A number of people have asked me through the years, “How did you get started in the business?” And I usually tell them about my going to school, and learning in my junior year at the New England Conservatory of an audition for Porgy and Bess that was going to Israel that summer. That’s what I usually tell them. But actually, that’s not how I started!
When I was a kid I heard a recording that made me become obsessed with wanting to be in show business. That particular recording changed my life! I know many people claim such things, and believe me, I truly understand what they mean. That’s what Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ “Why do Fools Fall in Love” did to me! I was so obsessed with the song that I carried the 78inch record with me just about everywhere. When I went to friends’ houses I’d have them play it over, and over, and over. I’m sure they thought I was out of my mind, but I just couldn’t stop listening to it. Well, of course, the next step for me was to start hanging with the guys who were interested in singing Doo Wop! We would sing in every empty hallway we could get into. We would politely let the tenants pass, pretending we were looking for someone to buzz us in, and as soon as they were gone we’d hit it on the harmony again. Our favorite spot, though, was the 145th St IND station! It had a reverb to it that just knocked your socks off (to coin an old expression)!
I won’t bore you with the details of how I got to Queens Day School in Sunnyside Gardens, but that’s where it started professionally for me! I met David Campanella there! He was the son of the baseball great Roy Campanella, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. David, and another classmate, Kenneth Hamilton, had a Doo Wop group called The Dell Chords, and asked if I was interested in singing with them, and of course, I hopped at the opportunity. I mean, here was my dream come true! NO MORE HALLWAYS!
So, I go to my first rehearsal with them, and meet George Kafcos, who’s a friend of Kenny’s, and David Hicks. Hicks was a nice guy, but he wasn’t that good at holding harmony, and David was anxious to replace him. So, I told David and Kenny about my close and dear friend, Algie Hough, who I had been singing with around the neighborhood, and together we had a great blend. So, I tell Al they’re interested in him joining the group, and now he’s excited, and we just know we’re on our way. NO MORE HALLWAYS!
Now, Jet magazine wants to do a promotional photo-opt for the group, so David had sweaters made that’s in the style of what the Teenagers had when they made their debut! So, I’m really in seventh heaven now! NO MORE HALLWAYS!
My best friend Al’s been invited to come to the session that’s taking place at The Campanella House in Glen Clove. I mean, what more could you ask for? To this day I can’t remember how we got there, but when we do… what a spread!!! David had a room with a mirrored, sliding door, wall to wall closet filled with suits, blazers, pants, shirts, and shoes in just about every style you’d want. And out back tied up in the Sound was Roy’s yacht! I mean, we’re talking, RICH!
So, now we’re getting ready for the shoot! Everyone has his new sweater on with the DC in raised letters staggered down the front! And then David turns to Hicks, and says, “Listen, Man! Give your sweater to Al over there! You’re out the group!” Everybody just froze! The guy looks bewildered, and says, “What!? And David says, “You’re out the group, give your sweater to Al!” That was about the coldest thing I’ve ever seen! He took the sweater off, and left the session crushed. Nobody said nothing, just standing there in disbelief! Al, of course is very uncomfortable! Kenny, George, and I knew David was going to let him go, but we thought it was going to be a day, or so before the session, not at the session! And you could see that David really took pleasure in asserting his authority! It should have been a warning sign of things to come!
After the photo session, we get down to work rehearsing at the Phil Black dance studio’s on 50th and Broadway! There’s a number of gigs we do, including the Martha Raye Telethon, which a few years later Jerry Lewis takes over. Edward R. Murrow’s “You are there” does a special on Roy, and David wears his Dell Chords sweater, to which Mr. Murrow asks, “Does the DC stand for David Campanella?” Which to us is an “Oh, Snap!” moment! David tells him it’s for the Dell Chords! I mean, our brand is getting out there, and we haven’t even recorded yet!
After a few more gigs David does the Jack Parr’s “Tonight” show, which Johnny Carson later takes over! I mean, things are really rolling! And the next morning Al gives me a call, and says,” Hey, Man! Go get the Daily News, and look at the back page!” I say, “Why? What?” He says, “Just go, and get it!” So, I do! And there on the back page that’s reserved for the Sport Highlights is David, and our valet, looking out through the bars of the back of a paddy wagon, being carted off to jail! I was devastated!
It seems after the Tonight Show, David is flying high, feeling invincible, and needs to show that he, not only is the leader of an upcoming singing group, but that he can be a possible leader of a gang that he belongs to, that Al and I, have no knowledge of, called The Chaplains! So, what does a 16-year-old teenage potential juvenile delinquent do? He breaks into a Drugstore to steal cartons of cigarettes! CIGARETTES!
Now, we don’t know what to do! Al attends a catholic high school, and is almost kick out, because of the old adage “Guilty by Association!” His parents have to go and plead with the principal not to expel him, which they don’t! I, on the other hand, have no such problems, because the school David and I attend is private, and doesn’t really give a crap as long as you do your work, and pay the tuition…oh yeah, and don’t kill nobody!
We couldn’t believe it! All that work, gone down the drain! It was all there, the doors were wide open! We had the backing, the talent, and the added element of being one of the only intergraded Doo Wop groups on the market, which was a huge selling point. There was even talk of adding us to a show called New Faces that earlier in the 50’s introduced stars like Eartha Kitt, so we were devastated!
The group tried to carry on, but it wasn’t the same without the Campanella calling card! So, Algie and I left, and formed another group called The Sierras with two other members from the neighborhood. But this time it was different! We decided to have a female vocalist, Cassandra Dunlop, who we had gone to grammar school with, Preston Green singing baritone. We kept it this way for awhile, till we decided that we needed some bottom. That’s when we added, and get this, a rumbling bass called Prince, long before there was a Prince as we now know. All though his real name was Melvin Wady, he insisted that you called him Prince!
So, the five of us would practice, and practice, and practice at my house. My family owned a brownstone on 143rd St, and we used my room on the ground floor to work out harmonies. This went on for a number of months, and then we lost Cassandra, but in the neighborhood moved a fine, bi-racial, young lady from England named Glynis Facey, who had a great ear for harmony, but not so good for lead, so Algie and I started splitting those duties.
After a few, of what I call, low grade gigs, we finally landed a manager, Joe D’Angelo! Joe was a person who was steeped in the Doo Wop world, and reminded you of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose! He fully believed in us, and arranged for audition after audition for the different record companies in the famous Brill Building (1619 B’way), and in 1650 B’way! So, over the course of three years we did twenty three auditions, and in those days you went to the record companies offices, and sang live for the A&R guy in charge!… No bites, Nada! I mean, we couldn’t get arrested! And why? “Joey! Hey! Come on, these kids sound too clean!” Are you ready for that? We were too wholesome! To a number of record producers, if you were black you had to have some “grit” in your sound.
After so many years of trying the group decided to part ways with each other, but about a year later Joe called Algie, and said he’d gotten us a record deal, a record deal with George Goldner, who was, of all people, the man who recorded, get this, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers! Baby! I’m on cloud nine!
So now, we have to get the group back together, but there’s a problem! A big problem! We can’t find Glynis, we can’t find Preston, and we can’t find Prince! We’re reaching out to everybody we can think of, but to no avail! Al and I were resolved to the fact that we ain’t letting this opportunity slip away after so many years of struggling in the trenches!
So, we start calling on a few folks we know. A bass, William Barber, is a person we knew had a pretty good, solid sound. T. Lawrence Traynor is a white guy, and friend I sang with at Corpus Christi Boys Choir, who could read the notes off a music page like no other! And of course, Cassandra! I think if she had stayed with the group in the first place we would have recorded long before now. She just had that young, clean, teenage, innocent sound that drew you in. And now, we’re back in business, ‘cause we’re sounding good!
We go downtown to 1650 B’way to rehearsal, and find out that we’re not going to record the material that we’d been doing, but two songs written by songwriter, Joe Simmons, and by our manager.
Joe Simmons plays the first song for us, and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute! This song is a rip off of the Essex’s “Easier said than done!” They even had the lyric “Easier said than done” at the end of the bridge! I wanted us to sing original songs, not copy someone else’s material! I think we all felt that way, but our manager emphasizes that this is just to get our foot in the door, and that the next song, which he wrote with Simmons, was a killer!
We put our concerns aside, and listen to the second song, and it indeed was a killer! Joe Simmons was playing some funky piano, and we were coming up with some great harmony! It was a real funky ballad that had a throbbing undertow to it. So, now we’re all happy, because we’re certain that this is going to define us as a solid hit making group.
We get to the recording studio, and meet the band, and in walks this librarian looking, black woman, wearing a Loretta Young type of cocktail gown with gloves, and she’s introduced to us as the pianist! I’m like, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me!” But no, she’s the pianist for the session! I can’t believe it, and I go to our manager, but he’s like, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine!” So, we lay down the first song, the rip-off! And it’s all live! We’re all in the same room, band and singers! And the song is being recorded on Acetate!
Well, that wasn’t so bad! It was a decent rip-off! No hard feelings I hope from the Essex’s, if so, the “BOYS” would be able to deal with it!
Now, it’s time for the hit, and I’m rearing to go, because this is the one! The one that’s going to make us stars!
So, we gather around the piano, and girlfriend starts playing! I mean, she’s in her glory! I mean, you can’t tell her she ain’t playing some piano! The only problem is, it ain’t the style it was written in! She’s playing a cocktail, lounge style, ain’t no blues anywhere to be found! No funk what some ever! We pull Joe aside, and I’m like, “What the…? Joe, we can’t sing this! Let Simmons play piano! Or let him show her how the song goes! She ain’t got the feel!” But Joe explains that Simmons’ can’t even touch the piano, because he’s not in the union, and in those days the union ruled! You didn’t cross the union! So, now we had to try and fit, on the spot, what we were doing to accommodate her style, and to me, it sucked! To me it was the one that got away! Every time I hear it I cringe! What a shame! It had such potential!
But yet I’ll never forget when I first heard our record on the radio! Even though it was the rip-off, it was still thrilling! We were on the radio, and no one could take that away from us! We started planning our act, and then it all fell apart.
Cassandra decided that she wanted to become a nurse, which she did, so she left the group! And in doing that we were in breach of contract! Thankfully, no one brought up charges! And that’s when I decided I wanted to get a formal training in music, so off I went to New Orleans to Xavier University, and then to the New England Conservatory where I learned about a tour of Porgy and Bess that was going to Israel that summer!