Monday, October 1, 2001
Local '50s band almost made it big
My, how time flies! It was 20 years ago that MTV was born. A generation of young people have grown up watching their favorite bands or individual artists perform in music videos. Some of the performers owe their success to getting airtime on these videos.
The same can be said of bands of the late 1950s, who tried to get on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." If they didn't get on the national program, there were regional spin-offs such as "Teenage Barn" on WRGB-TV and "Twist-O-Rama" on WKTV, to name a few. The difference between now and then was that artists would appear live on TV, rather than on pre-recorded videos. Some Oneonta teens made such a run at fame in 1958, and their band was called The Tones.
Many know how Ron Crosby made a big name for himself as Jerry Jeff Walker. Crosby was part of this band early on. But there were some other talented guys in the band, including Larry Santos, Paul Pierce, Sergio Armitrano, Nate Driggs, Jerry Russell and Richie Ingraham. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet the frontman for The Tones, Paul Pierce, in western Massachusetts. Paul and his wife, Patti Feeney-Pierce, grew up in Oneonta, attending high school (when it was on Academy Street) during the late 1950s. Both loved music, and they credit their musical talent to Willis Walley, Oneonta High School choir director.
Walley used to encourage his students to enter talent shows at OHS. Paul Pierce remembers how he and a few of his friends entered a show and were sponsored by Mosca's Pizzeria. They went by the name "The Pizzarinos." But there were other bands in competition, and eventually three of those bands would merge into one called "The Chymes."
Pierce says they just clicked musically. Back-up football quarterback Larry Santos had a talent for writing songs. While Paul was the band's lead singer, he also played drums. Jerry Russell's dad, Vaughn, turned out to be "road manager" of the band, taking them to gigs all over the region. WDOS program director Ed Hyder heard the band and asked them to record some of their songs at Hartwick College's recording studios. It was just about every kid's dream during the late '50s to press a demo record, and these guys did.
It was Larry Santos who came up with the idea to go to Philadelphia to try to secure a performance on "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark. The producers of "American Bandstand" politely refused this new band's request to appear. They had a few bigger acts appearing at the time, such as Fabian, and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. But these young Oneontans weren't about to give up. Pierce says they went out in search of Dick Clark's home, and they succeeded! Pierce recalls how Clark was very gracious and sent them to a small record company in New York City, called Baton Records.
Sure enough, they got an audition through Baton's lead producer, Sol Rabinowicz. On the spot, the Oneonta guys were signed to a recording contract. But Rabinowicz told the teens that the company was strictly professional. The company wanted a quintet to sing, and it would provide studio musicians to back up the promising Oneontans. Essentially, Pierce says it meant some of the band members wouldn't be included and they were Jerry Russell and Ron Crosby.
Baton Records would not last long. It pressed about 10,000 records by The Tones. Although these guys never made the big charts, such as Billboard, they got a significant amount of play and high ratings on individual radio station charts across the Northeast and Midwestern states (such as powerhouse WKBW in Buffalo) in 1958. Paul Pierce can remember driving home from football practice and hearing hits by The Tones such as "Three Little Loves" and "We Belong Together" on WDOS. The band would go on to appear on regional TV teen dance shows for awhile.
Paul Pierce laments how the band members graduated from OHS, split up and went to college. "While we were the toast of many towns," Pierce says, "the record companies gave us a lot of empty promises and took advantage of us."
Pierce graduated from Hartwick College and went on in a solo career for a short time but began to see a seamy side of the music industry that he didn't like. Ron Crosby went on to bigger and better things. So did Larry Santos, who now lives in Detroit and has made a good living singing jingles for many products.
Paul Pierce and Patti Feeney-Pierce were high school sweethearts. They've been married more tham 35 years. Paul has successfuly worked as a psychologist for several years. They have four children and several grandchildren. Paul and Patti are still into musical performance part time, as they recently recorded a CD of musical standards from the 1960s era called "All My Bright Tomorrows" (available at piercerecords.com). Paul Pierce is a regular lead man for a musical group in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, called The Dan Kane Singers.
Next time, we'll meet a gym teacher who influenced yet another generation of OHS women.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears weekly on this page. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.