Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay
We recently had a true-blue, old-school, PBS-style doo wop show at The Arcada. And man, was it fun! Three acts, one show. I am talking about The Flamingos (1953), Danny & The Juniors (1955) and Joey Dee & The Starliters (1958). The acts are each celebrating roughly 60 years in the business. And the most interesting thing about them? They showed no signs of slowing down!
I was born in 1962 and my musical “wheelhouse,” really, is the classic rock of my teen years in the mid 1970s. As I was “rockin’ out” to Kansas, Foreigner, Styx, Chicago, Boston, Zeppelin and Rush, I was also subjected to another era/slash/genre of music, really without even realizing it. It actually sneaked up on me!
Three things happened in the ’70s that opened my eyes to the history of rock ‘n’ roll. First, my family time in front of the TV would commonly include episodes of the Richie Cunningham sitcom set in the 1950s, “Happy Days.” The Fonz would take that cool approach to the jukebox, give it a strategic, closed-fist whack, and “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and his Comets would play. Throughout the show there would be placement of classic songs from the ’50s, with Joanie Cunningham frequently in a poodle skirt, attending sock hops. With hard-rock flowing through my veins, my soul was being sweetened with the sounds of early pop.
The second thing that brought my attention to that Fifties doo wop experience was a television show that featured a band I really thought WAS from the ’50s, Sha Na Na. When Bowzer would open the show, wide-mouthed and making a muscle with his skinny arm, sporting his greased back hair, cuffed blue jeans and white T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves, I really got excited to watch the show! I would actually dress the part sometimes. My favorite part of the show was when all 12 members of the band would join together to sing “Blue Moon” and end the show with “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
Sha Na Na really gave me rock ‘n’ roll history lessons that would stay with me, and eventually help me kick-start my career producing live concerts.
Then, in 1978, the John Travolta/Olivia Newton John classic film “Grease” came out. As much of a rocker as I was, it was hard to admit to my friends that I actually loved the film, AND its music! It wasn’t as hard as admitting that I actually dug the disco stuff from Travolta’s earlier blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever,” but it was close.
So as I entered the music biz in the late ’80s, I found that the most affordable “national” acts at the time were those who had hits some 30 years before. My first hire was Chubby Checker. He was incredible, turning his three-minute 1960s cover of “The Twist” into a 20-minute live extravaganza, with audience members on stage, and Chubby in the audience, turning a seated crowd into a twisting frenzy.
He is a very outspoken guy, and at 74 years old, he has seen it all. He still talks about his dream of opening for Aerosmith, but his fear of flying would make it tough to tour with them. He is a wealth of rock ‘n’ roll knowledge, and truly, an under-acknowledged contributor to the pop music experience. After all, he IS credited with being the first to get adults on the dance floor to dance together with the “kids” music of the day!
Then there was Chuck Berry, a true legend, with legendary quirkiness and a bit of a tough guy to deal with. He is somewhat of a loner, traveling by himself, getting his own rent-a-car and often returning to his home in St. Louis immediately after his shows. He must be paid entirely in cash, tells the promoter of the show to “pay my agent his fee” so it doesn’t come out of his “end,” and requires a backup band but holds no rehearsal, has no “talk-through” and doesn’t even have music charts. “Buy my Greatest Hits album and larn it,” is Chuck’s suggestion to the often stressed-out local band. “Maybelline” and his other hits turned out great, a bit rocky for the band, but overall, he IS Chuck Berry!
Little Richard was also an experience. It was actually a combination Chuck Berry/Little Richard show and as low-key as Chuck was, Richard was just the opposite! Three nights of hotel for his 24-person entourage PLUS 25 bow tie-wearing members of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam security force. He was a bit “salty” when he found out that he was “opening” for Chuck, so instead of his contracted 45-minute set, he stayed on stage for over an hour, mixing hits like “Lucille” with verses from the Bible. It was a long night, but in the end, the music prevailed over the personalities, and rock ‘n’ roll history was made.
I gotta say, two of my favorite acts were two I had last week, Joey Dee and the Starliters and Danny & the Juniors.
Joey Dee (DiNicola) came out with the “Peppermint Twist,” capitalizing on the “Twist” craze of the time. When I first met him, I marveled at how well he sang, and how classy he dressed. David Brigati, older brother of Eddie Brigati from the Young Rascals, was also in the Starliters. Jimi Hendrix also played guitar for the Starliters!
Their show the other night was spectacular. I “Peppermint Twisted” for a straight hour myself!
And Danny & The Juniors opened the show with “Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay” and “At The Hop.” The place went nuts. The Philadelphia ’50s legends peppered the show with comedy and old-school “shtick.” It really felt like something you would see on those vaudeville theater stages back in the day.
After the show, we all sat in the dressing rooms, reminiscing about other shows we had done together over the years. “Here we are, still at it,” Joey said. I responded by saying I hoped I will stay in this business as long as they have. “We are just having fun,” Joe Terry of the Juniors said. “When it becomes a job, we will probably retire. So far, we haven’t worked a day in our life!”
Man, I wished I stayed in choir.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.