One night I awoke in the middle of a dead sleep with a song running through my mind. I quickly got paper and a pencil to begin writing and it was done in 30 minutes. I called it "I'm Spinning." In the morning, I went downstairs to the Hammond organ and wrote the music. The next night, I wrote, "You Say You Love Me." It was so easy. I wondered why everybody didn't write songs.
A bunch of my friends and I had formed a group called The Penn Boys. Don "Dunch" Bray was our lead singer, Paul Mediate sang bass -- they lived close to each other in Level Green. Cueball could sing bass, lead and do falsetto great. Wayne Waltour from nearby Pitcairn sang tenor. I could sing, but I eventually decided that it was best for the group if I took the role as manager, writer and producer. So I dropped out as a performer. I quickly introduced the songs to our group, which practiced in the back room of the Italian Club in Trafford. They loved the songs and thought we were ready for the big time.
We found a guy by the name of John Koloney who lived in Trafford Terrace and had a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We asked him if he would do a demo for us, which he graciously agreed to do. We really thought we were something after we had recorded ourselves.
The next week we went to the Boosters dance where Jay Michaels would spin records. Jay was the number one disc jockey in town on WCAE radio. I introduced myself to him and gave him our tape. He called us back to tell us that he had made arrangements with a New York record producer to come to the WCAE studios at the Carlton House on Grant Street to audition several groups, including ours. The date was set a month ahead of time, so we anxiously awaited that audition and practiced every day.
Jay encouraged me to have a lot of original material. "These record producers want to hear new material. Don't waste their time by singing someone else's songs," he said. So I continued to write more songs.
Paul Mediate had the job of driving to the audition. He had a slant back '51 Chevy with fender skirts and a sun visor. It was considered cool. Driving to Pittsburgh in itself was a big deal, because we hadn't been to town too many times in our lives. It was like driving to New York City to some people in Trafford. The new parkway had not been completed. We got lost on our way and ended up on Second Avenue which ran along the steel mills for miles. The smoke pouring out of the mills was heavy and the smell was awful.
"This place stinks like rotten eggs, how can these guys work here?" said Cueball.
"If we don't make it as singers, we're all going to end up here," said Dunch.
Eventually, we found a parking lot on Grant Street, got to the Carlton House and took the elevator to the studio. The Carlton House was the Mecca of the recording business in Pittsburgh. When we walked into the studio we were surprised to see about 50 other people in there waiting for their audition. A lot of black groups were there. It was fun and interesting to listen and to hear the black artists talk. They had a musical language that we had never heard before. Up to this time, we really hadn't been in contact with any black groups. Very few black people lived in Trafford.
We waited impatiently. The black groups seemed comfortable. Most of them got together and harmonized in the lobby. I realized after listening to them warm up for a few seconds that they we better than us. They had better range, better harmony, and moved better than us. We could tell they were better prepared. I felt discouraged. They sounded better. But, even though they were better performers, I still thought that I had written some good songs that might have more commercial appeal.
Finally, we were called in. We didn't have any instruments, which I quickly sensed was a big mistake. The other groups had a guitar or piano accompaniment which made all the difference in the world. We had to depend on our own voices. It didn't help that we were all so nervous and that Paul, our bass singer, started off flat and drew us all off key. Who could blame him? The pressure was on. After we were done singing the first song, the producer tried calming us down.
"Don't be so nervous. Take your time. Try another song. Relax," he said.
But we couldn't. We sounded terrible and we knew it. When we finished our third song, we received a very polite, "Don't call us, we'll call you."
We didn't mind that we weren't selected. We were just excited to have been in Pittsburgh at the radio station and have a New York record producer actually listen to us. We came back home to Trafford more determined than ever to be successful.
When you come from nothing, you expect to get nothing. It was a way of life for me. Good things didn't happen to me. With luck on my side I might be able to make things happen. But back then I hadn't experienced luck yet.
Saturday night we went back to the Boosters dance in East Pittsburgh and Jay Michaels was very polite and helpful to us. He said that he was sorry that we weren't selected. But he wanted me to meet another record producer who had managed a group called the Del Vikings. They had just had a million-selling hit called "Come Go With Me." I loved their song and sound. They were one of my favorite groups.
In 1956 all the members of the Del Vikings were in the Air Force stationed in Pittsburgh. They had set up an audition and rehearsal with Barry Kaye in the basement of his home. Barry liked what he heard and sent the tape to Joe Averbach, owner of RB&S, a Pittsburgh-based record distributorship. RB&S were the initials for Rhythm, Blues and Spirituals, which was the type of music he promoted and sold. Joe, who was Jewish, promoted and sold only black artists, which wasn't unusual. Almost all of the record distributors were owned by Jewish people. Joe really liked the type of music he promoted. Most of the top white radio stations wouldn't play blues or spirituals. They were referred to as "race" records which meant only blacks listened to them. White stations didn't want "race" records on their air. However, Joe had a lot of success with acts like Little Richard and others like that on Specialty Records.
Barry played records by mainly white artists and only played black records that were considered to be acceptable to white listening audiences. Barry approached Joe with the demonstration tape that the Del Vikings had recorded a cappella, and Joe thought the group had potential. He continued to work with the group and arranged for a makeshift studio at a Downtown hotel. The group was able to get some of their Air Force buddies who played instruments to back them up. Joe thought since he had a distribution company and that was the main part of the business, he would form a record label and start looking for other recording artists/singers. He formed Fee Bee Records, named for his wife.
In the early part of 1957 Joe released "How Can I Find True Love" as the A side on his Fee Bee record label. For the B side he selected "Come Go With Me." Typically, the B side was a "throw- away side" and no one ever turned the record over to play it. But in no time, DJs started to air it as the A side. They got instant reaction. The record was so hot that Joe had to have national distribution. His small Fee Bee label could not promote and sell nationwide. So, he contacted Randy Wood at Dot Records to distribute it and the record landed in the Top 10 in no time. The Del Vikings and little Fee Bee Records were an instant success.
In the early summer of 1957, Joe released the Del Vikings next record, "Whispering Bells" which went on to be their next chart topper. In the meantime, he started looking for more new material for his hit group, and more groups to sign on his label. Jay Michaels was kind enough to send me to meet with Joe at his Fifth Avenue office. I played our tape for Joe and as he listened he said to me, "You know, I like your music, but I don't like your singing group. Would you let me have your songs for the Del Vikings to record?" I was pleasantly surprised. Someone of importance in this business said, "I like your songs." That sounded great. However, I really didn't want to do that because I wanted my group to record the songs.
When I told them of my meeting with Joe, they were very excited to hear what Joe had to say about us. We had a rehearsal set at my brother JuJu's place of business, Your Cleaners, located in Level Green. I explained what Joe said. When I told them that I told Joe, "I will talk to my group and hear what they say and get back to you," the group knew what was going on. They all said, "Don't be a fool. Don't hold yourself back for us."
Later that summer, the Del Vikings had a disagreement and the group split into two. One group went to Mercury Records and kept the name. The other group, with Kripp Johnson, stayed with Dot Records and Joe Averbach. They also called themselves The Dell Vikings but added the extra l in Dell.
I decided to stay with Joe and let the Dell Vikings record some of our music. The Dell Vikings rehearsed at the Irene Kauffman Center, which was located in The Hill District. It was a great facility, but even the Dell Vikings considered it a dangerous location. I loved it, though. I really enjoyed working in that environment with those guys, but I sure did have to learn my way around the block coming from small town Trafford.
One day the Dell Vikings were playing a dance in Market Square and asked me to come to see them perform. I was very excited about this, and Don Bray and I went to the dance, held on the second floor of this facility. We didn't realize until we got there that it was an all-black event. As we walked up the steps we must have looked like two hillbillies. When we reached the first floor landing, two black guys approached us and said, "If you are going to the dance, you need to buy tickets here."
"Okay how much is it?" we asked.
"Two dollars each," one of them said. We pulled out four dollars and gave it to them.
"Just go ahead up and walk right in," one of them said.
When we got to the top of the steps we saw the card tables, police, ticket sellers and ticket takers. We started walking in and one of the takers said, "Where's your tickets?"
"We already paid for the tickets to the two guys downstairs," I said.
The police took off ran down the steps to try to get the guys but they disappeared. But at least the people at the door were kind enough to realize that we were two dumb white kids who shouldn't be there anyway. They let us in without us paying again. We told them we were with The Dell Vikings. They brought us to the back stage area and they and The Dell Vikings made us feel like very special people at the dance. Everybody there was kind to us. This was my first taste of what it was like to be 'behind the scenes" in the entertainment business, and I liked it.
That fall, The Dell Vikings released "I'm Spinning" which Don Bray and I wrote. It was released on Fee Bee in Pittsburgh first and then Randy Wood released it on Dot Records nationally.
Joe rushed our record because he wanted to beat the Mercury release of The Del Vikings. Within weeks Mercury rushed out a release by their Del Vikings. So there were two Del Viking (or Dell Viking) albums out at the same time. All the Pittsburgh jocks were kind to me and usually when they played the record they gave me credit as the songwriter. This helped me to get established. It was, of course, very confusing to have two groups with the same name releasing two albums on two different labels. Nevertheless, "I'm Spinning" climbed the charts and did become a national hit. I always felt that it would have climbed higher if we had beaten the Mercury release by a few months.
I asked Joe if he could get me a job in the record business. He told me he didn't have any job available but that he knew someone who might need a stock boy. At the time, I was disappointed that my connection with a big shot in the record business landed me grunt work as a "stock boy." But as luck would have it, this would prove to be the biggest break in my life since the stock boy job was with my future mentor -- Tim Tormey.
"I'm Spinning" was on the Billboard Top 100 charts and was an even bigger hit in the Pittsburgh market. Other artists had started contacting me to give them songs. I started my own record company. My first releases were "Halellujah I Love Her So" and "Twilight Time" by Bobby Vinton. We got pounded by the Ray Charles version and the Platters. Bobby Vinton used that as a springboard to get on Epic and recorded his first million selling single, "Roses Are Red."
I got the stock boy job with Tim and within a few years we became partners, which led to producing many concerts together with Tim including The Beatles, and of course led to my career as Pat DiCesare Productions and then with Rich Engler in DiCesare-Engler Productions.
I never made a penny from The Dell Vikings recording of "I'm Spinning." But that's the way the record business was in those days.