During the 1960s, six Canonsburg stars of stage, screen and television were racking up what would amount to nearly 200 hits on the pop charts.
Perry Como, in his third decade of recording, helmed a weekly TV variety series. Bobby Vinton, a top male vocalist of that decade, not only posted several No. 1 songs ("Roses Are Red," "Mr. Lonely," "There I've Said It Again"), but also appeared in two John Wayne movies and hosted a syndicated variety show. And the Four Coins, still riding the crest of their considerable success in the 1950s, were touring stateside and overseas with artists such as Nat King Cole.
To say the least, it was unusual, if not unique, for a town of 12,000 to produce entertainers who cut such a wide swath of popularity across America.
It's never been fully explained why the small southwestern Pennsylvania community didn't capitalize on the phenomenon; it's been speculated that Canonsburg's Italian, Polish and Greek communities, each of which could claim one of the acts, didn't work well together. Despite discussions of separate or joint museums over the years, little materialized, save for a Perry Como statue outside the borough building that visitors pretty much can photograph as they drive by -- without dropping a nickel into Canonsburg's economy.
the Inaugural Inductees
1. The Beach Boys
2. The Beatles
3. Johnny Cash
4. Ray Charles
5. Nat King Cole
6. Perry Como
7. Bobby Darin
8. Neil Diamond
9. Brenda Lee
10. Johnny Mathis
11. Elvis Presley
12. Frank Sinatra
13. Bobby Vinton
14. Stevie Wonder
Though the borough's "Hot Diggity" moment (to borrow a line from Como) is in the rearview mirror, a new group decided to resurrect the museum concept as a means of economic development. Considering the age of most of the Canonsburg artists' fans, it was a given that a museum dedicated to those particular singers would have a short shelf life. At the same time, it was incomprehensible to us that no national entity recognized artists of that caliber.
And that's when an idea popped into the group's collective mind. If there were halls of fame for rock and country singers, why not one for pop artists? Shouldn't vintage mainstream singers such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Andy Williams be recognized for their wealth of recordings?
'America's Small-Town Music Capital'
Pete Povich, program director at WJPA Radio in Washington, Pa., and a member of our selection committee, has pointed out that many talented singers just aren't the right fit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. But they would be suitable candidates for a pop music hall. The issue of aging fans can be resolved easily, too. There will always be pop music, so the hall can continue to grow and expand with newer artists.
We decided to enhance the attraction by inducting pop/rock artists who have been underserved by other halls of fame -- the Monkees, Guess Who and Chicago, for example.
The Hall of Fame group -- an eclectic mix of music fans, members of the business community, current and former politicians and an attorney -- was unfazed by the prospective comparison of tiny Canonsburg with Cleveland and Nashville, which is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
We rationalized that with nearly 200 chart hits under its belt, Canonsburg had a legitimate claim to host the Hall of Fame. Also, Canonsburg already had adopted "America's Small-Town Music Capital" as its slogan, so the hall would seem to be a natural progression.
After formalizing the name -- America's Pop Music Hall of Fame -- we went to Cleveland to pick the brains of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officials. In a surprisingly cordial meeting, we discussed the benefits and pitfalls of establishing a hall, including the major expense of obtaining rights to music and videos.
The Pop Music Hall of Fame board plowed ahead.
A wide range of people associated with the music industry was named to our selection committee, including local and national disc jockeys, music columnists and musicians. While everyone agreed that the public should be part of the voting process ("pop music" is more properly defined as "popular music"), no one agreed on an exact definition of the genre itself. Nearly every artist initially suggested for the short list was met with complaints of being "too rock," "too country" or, worse, "too bland" by at least one committee member. Eventually, we decided to nominate 40 artists who had major impact on the Top 40 charts before 1970.
Nominations accomplished, the focus shifted to formally announcing the Hall of Fame's creation and the debut of online voting. The initial publicity drew hundreds of comments -- and votes -- from as far away as Australia and England and responses from artists such as Smokey Robinson (who offered assistance) and the family of Ella Fitzgerald (who gently asked why Ms. Fitzgerald was overlooked).
We plan to announce a new class of inductees each summer, perhaps to coincide with Canonsburg's famous Fourth of July parade.
The tourists are coming already
The primary expense, at least initially, is to establish a bricks-and-mortar home. When a proposal to temporarily locate the Hall of Fame in the borough building was turned down by city fathers, the board obtained funding for a two-year lease at a former downtown eatery, Toy's My Way Cafe on West Pike Street, where renovation is under way with the help of students from Western Area Career and Technology Center. The board also is working with the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Mercer County, to obtain memorabilia for a projected October opening. We hope to establish a partnership of sorts with the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, which isn't currently open.
While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn't open until several classes of rockers had been inducted, opening a building in Canonsburg is a critical early step. The building will be the mechanism that drives tourists to the borough.
Mayor David Rhome, who heads the Hall of Fame board, correctly notes that Canonsburg is in the heart of a very popular tourist area and that the hall gives us an opportunity to corral some of those tourists and get them to spend some money here. Our appeal is primarily to the same demographic visiting the Meadows Racetrack and Casino in North Strabane, Tanger Outlets in South Strabane, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Chartiers and Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life near Avella. We want to be a part of those folks' weekend or weekday visit.
The plan seems to be working. The borough has received inquiries from dozens of motorcoach companies, and one tour bus dropped by before the nominations were even announced.
Our aspirations are reasonable. As board member Patty Mauer has said, the Hall of Fame is at best a break-even venture. But it has the potential to reinvigorate downtown Canonsburg and help the region with restaurants and souvenir and gift shops.
On March 8, the board reached its first milestone when Johnny Tillotson ("Poetry in Motion") revealed the first class of 14 inductees to a roomful of press and curious Canonsburg residents. As word spread to the inductees, more than one expressed gratitude for the recognition. Contacted between a recording session and a round of golf, inductee Johnny Mathis said, "I'm flattered and very happy to hear the news."
One imagines Perry Como would have said, "Hot diggity."