of harmonies, but we added our own twist that gave us our sound,” Blasko told the Johnstown Tribune Democrat. They featured a modern, more upbeat arrangement for their songs.

After disbanding in the early 1960s thanks to the army, college and real jobs, the group got back together in 1965 (minus Foster) and adopted The Vogues as their new name.

Actually, the name adopted them. It was taken from Vogue Terrace, a dance hall that also housed Willett Records in North Versailles. It was owned by Willett and was a regular stop on the hop circuit for the group during their Val-Aire days. They had no input in choosing the name, though - it appeared on the label, and presto, they became The Vogues.

For their first release as the Vogues, they chose a folksy pop tune written by Petula Clark and Tony Hatch, "You're The One", releasing it on the Nick Cenci Blue Star label in 1965. The record caught on locally, and they were moved to Cenci and Herb Cohen's main Co & Ce Records label after a spat with another Blue Star impress.

When the record hit it big in the states, Pet Clark's people released it England, where it charted. But she never competed with the Vogues in the US, generously allowing them the limelight.

One tale involving that tune was that Cenci first had Sonny DiNunzio's Fenways record "You're The One," but handed it off to The Vogues because he preferred Burkette's voice. It's said the original version had The Vogues singing over The Fenway's backing tracks, with some strings added to the second pressing.

Cut at Gateway Recording above the National Record Mart store in downtown Pittsburgh, the song and its' blue collar follow-up, "Five O'Clock World," shot up to No. 4 on the Billboard charts while hitting No. 1 in Pittsburgh.

"Five O'Clock World" was featured on the soundtrack of the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam,” the third "Final Destination" flick and then popped up again in the 1990s as one of “The Drew Carey Show” themes.

The song was written by Allen Reynolds, who went on become Garth Brooks' record producer. The instrumental tracks were laid down in Nashville, and several songs released by The Vogues had then-session player Duane Allman backing them, although it's not known exactly which songs he played on. Local lore claims Allman laid down the opening 12-string riff, but even the group doesn't know who the studio players were for "Five O'Clock World."

Tony Moon, though, cleared up the session musician mystery for us in a post. He wrote "As the producer of the music track for 5 O'Clock World, I DO know who played the opening riff on the accoustic 12 string. It was Chip Young a/k/a Jerry Stembridge, who became a well known session player in Nashville. The other guitarist on that session was Mac Gayden, who was responsible for that deep 'drone' sound he got through a Magnatone amp."

"I hired Duane Allman (his first 'name artist' session) to play on some other sides, which strangely have never been released. The great Bill Pursell ('Our Winter Love') played piano and had those memorable octave licks at the end of the record." So now that's put to rest. Thanks, Tony.

Their sound took The Vogues around the world, performing from coast to coast and from continent to continent. “When we were on top, we were doing as many as 280 one nighters that took us from England to Singapore,” Blasko said. “There were many times I didn’t know what city I was in because our schedule was so hectic.”

Besides touring the world, The Vogues appeared on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Mike Douglas Show" and on Clark Race's "Bandstand" aired by KDKA-TV.

Two more hits, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil's "Magic Town" and "The Land of Milk and Honey," made Billboard's Top 40 in 1966. But the group's popularity waned after that, a victim of the British Invasion and the limitations of a local label.

In 1968 they signed with Reprise Records and crossed over to the MOR market and a more vocal style. The hits kept coming. They had seven Top 30 tunes during their career, including two more Top 10 songs in 1968, "Turn Around, Look at Me" (the group's only million-selling platter), a Glen Campbell song, and a cover of Bobby Helms' "My Special Angel." The song "Till" clocked in at #27.

They also cut "Moments To Remember," "Earth Angel," and "No, Not Much." Their last song to hit the charts was the old Jimmy Beaumont standard "Since I Don't Have You." Overall, The Vogues had a total of 14 Billboard Hot 100 songs and 17 Top 50 Adult Contemporary charters.

They faded as recording artists in the 1970s when the vocal scene lost steam, but various combinations of singers hit the clubs as The Vogues and continued to perform live before enthusiastic packed houses.

The Vogues gave up their name and the right to use it, and that led to quite a bit of confusion.

In 1974, after obtaining majority ownership of the freshly trademarked Vogues name for the first time in their career, they turned around and sold their share to the minority owner a few months later. The terms were that Burkette and Blasko (Miller and Geyer had retired) could continue to perform as The Vogues within 50 miles of Pittsburgh, and the trademark owners, Boyle and Barron, could hire other singers to perform outside of that area.

A suit ensued in 1979 after The Vogues roamed outside their assigned area, and the judge limited the original Vogues' to the 14 counties of southwest Pennsylvania. Blasko continues to perform as "Chuck Blasko & The Vogues" in the region while Burkette and Geyer, who unretired, tour the country as the 'trademark' Vogues.

Blasko testified for the Trademark Amendments Act of 1999, and the explanation of the deal was that the group thought they were inking a new performing contract, not giving away their name, a compelling lesson in reading what you sign before rather than after the fact.

"Our goal was to have some fun and maybe get a hit record," Blasko told the Post Gazette. "None of us, including me, planned to make performing a career." Well, The Vogues are still crooning out their soaring doo wop harmonies, and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001. Sounds like they're still having big fun to us.

Friday, March 21, 2008

the pride of pittsburgh

victor herbert
Victor Herbert from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was founded by the Pittsburgh Arts Society when it hired conductor Frederic Archer in 1895. He brought along a number of musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (and they accused the baseball team of being pirates!)

He led the PSO in its initial concert the following year. The Orchestra played in its' first home, Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall on Forbes Avenue, into the mid 1920s.

Archer left in 1898 and was replaced by Victor Herbert. Herbert was a showman, and he led the PSO with flair and flamboyance if not exactly classical righteousness.

In its second season, the Orchestra received an invitation to perform two concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Andrew Carnegie agreed to finance the trip. The critics debated Herbert's talents, but ticket sales soared. Audiences flocked to hear him conduct a repertoire that included many of his own works. The PSO was off and running.

Emil Paur took over in 1904, and he brought a classical playlist with him. He had served as conductor of the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Paur nixed the show tunes and replaced them with a heavy dose of Brahms, whose music was thought to be too advanced for most audiences of the era. It's national rep as a long hair orchestra took off.

Paur remained at the head of the Orchestra until it disbanded in 1910, a victim of the global panic of 1907. The PSO benefactors largesse dried up. Internal problems wracked the Orchestra, too - he had replaced many of the area musicians with European players, and the locals refused to sign a contract with the PSO. At least that strike didn't require any Pinkertons to resolve.

It took 16 years, but the band finally reformed. They immediately got in trouble, being taken to court for it's Sunday Concert Series which violated Pennsylvania's Blue Laws.

Many of it's players were under contract to other groups, and Sunday was their only day off. In fact, they threw together the money to run the Orchestra as a labor of love. Butting heads with the state ended up as good way to get some ink and hit the ground running after the down time.

In 1936, the Symphony's concerts were broadcast nationally. Then the PSO hired renowned conductor Otto Klemperer in 1937 to reorganize and expand the Orchestra. A natural teacher, he is credited with turning the PSO into a powerhouse.

He brought Fritz Reiner aboard as Music Director. The Orchestra's reputation grew by leaps and bounds, netting the ensemble a recording contract and an invitation to perform abroad. Several composers had the PSO perform world premieres under Reiner's direction.

He had a hair trigger temper and demanded perfection from his players. His baton work featured small, tight movements which were tough to follow and forced the musicians to keep on their eyes on the maestro if they wanted to stay in sync.

At one rehearsal a bass player put a telescope on the boss. When he explained to Reiner that he was "trying to find the beat," the conductor fired him on the spot. German conductors were never noted for their sense of humor.

Women joined the Orchestra for the first time during World War II. Eighteen came aboard in 1942 and twenty-four more in 1944.

In its 23 years under the direction of William Steinberg (1952-1976), the PSO became a top flight ensemble and a local hit. By 1961, audiences had increased 250 percent.

What's more, in the five preceding years, the PSO was the only American orchestra to sell out all its concerts through season ticket sales. And you thought the Steelers and Pens were the only Pittsburgh shows with a waiting list!

In 1964, the PSO embarked on an 11-week, 24,000 mile tour of Europe and the Near East, sponsored by the State Department. The trip helped shed Pittsburgh's Smoky City image and elevated the concept of American culture abroad.

It switched halls in 1971. Some of the Orchestra's best work, both live and recorded, was done in the Syria Mosque in Oakland where the PSO performed from 1926 until 1971. The building was demolished in 1992 to the dismay of many, but hey, Oakland needed another parking lot. Pitt and UPMC even bid against one another for the honor.

Its' replacement, Heinz Hall, was plenty spiffy with room to grow and great acoustics, and would eventually become the anchor of Pittsburgh's Downtown Cultural District.

Violinist Paul Ross and pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, both Westinghouse High grads, were hired in the 1965-66 season and were the first Afro-Americans in the Pittsburgh Symphony. It's had two to four black players every season since. Not a lot of diversity, but a good showing for the classical world.

More confident of itself, the PSO returned to its' roots and hired Andre Previn as batonmeister. Jazz and pop once again flowed from the pits, along with the usual opuses. In 1977, it made its' national debut on PBS with "Previn and the Pittsburgh." Alcoa sponsored the award-winning series, which ran for three years.

When Previn left in 1984, Lorin Maazel became the man. The Orchestra gained further stature when he led it on tours of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, added first-rank players, and programmed seasons that both sold well and caught the critic's eye. The PSO became one of the world's renowned orchestras.

He was a local boy of sorts, having trained in Pittsburgh and played for the PSO. The musicians loved him, and so did the audiences. The Orchestra recorded often under him and won a Grammy for its 1992 album with Yo-Yo Ma. He dedicated entire seasons to individual composers. Maazel took the PSO one step beyond into the elite.

In 1995, the PSO lured Marvin Hamlisch as the Orchestra's first Principal Pops Conductor in a coup of sorts. Victor Herbert would be so proud.

After a dozen years, Maazel hung up the baton and Mariss Janson took the lead as Musical Director. In 2004, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Gilbert Levine, became the first American orchestra to play for the Pope.

It took a team effort to replace Janson when he abruptly departed in 2004. Sir Andrew Davis (Artistic Advisor); Yan Pascal Tortelier (Principal Guest Conductor); and Marek Janowski (Endowed Guest Conductor), were hired, and each has his own area of expertise to contribute to the cause. This setup lasted through 2007.

The PSO returned to a more traditional leadership heirarchy. Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck became the PSO's ninth music director in 2007. The Orchestra announced that American conductor Leonard Slatkin would become it's principal guest conductor beginning in the 2008-2009 season. That's today's lineup (I think.) And yes, you do need a scorecard. At least I do.

The orchestra has had some cash flow problems, which hopefully have been rectified, and suffer from an occasional uprising from the players in the pits, not unusual in the music business. But it's still a world class organization, playing to appreciative houses, touring the world and recording. They still draw well earned accolades in the world of classical music.

The PSO has served majestically in its' century plus of music making. They've recently returned from a 13 city European tour celebrating the city's 250th anniversary and just might be our greatest international promotional tool. Pittsburgh would be hard pressed to come up with a better, more enduring and endearing musical face to show the world.

(The history of the PSO was mostly taken from the Pittsburgh Symphony. If you want a more in depth look at its' past, this is the place.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

in heaven there is no beer...

versa j's
The Versa J's

Hey, what would a Pittsburgh music blog be without a polka band? Today's post will feature Henny and the Versa J's, a Grammy nominated group that was founded in 1972 but whose family roots stretch back much further, to patriarch Henry Jasiewicz, Sr.

The twelve year old Jasiewicz used to practice playing a muted trumpet in his basement, often while his parents were sleeping (lots of luck with that!) He also mastered the violin, hopefully during the day.

His polka career began in 1935 when he helped organize the Polish Ambassadors Orchestra. Jasiewicz also DJ'd a weekly radio show over WHJB radio in Greensburg. A busy man, he played for the Silver Moon Orchestra, the Sunset Orchestra and the Polish Diplomats, too.

Jasiewicz began teaching his son Henny, who was 7 years old, to play trumpet. He then formed the Bell Hops Orchestra whose members were all under the age of 12.

He passed along his love of music to daughter Dee-Dee. By the age of 9, she was singing with the group. When the Bell Hops disbanded, Jasiewicz began playing with his family in the Polish All Stars Orchestra.

He cut numerous 45's throughout the years and recorded with the Bell Hops. Jasiewicz wrote most of their original music, and taped four albums with Henny and the Versa J's. He recorded more than 20 of his songs with the band while his wife Josephine wrote most of the lyrics.

Henry Jasiewicz is a member of the International Polka Hall of Fame, being selected in 1991. He also appeared in the movie "In Heaven There is No Beer". Henry's among the dearly departed now, but his music lives on through his family's band.

Henry's son Henny formed the Versa J's in 1972 when the Polish All Stars disbanded. Henry continued to play in the family band along with son Henny, grandson Butchie, daughter Dee Dee, son-in-law Stas Ogrodny and now, grandson Ryan. Ryan was singing with the band as a 3 year old and learning the violin on the knee of his "Pappi," Henry.

Henny Jasiewicz started playing trumpet 51 years ago with the Bell Hops along with Frank Gibala, who still plays clarinet and sax in the band with him today. Sister Dee-Dee plays the keyboard and bass.

In 1979, she married Stas (short for Stush, which is short for Stan) Ogrodny, who also grew up playing polka music (Stas’ uncle Joe Fiedor started the Fiedor’s Grove club in Mount Pleasant.) Stas plays the trumpet and sings.

In 1985, Henny’s son Butchie (aka Henry Jasiewicz, Jr.) joined the Versa J’s on drums. In 1988, Dee-Dee and Stas’ 3-year-old son, Ryan, joined the group on vocals and violin. In 1995, Randy Koslosky, who also grew up in a family polka band, hooked up with the music makers. He's featured on the accordion, keyboards, and vocals.

The band's made eight albums. From 1991-2004, Dee Dee Ogrodny was selected as Polka's Favorite Female Singer by either the US or International Polka Association, and 8 times by both. Ryan, a Duquesne U. student, has received many different national and local awards for his violin work. He also sings, and plays the trumpet and sax.

In 2004, the Versa J's were nominated for a polka Grammy for their CD "Come On Over", which was picked as the album of the year by the International Polka Association, 247 Polka Heaven, and the US Polka Association. The tracks were so good that three different ones were selected as Song of the Year by the award groups. But alas, they lost out on the Grammy to Brave Combo's (from Texas!) "Let's Kiss."

In true polka tradition, the Versa J's are one big happy family. And if you're looking to add a little hoopa shoopa to your life, find a hall the band's playing at, kick off your shoes and twirl the night away. Polkas don't need a wedding to get your feet moving.

(Henny and the Versa J's On Q. The groups web site is The Versa J's)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Girl Talk

girl talk
Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk from Wikipedia

Girl Talk is the stage name of music producer and mashup performer - don't call him a DJ - Gregg Gillis. We're not certain how the moniker Girl Talk came to be; take your pick:

He told one magazine that it alluded to a Jim Morrison poem and another that it came from an early Merzbow side project. Of course, as he's a sample artist, it's only fair to note that "Girl Talk" was originally a short lived synth-pop sister act from England in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, Girl Talk it is.

Gillis, 26, has released three CDs on his Illegal Art label and some vinyl tracks on 333 and 12 Apostles. He's putting the finishing touches on a new CD with the working titles of "Death Sucks" or "Feed the Animals" (FTA was released in 2008). Gillis likes to work at his own pace, putting out an album every two years or so.

Until last summer, he earned his daily bread as a biomed tech. Gillis never told his cubicle mates about his act. He was afraid they'd be too weirded out, and even turned down a local newspaper interview to keep his moonlighting gig under wraps.

“I worked as an engineer, which is a conservative crowd, so there was no real reason to tell them about it,” Gillis told Pitchfork Magazine. “It would be very difficult for them to understand, ‘Well I play a laptop and sometimes I take my shirt off, and I drive to Cincinnati.’"

It's not that he left on bad terms. “The reason I quit was not to sustain this as a career, I just couldn’t keep up with both worlds. I’d be happy to go back to the day job in a year if it didn’t work out,” he explained.

Until he made his art a full time vocation, he had been working five days a week before playing shows on the weekend. Once he flew to London to open for Beck on Saturday before coming back to go to work on Monday. Now Gillis is bring home enough bacon through his touring to avoid the hassle.

He told Heavy in the Streets magazine "I’ve had a pretty smart schedule. I had a day job for a long time, so I was only performing on weekends. I quit my job and kept the same touring schedule. I’m in Pittsburgh Monday through Thursday and then usually I just have shows on Friday and Saturday." He tours nationally, and has even performed in Australia.

Gillis likes living in the 'Burgh (he's a Chartiers Valley HS grad) and being the big fish in a small pond. "It's cool. There are a lot of interesting bands but I don't know where I fit in here. I have my small little cult following. I play random shows from house parties to opening up for rock bands. There aren't people doing similar things to me and I'm not looking up to anyone and nobody's biting me."

In fact, even today Gillis has a low profile. Until he gets on stage, his fans rarely recognize him, allowing him to mingle with his base and get their true take on his work.

Pitchfork asked if he was ready to tackle the Big Apple, and he said "I think if I lived in New York I would be really stressed out going out to a club and seeing a good DJ who's doing something on a similar level. It would stress me out to feel like I needed to be one upping someone. In Pittsburgh, I'm in my own world-- I know I'm the guy doing this here."

In high school, Gillis was a sort of self-defined performance artist with a thing for avant-garde noise. But as he got older, the idea of adding a beat to his "noise" took hold.

He began Girl Talk in 2000 while a student at Case Western Reserve University. Gillis specializes in sample driven remixes, in which he splices at least a dozen riffs from different songs to create a new song. When he performs, his only instrument is his laptop computer.

At his early shows, Gillis became notorious for his exhibitionist antics on stage, often spinning his songs in his boxer shorts to an equally stripped down dance crowd. Even now, he has crowd members come up on stage and boogie to his beat. Gillis covers his instrument, a laptop, in Glad plastic wrap and Scotch tape to protect it from the beer, sweat and whatever else oozing off the fans onstage with him.

He released two mash-up albums before his breakthrough CD, Night Ripper. Gillis combs through a virtual library of songs ranging from classic rock (he's into Nirvana) to rap (he's a fan of Public Enemy), cobbling together samples into a whole in a process that he refers to as “retexturizing.”

He takes them from popular sources, too. He's a self confessed radio junkie, and there aren't very many obscure acts getting sampled in his tracks. Who else would put Biggie's "Juicy" over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"? Most of his samples are so well known that sometimes his gigs break out into sing-alongs.

Everything on his CD is taken from someone else. He told MSNBC “This remix culture where everything is recycled is a sign of the times. Every kid uses Photoshop and every kid downloads images to manipulate them. Pretty soon audio mixing programs are going to become a lot more user friendly and with every song that comes out there’s going to be fifth graders remixing it for fun. And that’s cool.”

"I think you can play a sample just like someone can play a guitar, and it can be just as original. It’s clearly taking pre-existing ideas, putting your own twist on it, and making something new."

But his work is a lawsuit waiting to happen since he pays no royalties for the songs he samples. Gillis estimates that with over 300 samples on Night Ripper, the album would have to be sold for hundreds of dollars just to cover the copyright fees. But because of the "fair use" doctrine, he feels safe about his work.

Gillis told Pitchfork that if he got a cease and desist from someone in the industry "I don't know if Illegal Art would want to fight it or not. I would just start giving away the samples and I'm sure the publicity from that would probably spread the music to a few more people."

"At this point I would love for Illegal Art to break even, which I think will be the case. I would give this music away as downloads for free straight up, if I could still be considered a legitimate musician releasing stuff for free."

He has his defenders in the copyright brouhaha. His congressman, Mike Doyle, backed him in Washington hearings held on the subject. And while the threat of a suit is in the back of his mind, he says he's gotten nothing but love from the artists and labels so far. Free publicity trumps legal fees.

Paris Hilton danced onstage with him at Coachella. He's appeared in 2006’s Playgirl Man of the Year issue. Girl Talk was featured in Good Copy Bad Copy, a documentary film about remix culture.

"Feed the Animals," his 2008 album, was number four on Time's Top 10 Albums of 2008. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars and ranked the album #24 on their Top 50 albums of 2008; Blender magazine rated it the second-best recording/album of 2008 and NPR listeners rated it the 16th best album of the year.

In November, 2010, Gillis released the fifth Girl Talk album, “All Day” with its 373 samples as a free download on his Illegal Art site. Traffic was so heavy that MTV News ran the headline “Girl Talk Apologizes for Breaking the Internet.” And it was true, kind of. "All Day” was downloaded so often that the IA servers crashed.

He's toured the world around and then some, and opened Stage AE on the North Shore in early December of 2010, selling out two nights. Hey, Pittsburgh City Council even declared December 7th, 2010, “Gregg Gillis Day.”

Gregg Gillis and Girl Talk are local proof that you don't need to be a guitar hero to live out your rock and roll fantasy.

(You can keep up with Gregg Gillis at Girl Talk My Space. Much of this post was lifted from Pitchfork's excellent interview of Gillis.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Handyman Negri

Joe Negri
Joe Negri

Joe Negri grew up on Mount Washington, and by the time he was 3, he was already performing. He sang on the weekly "Uncle Henry" children's show, a 1930s radio program on KDKA, airing tunes such as "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Love Thy Neighbor". Negri's early talents earned him accolades as one of Pittsburgh's “Stars of Tomorrow.”

"I think it was the hope and dream of many parents during the 1930s that their children, if they had musical talent, would make it to Hollywood," Negri told the Post Gazette's Nate Guidry, sitting at a table in his home in Scott.

"We were hard-pressed for money, and many child performers were making it big in Hollywood, people like Shirley Temple, Jackie Cooper and Judy Garland."

Negri never made it to Hollywood, but he did pretty well staying in Pittsburgh.

After the radio show, his dad Michael gave him a ukulele, and he began to sing and accompany himself on stage. The solo act grew into "Joe Negri and the Rhythm Boys," a group that featured his brother, Bobby, and his cousin, Harold "Mutsy" Amato.

Still, Negri wasn't happy, and for a while he lost interest in music. A voice change shook his confidence and Negri stopped performing. Shortly after, he began to seriously study the guitar. For the next five years, Negri took lessons from Victor Lawrence, who had a studio at Volkwein's Music on Liberty Avenue.

"My dad was having a tough time trying to keep me focused," says Negri. "I was playing well and could even play 'Flight of the Bumblebee,' (an especially advanced piece for guitarists.) I was 13, and I really wanted to become a sports announcer."

He was hoping to follow in the footsteps of his childhood idols, Pirate broadcasters Bob Prince and Rosey Roswell.

Concerned, his dad introduced him to the late Dom Trimarkie, a local accordion player and family friend. "My dad told Trimarkie, 'I don't know what to do with this kid. He doesn't seem to want to play anymore. Maybe you can come down and talk to him.'"

"I took him under my wing," says Trimarkie. "His dad asked me to help him, and I am proud of what that kid has become. I took him around town and introduced him to some of the players. We eventually worked together at the Roosevelt and William Penn hotels and other places. He did all right for himself."

The Pirate's loss would become Pittsburgh's music game's gain.

After Negri started playing again, he joined a local dance band and was introduced to jazz recordings by guitarists Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Les Paul. He was hooked on their music.

When Shep Fields had an opening for a guitar player, Negri quit school and joined his swing band at the tender age of 16. The group crisscrossed the country and featured the licks of saxophonist Serge Chaloff, who later joined Woody Herman's Second Herd.

He also became a featured member of the Fields' band and traveled nationally with them for a couple of years, when a two year Army stint sidetracked his career.

After his discharge, Negri turned down the chance to join Woody Herman's band because he wanted to return to Pittsburgh. "I had been gone since I was 16. I never really had the constitution for the road," he says.

He eventually started the Joe Negri Trio with his brother Bobby, a pianist, and bassist John Vance. The group worked in popular local clubs such as the Midway Lounge, Mercer's and the Hollywood Showbar.

"The scene was really great then," recalls Negri, whose group would back up featured artists such as Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge.

In 1950, Negri met the late pianist Johnny Costa, who was to become music director of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He encouraged Negri to attend Carnegie Mellon University.

"Johnny kept saying, 'Why don't you come to school?'" Negri was always interested in writing music, so he had an audition and was accepted into the music school as a composition major.

"I picked up a lot of stuff growing up -- pop, jazz -- and I knew about harmony. But I had never had any real formal training," he says. "I learned about harmony and counterpoint. It was like this great awakening."

Negri continued to perform in clubs and concerts. During a performance at Conneaut Lake in 1953, he met his future wife, Joni Serafini. The couple were married a year later and have three daughters.

"She has helped me to organize my career," he says of Joni. "She has made a business of my career. She convinced me to stop quoting 1950 prices for my band."

They seriously considered making a move to the Big Apple shortly after they were hitched. New York City's recording studios, the major radio stations and TV networks represented the big time of 1950's music action.

Negri and his wife visited with several musician friends that lived there and they checked out the music scene closely. Even though they found plenty of professional opportunities, the Negri's decided to make Pittsburgh their home.

The thought of raising their new daughter Lisa and a family in NYC's dog eat dog atmosphere overrode any ideas he had of becoming a New York musician. Family trumped fame.

After 2-1/2 years, he left CMU to lead a trio on the "Buzz 'N' Bill Show," a weekday program carried on WDTV-TV (now KDKA) in 1954. The other players were accordionist Trimarkie and bassist Lou Mauro.

After the "Buzz 'N' Bill Show" ended, Negri moved to "The John Reed King Show," a variety-music-talk show. Negri led another trio with drummer Chuck Spadifore and bassist Jimmy DeJulio.

In the early '60s, Negri became music director of WTAE-TV's live programs, a position he held for more than 20 years. It was around this time he entered the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, joining Fred Rogers' cast of characters. A child performer himself, Negri became familiar in neighborhoods throughout America beginning in 1968 when PBS began beaming Fred Rogers' show across the country.

"I'm known to millions of children for my appearances as 'Handyman Negri' on 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood,'” he said in his bio. "That is a role I have played for over 30 years." And it got him national recognition that even the Big Apple couldn't match.

Negri is a part of the second wave of American jazz guitarists that came into prominence after World War II. Some of his peers include Johnny Smith, Jimmy Rainey, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, and Barney Kessel. He was also a friend and fan of the late guitar great Joe Pass.

Negri is recognized as one of the top guns in Pittsburgh music circles and considered among the elite jazz guitarist between New York and Chicago. Apart from his featured concerts, he's in demand as backup guitarist for acts performing in Pittsburgh.

He's featured often as a guest soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Pops. Negri has accompanied performers such as Michael Feinstein, Itzhak Perlman, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Wynton Bradford, Ellis Marsalis, and Yo Yo Ma when they visit the 'Burgh.

As a composer, he has written music for many documentary film scores. In addition, Negri's works include The Crossing (scored for Brass Band and Jazz Trio) and the "Mass of Hope: A Mass in the Jazz Idiom." (scored for mixed choir and jazz ensemble). He's currently composing music set to the poetry of black poets, known as the Black Renaissance Poets.

Negri's written a guitar method book to help pass his knowledge on to other young performers. In 1990, he and drummer H.B. Bennett started the Jazz for Juniors program. He's an associate professor and teacher of jazz guitar at Duquesne, CMU and Pitt. Negri's recorded four albums.

His jazz combo is still very much in demand on the college circuit, at area festivals, and local clubs. They also perform at William Penn Jazz Society nights and Shadyside's Walnut Grille. Negri also played recently at Lincoln Center with the Duquesne Jazz Ensemble in a tribute to Pittsburgh jazz musicians.

In 1999, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust honored Negri by naming him the “Established Artist of the Year.” In 2006, Mayor Bob O'Connor recognized him at the Bidwell Center with a proclamation to honor his contributions to music-based youth education.

He credits his wife, Joni, with moving him along. "She keeps me going," he says shyly. "Truthfully, family is what matters most to me.

"I'm aware of age, the passing of time," the 78 year old Negri told the Post Gazette's Barbara Cloud. "You have to keep up and stay current or you'll fall by the wayside. I try to do that. In this business, age isn't always a positive thing, but I know myself pretty well after all these years, and I know I remain optimistic and energetic."

"Actually, maturity helps me be better, I think. Experience makes me better. I like playing as much as ever -- maybe even more.

"What I like about where I am now," he says thoughtfully, "is that I am more or less in the driver's seat. I can accept or turn down jobs. You know, my job as a musician wasn't always for kicks. I did weddings and stuff. I had a family. It was my job, and I was earning a living."

"I'd like to record more. I'd like to do something by myself that is just Joe, the guitar player."

"Just Joe, the guitar player" - a fitting title for humble homeboy Joe Negri, who along with George Benson give the city two of the top pickers in the business.

(His career is kept up to date on his website Joe Negri. We'd like to recognize and thank the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, from which many of the post's quotes were taken from a series of articles written about Joe Negri over the years.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The First Lady Of Jazz

mary lou williams
Mary Lou Williams from The Kennedy Center

Composer, arranger, and pianist Mary Lou Williams was long regarded as the only major female musician in jazz, both as a player and as a composer. She was instrumental in the development of Kansas City swing and bebop.

Williams was the only elite jazz artist who lived through all the changes in the history of jazz and played the music of each. She successfully made the switch from Swing to Bop to the Modern era without missing a beat.

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs (later Burley, taking her stepfather's name) in Atlanta on May 8, 1910, she grew up in East Liberty as one of eleven children. By the age of six, she had taught herself to play the piano.

She began performing publicly at the age of 7, when she became known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty." In 1924, when she was 14, Williams toured on the Orpheum Circuit. At 15, she sat in on a gig with Duke Ellington.

She vividly recalled a moment that came when she was just 15. One morning at 3 she was jamming with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong entered the room and stopped to listen to her. Mary Lou shyly tells what happened next: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."

In 1925 she joined a group led by sax man John Williams, whom she married. She met him at a show in Cleveland with his group, the Syncopators (sometimes called the "Synco-Jazzers"), and moved with him to Memphis. He assembled a band there which included Williams on piano. In 1929 John Williams joined Andy Kirk's group in Oklahoma City, leaving 19-year-old Mary Lou behind to head the Memphis band for its remaining dates.

Williams eventually joined her husband in Oklahoma City but didn't play for Kirk. He had a pianist, so she just sat in as the need arose. The group, the Twelve Clouds of Joy, moved to Tulsa, where Williams had a day job of transporting bodies for an undertaker.

When the Clouds took a regular gig in Kansas City, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in full time with the band, as well as serving as its' arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Twinklin'," "Cloudy," "Mary's Idea," and "Little Joe from Chicago".

During the winter of 1930-31 Williams went to Chicago to cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," for Brunswick Records. Previously known only as Mary, Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of the label. The record catapulted Williams into the national limelight.

In 1942, Mary Lou, who had divorced Williams, left the Clouds and returned to Pittsburgh. She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece group that included Pittsburgh bebop genius Art Blakey on drums. After a long engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Ellington's orchestra.

Williams joined the band in New York, and then traveled to Baltimore, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpets No End" (1946), her version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." But within a year she had left Baker and the group for good and went to New York.

Williams also arranged for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey, as well as Jimmy Lunceford, whose band helped make Williams' composition "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" a hit. In 1945 she recorded her first opus, "The Zodiac Suite."

In 1946, it was performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic with her and two sidemen, one of the first times that a jazz composition was recognized and played by a symphony orchestra. By now Williams had become an institution in the New York bop scene, penning scores for Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bird Parker, and Thelonious Monk among others. From 1952 to 1954 she was based in Europe, after accepting a gig in England and falling for the continental life.

She returned to the U.S. and took a break from performing, dedicating herself to the Catholic faith, which she joined. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an organization she started to help addicted musicians return to the stage. She opened thrift stores in Harlem, donating the profits and a ten percent tithe of her own earnings to the musicians in need.

Two priests and Gillespie talked her into returning to her music, and she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Gillespie's band. Father Peter O'Brien became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960's.

She remained active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, leading her own groups in New York clubs. Williams composed sacred works for jazz orchestra and voices (she led a choir performing her songs in St. Patrick's Cathedral, drawing 3,000 people), and devoted much of her time to teaching theory and composition.

Weaving her spirituality into her music, Williams recorded the 1963 album "Black Christ of the Andes," dedicated to St. Martin Porres, and in the 1970s she recorded "Mary Lou's Mass," a mix of jazz, R&B, spirituals and gospel music. The work became famous in a version choreographed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Not only was Williams a scholar of jazz, she was an important part of it. As she put it, while others lived through the history of jazz, she played through it. In 1970, as a solo pianist providing her own commentary, she recorded "The History of Jazz." She somehow found the time in 1964 to start the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, too.

Towards the end of her life she received a number of honorary doctorates, and starting in 1977, she taught on the staff of Duke University. In 1978, she performed at the White House "Salute To Jazz" concert for President Jimmy Carter. She was a headliner at Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert that same year.

Williams passed away in 1981 at the age of 71 from cancer in Durham, North Carolina. She laid in state in NYC for two days and was buried in Hazelwood's Calvary Cemetery.

As a testament to her influence, trumpeter Dave Douglas released a CD titled "Soul on Soul" as a tribute to her music while pianist John Hicks released his "Impressions of Mary Lou" accompanied by Pittsburghers Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil Brooks III on drums.

Mary Lou Williams is perhaps Pittsburgh's greatest inspiration in the world of jazz, as both and artist and a human. She was most excellent at both.

Monday, March 10, 2008

not just another joe

joe grushecky
Joe Grushecky

Guitarist and singer Joe Grushecky first stepped on stage in the late seventies as the frontman for the Brick Alley Band, named after a famous (or maybe infamous) McKeesport red light district. In short order, the group become the Iron City Houserockers, a bar band with a jolt of punk.

Their first album Love's So Tough was released in 1979. Its’ production standards left a bit to be desired, but "Dance With Me" and "I Can't Take It" were strong cuts. Filled with harmonica and piano riffs, the music was driven.

Rolling Stone Magazine featured the album as its showcase review under the headline "New American Classic" and called it the "debut record of the year."

The band's follow-up album Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive) is considered a classic for its’ raw energy. The tracks "Old Man Bar" and "Junior's Bar" were its’ highlights. Production was credited to Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, but much of the album was produced by Steven Van Zandt, who didn’t make the credits.

The Iron City Houserockers were being compared to groups like the Clash and they looked like they would become an unstoppable rock force.

The Houserockers' third album, Blood On The Bricks, was more mature and more professionally produced, and Grushecky's ballads measured up to his garage band wailers. Its’ producer was soul legend Steve Cropper. The 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide called it the band's best album, and gave high marks to all three releases.

The band changed its' name to The Houserockers after that, in an effort to shed their image as just a regional Pittsburgh act and hopefully boost national sales of its' records. The subsequent album, Cracking Under Pressure, again drew critical accolades, but didn't sell many records, either. None of them did.

All the albums received rave reviews from Billboard, Creem, The Village Voice and other industry publications. Grushecky was at his pinnacle. "We were this close to making the big, big time," he told CNN, holding up two fingers an inch apart.

But the band never did make a dent in the national scene. "The sales never matched the reviews, ever," he said. "It really took the wind out of our sails," Grushecky recalled.

He tried to explain it. "I don't know if the record company didn't know how to market us, or maybe we didn't have all cylinders firing at the same time." MCA dropped the group, deciding to focus on Meatloaf instead, and the band broke up. Meatloaf???

He did win over one fan, though. He met Bruce Springsteen in New York City in 1980, and "to this day, we're close friends," said Grushecky. They were introduced by Steve Van Zandt. And they still collaborate, sharing a stage whenever they're in the same town.

Springsteen produced Grushecky's 1995 American Babylon CD, played on four of its' tracks, and toured live with the band in support of it for eight days. Grushecky helped cowrite The Boss’ 2005 Grammy winning hit “Code of Silence.”

Grushecky told National Public Radio of his relationship with Springsteen: "He casts a big shadow. You know, it's like playing baseball with Mickey Mantle or Roberto Clemente or playing football with Joe Montana. You work with one of the best and I think that says something about your talent also."

The current lineup goes by the name of Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, and has released several more CD's. Four were Grushecky solo acts, and seven others were with the Houserockers.

The band lost its’ punk image and starting pumping out blues, roots rock, hard rock, pop, and even some crossover country. They are still one helluva good bar band. You couldn’t get within a block of the old Decade in Oakland when they were playing.

The Houserockers still fill nightclubs of all shapes and sizes in the East. They've also toured overseas a few times in venues teeming with appreciative audiences with an ear for good ol’ American rock and roll.

They’ve packed houses like the Tradewinds NJ, The Stone Pony, and Fat City. Grushecky has shared the stage with Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Southside Johnny, along with many other bands. The Houserockers could easily make their living in Asbury Park if Grushecky and the boys weren’t such yinzers at heart.

Grushecky has a devoted fan base, which he describes as "a pretty loyal bunch. I like to think they're a little more intelligent than the average rock fan. It takes a little bit more effort to be a Grushecky fan," he said with a laugh.

He and his band are almost famous rock and rollers. But music is just an avocation now. Holding a special ed degree and a gaggle of postgraduate credits (his dad, a coal miner, told him to get an education in case the music gig didn't pay the bills), Grushecky’s real job is teaching special needs kids. It’s a high stress, high burnout career, and he's been doing it for more than 25 years.

"He's the patron saint of causes," says Larry Kuzmanko, director of special events for Allegheny County's Parks. And a pretty good humanitarian, too. He puts his money where his mouth is.

Grushecky recruited Springsteen for "Flood Aid," a benefit concert that helped locals who were beat up by the worst inland flooding in a century, after Hurricane Ivan raised cain with Pittsburgh’s three rivers in 2004.

He and The House Rockers recently headlined a show to raise money for the Sto-Rox High arts program. Grushecky's son, Johnny, jammed with his group, Dirty Sunshine. He even holds "guitar school" for the kids there. And Grushecky and the band still play the community halls and clubs to stay in touch with the people that have supported him over the years.

Grushecky is married to Lee Ann, and they have a son, Johnny, and a daughter, Desiree. He’s also the star of a newly released DVD, “A Good Life: The Joe Grushecky Story,” taking the name of his CD; in 2016, he issued his ninth post-Houserockers album, “It’s in My Song.”

But don’t worry about Grushecky's music turning into too much of a hobby or him becoming a homebody or movie star. He has a lot of rock and roll left in him. "I'm gonna keep on till I can't do it anymore," he says. And he can still do it; he was voted a 2016 Pittsburgh Rock ’N Roll Legends Award.

His music is more mature now, as befitting a man that's been around the block and figured out what's important in life as the years roll by. Grushecky can't wait to find out what's gonna happen next. As he sings on "True Companion," "I'm only in my fifties. I got a long, long way to go."

East Carson Street

(You can track Joe's action on Joe )

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Father Of American Music

foster plaque
Stephen Foster marker from Explore Pennsylvania History

Stephen Collins Foster was born on the 4th of July, 1826 in Lawrenceville, on the same day that both Presidents Jefferson and Madison died. And as they were the early fathers of America, he became known as the "father of American music."

Foster was the primo songwriter in the 19th century United States. His songs, such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", "Beautiful Dreamer", "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair", and "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") are still popular over 150 years after he penned them.

He was the ninth child of william, a merchant who became a member of the state legislature and was an in-law of sorts to President James Buchanan. But the family would eventually become near destitute after a streak of bad luck in business and his father's fall into alcoholism.

The Fosters moved from apartment to apartment, and many believe that's why so many of his songs express a longing for home (although his dad did eventually see the light, and became a noted speaker on the virtues of temperance.)

He was sent to school in Towanda, Pennsylvania, and spent one month at Washington & Jefferson College. But he had little formal music training. Despite this, he published several songs before the age of twenty. His first, "Open Thy Lattice Love," appeared in music stores when he was 18.

Foster was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber and Dan Rice. Kleber was a classically trained musician who immigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh.

Kleber was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. He was an accomplished and versatile musician who had a major influence on Pittsburgh's musical life as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.

Rice, on the other hand, was an famous entertainer of the era. He played a clown and blackface minstrel, making his living in traveling circuses. These two divergent worlds of classical and popular music created a long lasting tension for Foster.

Foster, his brother Morrison, and his close friend, Charles Shiras (who would later win fame as the "Iron City Poet" and as a writer), were members of an all male secret club called Knights of the Square Table that met twice weekly at the Fosters' home. He and his compadres would often sit at a piano, writing and singing songs through the night.

Foster acted first as song leader and then composer. Some of his earliest songs, perhaps even "Oh! Susanna", were composed for the group. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two skills thanks to his boys' club.

In 1846 he moved to Cincinnati and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While there, Foster penned his first hit songs, among them "Oh! Susanna". It would become the anthem of the California Gold Rush Forty Niners. In 1849 he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the hit song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by an international touring act, the Christy Minstrels.

In 1850, with 12 compositions already in print, the 24-year-old Foster returned to Pittsburgh and married 20-year-old Jane Denny MacDowell. Their daughter Marion was born the following year. In 1852, the couple took a delayed honeymoon, a month long steamship ride to New Orleans with friends. It was the only trip Foster ever made further south than Kentucky.

Then he returned to Pittsburgh and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his better known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River," 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), penned for his wife Jane.

Black culture produced a treasure trove of spirituals, gospel songs, and work tunes, and Foster tapped into it wholeheartedly. He was influenced in part by black church services he attended with the family's servant, Olivia Pise, and by songs sung by local black laborers.

Rather than trivializing slavery, Foster tried to humanize the characters in his songs. He wanted to convey the sense that everyone shared the same feelings for family and home.

Foster, in fact, instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves by overly emoting but to play it straight and get their audiences to feel compassion for them. He wouldn't allow his sheet music to have caricatures on the cover.

His songs were written to be played not only on the stage, but in parlors all over America. Foster was a fence-straddler on the question of slavery. But even African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass became a fan of his, writing that his songs "awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root and flourish."

His intentions were to simply write in a black spiritual vein, including the idiom. The minstrel shows were far and away the most popular vehicle available to showcase his music to the 19th century public.

History is still judging whether he perpetuated the status quo or showed some sympathy in his music for the black condition. It's never easy to walk in another man's shoes, especially some 150 years after the fact. But there is no doubt that his overriding concern was earning a buck, a lifelong problem for Foster.

Foster tried to make a go of it as a professional songwriter and was a pioneer in this respect, since the field didn't really exist as we know it back then. Because of the poor legal protections given for copyright and royalties, Foster saw very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers, the RIAA of the 19th century. Nothing was on CD or vinyl. Songs were sold as sheet music.

Multiple publishers often printed their own versions of Foster's tunes, paying him nothing. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100. He did hit it big with "Old Folks at Home," bringing him a reported $15,000. But by and large, his popularity rewarded everyone in the business but him. It's said that he sold the rights to all his future works for $1,900 when he was destitute in New York City.

Foster could also turn a fine ballad, and the bulk of his music was one of those two genres, still showing the conflict that Kleber and Rice created. Between his minstrel songs and parlor pieces, he could be called America's first great pop writer.

One myth about Foster was that his songs struck him out of the blue like a lightning bolt. The truth was that he sometimes spent months crafting a tune until he got it just so, as shown in the voluminous notebooks he left behind.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh, retreating from marital problems caused by financial difficulties and Foster's alcoholism.

Beginning in 1862, his fortunes would further decline, and as they plummeted, so did the quality of his new songs. He began working with humorist George Cooper early in 1863, trying to appeal to musical theater audiences. But the Civil War ruined the commercial market for newly written music. Who woulda guessed?

Foster spent his last years in New York City, living in a Bowery hotel and writing songs for pocket cash. In today's music industry he would be worth millions.

But on January 13, 1864, he died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper that read, "dear friends and gentle hearts."

Bedridden for days by a fever, Foster tried to call a maid, but collapsed. He fell against a washbasin next to his bed and shattered it, gashing his head. It took three hours to get him to a hospital, and back before there were transfusions and antibiotics, it was too late. He died three days later, though his music went on. One of his more popular ballads, "Beautiful Dreamer," was released after his death.

He made his final trip home to Lawrenceville to be buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

"All the world is sad and dreary,
Everywhere I roam,
Oh, Lordy, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home."

Foster's tortured soul will never again roam far from home.

And though Halls of Fame were an unknown concept in Foster's time, his work finally earned him a spot in one - the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. It's only fitting; SCF is known as America’s first professional songwriter. He was inducted in October of 2010, 150+ years after his death.

"Beautiful Dreamer" - Robert Merrill

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Dome

Genesis at the Civic Arena from Wiki Commons
(photgraph by Andrew Bossi)

In 1944, Edgar Kaufmann of department store fame and city councilman Abe Wolk decided that what the city really needed was an all purpose venue for the performing arts - one with a sliding roof. Four years later in 1948, Kaufmann and the city each pledged $500,000 to design one, and the game was afoot.

In February 1950, Kaufmann unveiled plans for a 10,500-seat venue drawn by architects Jim Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey. The design included two sliding motorized sections for the roof, attached to a cantilevered arm.

Kaufmann's intention was to build an amphitheater for the Civic Light Opera so it could put on shows under the stars (or under a roof in case it rained) at what's now Point State Park.

At the same time, Mayor David Lawrence was working feverishly on Pittsburgh's Renaissance I. He wanted to build a multipurpose arena as part of the urban redevelopment of the Lower Hill District, and persuaded Kaufmann to cast his lot with him. Up went an arena, down went the Hill.

In the name of progress, the Lower Hill was bulldozed into oblivion. The Feds OK'ed the redevelopment and picked up most of the $22 million tab for the new arena. About 1,600 families and generations of small businesses were displaced from the Lower Hill during the project. Of the 90+ acres cleared, the arena sat on 20 and a few more were gobbled up by roads.

The remaining land was slated for housing and commercial development, but the only housing that popped up was the Washington Plaza Apartments. Crawford Square, a mixed-income housing development, followed 30 years later.

Parking lots dominate much of the rest of the site. As Joni Mitchell said: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot..."

It may not have been exactly paradise, but the Hill has yet to recover as a community from the devastation of the Civic Arena project. Urban renewal had turned out to be nothing more than urban removal for the locals. But open it did. The Mellon Arena hosted its first show, the Ice Capades, on September 19th, 1961.

Kaufmann's dream fizzled along the way, too. Remember how the Arena seating would rise up and open into a stage? Well, that was the highlight of the CLO's career there. The roof couldn't be opened if there was a 60 percent chance of rain or if the wind was above 7 mph. The acoustics were horrible, and the stage rigging was next to impossible to hang properly. The CLO left the building in 1968.

So the shiny new dome earned its' keep by hosting circuses, wrasslin' matches, ice shows, and any kind of gathering that needed a lot of orange chairs and a stage. And it became home to a zillion Pittsburgh sports teams.

The Pens, the Hornets, Pipers, Wrens, X-Plosion, Triangles, Spirits, Maulers, college sports, high school championships - it if required a ref, the Arena had a floor for it.

And if the CLO was a bit chary of the Arena's less than perfect sound quality, the world of pop and rock music took to the Igloo like flies to...well, they liked the old place. It took on a second career as a rowdy music hall. The first rock show was a Porky Chedwick bash held in May of 1962, starring Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Castelles, Jerry Butler, The Flamingos, The Angels, The Blue Belles, and The Skyliners.

Elvis Presley did two concerts there in 1973 & 1976, which means, as Mike Lange likes to say, "Elvis has left the building" twice in reality. The Beatles had a raucous screechfest there in 1964, only the third rock 'n' roll concert to be held in the Dome. Garth Brooks sold out six consecutive shows in 1997.

And who can forget the Grateful Dead's riot act of April 3, 1989? A bunch of tickletless hippies tried to break through the glass doors of the Civic Arena to crash the show. Their bad. They were met by a posse of City cops.

Pittsburgh's finest had a field day thumping Deadheads and officer George Trotsky became a viral legend for his beatdown of a luckless (and cuffed) love child.

Other performers who had a modestly more refined following that played the house were Phil Collins and Genesis, Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi, the Doors (Rhino just released a CD of that 1970 show), Julio Iglesias, Billy Joel, Elton John, Led Zeppelin (3 times), Jimmy Buffet, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Pearl Jam, Porky Chedwick shows, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and countless other acts from the famous to the floozies.

The largest attendance ever at the arena wasn't for a rock show. It was 18,150 for a WWF wrestling gig in 1999. Go figure. But the next highest headcount was for a 1995 Robert Plant/Jimmy Page concert that brought 17,764 fans spinning through the turnstiles. With that kind of following, is it any wonder that WDVE still plays "Stairway to Heaven" a half dozen times a day?

In December of 1999, the Pittsburgh Penguins took the cash and renamed the Civic Arena the Mellon Arena. Whether you call it the Mellon Arena, the Civic Arena, the Dome, or the Igloo, it's been the home of the top acts to hit the 'Burgh over the past half century.

But that's history; Consol Energy Center, just across the street, is Pittsburgh's new arena. The final concert at Mellon Arena was held Saturday, June 26th, 2010, featuring Carole King and James Taylor. A fine act, but kinda quiet. We think we'd prefer that the old girl's last stand was a little rowdier.

The Mellon Arena name expired on August 1st, 2010. The empty building is once again officially the Civic Arena. At least the Grand Dame is being allowed to exit stage left with the same name she entered the City with.

How she'll exit is still up to debate. A small and vocal group of preservationists are trying to save at least the skeleton of the Igloo; the Penguins want to blow it up and put up a parking lot...ooops, sorry, they want to develop the property. It's an ongoing argument; a judge will decide the Dome's fate sooner or later. But if the Syria Mosque is any example...