He narrates the story of the group's formation, their recording and touring career, as well as their successes and heartbreaks, including the story of when the Mystics' lead singer was arrested for being an innocent witness to a holdup and accidental shooting by a neighborhood gang and was mistakenly jailed for two years. Hushabye tells about walking the fine line between the music and the mob and how peer pressure and the temptations of fame changed their lives.
Contrera offers keen insight and background into the sweet sound of the street corner doo-wop harmonies of the 1950s.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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OH WHAT A NIGHT
On Saturday, June 13, 2009, the weather in Rutherford, New Jersey, was chilly. The forecast called for a slight chance of rain, with the temperatures in the high fifties. At the Izod Center, the marquee announced, "Richard Nader's Original Summer Doo Wop Reunion XX, starring Little Anthony and The Imperials, Kenny Vance and the Planotones, Gene Chandler, The Cleftones, Larry Chance and The Earls, Speedo and The Cadillacs, Clay Cole, and Emil Stucchio and the Classics."
I was a Classic, looking forward to playing tonight's show and seeing Clay Cole again.
That "slight chance of rain" became a rainstorm, cancelling the afternoon outside festivities in the parking lot of this huge auditorium in The Meadowlands complex. We were supposed to sit at an outside table and "meet and greet" the hundreds of Doo Wop fans waiting on line for a picture and an autograph of their favorite acts from the fifties and sixties. Also disappointed were the a cappella groups waiting to perform on the "Outside Tail Gate Party Stage," hosted by former CBS-FM disk jockey Don K Reed, adjacent to the autograph table.
Inside the auditorium, the usual hustle and bustle went on as the house band prepared for sound check. The booming sound of technicians checking the microphones filled the cavernous auditorium: "One-two, one-two." Once in awhile you would hear "three." The empty room echoed the sound like a tiled subway station. The musicians were gathering at the stage area with the usual handshakes and hugs. The show's musical director, Mark Baron, who usually worked with The Duprees, tried to get them in place but gave up and joined the handshakes and hug banter.
Mark is an accomplished musician and conductor with numerous credits in both Broadway and rock music. Finally, he got everyone to focus, and the rehearsals began by sorting out the music charts. As the acts arrived backstage, they found their dressing rooms via computer printed signage attached to the doors with scotch tape. Backstage looked a little sterile and unwelcoming. Just off-white walls, linoleum tile squares on the floor and a never-ending array of exposed piping and electrical wiring where the ceiling tiles should have been.
I got there at 1:30 pm, a few minutes before the rest of The Classics, and hung my suit bag in the appropriate dressing room. There was a large table, several folding chairs and hooks on the wall for hanging up clothes. At the time, I was 69 years old, an original member of The Mystics and a member of The Classics. I sang bass with The Mystics and have been singing bass and baritone with The Classics for the last 23 years. I have had more than my share of tough times but still manage to be upbeat and even funny at times. I experienced the tragic loss of my wife, something that has never left my mind, due to a cancerous brain tumor in 1995. I have always felt that singing with a group, especially since they are my closest friends, saved my sanity.
Emil Stucchio and Teresa McClean, the other members of The Classics, walked into the dressing room ten minutes later and found their clothes-hanging spots on the wall. Emil is the original lead singer and founding member of The Classics. "Till Then," recorded in 1963, went into the top 20 on the national charts. Quite a feat considering the initial British assault on the American music scene started then. Emil had always been the lead singer of The Classics except for one year in 1989 when he sang with The Mystics, and he shared singing lead with Phil. "Emil still has his pipes, in fact he continues to improve" is what many promoters said.
With the same amount of dark brown hair, he had when he was a young man (the magic of chemicals!), Emil also looked younger than his 65 years. Like me, he fought the same weight-on, weight-off battle. A confident and alert man who has a memory like an elephant with a computer, Emil recalls everything. He has a unique ability to read people and is the driving force of The Classics. He retired from the NYC Police Force in 1972 after 25 years. That was the job, according to Emil, that was supposed to "just pay the bills until the music kicked in again." He and Teresa drove in from Long Island, and like every gig, it was "a drive from hell." There came a point where it didn't even pay to talk about how bad your commute to a gig was because there was always someone with a more horrific traffic story.
Teresa joined The Classics a few years ago, replacing Mike Paquette, and immediately proved to be an asset. She'd sung with a girl group called The Chicklets that often opened for the Classics, and when Mike Paquette and then Scott LaChance left the Classics after 15 years, Emil and I had the same thought: "Let's ask Teresa to sing with us. She's got the right personality and she can really sing." This change would set the Classics in the direction that they'd wanted to go ever since they started the Classics again in 1986.
Teresa is a very attractive woman in her early forties with a feisty Irish spirit who is not struggling as much as the other two thirds of The Classics with her weight. She comes from a musical family and has had some experience in theatre groups and Broadway shows, which made her the perfect fit. She joined right in with the onstage impromptu jokes and antics between Emil and me. The dressing room was now alive with conversation. As usual, I set off to find some food. The catering was always good at these events. They would serve a light fare type lunch with salads and sandwiches and a variety of soft drinks, teas and coffee.
On the way to the so-called "green room," which was not green but just another room with food for the performers, I ran into Kenny Vance, and we shook hands and patted each other's shoulders during the quick hug thing. Kenny always started with an earnest soft spoken, "How are you doing"? He spoke in a barely audible monotone, and since most of the people back stage, at this stage of the game, are almost deaf, it was hard to hear him. Sometimes I think that's why people hug when they meet, so they could hear better. With Kenny, you really felt the sincerity in the question. He really cared about how you were doing. Kenny, at a lean 6'2, had to bend a bit to hug most people. He, too, is fighting the on again off again battle with weight, but he's winning. He always wears black and always wears a hat, both off and on stage. Kenny and I have known each other for fifty years. We met in Jim Gribble's office in 1959, when Jim was The Mystics' manager and Kenny was singing with The Harbor Lights. The group was named by Kenny Vance for the lights that were visible across the harbor at night in the Far Rockaway section of Brooklyn. This was the first of many innovative titles and songs in an amazing career. Kenny is a founding member of Jay and The Americans, which started in Jim Gribble's office, but I will get into that a little later. Kenny always appeared to be thinking about something – although, perhaps, he wasn't.
Clay Cole walked over and now the three of us did the hug and "I can hear you now" ritual. Clay, who had lost the on-again off-again battle with weight, promised to continue the battle. Kenny had not seen Clay in decades. Actually, no one in the music business, except for Ray Ranieri, and me, had seen Clay. This was his first live appearance in 39 years. Clay dropped out from the music scene around 1968 at the height of an incredible ten years of hosting television shows in New York City. He stayed in New York until 2001 writing television shows and even managed to win two Emmys for an award show special, and then he suddenly decided to move to North Carolina. Clay and I had always stayed in touch over the fifty years we've known each other and at the very least exchanged Christmas cards. When the return address on Clay's card read "North Carolina" instead of West 57th Street, New York, I knew something was wrong. Sometime in 1967, Clay felt that because television was changing into something he did not want to be part of, he was not going to be part of it. He quit a successful TV show in New York on channel 11. Under the management of Ray Ranieri, who eventually became a close friend of Clay, he got involved with some night clubs and live shows for a few years and eventually disappeared into the shoreline of North Carolina, where he began to work on his autobiography, Sh-Boom, which, by the way, is an awesome book. He writes about his fifty plus years in the music business with personal stories about the artists he met and the friends he made.
I first met Clay in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1959 where he was Al Rucker, his real name, doing the Al Rucker Show on WJAR-TV. The Mystics had the number one song in Providence at the time with "Hushabye" and were contracted to appear at the tenth anniversary outdoor block party of WJAR-TV, with Al Rucker as the host in downtown Providence. It was a steamy hot July 7th. We had just finished a 24-city tour in the Midwest with other artists, including Johnny and the Hurricanes. We got home on July 6th and drove to Providence the next day. The other acts on the Al Rucker show were Connie Francis, the Four Lads, Lou Monte, Jerry Vale, Jack Scott, Carl Dobkins Jr., George Hamilton IV, and the Videls, who became very close friends with us in the years that followed. The Videls, who did not have a national hit yet, were hometown favorites and opened the show with a sensational set.
We were scheduled to go onstage just before the headlining and closing Connie Francis, and by this time the crowd had grown to over 50,000 people. The house band began playing the music to our opening song, and I remember seeing a sea of people from building to building across the main street, and it went back about six or seven blocks. We all looked at each other with astonishment as we walked out onstage and saw this huge crowd. The people were packed in shoulder to shoulder. It was impossible for anyone to move.
Halfway through our third song, "Oh What a Night," I noticed two guys in the audience starting to have a fist fight. I motioned to the other guys, who were all watching from the stage. The two brawlers were swept by the crowd into opposite directions. They had no control as to where they were going while their arms were still swinging in the air. It was scary. The audience created a constant blaring sound that drowned out the band and much of the conversation onstage. A group of policemen were huddled next to the stage stairs, which started to shake. They were shouting at each other, so they could hear themselves, As we finished the last verse of "Hushabye," the police and fire department officials decided to shut the show down. At that point, the crowd had nowhere to expand except towards the stage, which was a wooden structure about six feet higher than the street. Al Rucker made the announcement, and the crowd went wild pushing towards the stage ... and moving it! Feeling the stage start to move, we got out in a hurry. Then the instrumentalists jumped up, gathered their belongings and fled, right behind us. Al Rucker was now the only one on the mike, trying to calm the crowd down, but it was too late, it was out of control. No one was listening, so he calmly walked off, shaking his head. If anyone had passed out in that crowd, they would never have hit the ground. There simply was no room to fall. The show moved into the television studios, where Connie did a few songs on live TV in the producers' attempt to save the day. Connie never got a chance to get onstage. Al Rucker interviewed the acts and explained to the TV audience why the show had to be shut down. It took hours for the crowds to disperse.
The next time The Mystics and Al Rucker would meet was September 4, 1959, back stage at the Alan Freed Tenth Anniversary show at the Brooklyn Fox theatre – only now, Al Rucker called himself Clay Cole. We all became very close friends over the next few years.
Now, fifty years later, Clay Cole and Kenny Vance and I filled up our coffee containers and grabbed some snacks from the make-believe green room and settled in some chairs with Emil and Teresa. It was still a little early for sound checks, so we settled down to conversation, with the "Fifty years gone by" as the subject. Kenny whispered, "I can't believe we know each other fifty years" and stopped. Usually a statement like that would be followed by a profound expression of life from Kenny. After a meditative silence, he continued "How are all the guys in The Mystics and how is Phil Cracolici doing"?
I answered, "He's fine; just spoke to him the other day."
Clay turned to Kenny "You know when you said that about fifty years ago, I thought about that incident with Phil. It's hard to believe that actually happened."
Emil responded with "You know, if that didn't happen, who knows where The Mystics would be today."
Kenny added, "That's exactly what I was thinking about."
By now, Teresa was really puzzled. All this talk about an incident fifty years ago, before she was even born. She finally asked a perfectly natural question, "OK, what happened?"
They all turned to me, Kenny adding, "Yeah what really happened? I remember hearing that Phil was arrested for killing someone but then no one really talked about it that much back then."
I took a sip of coffee and said "Well he was arrested, but he was only a witness to a killing. It's a really long story."
"We have some time," said Clay, moving his chair a little closer to the circle of chairs. I began telling them the story. But before I could get to the gas station homicide and its consequences for Phil, I had to go back even further.CHAPTER 2
YOU'LL NEVER KNOW
Tony "Punchy" Armato walked into Pop's luncheonette on 17th Avenue and 80th Street in Brooklyn, New York to meet his girlfriend, Maryann Addesso, one of the most attractive girls in the neighborhood. Maryann and her younger brother Lou lived directly across the street from me at 1735 79th Street when we were younger. By coincidence, the Addesso family moved across from my family in 1956. I now lived on 84th Street and they moved to 85th Street. There was a common driveway in the back of the houses, so I saw both Lou and Maryann often. After all these years, I'm still in touch with Lou.
Punchy got his nickname after he went into the Golden Gloves and won a few fights. Punchy looked like Andy Williams with blue eyes and was far from being punch drunk. He was very handsome and always upbeat and happy. He loved to help people and loved to go out with pretty girls. His engaging personality left you with liking him after a short conversation. New Utrecht High School was right down the block on New Utrecht Avenue, between 79th street and 80th street.
I was sitting at the counter in Pop's store with my best friend, Angelo "Scapper" Rubano. Punchy came in, sat on the stool next to me and asked Pop for two cokes. While Pop was there, I asked, "Can I have another egg cream?"
Punchy looked over at me and said, "Hey you have a really deep bass voice, are you with a group?"
I said with a laugh, "No, I don't sing."
Scapper continued the conversation, introducing me to Punchy as Allie, my nickname, and reminding me that Maryann was Punchy's girlfriend. We talked a little about the coincidence of me living near her not once but twice. Punchy got up and went over to the jukebox, put some coins in and pressed D-5 and B-8. Scapper whispered to me, "Punchy's one of the Bath Beach Boys and he's also in a singing group." I really didn't know much about the singing groups, but The Bath Beach gang was legendary in the neighborhood. That made Punchy a neighborhood celebrity.
I knew the current music, like every other teenager, but never thought of actually singing it. I only sang to myself and usually the bass parts because I did have an unusually deep bass voice for a sixteen-year-old.
Punchy came back to the counter as The Platters' 45 record dropped on the turntable and Herb Reed's bass voice sang, "You'll Never Know." Punchy asked me, "Can you hit that note?" I didn't know what he meant, and Scapper told me, "Sure you can sing that, go ahead, try it, you got the voice." Scapper didn't know if I could hit that note: he just saw an opportunity for me, and as a friend, tried to push me into it. I thought, what the hell, and when the next "You'll never know" came up, I sang it with Herb Reed and the Platters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hushabye"
Copyright © 2018 Al Contrera.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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