Flirting with Fame:
The History of Rock n’ Roll in Delaware
by Steven Leech
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Bill Haley lived in nearby Chester Pennsylvania where most of his early 1950s recordings were made. Early in 1954 he signed with Decca records. His first hit record with them was “Rock Around the Clock. “ It was a record that almost didn’t get made. The Chester ferry ran aground and the Comets showed up late for their recording date in New York City. “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in only two takes.
History was made when “Rock Around the Clock” was used as the theme for the movie Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Rock n’ Roll had burst upon the American cultural scene like gangbusters. Haley provided some of his first explanations of this new kind of music to alarmed parents of teenagers on Cousin Lee’s Show on local radio station WDEL. He said rock n’ roll was a combination of rhythm & blues and country music.
Almost immediately rock n’ roll fever caught on in the Wilmington area. Nationally, much of the new music was proliferated by a plethora of independent music labels, like Sun Records where Elvis got his start, Specialty which recorded Little Richard, and Chess which recorded Chuck Berry. One of Wilmington’s earliest record labels was A-B-S Records, which recorded several 45s that are highly valued by collectors today. Standing for “America’s Best Sellers,” A-B-S recorded rockabilly flavored rock & roll, and indicated an address in Wilmington, Delaware. One of those was “Little Boy Bop” by Ralph Prescott, and “Miss Mary” by Bobby Lee. Specializing with a more rockabilly sound, other recordings from A-B-S were the Bridge Brothers’ “Sticka By You,” Mickey Barnett & the Wilmington Ramblers with “Just A Memory,” and the Saints with Ken Howell and “Call My Name.” It’s as difficult to date these records as it is to find copies. Presumably, A-B-S records were made between the late 1950s and mid 1960s. Another local independent label was Dandy, owned by Andy Ercole of Andy and the Gigolos on which the group recorded “Bop Diddle Widdle” in 1955. Dandy also recorded a Buddy Holly cover tune, “That’ll Be the Day,” a little later in the 50s by Pat Patterson, who later went on to be a popular disc jockey on Wilmington radio. Andy & the Gigolos, with Andy Ercole on bass, Bobby Farenski and Jake Cirello on saxophones, Matty Safranski on guitar, Joey Ireland on organ, and Vic Holveck on drums, went on to record another tune, “The Bug,” on local record producer Vinnie Rago’s Universal label. Universal, and its later incarnation, Richie Records, began recording tunes around 1959. Some of the earliest sides recorded on Universal were “Union Hall” by the Montels, “Bells in the Chapel” by Lonnie and the Crisis, “Office Girl” by Ronnie Worth, and “Rock Around the Rosie” by the Recorders, which later became Andy & the Gigolos.
The Five Diamonds
Groups from the late 1950s produced on the A-B-S and Universal labels were not the first from Wilmington to make a record. In 1954 a local group called the Five Diamonds recorded four sides on the Treat label from New York City. Managed by Mitch Thomas, the Five Diamonds consisted of Leonard Griffin, James “Jimmy” Smith, William Loper, Coleman Griffin, and Chick Lloyd. Even though the group cut four sides – two 45rpms – only “The Ten Commandment of Love,” written by Leonard with lead singer William Loper, and b/w with “I Cried and Cried,” were released in 1954. The other two tunes, “The Night” b/w “My Love,” were not release on a Treat Records 45rpm until 1973.
Prior to 1961 only one recording artist from Delaware had a nationally charted hit in the 1950s, and that was Billy Graves with a tune called “The Shag (is Totally Cool).” It was a hit in early 1959 on the Monument label, getting a high as #53 on the national Billboard chart. Other than having once appeared on Jimmy Dean’s television show, Billy Graves’ whereabouts is unknown.
Wilmington teenage fans also contributed to rock n’ roll history. The new music’s first group dance, the Stroll, was invented in Wilmington by the kids who danced on local radio and television personality Mitch Thomas’ Saturday afternoon dance show on WVUE channel 12.
According to Lonnie T. Edwards, who was among the show’s original participants, the Stroll was actually invented during the Friday night dances called “the center” at Wilmington’s St. Matthew’s church at 7th & Walnut streets.
“A bus would come pick us up at the Walnut Street Y,” Lonnie commented about Mitch’s Saturday afternoon show, “and take us to the television studios.”
The Stroll was first danced to Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk.” Later Chuck Willis’ “C. C. Rider” provided the music. After the kids on American Bandstand started doing the Stroll on national television, the Diamonds had a big hit with the song, “The Stroll,” and Dick Clark did the right thing by publicly crediting the kids on Mitch Thomas’ dance show in Wilmington for coming up with the dance.
Another local connection to American Bandstand was Bob Clayton, then a student at P.S. duPont High School. Every day, right after classes, he’d hop in his car and high tail it to Philadelphia to dance with regular Justine Carrelli. The couple was a big hit with national fans, got write-ups in national teen magazines, and even had a national fan club. But when Bob & Justine recorded their own record in the late 50s, “Drive In Movie,” they got kicked off Bandstand. Except for some spins on local radio, the record failed and both eventually left to lead separate lives.
Universal Records was succeeded by the Richie label around 1959. It’s earliest recording was with a band called Frankie and the C-Notes with the tune “Forever and Ever.” Richie Records would have a number of close calls and near misses with national notoriety in the 1960s.
By the 1960s local rock n’ roll enthusiasts were building a little momentum, thanks largely to success from Vinnie Rago’s Richie label and its companion, Universal. Richie mainly accommodated the doo-wop side of the rock n’ roll sub-genre. Rago’s greatest success was with a doo-wop group called Teddy and the Continentals, who had a national hit –– on the national Bubbling Under chart –– with “Ev’rybody Pony,” hitting #101 in September 1961.
Teddy Henry, the lead singer of the Continentals, was a student at Conrad High School at the time and recorded two more records with the Continentals, “Do You” b/w “Tighten Up,” and “Crossfire With Me Baby” b/w “Crying Over You.” By 1964 the Continentals broke up, thanks largely to the draft. Teddy recorded a final solo record, “I Call It Home” b/w “Find Someone” on Richie in 1965 as Teddy Continental, backed up by Joey & the Challengers. The songs were written by Teddy and Jerome Jefferson. Originally calling themselves the Teen Kings, Joey & the Challengers had recorded an earlier single called “Wild Christening Party,” an instrumental “. . . celebrating the royal birth to the Duke and Duchess of Earl.” The record was a “one off” recording on the Rago label. As far as can be determined, around the time Teddy and the Continentals were forced to break up, Teddy cut a record with Ruth White on Wilmington’s Candi label. Candi was one of three labels produced by the Reverend James J. Chavis. Chavis recorded not only rhythm & blues sides, but also local gospel artists. Beside the Candi label, he cut vinyl using the Chavis label and later the Barvis label. Unlike Vinnie Rago, who had no official place of business, Chavis early on printed the address, 617 West 4th Street in Wilmington on the Candi label and later 701 North Market Street on the Barvis label. The single record Teddy Henry recorded for Ruth White and the Continentals was a tune that Teddy and Ruth wrote entitled “Give Us Your Blessings.” Teddy was not heard on the recording except possibly as a back-up singer, and none of the original Continentals were on the record. The flip side is an instrumental entitled “Dog Time” attributed to The Continentals, but The Continentals were never a band.
Ruth White was not the first female artist to make music in Wilmington. The first “girl group” to make a single record was The Continettes. Their record, “Boys Who Don’t Understand” b/w “Billy the Kidder” appeared on the Richie label in 1963 and was a local hit. “Boy Who Don’t Understand” was written by Valerie Robinson, who sang lead. The flip side was written by Vinnie Rago, and the group’s Ventie Jean Williams sang lead.
Another local rock n’ roll artist was Lue Cazz who did not make recordings locally. Known locally by his actual name, Lou Casapulla, Lue Cazz’s biggest hit was “The Walk” b/w “Dreaming” on the VeeJay label in 1962. “The Walk” was originally recorded by Jimmy McCracklin in 1958. Lue Cazz also recorded “Change Your Ways“ b/w “Daddy Long Legs” in 1962 on the Art-Tone label from Gardena, California, and “Stop Baby Stop” b/w “It’s All Up to You” on the Cabot label in 1963. Lue Cazz later recorded as Vince Carey on the Turntable label, notably the tune “Hullaballoo.”
Another near national success was a band called the Adapters with lead singer and songwriter Ed Sterling. In 1965 they recorded a tune on the Richie label, “Believe Me,” which charted high on the local WAMS list of hits. The Adapters achieved some national fame. According to local rock n’ roll historian Hangnail Phillips in the recent book, Histories of Newark, 1758 – 2008, the Adapters toured the east coast concert circuit with such known acts as Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Freddie & the Dreamers, and the Soul Survivors. Also, according to the same Hangnail Phillips article, another local band flirted with national notoriety. The band was the Fabulous Pharaohs and they got good enough to make a national appearance on the Pat Boone Show.
Another local artist to find national success is Johnny Neel. Neel cut his first records in Wilmington on Vinnie Rago’s Richie label in 1966 with his band Internal Calm. Two of his earliest recordings, “The Truth” and “Where Will We Go From Here?” were co-written with Rago. After his initial local success, Neel became a bit of a journeyman artist, which took him to recording sessions with a number of top stars like John Mayall, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Marie Osmond and the Oak Ridge Boys. From 1989 to 1990 he toured and cut an album with the Allman Brothers Band and co-wrote their 1990 hit “Good Clean Fun.” He also wrote the hit, “Rock Bottom” for Allman Brothers band member Dickie Betts.
The most tantalizing story to come out of the 60s may have been a near miss of epic proportions, or it could have actually happened as some contend. The story involves reggae great Bob Marley. In 1965 Bob Marley lived in Wilmington because his mother was working and living in Wilmington near 23rd and Tatnall streets. While Marley lived in Delaware he worked at Newark’s Chrysler Assembly Plant, which inspired his song “Night Shift.” The year 1965 was also the year that Bob Dylan got married.
Bob Dylan married a Wilmington woman whose name was Shirley Noznitsky when she lived here and later attended the University of Delaware. After her short stint at the University, Shirley ventured to New York City where she was a Playboy bunny then a photographers’ model. Her first husband was Hans Lowndes, who asked her to change her first name to Sara. After the Lowndes had a daughter, Sara met Bob Dylan, and became the inspiration for his song “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and the rest is history. The tantalizing part of the story is the possibility that in 1965, while in Wilmington meeting his new in-laws, Bob Dylan may have visited with Bob Marley, especially considering that Marley’s mother and Bob Dylan’s new in-laws lived in the same general section of Wilmington. It could have happened and in spite of the nagging persistence of the story, no one’s talking
Perhaps the final major local band to record on the Richie label was The Enfields. The band, originally consisting of Ted Munda, who played guitar and sang vocals, along with band mates Charlie and Gordon Berl, John Bernard, Bill Gallery and John Rhodes, had a string of local hits, beginning with their initial hit “In the Eyes of the World,” throughout 1966 and 1967. However, their final hit on Richie precipitated a rift with Vinnie Rago and Richie Records. Reportedly, that final hit “Time Card” had been recorded at Virtue Studios in Philadelphia, but because of some sort of dispute Rago had with Frank Virtue, Virtue retained possession of the audiotapes. Not to be outdone, Rago took the band to another studio to record the same song. The song turned out to be The Enfields’ final local hit in spite of lower production values than the earlier recording.
Afterward, The Enfields, after some personnel changes, became the Friends of the Family. The band, while making a number of quality recordings, never had a commercial release and the recordings came tantalizingly close to being picked up by the Kama Sutra label. The group’s lead singer, Ted Munda, did go on to form a band call Hotspur and recorded a single album, “Sweet Fortune’s Darling” on Columbia in 1974.
As the decade of the 1960s wore on, locally produced R&B music developed in sophistication. Jerome Jefferson recorded a group that had been founded by local producer Effers “Buddy” Bethea called The Dynamic Concepts on Jefferson’s Dynamic Sounds label around 1967. Jerome also did the band’s musical arrangements and the group’s record “Funky Chicken” is highly sought after by collectors to this day. Bethea also produced, on his own Hip City Records label, a local group called The Overtones with their tune “The Gleam In Your Eye.” These recordings were made at the Ken Del Studios on the second floor of Knowles Music Store at 515 Shipley Street in Wilmington.
James J. Chavis continued to record groups like the Spidels’ “Like A Bee” on his own Chavis label and, finally, a band from North Carolina called the Superiors Band & Soul Singer at his studio a 701 N. Market Street in Wilmington on his Barvis label.
Similar to the way in which the Poplar Street A Project and the tearing down of the east side of Wilmington for the sake of “urban renewal” seriously damaged the city’s jazz culture, the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the nine month occupation by the Delaware National Guard put the skids on the city’s rock n’ roll and R&B culture.
Snakegrinder and the Shredded Field Mice
Afterward, the local music scene gravitated to Wilmington’s suburbs and was influenced by the emerging counter culture. Rock artists from Delaware were boosted by the reinvigorating musical strides made within the counter culture genre in the late 1960s. This was largely reflected in the founding of the local band, Snakegrinder and the Shredded Field Mice. Formed in an almost ad hoc fashion in 1969 from a couple of smaller bands –– notably Primordial Slime and the Joint Chiefs –– the band didn’t get around to recording its first and only album until 1977. According to Steve Roberts, one of Snakegrinder’s founding members, even bootlegged copies of the album can fetch more than $200 from almost any corner of the world. A recent reviewer on Lysergia.com said the band’s sound “ . . . is rich and n-dimensional with an impressive group-mind synchronization going, creating a vintage Bay area vibe pretty much any time they zoom off into jams.” The band was the first to perform at Newark’s famous Stone Balloon. Their implicit message to local musicians that followed was that local artists were quite capable of producing music that could rival the best around.
A number of local recording artists, who made a national name for themselves in the 1970s and beyond, actually learned their chops in the 1960s. One whose beginnings actually go back to the late 1950s was Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen. Papa Dee was originally a member of local jazz great Lem Winchester’s Modernists. After Winchester died prematurely in 1961, the Modernists tried to continue, but without their stellar front man they soon fell apart. Papa Dee continued for a while performing at Wilmington’s early 60s folk music clubs playing bongos and other assorted percussion instruments, but when that proved fruitless he gravitated to the west coast and joined the rock fusion band WAR. He remained with them and was the percussionist on all their recordings including the ones with ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon.
A major local contribution to national rock history in the mid to late 1970s came from a number of youngsters who attended local high schools in the late 60s. One was Richard Meyers, who went to Sanford Academy, another was Tom Miller who attended McKean High School, and a third was Billy Ficca who went to A.I. duPont. As Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, they and Billy Ficca took off to New York City and became pioneers in the New York punk rock music scene. Performing at CBGBs in lower Manhattan with bands like the Ramones, Blondie and artists like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, their band Television helped forged a new genre of American rock n’ roll music. Other punk bands with which the three would perform were the Neon Boys and the Voidoids. Richard Hell also appeared in motion pictures, most notably Desperately Seeking Susan, which starred Madonna.
The biggest success story for a local rock musician is George Thorogood. Thorogood attended Brandywine High School and began his career doing gigs at local nightspots. For a while, in the mid 1970s he performed at a regular New Year’s Eve bash at Newark’s Deer Park Tavern. In 1978 he signed with Rounder Records, which produced his first hit album, Move It On Over in 1978, and in late 1979 MCA Records released an album of songs Thorogood recorded in 1974 entitled Better Than The Rest. In 1982 he recorded Bad To The Bone on EMI America vinyl. Super Stardom was next!
By the mid 1970s Snakegrinder spawned some spin-offs. One of the new bands was Amazing Space. Aiming to explore the reggae sound, the band was staffed by George Wolkind, Snakegrinder’s lead singer, along with John DiGiovanni, the band’s drummer, and new mates, and former Adapters member, John Southard on piano, and Dan Toomey on bass. At the time of Amazing Space’s formation, Bob and Rita Marley were avoiding a dangerous political situation in Jamaica and living in Wilmington. George Wolkind, who knew the Marleys, asked Rita to join Amazing Space for one of their various venues. Even though Rita agreed to join the band, Bob reportedly vetoed the idea.
Another Snakegrinder spin-off was Dick Uranus, which went off into a more arty and punkish direction. Made up of Snakegrinder bassist Steve Roberts, keyboard player Dave Bennett, the band included newcomers Dana Smith, George Christie, Joe Pinzarone and drummer Jim Ficca, whose brother Billy played drums for Television.
Dick Uranus’ most successful tune was “Vice Squad Dick,” which in 1994 was covered by J. G. Thirlwell. Thirlwell is a post punk music producer, whose hardcore 1984 album Hole is a post punk masterpiece. Recording under the name “Foetus,” Thirlwell did not only record “Vice Squad Dick” for his 1994 album of the same name, but the tune, “Little Johnny Jewel,” penned by Tom Verlaine and previously recorded by Television.
Yet another spin-off from the Snakegrinder crew was the The Voltags. Formed in the late 1970s by one of the founders of Snakegrinder, keyboardist Dave Bennett, the band included guitarist Hangnail Phillips, bassist Rick Reid and drummer James Keesey, and recorded the tunes “Hot Flash” and “Talk of the Town,” among others.
From the 1980s into the 1990s as recording technologies became more accessible, and with the advent of the compact disc making the manufacture of quality and durable copies more cost effective, the number of local bands proliferated. Notable examples were Schroeder in the late 1980s and The Verge in the early 1990s. Sin City, with it roots in the 1970s, is still performing today.