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Hitsburgh: The story of Rock 'n' Roll in Pittsburgh

Sunday, February 11, 2001

By Scott Mervis and Ed Masley

Part One:The Post-Gazette's history of rock 'n' roll in Pittsburgh concludes on Tuesday with a look at the eras spanning 1975 to the present.

So Christina Aguilera leaves her home in Wexford, goes to Disney World, joins the Mickey Mouse Club, buys some tummy-baring tops and whoosh, like a genie, she's out of the bottle as our biggest-selling pop star ever, topping the charts with an eight-times-platinum album while her label, RCA, describes her as "our Streisand."

All before she's old enough to see a band at Nick's Fat City.

Why didn't Joe Grushecky think of that?

As anyone who's ever followed any local band can tell you, the Iron City Houserockers' story is far more emblematic of the road from rags to slightly better rags in Pittsburgh's local music trenches, where the tales are remarkably the same: You grind it out for years at record hops, dance halls or nightclubs hoping to get to show the world beyond the city limits what your fans back home have known for years. The lucky ones get signed, the really lucky ones get hits, the luckiest do it again. And again.

But while we'll never be confused with Hitsville, USA, we're not exactly Pittsburg, Kan., either.

In 40-odd years, we've seen our share of successes -- some commercial, others not measured in terms of the number of gold or platinum records hanging on your mansion wall.

In the doo-wop era, we had the Del-Vikings, Skyliners and Marcels all creating hit singles that still hold up today. In the '60s, the Vogues and Lou Christie were able to flourish despite Beatlemania. The '70s ushered in the Decade years, when local legends from Grushecky's Iron City Houserockers to Norm Nardini and his Tigers to the Silencers forged sounds that reflected the city's shot-and-beer, working-class ethic. In the '80s, Donnie Iris of the Jaggerz returned to the charts with three more solo hits. And in more recent years, the scene has grown more splintered to incorporate the likes of Rusted Root, the Clarks, the Cynics, Don Caballero and Anti-Flag.

Along with homegrown bands who launched careers from Pittsburgh, there have been occasions when either outsiders have succeeded in Pittsburgh first or insiders have left to find their fame and fortune elsewhere. Tommy James, of Michigan, came to Pittsburgh to recruit his Shondells when a KDKA DJ made a most unlikely hit of "Hanky Panky" two years after James released it.

On the flip side, guitarist George Benson, once a fixture on the jazz and doo-wop scenes, was 10 years gone when "Breezin' " hit the charts and won a couple of Grammys in the '70s.

And while their music falls outside the scope of what we'll be addressing here, it is worth noting that two singers out of Canonsburg still rank among the 40 most successful singles artists since the Billboard Top 100 chart debuted in 1955. That's Perry Como (No. 33) and Bobby Vinton (No. 38).

So yeah, we've had our share of local music acts, but what about a sound?

Does Pittsburgh have one?

In the '50s, we certainly did.

It was doo-wop.

And as local doo-wop fans have shouted from the rooftops in the four succeeding decades while earning the city a reputation as the Oldies Capitol of the World, our doo-wop had an edge, inspired by the local DJs of the early '50s having no qualms about spinning black artists' records.

Even when Grushecky came along to rock the house, the local sound was steeped in soul and R&B, as soaked up through the Jaggerz in the '60s.

"You grew up listening to black and white together," Grushecky recalls. "The DJs would play the most obscure stuff you could find. In the teen clubs, you could see Wilson Pickett and Sam the Sham and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It was real raw rhythm and blues. That's what gave me my inspiration. I remember going to Cleveland and seeing bands, and it was real segregated. You'd go into the club that was playing black music and see all the greasers there. You'd go see British Invasion bands, and everyone was dressed like Carnaby Street. Pittsburgh mixed it all together. That was a big thing about the Pittsburgh sound."

Today, of course, there is no sound of Pittsburgh.

And that may not be so bad.

If you don't like the Clarks or Anti-Flag or any of the older artists who continue to perform, you've still got maybe 30, 40 different sounds to choose from. And no matter where tastes run, chances are you'll find a Pittsburgh band that plays the sound you're into really well.

Which doesn't mean we've got a city full of Aguileras here.

As Ed Baran, a rock 'n' roll archivist at local label Get Hip, says when asked why no garage bands made it out of Pittsburgh in the '60s, when the charts were full of bands that sounded like McKeesport's Swamp Rats and Fantastic Dee-Jays, "You have to remember, to make it big, you had to be good and lucky."

What follows today (and again Tuesday, in a second installment) is a history of local pop and rock 'n' roll -- some lucky, some just good -- as based on both recent and archival interviews.

Part One

The golden age of doo-wop

Battling the British Invasion

Rock to 'The Sound of
Pittsburgh' on WQED

Part Two

The Birth of Punk

Star Searches

The splinter groups

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