Preview: Vance survived rise and fall of doo-wop, now the hurricane
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Kenny Vance was working a cruise ship when the hurricane hit. A friend had called him while it was still a warning and told the musician he was going to move his car.
"That's OK, it's in the garage," he told him.
The relocated car was one of the few Vance possessions that survived Sandy. His house in Rockaway in New York that he lived in for 38 years was gone and with it a lifetime of treasures. His studio. Vintage guitars. Family photos. Demos of songs never heard. A piano from the Brill Building he used to audition Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Sheet music for the theme song he wrote for "Saturday Night Live."
"You just accept it. There's nothing you can do," he says. "Everything is gone."
So, he puts it in the best perspective he can.
"I'm so blessed to have done what I wanted to do in life, with the music and to have there still be a big audience for this music. The people still love it, so how lucky am I? When you get a chance to do something you've done since you were a kid, you're pretty lucky."
Mr. Vance has had a long varied career in the music business that started in the streets of Brooklyn singing doo-wop with his friends who would become Jay and the Americans.
The group, then fronted by Jay Traynor, had its first hit in 1962 with "She Cried." That Jay was replaced by David Blatt, who would become Jay Black and lead the group back into the Top 10 with the bouncy single "Come a Little Closer" in 1964.
That same year, Jay and the Americans were on the front lines of the British Invasion. First, they were on the bill when The Beatles played their American debut at the Washington Coliseum in D.C. on Feb. 10, the day after the British band's era-defining "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance.
"We were a popular group at the time," Mr. Vance says. "I don't think the promoters knew The Beatles were going to be as big as they were. They brought us down to Washington, D.C., and they brought us to the [coliseum], and I see the four Beatles are doing a press conference in front of like 75 reporters. I had never seen anything like that. Up until that time, nobody knew who Roy Orbison was or who any of these people were in terms of the mainstream press.
"It was a different world. It was a world where adults controlled it and only us kids knew who these people were. So, to see all of a sudden reporters interested in these guys was really unbelievable."
"We went on and the people liked us, because we had a bunch of hits, but we were like squares. We were wearing alpaca sweaters and dickeys and we weren't playing instruments, we were doing steps, not unlike what The Temptations ended up doing. But back then, the only bands you would see playing instruments were bands that were playing in the Holiday Inn. We didn't know how cool that would be. To us, having a vocal group was cool."
Then he saw the reaction to the Fab Four.
"When they got on the stage there was a roar. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. That sound was the sound that ushered in a new consciousness in the world, in America."
The Beatles were doing their typical set of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, and a couple of their own songs, and he recalls that you could barely hear it because they had small amplifiers, but "when they would shake their heads and their hair would move, that's when the crowd went crazy, so really it wasn't about the music."
A few months later, Jay and the Americans were called to play with the more infamous Rolling Stones on their first tour, at Carnegie Music Hall in New York. This time, the Americans found themselves in an even more compromised situation.
"They were dressed in like jeans and sweatshirts, and I thought, 'What is this?' They were listening to American blues -- Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter -- and they were imitating that, where we were imitating the Heartbeats and the Moonglows and the Flamingos. We didn't even know about that music, but some guys, like Brian Jones and Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, embraced the blues, and they learned the guitar parts.
"I remember there were two shows and the disc jockey came and said, 'You gotta close the second show.' I said, 'We can't close the show. We can't follow these guys.' They said, 'If you don't follow them, there's going to be a riot.' So, they go on, the place is going crazy. And then they say, 'Here's Jay and the Americans from Brooklyn' and we come out singing 'Only in America,' and the audience it getting up and running out the door so they can catch the Rolling Stones leaving in their limo."
When he got home, he says, "I realized I better get a guitar."
The problem with that, however, was, "We realized that if we wanted to have hits we had to stick to what we knew."
"Miraculously," he says, Jay and the Americans managed to squeeze out hits for the next six years, including the operatic "Cara, Mia" and a cover of The Drifters' "This Magic Moment." The group split in the early '70s, and its current situation is the typical doo-wop group mess. In 2006, Black filed for bankruptcy and sold the name to a former bandmate who got a third "Jay" to front the current Jay and the Americans. Jay Black does his own shows, as does Jay Traynor.
Mr. Vance did an end-run around this ordeal by paving his own way. He opened a production office in the Brill Building, where he helped discover Steely Dan and record its first demos (Mr. Fagan and Mr. Becker even became touring members of Jay and the Americans briefly). He released the solo album "Vance 32" in 1974, became the music supervisor for movies such as "Animal House," "Eddie and the Cruisers" and "American Hot Wax," and the music director of "Saturday Night Live" from 1980-81.
In 1992, he formed the retro doo-wop group Kenny Vance and the Planotones -- taken from a fictional band name in "American Hot Wax" -- which debuted in 1994 with "Teenage Jazz."
It gave him his own identity outside of the Americans.
"When we made those records and when we started it, it was a great group. I'm not going to knock it, I'm not going to take anything away from it. [Jay] sounded great, we had a great blend, so it was special. Then in 1972, it was over, and I kept going. I made the 'Vance 32' album for Atlantic, and 'American Hot Wax' and 'Animal House' and blah blah blah. The other guys, basically, were out of the business, so to speak, and it wasn't until 30 years later that he lost the name, and they jumped at it, reclaiming their legacy. Thank God, I had already been on my way, doing other things, so I never wanted to get involved with it."
The Planotones have become a staple of the oldies circuit, releasing a string of albums since the '90s. The latest is "Acapella," a vocal album that pays tribute to their early influences with such songs as "Diamonds and Pearls" (Paradons), "Zoom" (Cadillacs) and "Mio Amore" (Flamingos).
"This is our 20th anniversary for the Planotones, and we've done over a dozen CDs. Of course, they're not necessarily mainstream, but they are quality and the people who know about them love them. As the years have gone by and most of the people that I loved are no longer on the scene anymore, like Speedo from the Cadillacs, I just felt like it was time to do a tribute to them. There's a certain street authenticity that the CD has, and nobody can really do that anymore. So, I felt not only is it a tribute, but for new people, really it's a historical document. When I was 15 we would hear records that were played on the Alan Freed show, but there were instruments on there, but we didn't have instruments. So we basically tried to imitate them by singing them a capella in the street. It's a tribute to those days."
One of the more fitting songs on it is the classic "Stormy Weather," which would make the soundtrack of his life right now. Conditions in New York have gotten a little better for the Planotone.
"Thank God, I just moved out of the hotel -- after almost a hundred days! It was like being in a cell."
He's taken shelter in a rented house in his old neighborhood, which he says is decimated.
"It's unbelievable. You see piles of debris all over the place, and three months later, the post office just opened up, just to give you an idea. When you go into Rockaway, you can't believe what you see, but people's spirit is strong and people are rebuilding, and every day it gets a little better, but it's still very difficult."
First Published February 21, 2013 12:00 am