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Hitsburgh: Battling the British Invasion

Sunday, February 11, 2001

Story by Scott Mervis and Ed Masley

A few years after doo-wop lost its footing on the pop charts, the British Invasion arrived to fire the opening shot of a cultural revolution, introducing legends as enduring as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

And Pittsburgh?

The Vogues - the pride of Turtle Creek - defined the British Invasion with a string of successes. "Our goals was to have some fun and maybe get a hit record," says Chuck Blasko, center.

Pittsburgh gave the world Lou Christie and the Vogues.

And even then, it seemed a little odd, Chuck Blasko of the Vogues recalls, "because we appeared in the midst of the so-called British Invasion led by the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones, who dominated the music world."

And yet, the Vogues -- who did their best to cop a British image -- found a home alongside Herman's Hermits and the Kinks on "American Bandstand."

As did Christie.

Born Lugee Sacco in Glenwillard, Christie hit the U.S. charts a year before the British, breaking through here in Pittsburgh with "The Gypsy Cried" on Co & Ce, a local label run by Herbie Cohen and Nick Cenci. After being introduced to local teens by Porky and topping the charts at KQV and WYRE, the first of Christie's doo-wop-flavored hits was picked up by Roulette and rose as high as No. 24 on the national charts.

Fueled by a soaring falsetto fit to fill his press kit with comparisons to Frankie Valli, Christie scored a second hit in 1963 with another original tune he'd written with his partner Twyla Herbert, "Two Faces Have I." A better song, it peaked at No. 6.

In 1964, fresh off the road from a Dick Clark package tour that featured Christie, the Supremes, the Crystals, Brian Hyland and more, the singer was drafted and went off to serve in the Army Reserves, then came back with a song he felt would be his biggest hit. But Christie's label didn't see it that way.

"They said, 'Ugh, what is this?'" Christie says of MGM's reaction. "The president of the company, he threw it in the wastebasket."

The label was wrong.

On Feb. 19, 1966, that single, "Lightnin' Strikes," became the No. 1 song in America, Pittsburgh's second. It's Christie's finest hour -- classic hook, intense performance, sexy lyrics.

That same year, he followed it up with a sexier set of lyrics and came under fire for corrupting teens from here to the back of a '64 Chevy with the makeout anthem "Rhapsody in the Rain."

The PTA was not amused. As Christie recalls a controversy that saw the single banned in many markets, "Time magazine wrote about it and said that I was corrupting the youth of the day."

And this was 1966.

Despite -- or because of -- the controversy, "Rhapsody" peaked at No. 16. Christie's final hit, "I'm Gonna Make You Mine," went all the way to No. 10 in 1969.

In assessing the man's career in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, Dave Marsh praised Christie's "striking voice, which would build from a soft, almost drab tenor to an orgasmic explosion of falsetto shrieks" and wrote, in closing, "Looking back, one can say this about Lou Christie: He kept it lively."

Formed in Turtle Creek at the height of the doo-wop era, the Vogues broke through in 1965, after drifting from label to label, with "You're the One," a Tokens-esque folk-pop song on Co & Ce. Recorded at Gateway Recording above a record store in downtown Pittsburgh, the song and its working-class gem of a follow-up, "Five O'Clock World," went all the way to No. 4 on the national charts while hitting No. 1 in Pittsburgh. As the group crossed over (without really having to tone it down a whole lot) to the easy listening market, the national hits kept coming -- eight Top 40 trips in all, including two more Top 10 stays in 1968, the stalker's anthem "Turn Around, Look at Me" and a cover of Bobby Helms' "My Special Angel."

Blasko recalls the excitement of finally finding an audience beyond the city limits.

"People started telling us we had a hit, but we couldn't believe it," he says. "As the excitement grew, we stayed up late into the night so we could hear what was being played on distant radio stations. ... It was great hearing our song played on stations far from home."

In addition to touring the world, the group would appear on "American Bandstand," "The Tonight Show," "The Ed Sullivan Show" and here in town, the Clark Race "Bandstand" show on KDKA-TV.

"Our goal was to have some fun and maybe get a hit record," says Blasko. "None of us, including me, planned to make performing a career."

It was easier then, he says, to get a deal. "Because the money needed to make a record was comparatively small, recording companies could afford more easily to risk investing in new groups. Also, radio disc jockeys had more freedom to choose the music they liked to play on the air, so unknown groups had a greater chance of having their music on the radio."

Like Beaver County's Jaggerz, a well-regarded blue-eyed soul group who, despite the name, were not exactly Jagger-esque in their delivery on the No. 2 national hit from early 1970, "The Rapper."

"I remember waking up in the middle of the night with the idea," says Donnie Iris, the Jaggerz lead singer. "We were working clubs and watching the guys, how they were trying to pick up chicks, so we wrote about it."

Most who knew them at the time would agree that the Jaggerz were actually better than the hit would indicate. The Joe Rock-managed group, which later featured Frankie Czuri (who went on to front the Silencers), was known in Pittsburgh as "The White Knights with the Brown Sound."

Joe Grushecky recalls of the Jaggerz heyday, "It was hep to play soul music. If you could play it and sing it, more power to you. The Jaggerz were the purveyors. I saw them sing Temptations songs and was like, holy s--, they can sing."

There was a more direct response to the British Invasion here. You had to look beyond the acts who charted major pop hits, though. That's where you would have found a garage-rock community rocking this town with a working-class answer to what the Brits were throwing down.

In 1965, the Arondies, teens from Clairton, sold 10,000 copies -- which today would still be pretty major numbers -- of an instrumental classic, "69," a record that Get Hip archivist Baran likes to call our town's "Bolero."

"Everybody learned to play guitar to '69,'" he says. "If you wanted to play it simply, you didn't have to even have a tuned guitar. You could keep it on one string."

Although the original three-man lineup, as captured on "69," would go its separate ways before the year was out, the song remains a local cult hit on the underground, as resurrected in the '80s by the Cynics, whose Gregg Kostelich in 1999 released the first Arondies CD on Get Hip. At times, the music -- cut in sessions dating from November 1964 to a radio appearance on McKeesport's WMCK in '65 -- takes on the primal feel of something the Arondies might have played in Hamburg while sharing a bill with the Beatles. But they never made it to the Reeperbahn. Instead, they worked the local circuit from the Juliot Hotel in Clairton to the Sigma Nu fraternity -- immortalized (for those who knew the band) in "Sigma Nu" -- to the Clairton VFW, where they packed the joint, especially during football season.

As drummer Bill Scully recalls, with a grin, "We were big celebrities -- in Clairton."

After cutting "69," the Arondies started working with a local DJ/show promoter/all-around Svengali Terry Lee, who'd already discovered the Larks, whose name he changed, in honor of his own profession, to the Dee-Jays.

While Terry and Porky were spinning the record, other stations balked at the idea of a song called "69."

"My uncle Al McDowell was at KDKA at the time," says Scully, "so my aunt and uncle took the record to Clark Race and asked if he would play it. So Clark is listenin', and it's got this nice sound, and we say '69,' and he says, 'I can't play this.' My aunt didn't know."

A month after making a splash with "69," they split with Lee in a royalty dispute. Then, Scully quit and the other Arondies formed the Soul Congress, featuring Uniontown soul artist Billy Sha-Rae. Eventually, the Congress moved to Detroit, where it played on sessions by such artists as the O'Jays, and in '71, scored a minor R&B hit with "Do It."

As big a hit as "69" was, the kings of the local garage were indisputably the Dee-Jays. "Everybody said, 'Those Dee-Jays, boy, they're just fantastic," Baran says. And so, the name was changed to the Fantastic Dee-Jays. With a sound that ranged from instrumental covers to the gorgeous low-key balladry of "Shy Girl" to the heavier British Invasion-inspired garage-rock of "Get Away Girl," the Dee-Jays, of McKeesport, got a lot of play on WMCK, where their manager, Lee, was working at the time. A self-styled Brian Epstein, the DJ attended the Dee-Jays' rehearsals to make sure they weren't goofing off and recorded them after midnight at the station doing material he'd selected.

They released their debut single, a lo-fi cover of "Apache," in March 1965. In 1966, the very year the Dee-Jays opened for the Stones at the Civic Arena, the band became the Swamp Rats, a grittier punk act whose enduring reputation was built on a series of primitive singles that found them going absolutely wild on everything from a jaw-dropping cover of "Louie Louie" to the Kinks' "Til the End of the Day."

The garage act most likely to make it beyond the garage, the Fenways, from Apollo in Armstrong County, got their start in 1964 on Ricky "C," a local label, with "Nothing to Offer You." Before they'd even backed the Vogues on "You're the One," the group, more polished and less rocking than your typical garage-rock act, signed briefly to the Imperial label, home of Ricky Nelson and Fats Domino, for "Walk." As Pittsburgh's first successful self-contained rock 'n' roll unit, the Fenways (led by vocalist Sunny DeNunzio, Lee's cousin) were tapped, in the summer of 1964, to open for the Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five. With "Walk," in 1965, they topped the charts on both of Pittsburgh's major pop radio outlets -- KQV and KDKA -- in addition to WMCK.

As Goodrich says, "The Fenways had local hits like you can't imagine."

But none of the group's singles, not even "The Number One Song in the Country," ever hit the U.S. charts.

There were other garage-rock acts making noise at the time. McKees Rocks' Peter's Pipers, fronted by a young Pete Hewlett (who went on to sing with Billy Joel and Carly Simon), briefly signed to the Philips label, but its records never charted, either. Then you had Napoleonic Wars (from Greensburg), the Oncomers, Marshmallow Steamshovel, the Time Stoppers, the Hides, the Igniters (featuring Czuri) and Grains of Sand, a band that included up-and-coming rock promoter Rich Engler.

But no group in Pittsburgh was able to follow the Troggs or ? and the Mysterians from the garage to the top of the charts.

It wasn't for lack of support on local airwaves.

As Baran recalls, "Mad Mike and Terry Lee would help these bands go out and play at different places. ... Then, they tied it in with their radio shows. 'Hey, come out and see the so-and-so band on Friday night.' So they had all the local support they needed. And it wasn't a one-hour show on a Sunday night that highlights local music. It was brought into the mix. And it was big."

One problem may have been that the local garage bands didn't have a following as huge as, say, the Jaggerz, who, says Goodrich, "Anyone will tell you were the best group around. And they may not have liked it much, but they'd have to give the devil his due. Even before 'Rapper,' it was known that the Jaggerz were it. If you were in the Jaggerz, man, then you were probably considered the best."

If Pittsburgh couldn't break its own garage-rock bands on a national level, it did break Tommy James, a native of Dayton, Ohio, whose band was based, for then, in Michigan, when a DJ at KDKA made a regional hit of a two-year-old James single, "Hanky Panky." In 1966, the song went all the way to No. 1 on the national charts, by which point James had already recruited members of the Raconteurs to be the new Shondells (his backing group) right here in Pittsburgh. James went on to be among the most successful artists ever linked to Pittsburgh, with 17 Top 40 singles, including the chart-topping "Crimson and Clover" and the classics "I Think We're Alone Now," "Mirage," "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion."

Pittsburgh also had its share of soul and R&B acts at the time, from Clairton's Johnny Wilson and the Debonaires to a group whose name would have to rank among the greatest ever, the Soulvation Army.

Chuck Edwards of Canonsburg scored a local instrumental hit with "Bullfight," had the single picked up by Roulette but, like the Fenways, never took it national.

The Splendors, led by guitarist Herb Marshall of Clairton -- who later went on to record with the Isley Brothers -- also had a local hit or two.

In 1961, Chuck Jackson, a Del-Viking latecomer, struck out on his own and scored a Top 5 R&B hit, "I Don't Want to Cry." He landed 23 more singles on the R&B charts, the biggest of which was "Any Day Now," a No. 2 R&B single that peaked at No. 23 in 1962 on the national pop charts.

Johnny Daye, a white soul singer, was discovered here by Otis Redding, who took him to Stax, the legendary label, where Steve Cropper produced and co-wrote "What'll I Do for Satisfaction," one of two Daye singles for the label (the other was "Stay Baby Stay"). A 1967 single, "What'll I Do," was revived in 1993 by Janet Jackson on the "Janet" album.

In the Stax/Volt "Singles" box-set liner notes, Cropper is quoted as saying, "Otis really wanted to do a lot with him. The kid was dynamite. Had Otis lived, he probably would have."

Though brilliant examples of vintage soul, neither of his Stax releases charted. But he did enjoy at least a minor hit a few years earlier with "Marry Me," (over)produced by Johnny Nash, on Jomada.

Scott Mervis is the Post-Gazette Weekend Magazine editor. Ed Masley is the PG pop music critic.

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