Two of the biggest hit-makers to break out of Pittsburgh in the 1960s were Lou Christie and The Vogues.
The man behind both was Nick Cenci, whom longtime concert promoter Pat DiCesare called “the greatest record guy ever to come out of Pittsburgh.” Mr. Cenci of Whitehall died Thursday of liver cancer. He was 82.
As a teenager, Mr. Cenci started as an office boy for WCAE/WTAE radio in the early ’50s and eventually worked his way up to music director for well-known deejay Jay Michael and station program director. With that experience “separating the hits,” he went to work for the local Fenway Records as a promotion executive.
“He had good ears,” Mr. DiCesare said. “Nick could sense a hit and he could convince DJs to play records, even when they didn’t want to.”
Mr. Cenci’s daughter Pam Pais of Whitehall relayed that one of her favorite stories was her dad doing a 10-hour sit-in on the floor at a radio station, refusing to leave until it played the song.
“He knew what he wanted,” she said.
In 1962, he co-founded Co & Ce records with Herb Cohen, their first prize being Lugee Sacco, a teen singer from Crescent who had released a few singles as Lugee & The Lions. Mr. Cenci recognized his ability to sing like star Frankie Valli.
“He loved falsetto voices,” Mr. Christie said, “and that was probably the doorknob to my career when I met Nick. We did it all from Liberty Avenue, and it was because of him that I really stepped into the world as Lou Christie.”
Literally. Upon sending the record to the plant, Mr. Cenci had last-minute reservations about the ethnic name. Flipping through Billboard, he saw an ad for Julie Christie and slapped the name “Lou Christie” on the record to the complete surprise of the singer.
“I wasn’t too happy with it,” Mr. Christie said, “but my father liked it, because he said it had Christ’s name in it. My dad said it would be good luck.”
“The Gypsy Cried” became a Pittsburgh hit in 1963 and then a million-selling hit after Mr. Cenci pitched to Roulette Records for national distribution. They followed that success with “Two Faces Have I” and “How Many Tear Drops” before Mr. Christie signed with MGM for the 1966 chart-topper “Lightnin’ Strikes.”
Mr. Cenci’s next success, and next renaming project, was with Turtle Creek group the Val-Aires. Mr. Cenci put them in the studio to cover Petula Clark’s “You’re the One,” which, under the name The Vogues, went to No. 4 on the charts in 1965. They went back to that same spot on the charts a few months later with the classic “Five O’Clock World,” which later became the theme song of “The Drew Carey Show.”
Also in ’65, local dance deejays started spinning a record called “Hanky Panky,” an obscure 1964 B-side from Michigan band Tommy James and the Shondells. Seizing upon its popularity, Mr. Cenci bootlegged the record and distributed it through Fenway in 1966. Ten days later, it was the No. 1 song in Pittsburgh with 80,000 sales.
When Mr. Cenci made a call to Niles, Mich., he learned the band had broken up in ’64. He and local dance promoter Bob Mack brought Mr. James to Greensburg, where local band Raconteurs was transformed into the Shondells. His career revived, Tommy James and the Shondells went on to sign with Roulette and became a star with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover” and other hits.
Along with Christie and The Vogues, the Co & Ce roster included garage-rock pioneers The Swamp Rats and The Fenways.
After the demise of Co & Ce, Mr. Cenci worked for Motown as Pittsburgh distributor and promotion man, via his own Tri-City Records, in the ’70s. The walls of his Whitehall home hold gold records for such artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Thelma Houston. In the early ’80s he partnered with DiCesare-Engler to form DECCO Records and promote local bands.
By the ’90s, he was mostly retired and spent time living in Conneaut Lake Park, where the family had a boat. He also dished his opinions in the Nick of Time newsletter in Whitehall.
“Everything we did was fun, fun and more fun,” his daughter said. “He was the funniest man and he loved his scotch. It was a big part of his life and there will be a bottle in his casket as well.”
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Maria Watts of the North Hills; sons Chip of Florida and Todd of Bethel Park; grandchildren Cassandra and Michael; and great-grandchildren Nico and Luca.
Visitation at the John F. Slater Funeral Home, Inc., 4201 Brownsville Road., Brentwood, is today from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. The funeral prayer is 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, followed by mass of Christian Burial in St. Sylvester Church at 10 a.m. Condolences to www.johnfslater.com.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576.