As the creator of the Roots of Rock and Roll series, Henry DeLuca has long been one of the faces of the oldies scene in Pittsburgh. But his interests, musical and otherwise, don't begin and end there.
Back in the late '60s, he was a guy with a degree in microbial biology tromping through the mud at Woodstock.
And it wasn't to see Sha Na Na.
"I didn't even see them there," he says of the festival's rare throwback band. "I was not that much into Sha Na Na, because I didn't feel the authenticity there. They were good and I became a friend of one of the guys, but I liked Jimi Hendrix, because he came out of the blues, and Janis Joplin, because I could really feel the passion there, and Creedence Clearwater and Canned Heat."
Mr. DeLuca, 67, is sitting at a back table in a Lawrenceville Italian restaurant with a plate of braised rabbit on pasta and a bottle of his homemade red wine, slightly chilled. The subject is about how he started the beloved Roots of Rock and Roll series back in 1980 and why he'll bring it to a bittersweet finish on Saturday with a Volume XL.
The promoter, who says he grew up at the counter of DeLuca's, the famous restaurant his family once owned in the Strip, was exposed to a variety of music, thanks mostly to Pork the Tork.
"At around 11 years old," he says, "my cousin Wayne turned me on to Porky Chedwick and his radio show. So I started listing to that show back then, around '58-59. I just fell in love with it, and it changed everything for me musically. It was the simplicity and the passion of those songs that were fantastic. Up until then I had been watching 'Your Hit Parade' on television with my mother and 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,' that kind of thing."
Not only was Porky playing the rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues of the day, but he had a Dusty Discs segment where he was spinning songs from 1951-52. He was playing '50s oldies in the '50s!
Mr. DeLuca, from Brookline, immersed himself in the music, collecting the records and going to the dances held by Porky and other DJs, but he didn't have his sights on the music business or the restaurant life. He went off to Saint Vincent College and then the University of Pittsburgh for a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in science education.
Upon graduating, he landed at the Warrendale Youth Development Center, aka Thorn Hill School, a training school for boys who were delinquent wards of Allegheny County. He was married to college sweetheart Susan Davis (also a teacher), living in Shadyside, and life was good.
When his boss told him that he wouldn't be working his usual summer session in 1980, he told Susan, "All my life, I've wanted to do a concert."
She could relate to his musical passions, because she was one of them. When they toured the country in a VW van after they were married, he says, she was the jukebox. Gifted with a lovely alto, she also sang in the doo-wop group Acappella Gold (which formed in 1978), and he says, "I saw what was out there, I saw the reaction to the music."
Figuring he could make up for those lost paychecks, he reserved the Syria Mosque for June 7 for a dream lineup of The Coasters, Del-Vikings, Spaniels and Jyve Fyve, with Acappella Gold, Memories and El Monics, and Porky as emcee.
This being long past the heyday for these veteran bands and a bit early for the nostalgia game, "They were eager to work," Mr. DeLuca says.
And what a thrill it was, starting the night before when he waited at the Holiday Inn in Wilkinsburg and watched The Coasters, along with guest Earl "Speedo" Carroll, arrive in their Cadillacs. He soaked in their stories over drinks at the bar.
"When Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels arrived from Gary, Ind., they had killed the better part of a bottle of bourbon and they were some outfit," Mr. DeLuca says of the group famous for "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." "When they got up to do their rehearsal, they were so good, I had to sit down and just drink it in. I was in another world."
The box office lurched him back to reality. They sold only half the house, and a tornado warning that June night killed the walk-up -- $6,000 went down the drain.
"I worked to lose that money," he would tell people. "I could have gone to Vegas and lost it painlessly." On the homefront, he says, "I had promised Susan that I wouldn't do a second one if I lost money."
He quickly broke that promise months later, with a little help from the devil in his ear, Joe Rock, who managed the Skyliners and had written their golden oldie "Since I Don't Have You." His advice: Move it to the Stanley, don't do it in June, don't overpay the acts and don't hire 10 cops to control oldies fans.
For Roots of Rock and Roll II that November, he encored with Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, Little Anthony, The Shirelles, The Cadillacs and The Clovers, and in one night, he was back in the black and back in Susan's good graces.
Booking oldies acts and going to see them was -- and is -- a buyer-beware proposition.
Mr. DeLuca recalls an agent out of New York back in the day who sent a version of "The Coasters" to New Castle and then the same guys to Youngstown, or some nearby eastern Ohio city, as "The Drifters."
He was offered lots of groups that featured not a single original member. He refused to book them and even inserted the pledge into his Vol. II program, "We will never knowingly present a fraudulent act."
What he asked of the artists was that they dance with the date that brought them and play the hits fans wanted to hear -- he even put titles into the contracts.
That could be tricky with an "ornery" character like Bo Diddley, on Vol. III, who would play certain hits in the rehearsal and then want to do more of a blues show for the gig.
Still, the Roots series was on a roll right up until VI in 1982 when he booked the real King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Chuck Berry was legendary for "Johnny B. Goode," for "Maybelline" and for being a handful. He wanted a wad of cash, a precise stage time and ancient amps. He was a no-show till intermission, when he arrived and blew a fuse in one of the amps. "I think he did it on purpose," Mr. DeLuca swears.
He was great, though, and before the second show, he took a friend from Pittsburgh out to dinner. When he returned, the promoter says, "I can't find the Stanley personnel who had the key to the dressing room. So he goes nuts, goes out to his car, he's not going to perform on the second show, he's insulted. Luckily he had brought his daughter, who was going to do vocals on the show, a beautiful girl, and she persuaded him to come back in."
He did a great second show, filling the whole stage with dancing fans. Because his guarantee was so high, "I lost money," Mr. DeLuca says, adding "but it was certainly an artistic success." Not the typical promoter-speak.
Roots came back strong the next year with the 25th anniversary of The Skyliners, with strings, but it was the beginning of a slight downturn as Pittsburgh was feeling the economic hit of the steel mills closing.
"They literally went from good-paying steel jobs to being a security guard," Mr. DeLuca says. "Many of them moved out of town." Many of his fliers were returned to sender.
Despite that, the Roots series went into the red one only more time, with Chubby Checker in 1984. In 1990, the series strayed from its Stanley home, which became the Benedum in 1987, for the premiere season of the Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown. The headliner, The Temptations, drew 9,800, as did Smokey Robinson the following year.
"They went well, but Star Lake was looking to pull 20,000 people," Mr. DeLuca says. "You could get that covered pavilion full, but you couldn't get 20,000 people."
Along with Roots, the promoter also dabbled in the Erie and Cleveland markets with oldies shows and took a financial hit at home bringing Little Richard and Bo Diddley to Three Rivers Stadium in 1998 for Porkstock, the 50th anniversary of Porky becoming a DJ,
Since 1980, the series hasn't missed a year, and Mr. DeLuca is proud of its accomplishments, including presenting one of the last concerts with Sam and Dave, dragging Hank Ballard and the Midnighters out of retirement, doing the same with Johnnie & Joe and finding obscure soul singer Donnie Elbert, who had a Pittsburgh hit with "Have I Sinned?"
His work got a national showcase in 1999 when he and young WQED producer T.J. Lubinsky launched "Doo-Wop 50," the biggest pledge series in the history of PBS to that point, and followed that with many others, including "Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop" and "My Music."
He's equally proud of presenting the Skyliners for their 25th, 30th and 40th and now 50th anniversaries.
"The Roots show was the first one to use strings for us in our background," says Skyliners singer Jimmy Beaumont. "[Henry's] been so influential in terms of helping our style of music and allowing us to continue to work."
Last year, Mr. DeLuca heard some jeers from the crowd when 3WS DJ Mike Frazer noted that Vol. XXXIX would be the next-to-last Roots concert. It was a good one, with lively performances from Charlie Thomas' Drifters, The Flamingos featuring Terry Johnson, Kenny Vance & the Planotones and the always solid Pure Gold, among others.
It wasn't enough to encourage him to keep it going beyond this final Roots XL show on Saturday.
"The artists, unfortunately, are passing on, as are some of the fan base," Mr. DeLuca says. In fact, of the four national headliners from his first show in 1980, the only authentic survivor is Eugene Pitt of the Jyve Fyve. With this current show, The Planotones were forced to cancel because Kenny Vance is ailing.
"Some of the artists are not healthy enough to perform," he adds, "and so we have a diminishing audience pool and a diminishing pool of talent, and it's making it more and more difficult. I decided I don't want to wait for the end to be thrust upon me. I want to finish with a show of top-notch quality while we can still do that. When these artists get a 7 in front of their age, and some of them an 8, you've got all kinds of possibilities that aren't good."
He admits there has been some grumbling that he's repeating the same artists too often -- a result of the smaller pool and the need for reliability.
Florida-based promoter Deborah Nader, who will continue to book the Holiday Doo-Wop shows in Pittsburgh, notes that after her most recent one here in December, the oldies scene lost Jay Traynor (of Jay & the Americans).
"We have lost some artists, but there are many good artists out there," Ms. Nader says, while praising Mr. DeLuca for the completion of a "wonderful series." She runs Nader Entertainment, founded by her late ex-husband Richard, who did his first Rock & Roll Revival oldies show at Madison Square Garden in 1969. She affirms the Nader group will "only use the original artists or the artists who have the trademark -- that would be the legacy of the group."
One possibility for the Roots series that it just move up an era later to the mid- to late '60s -- like the PBS specials he and Mr. Lubinsky did with Mitch Ryder, ? and the Mysterians, Jefferson Starship, Peter Noone, etc.
"We looked at that very hard," Mr. DeLuca says. "I've run some numbers with it. Each individual artist is much more expensive, so you could never do a nine-artist show."
The Benedum's in-house promotions has a date with the Happy Together Tour in June with Flo and Eddie, Chuck Negron, Gary Lewis and Mr. Ryder, but the ticket range is much higher than what Mr. DeLuca likes to charge: $49 to $149, compared to about $34 to $49, for the Roots shows.
So, Mr. DeLuca, who retired from teaching in 1999 after 30 years, is signing off with No. 40 -- "a nice round number." He will continue to manage Pure Gold and hopes to improve his winery skills, work more on his Italian, travel, and continue his role on the advisory council to the Heinz History Center Italian collection.
He's leaving the door open ever so slightly for a Roots encore at some point, but, he says, "This stuff is not on the ascent right now. I said, 'Let's end on a high note and pack it in.' "
First Published February 19, 2014 10:56 PM