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

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

By Scott Mervis and Ed Masley

The last of two parts

Sunday, we followed the Pittsburgh music scene from early doo-wop hits to the Jaggerz's "The Rapper." Here, we pick up with the leaner chart successes of the bar-rock years, the birth of local punk, Rusted Root and beyond.

Pumpin' Iron

In late 1973, Dom DiSilvio and his then-wife Jan Chepes purchased the Pizza Pub at the corner of Atwood and Sennott in Oakland and renamed it the Decade. The plan was to make it an oldies club, but after a few years, DiSilvio says, "We realized we weren't in the '50s any longer."

Neither was the Pittsburgh music scene. The Decade would soon be home to a bruising bunch of bar-rock bands.

Some of the players had been on the scene going back to the Jaggerz, the Igniters and the infamous Diamond Reo, a band that brought together Norm Nardini, Warren King, Robbie Johns and Frankie Czuri.

Some say Diamond Reo, in those transitional days of harder rock 'n' roll, went any way the wind blew, and that's not far from the truth.

They began as a power pop band, recorded for Atlantic subsidiary Big Tree Records, hit the Top 100 with a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" and got to hang out with Dick Clark on "American Bandstand." "It was us and Barbi Benton," Czuri recalls, with a laugh. "It was a hoot."

In time, the band turned metal, recorded two more albums and toured the country with everyone from Ted Nugent to Kiss.

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


"We came back, and we were as bad as any band you'd see in your life," Nardini says. "And people hated our guts."

He remembers a gig at the Decade in '76 with Gravel, a folk-country band that would spawn the Nashville writing team Bob Corbin and Dave Hanner.

"I think we scared some of the white folk -- the really white folk," he says. "We were like the ghetto people."

It should be noted here that Nardini is white. The Diamonds were a little scary, though.

"Out of the four of us," says Czuri, "I'd say four of us were pretty crazy."

Diamond Reo didn't play the Decade often, but Nardini made a lasting impression on DiSilvio because of Nardini's somewhat punk habit. "I had trouble getting [the Tigers] in there, because someone told Dom I was spitting, and he said, 'I don't want him in my club.' I had to beg to get back in."

Nardini got back in.

The year was 1980, Diamond Reo had broken up, and Nardini was making a name for himself as the city's most colorful frontman.

"By that time," he says, "everyone in Diamond Reo was making a lot of mistakes, and I was starting to feel like I was being overwhelmed by the drugs and the insanity. So I thought, '[Expletive!], well, I'm just gonna leave this band and start my own career.' "

A 45 of "Burnin' Up" and "Ready Freddy" earned Nardini a publishing deal in New York City. A live release on Buddah followed, then a deal with CBS in 1982. He did two albums with the label -- "Norman Nardini and the Tigers" (with vocal assists from Jon Bon Jovi) and "Love Dog."

"It was a frustrating time," he says, "because the records I made weren't really made by me. They were made by the producers. They were overly clean and overly organized. I didn't get the opportunity to really capture who I really was. And I blame a lot of that on myself."

In 1990, Nardini returned on Circumstantial, an indie label that gave him a hit in Germany with a cover of "Smoke Two Joints."

Two other Diamonds -- Czuri and King -- would make their comeback in the Silencers. Czuri -- who had a long history here going back to his earliest band the Igniters, the Jaggerz and two acts that actually put out singles on Atlantic, Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory and the Friends -- was able to grab the attention of Tom Cossi, who was hot back then for having worked with Chic.

The Silencers started rehearsing in the summer of '79. And as Czuri recalls, "Before we ever played a job, we had the record deal sewn up." Their debut album, "Rock 'n' Roll Enforcers," hit the streets in 1980 on Precision/CBS, spawning four local radio hits -- "The Peter Gunn Theme," "Modern Love," "Head On Collision" and "Shiver and Shake."

The sound and image of that debut found the Silencers being positioned as part of the New Wave scene, despite their roots in bar-rock.

"I think Warren went to see Joe Jackson at the Decade, and he came away just mesmerized," says Czuri. "And that was strange for Warren."

"Romanic," the Silencers' second and final album, retreated a bit from the New Wave, giving local radio another staple of the era, "Sidewalk Romeo."

After losing King, the band broke up in 1984, by which point, Czuri says, "We'd just run out of everything."

It took a vocal group, Pure Gold, to get him back on stage. He joined the group in 1985 and hasn't tired of it yet.

"I grew up with that whole Pittsburgh thing, with Porky Chedwick and that whole bit," Czuri says. "I'm different, inasmuch as I did like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the Who I loved, whereas most of these people are convinced that music ended with the Beatles. But doing this thing with Pure Gold was a very natural thing for me to do."

In 1977, while Czuri was living the wild life with the Diamond Reo circus, the band that would come to embody the sound of Pittsburgh rock 'n' roll showed up on DiSilvio's doorstep. Featuring gritty frontman Joe Grushecky, the Brick Alley Band was an early version of the Iron City Houserockers, the band that would define the Decade's rough-and-tumble style.

Songs like "Pumpin' Iron (Sweatin' Steel)" and "Junior's Bar" became local anthems, as rowdy crowds saluted the Houserockers at the Decade on Saturday night and cheered the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium the next day.

"It was the right band in the right place from the first gig we played there," Grushecky says. "The whole scene crystallized at the Decade, and you had the first golden age of Pittsburgh bands. In that era, the bands were all gunslingers. We all wanted to be the top gun."

The Houserockers signed with manager Steve Popovich (who'd broken Boston), got a deal with MCA and were overnight critical darlings. Rolling Stone gave "Love's So Tough," the band's debut, four stars, and called the blistering follow-up, "Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive)" -- produced by Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter and Steve Van Zandt -- a "New American classic." "Blood on the Bricks," produced by Steve Cropper, found them doing a very un-Houserocker-like thing -- lip-synching "Friday Night" between the dancers on the glitzy network show "Solid Gold."

"Art Nardini and I, our idea was just to get guys who weren't the world's best musicians but were dedicated to what we were doing and we would play together as a team," Grushecky says.

Better promotion or perhaps some tour support might have broken the band, but they never got the bang out of all that acclaim. In 1982, the team began to splinter and two years later the Iron City Houserockers called it a day.

But Grushecky continues to be a force on the local music scene with a string of solo records, including "American Babylon," featuring his old friend Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has joined the new Houserockers at Nick's Fat City and other spots around the country, and he opened his run of Madison Square Garden shows last year with "Code of Silence," an unreleased song written with Grushecky.

The Decade also had its share of straight-up R&B bands, from Bon Ton Roulet and Red Hot & Blue to the Mystic Knights and, the standout, Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band, led by a frontman from New Jersey considered to be one of the finest white R&B singers anywhere.

He got his start here with the Rhythm Kings at the Fox Cafe in Shadyside. "We had a run," he says, "where we played there every night for a year."

The singer upped his national profile in '73 on a three-year touring and recording stint with guitar great Roy Buchanan, appearing on "Live Stock."

"Musically, it was less satisfying than the Rhythm Kings," he says. "My vocals were the bridge between the beginning of the song and guitar solo. The crowd was like, 'Yeah, yeah, where's the guitar solo?' "

In '77, he formed the Keystone Rhythm Band, pairing his soulful vocals with the stinging leads of guitarist Glenn Pavone and a brass section featuring Kenny Blake and Eric Leeds (who later played in Prince's Revolution).

The KRB released a handful of popular regional records and became an attraction along the East Coast. Since their split in 1990, Price has explored his Southern soul roots on two records he considers his most satisfying and purest.

While the bulk of the Decade-era bands may not have been radio-friendly enough for the national charts, Donnie Iris didn't have that problem. Signed to MCA, the pride of Beaver Falls had left the Jaggerz and was fresh out of a stint with Steubenville's Wild Cherry (after "Play That Funky Music") when he went into the studio with Mark Avsec (from Wild Cherry) and Marty Lee to create a wall of sound bigger than any the city had ever produced. "Ah! Leah!," a No. 29 hit and MTV video pick in '81 from the "Back on the Streets" album, sounded like a full choir of Iris.

"We wanted to give it a huge vocal sound," he says. "So we just kept stacking my voice on top of itself. I was sounding so good, we just kept stacking and stacking, and I don't remember how many times I did it, but it was a lot."

He formed the Cruisers as a concert (rather than a club) band, touring with Foreigner, Hall & Oates and Bryan Adams. In 1982, "King Cool" produced two more hit singles, "Love Is Like a Rock" (No. 37) and "My Girl" (No. 25). The singer continues to churn out independent records. And though he's moved on to a serious day job, when he slips on the shades he can still turn into King Cool.

Also out of Beaver Falls, but providing a lesson in hard knocks, were the Granati Brothers. The moppy-haired Granatis formed in 1976 and signed to A&M Records, releasing "G-Force" in '79 and hitting the road on a 45-date tour with monster heavy metal band Van Halen. When the tour was over, the Granatis aka G-Force learned that they'd been dropped by the label.

Any gathering of Pittsburgh's all-stars also features two other important players from that scene: Rick Witkowski and Aliquippa's B.E. Taylor. Guitarist Witkowski, along with West Virginia singer John Palumbo, fronted the progressive rock/fusion band Crack the Sky, who released major-label albums and were adopted by the Baltimore area. Witkowski went on to work with the B.E. Taylor Group, which scored regional hits with "Karen" on Epic and "Vitamin L" on MCA.

By the end of the '80s, Pittsburgh's run of major-label luck was over. Looking back, Nardini says, "I was extremely proud. And I bragged everywhere I went that Pittsburgh had the best rock 'n' roll scene in the United States, and that someday everyone would know that we were the best bands anywhere."

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