A bit of history
I was about eight years old when I first stepped on to a stage at the Camp Hale talent show. I had no intention of entering the contest, but the camp bully stuck his finger in my chest and said, “You’re better than everyone so far. Get up there and sing or I’m gonna kick your sorry butt.” He was after the winner’s prize. I sang Johnny Ray’s Cry and won the contest, but the bully took the prize. I wonder if he’s managing bands now?
In my early teens, some friends and I put together a calypso band called The Jaguars. A year or so later we tried out for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. After our performance, the other kids that were auditioning gave us a standing ovation. We thought we were “in,” but Ted, asserting that we were “obviously professionals,” disqualified us. His claim was untrue. We had only played church socials and the like, for cookies and milk. It was a bummer not to get on the show, but it made us celebs in the hood and also made me think…hey, maybe I can do this!
Just about that time, in the late 50s, rock & roll/DooWop began to dominate the airwaves. The Jaguars canned calypso and dove into DooWop. On summer nights, vocal groups gathered in our neighborhood park to compete. The Jaguars were a favorite — even the cops liked us. We caught the attention of a popular disc jockey named Joe Smith and began doing sock hops. I will always remember opening for Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon. It seemed we were on our way to the big time until a couple of the band members “had to” get married, and the group broke up.
Folk music had a renaissance in the early 60s. David “Redtop” Thomas from the Jaguars and I got together with Charles Austin and Rodney Young to form The Mandrell Singers. We played all the folk clubs in the east and toured with the top acts of the day including Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Richie Havens, and The Clancy Brothers. In the late 60s the folk scene started to fade. Dylan went electric! So did we. Our bass singer Charlie went into broadcasting but the rest of us held on and changed our name to The Bagatelle.
Early on we got a record deal with ABC Paramount, thanks to King Curtis. We moved to NYC and shared the stage with everybody from Bobby Rydell to the Temptations. One outstanding memory I have is playing in Chicago in ’68 during the dramatic democratic convention. That night we played at a club on Rush Street and shared the stage with the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard. Outside, the city was erupting in violence and chaos.
When The Bagatelle dissolved in the 70s, I got into the food business. I put together a backstage catering company. Through this endeavor I had the privilege of feeding avant garde luminaries like composer Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. The ever-dapper saxophonist Ornette Coleman said my cornbread tasted “like chunks of sunshine!”
I had nearly given up on ever singing again when a friend, Chico Chvany, asked me to put together a band for his wedding. That band, Blue Heaven, is still rockin’ after a whole lot of changes.
Ten years ago Asa Brebner (everybody knows who he is), asked me to sing in a band he was putting together. We called it The Family Jewels and it is an extra-funky good time roots DooWop band. This band is a perfect fit for me since we’re covering so much of the material that I sang on street corners at three in the morning all those many moons ago. Recently I realized that with The Family Jewels, I’ve come full circle. I’m singing the music I loved when I was 16 — the music I cut my teeth on — the music that shook up the world. It’s like I’ve run into my first teenage crush and she’s still so fine!
There are two things I’d like to do before the sunset tour through Florida: Play the Apollo and have Dylan spin one of my cuts on his radio show. Are you listening Bob?