Roots of Rock and Roll series heads out on a high note



Henry DeLuca said he wanted his beloved Roots of Rock and Roll series to go out on a "high note," and that might have been when Jimmy Beaumont soared at the end of "Since I Don't Have You." Or when Eugene Pitt of the Jyve Fyve, who played the inaugural event in 1980, let loose his falsetto on "Cry." Or when Kid Kyle put his teen idol pipes to The Students' "So Young." Or even when Pure Gold and members of the Jaggerz powered through that chorus on "The Rapper."

The night was filled with high notes and excellent performances, many from artists you would figure to be too old to sing that well.

And there low notes, too, at the sold-out Benedum Center on Saturday night, most notably from the very cool Freddy Johnson who shook the foundation on the "bom ba ba boms" of "Blue Moon."

It was an emotional farewell for the fans who supported the series all those years, for the artists who have been supported by it, and for the science teacher/promoter who had a crazy idea 34 years ago and wasn't dissuaded when he practically lost his nest egg.

The evening came with a gubernatorial proclamation from Tom Corbett and a live mayoral proclamation from music buff Bill Peduto declaring it Henry J. DeLuca Day in Pittsburgh. The man who really started it all, Porky Chedwick, 96 years young, came out from the wings three times for huge ovations. His legs don't move like they used to, but when he opens his mouth, he's still the Bossman. On one of his trips out, Mr. DeLuca surprised the crowd by playing the audio of Porky's excited promo for the original Roots of Rock and Roll event.

The series thrived because the promoter booked acts with real members and made sure they could all really sing. Bobby Hendricks, formerly of the Swallows and Drifters, was a force on his 76th birthday Saturday night, packing the punch of a gritty soul man on "Drip Drop" and "Itchy Twitchy Feeling." Mr. Pitt, moving a little Fred Sanford with his cane, hit the notes and the range of emotions on "Happy Man" and "Cry," with a dramatic singing exit on the latter.

The evening's one Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Shirley Alston Reeves, of the Shirelles, brought smoky soul to "Mama Said," "Soldier Boy" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," noting, "That was written by Carole King. If you see her on the way out, tell her I need another song." The three original members of the Chantels cheated a little by bringing in a young lead singer, Amy Ortiz, but no one's going to complain when they hear that pure, gorgeous voice on "Look in My Eyes," "He's Gone" and "Maybe." Pittsburgh's Marcels and Cleveland Still's Dubs both pitched in with smooth four-part, doo-wop harmonies.

The headliner was the group that helped get the series back in the black for Vol. 2 in November 1980: The Skyliners. Mr. Beaumont, the only original member left, had one of the golden voices of that era, and you can still hear some of that boyish quality at 73. With Nick Pociask, Donna Groom and now Frank Czuri (Diamond Reo, Igniters, Silencers, Pure Gold), they are a talented, energetic and attractive show band with hits like "This I Swear," "Pennies in Heaven" and, of course, "Since I Don't Have You." The finale (I was at the early show) had the whole gang come out for a group-sing on "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight," an especially fitting choice given that The Spaniels were on the Roots of Rock and Roll Vol. 1.

Amid all the great performances, one of my favorite moments was a quiet one. Mr. DeLuca was on stage with Mike Frazer (of 3WS), whose job as emcee was to hype the show as it was happening. He reminded the crowd a few times that Pittsburgh was the "Oldies Capital of the World." He was pushing the promoter to say that Roots was the longest-running oldies series in the world. Mr. DeLuca didn't want to bite. "In the country!," Mr. Frazer said.

Mr. DeLuca, ever humble and always keeping it real, said quietly, "Le't just say Pittsburgh."


Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.

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