Oldies concert stacked with doo-wop royalty

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At every Roots of Rock and Roll show, promoter Henry DeLuca has a suggestion box for groups that people might want to see. Saturday night at the Benedum was Volume XXXVIII (39), billed as the penultimate concert in the long-beloved series that started in 1980.

Emcee and 3WS DJ Mike Frazer wasn't quite on board, with that. He asked fans to fill out their suggestions "for Vol. 40 ... 41 ... 42 ... 43 ... 44."

It brought a cheer from the packed house for the first of two shows at the Benedum.

Judging by the music, there were few signs that the oldies were on their last legs.

Mr. DeLuca stacked this show with two of the most respected groups of the era: Charles Thomas' Drifters and The Flamingos featuring Terry Johnson. As always, the names indicate that the groups feature at least one singer from their heyday.

Mr. Johnson, who joined the Flamingos as singer and writer in 1956, is a youthful 74 who looked like doo-wop royalty in his white tux jacket. Better yet, his voice was perfection singing their signature song from 1959, "I Only Have Eyes for You." The trio, on its Diamond Anniversary Tour, also treated the crowd to "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" and "I'll Be Home" and freshened the set with a snappy cover of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

In the headlining slot were fellow Rock and Roll Famers The Drifters, who are the gold standard of '50s vocal groups. Ben E. King was the lead singer of The Drifters, but they don't lose too much with Thomas, also a tenor, who sounded strong belting out their staggering string of hits: "On Broadway," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Up on the Roof," "Under the Boardwalk." On that last one, he got a sweet little assist from a young boy in the crowd.

Harold Winley, who led The Original Clovers, is a bass vocalist, so the lead chores were handled by an array of younger singers, who worked wonders with their hits "One Mint Julip," "Devil or Angel" and, of course, the funky "Love Potion No. 9."

The flashiest vocals of the night came from Kenny Vance, a member of the early '60s group Jay and the Americans who's led revival group the Planotones since the early '90s. It's not surprising they are a frequent headliner as they bring a lot to an oldies party. They do a Americans' medley of "She Cried"/"Come a Little Bit Closer"/"Cara Mia" that kind of rocks, they have a hot lead guitarist in Johnny Gale (who looks like a Ramone), they shine on a cappella, and Vance can hold a falsetto note till the cows come home. Two of their songs, "Those Oldies But Goodies" and "Looking for an Echo," get to their heart of why people still love this music.

In fact, not surprisingly, a popular applause line involved bashing the current music. "Go back with us to the good old days when music was music, and the lyrics had substance," The Flamingos singer said, slyly adding, "and safe sex meant you had the emergency brake on in the car."

Mr. Thomas was a bit more forceful, saying, "I wish some of those young guys would pick up on [this music]. If some see one of them, tell him 'Turn your hat around, pull your britches up and have some of this good OK rock and roll."

He got a roar of approval on that one.

Adding to the fun were the beautiful Kathy Young ("A Thousand Stars"), The Charts ("Desiree"), Pure Gold, visits by deejays Porky Chedwick and Frankie Day, and folk/blues man Josh White Jr., who, amazingly, sang his Pittsburgh hit "Do You Close Your Eyes" for the first time before a live audience on Saturday.

It was another night of Magic Moments that likely sent fans running to the suggestion box to bring these same groups back ... for years to come.

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


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