Kenny Vance was a founding member of the seminal group Jay and the Americans and the music director for American Hot Wax, Animal House, and other iconic American films, as well as Saturday Night Live. Currently he tours with the Planotones, the doo-wop group he created for American Hot Wax and re-formed in 1992.
Kenny Vance called into BC Radio Live the other day from the New Jersey Turnpike and gave us the benefit of his vast knowledge and thoughtful perspective on early rock and roll history and lore.
THE EARLY YEARS
BC: Was Jay and the Americans how you got your start in music?
KV: I was about eighteen then. It was the end of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building… people like Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Also Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard… before he started writing with Hal David. [The new CD has a version of the Bacharach-David classic "Anyone Who Had a Heart." -ed.]
So the songs you did then were really kind of the last gasp of the great Tin Pan Alley [songwriting] era.
Right. When I was about fifteen, I started a group called the Harbor Lights, and we came by subway [from Brooklyn] into Manhattan to the three famous buildings that you would go to and try to audition for the record companies. It was a time when if you had a hundred bucks you could conceivably make a record that would sell a million copies. Record labels like Columbia, Capitol, and RCA didn't really want to put this kind of music on their label. They had…artists like Patti Page, people that weren't rock.
Times have really changed.
As kids growing up in Brooklyn we would hear these songs that a guy named Alan Freed would play on the radio – he was credited with coining the term "rock and roll." And Alan Freed actually ran the first ever rock and roll show at the Paramount Theater [in Brooklyn] in 1956 with Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, the Heartbeats, the Penguins, the Doves, groups like that. As kids we all went to that, and of course we wanted to make our own record.
So we would go down into the subway, because you had a great echo chamber there, and if you had four guys it would sound like eight. We'd try to imitate songs that we heard on [Freed's] show. By the time I was fifteen we actually had made up a couple of songs of our own.
There were three buildings: the Brill Building (1619 Broadway), 1697 Broadway which is now the Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman does his show, and 1650 Broadway. And all these buildings had fly-by-night record companies, so for a hundred bucks… you would take a group off the street, and you would hire an arranger, and they would bring in three or four [musicians] from Birdland, and they would cut these records.
And what's interesting about it is that these guys were phenomenal jazz players. In those days there was no such thing as a rock and roll musician. The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, they hadn't come on the scene yet. If you wanted to make a record you basically wrote the song a capella, and you came in and they would hire these guys from Birdland. That's why on a lot of the 50's records you hear these amazing saxophone solos, and they're basically bebop solos.
People trivialize that music… for example, WFUV in New York, they play great stuff, and they have a program they call "Morning Becomes Eclectic," but for some reason they never play this stuff and it's kind of a pet peeve of mine – they really should. If you really take the time out to listen to these records, they're really unbelievable jazz records with these sort of naive songs. I like to call it "teenage jazz," but that's just me.
We made a couple of records and we appeared on a couple of local TV shows. Alan Freed had a TV show on Channel 5 (which was then called Dumont), and on Channel 13 there was Clay Cole. You lip-synched to your records. Then I met a guy who was singing with The Mystics ["Hush-a-Bye"], and we wound up forming a group and got an audition with the two most successful independent record producers in the world, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Most people know Leiber and Stoller as songwriters.
They wrote "Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," and they produced Big Mama Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" (before Elvis's), Wilbur Harris's version of "Kansas City," and a whole bunch of blues performers who were trying to cross over. Before they came to New York they produced the Robins ("Smokey Joe's Cafe"). When they came to New York they brought some of the Robins with them and changed the name to the Coasters. These songs were amazing social commentaries about certain groups of people.
They not only wrote all of those songs, they were the producers, and on those records the sax player was King Curtis.
In those days an engineer understood how to mike a room. It was like Weegee taking a photograph – you had one chance to capture what was going on in the room… you can "hear the room" in those recordings. When we did it, it was stereo – you had two tracks and you had to put the lead vocal on one track and just about everything else on the other track.[Leiber and Stoller] started working for Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, and produced the Drifters, including "There Goes My Baby" with Ben E. King singing lead, and "Save the Last Dance For Me."
BIG-TIME SUCCESS WITH JAY AND THE AMERICANS
You do a cover of "There Goes My Baby" on your new record. But it's very different.
We do it as a shuffle. But in those days it had a Latin flavor. Anyway, we auditioned for Leiber and Stoller. They were so hot as producers that United Artists had given them an independent record deal, and they started recording us and we had hits. The first was in 1961, which for me seems like yesterday… "She Cried" became a Top 5, then we had "Only in America," "Come a Little Bit Closer" "Let's Lock the Door," "Some Enchanted Evening," [and] "Cara Mia" which was a huge hit.
Then in 1968 I got involved with these two guys who knocked on our door once – Donald Fagen and Walter Becker [later of Steely Dan fame], who became part of the last incarnation of Jay and the Americans, actually playing on a couple of our last hits – "This Magic Moment" in '69 and "Walking in the Rain" in '70. I produced their early "Becker and Fagen" albums which have subsequently come out as bootlegs.
You've taken us up into the '70s now, when there started to be a nostalgia craze for the music of the '50s, with Happy Days on TV etc. When I was in junior high school in the '70s we had "'50s Day" once a year.
I had left Jay and the Americans and I recorded a song [in 1975] with Joel Dorn for Atlantic Records called "Looking for an Echo" (which, though it took 20 years, became a cult classic in that particular genre of radio), but because of that record I was called out to California to work on the movie about Alan Freed, American Hot Wax.
Which was slightly fictionalized.
Slightly, but in looking back I feel proud of it because we really did capture the feeling that was going on at that time, and I know for a fact that there are many people who look at that and – forget about the [movie's] inaccuracies – it really did capture the spirit of that time. If you want to know what it was like at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in 1958, check out American Hot Wax. And for that movie I formed the group The Planotones.
THE PRESENT DAY
Which you revived and have kept going for some years.
It's hard to believe but it's fifteen years! I started it when I was already getting old, it was in 1992, and we're going stronger than ever.
And you've got a new CD out, which really sticks to the doo-wop feel but you've also got a couple of surprising song choices, and it's really a good sounding album that doesn't sound like an oldies collection. It's all new recordings – "neo-doo-wop!"
Thank you for saying that. Unfortunately this genre is overlooked, passed over.
You also take the band on the road.
I don't know why but there's a tremendous need for this. The people who love this music come out in droves – we play to packed houses all over the United States. It's mindblowing. I think that when we do these songs we kind of transport the people back to that time, and in doing so they wind up transporting us back to that time [too].
KENNY'S SUGGESTED LISTENING
That's got to be a nicer experience than watching one of those public television doo-wop extravaganzas where they bring out all these acts and they do one song each.
We were on that show, and we play with a lot of these people, and these are people who had hits 40 and 50 years ago, and unfortunately most of them really aren't as good as they were [then]. But if people took the time to listen to some of those records, like the Dells ("Oh What a Night"), Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners ("This I Swear," "Since I Don't Have You"), Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels ("Be Mine"), The Doves featuring Richard Blandon ("Could This Be Magic")…
Outstanding singers every one.
And certainly the lyrics were about love and simplistic things, but it seems to me those records conveyed a feeling. Today's stuff is really not about that, it's about something else. And I'm not putting down what they do today. But this music that we're discussing now does have a credibility.
Not every city has an oldies station where you can still hear this music.
Satellite radio is the hope for the future.