Tribute to Local Legends

Fifteen contributors to the state’s rich rock ‘n’ roll history will be enshrined next month in the new hall of fame

Tim Cleary remembers the formula for success in the music world succinctly spelled out by Wilmington-area guitarist Johnny Kay, who briefly hit it big in the early days of rock ’n’ roll, playing “Rock Around the Clock” with Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954.

“Johnny told me, ‘it’s 90 percent luck and 10 percent talent,’’’ says Cleary, who played with Kay as members of Al Santoro and the Highlighters. Cleary now sings and plays bass with the Dover-based Glass Onion band.

Back in the day, there was plenty of talent in Delaware’s rock music scene, but not much in the way of luck, leaving little but fading memories of the pioneering acts that define the state’s rock ’n’ roll heritage.

That’s why George and Paula Wolkind and a half-dozen associates have banded together to create a Delaware Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

For now, the hall remains virtual—the nonprofit group hopes a benefactor will offer a suitable site—but it does have a website, delawarerockandrollhalloffame.com, and a Facebook page. But the lack of a brick-and-mortar location isn’t stopping the founders from organizing the hall’s first induction ceremonies on Sunday, July 15, at the baby grand in Wilmington. 

The biggest names in the state’s rock history—George Thorogood and Johnny Neel come to mind—aren’t in the inaugural class, but their day will come, perhaps as early as next year, says George Wolkind, whose musical past includes a stint as lead singer for the Newark alternative rock group Snakegrinder in the early ’70s.

“We’re focusing on the ’50s and ’60s, honoring folks who are getting older while we can—while they’re still vertical,” he says. “Sadly, we’ve lost some already.”

The Delaware music scene in those years was vibrant, to say the least. Haley, who lived on Foulk Road, just over the state line in Pennsylvania, had a strong local following. And, while Dick Clark’s Philadelphia-based American Bandstand TV show became a national weekday afternoon phenomenon, local teens would dance on two shows on WVUE, Channel 12, in Wilmington. One was hosted by Grady and Hurst on weekdays, and the other by Mitch Thomas, Delaware’s first African-American DJ, on Saturdays, according to local rock historian and hall board member Steven Leech.

In fact, Leech says, when the Diamonds made “The Stroll” a top-10 national hit in 1958, Clark made a point of crediting teens from Thomas’s show with creating the popular dance.

Delaware’s rock stature grew in the 1960s, Leech says, largely due to the efforts of Wilmington producer Vinnie Rago, whose Richie and Universal labels featured recordings by local artists. Many of those songs got regular play on WAMS, the Wilmington AM radio station that compiled its own weekly list of hits.

None of the Delaware artists of the era produced a national Top 40 hit. The closest anyone came was Teddy and the Continentals, a doo-wop group whose recording of “Ev’rybody Pony” reached 101 on the Bubbling Under chart in September 1961, Leech says.

Teddy and the Continentals will be among the 15 artists and contributors who will be inducted into the hall this year. Other inductees (see pg. 23) include individuals and groups who captured their 15 minutes of fame while recording for little-known labels and bands who enhanced their standing over time by playing covers of Top 40 tunes.

Leech has fond memories of the group because Teddy Henry, the lead singer, attended Conrad High School with him during the 1960-61 school year. Leech recalls serving on a dance committee at the school and asking Henry to bring the Continentals to perform a set during the annual Sadie Hawkins Dance. “They began to sing a cappella, then the live band picked up a couple of chords,” Leech recalls. “Teddy stopped everything, talked to the drummer about tempo, and they started singing again. It was great for a high school dance, an experience I’ll always remember.”

Henry didn’t return to Conrad the following year—this was when “Ev’rybody Pony” was getting national play—and Leech never saw him again. He died in 1984.

George Wolkind is president of the hall of fame.

While the local rock scene built momentum in the 1960s, two of the biggest names of the generation passed through Wilmington but attracted little attention while here. Reggae icon Bob Marley lived in the city in 1965 and worked for a time at the Chrysler auto assembly plant in Newark. On Nov. 22 of that year, Bob Dylan married Sara Lownds, a Wilmington resident formerly known as Shirley Noznitzky.

Brief visits by Dylan and a short sojourn for Marley aren’t likely to qualify them for membership in the Delaware hall, but that’s not a big concern of the Wolkinds, at least not for now.

“The problem with any hall of fame,” George says, “is that you can’t get everybody in at the same time. You have to space it out.”

For the first year, Paula adds, “we’re honoring the little people … people who are sitting in our back yard who haven’t gotten the applause that is due them.”

“These are the forerunners, the pioneers. We want to honor them first,” says Leech, who hosts “Even Steven’s Boptime,” playing music from the ’40s through the ’60s from 6 to 10 Saturday mornings on WVUD-FM, the University of Delaware radio station. His extensive history of the early days of Delaware rock is posted on the hall’s website.

The website consists of far more than words. It’s a musical memory lane, featuring not only photos of many performers but also images of their 45 rpm discs, with many of the images providing links to recordings of their songs.

The Wolkinds would like to eventually find a physical site for the hall but there are no prominent rock venues in the state with space available and “we’ll need to raise a lot of money” to make a permanent location possible, George says.

“We want a place where people can come in, press a button, and up pops music from the Sin City Band,” he says. Having a building would also make it possible for older musicians to give lessons, “to show the younger folks how to play jazz, how to play blues, how to play rock.”

Chuck Durante, a Wilmington lawyer who helped the Wolkinds with incorporating the organization, has been involved with three similar ventures in the stateits sports, track and basketball halls of fame. Only the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame has a permanent home, at Frawley Stadium on the Wilmington Riverfront.

A physical presence may not be essential, Durante says. “Unless you have a substantial array of visual displays and a need to hold archival materials, the virtual hall is the path to follow.”

Nevertheless, George Wolkind says, some people are already looking for the hall, whose official address is the Newark-area apartment where he and Paula live.

“Two guys came to our apartment complex, and they tell the manager they’re looking for the Delaware Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The manager calls me, and I come down and say ‘this is the hall of fame.’ They said they had seen some construction down the road and figured that might be it. I said, ‘if you want a hall of fame, give me a donation and we’ll put it toward construction.’ So they gave me 10 dollars.”

Paula Wolkind hopes that kind of spirit can build, and seeing 35,000 hits on the hall’s Facebook page in its first three months is fueling her optimism. “We’re floored to see so many in the community reliving their memories,” she says. “Music makes people happy. It brings people together. It’s our last refuge.”

The Delaware Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2018

Teddy and the Continentals, a doo-wop group from the early 1960s, headed by Teddy Henry and backed up by Donald Jackson, Lawrence Davis, Gerald Hamilton and Eugene Calloway. With Jerome Jefferson as their instrumentalist and arranger, they had a national hit with “Ev’rybody Pony” in 1961, and later opened for Bill Haley and the Comets and St. Elizabeth High School when Haley tried to revive his career in the early 1960s.

The Five Diamonds, another ‘60s doo-wop group, included Leonard Griffin, William Loper, Jimmy Smith, Coleman Griffin and Chick Lloyd. Managed by Wilmington DJ Mitch Thomas, the group recorded four songs on the Treat label in New York City and once performed at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Andy and the Gigolos, led by Andy Ercole, recorded a song for a new dance called “The Bug” on Vinnie Rago’s Universal label. Ercole also produced records on his Dandy label, including a tune called “Bop Diddle Widdle.”

Vic and the Versatiles was led by Vic Holveck, who had been with Andy and the Gigolos. Formed in the mid-’50s and rising to prominence a decade later, the group didn’t do any commercial recordings, concentrating on playing at clubs, weddings and other social events. Its strength was more pop than rock, Leech says, playing tunes like Tom Jones’ “Delilah.” Until a few months ago, Holveck had been giving music lessons at the Accent Music store on Kirkwood Highway near Newark.

The Hurricanes, another ’50s band, was led by Richie Immediato and featured Joe Allegro Sr., who played with and backed up best-selling rock and pop groups like Danny and the Juniors, the Platters and the Shirelles. Allegro still plays regularly at restaurants and clubs in New Castle County and New Jersey.

Lue Cazz, better known today as Lou Casapulla of Casapulla’s Sub Shops fame, recorded several songs in the ’60s, including a dance tune called “The Walk” on the VeeJay label and “Change Your Ways,” on the California-based ArtTone label.

The Continettes, whose name was part of Rago’s effort to brand them with the Continentals, was a girl group made up of Valerie Robinson, Ventie Jean Williams, Shirley Lewis Larke, Debbi Badson, Jackie Hazzard and keyboardist Linda Powell. Robinson, Leech says, made it big in another area, going to medical school and becoming a surgeon in the Chicago area.

Al Santoro and the Highlighters started as the Starlighters in 1951 and continued playing for some 50 years. Johnny Kay, Bill Haley’s former guitarist, was a mainstay with the group, and Tim Cleary was the band’s bassist from 1979 to 1999. For many years the group got top billing at St. Anthony’s Italian Festival, and Cleary says Santoro would frequently book the band for four gigs in a weekend, moving from club to club, with weddings and festivals in between. The group featured a big band sound, but Kay’s presence helped the Highlighters do covers of rock tunes from Haley’s era, Cleary says.

Lisa Jack built a strong reputation as a blues singer in the ’70s, leading a group called Lisa Jack and the Boys in the Back.

The Watson Brothers Band, led by Gary and Wayne Watson, were a dominant force in Delaware’s club scene in the 1970s and ‘80s. Wayne Watson got his start with the Enfields, a popular band in the late ’60s.

The Sin City Band started in 1974 when Scott Birney and a few friends from Delaware moved to New Hampshire and started playing gigs at Moose lodges and VFW halls. They returned home a year later and soon were traveling to clubs in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in a 1966 GM school bus, Birney says. Members come and go, but the band is still active, playing a mix of blues and country at weddings, parties and, on Monday nights, at Argilla Brewing Co. near Newark.

Larry Tucker, a veteran Delaware musician, still heads his own band, playing a mix of blues, reggae and dance music.

Bill Stevenson, longtime owner of the Stone Balloon, Newark’s legendary rock palace of the 1970s, is being honored as a supporter of Delaware’s rock scene. Sharing supporter billing with Stevenson is Don Bunnell, owner of the old Buggy Tavern on Marsh Road in Brandywine Hundred, another popular venue for rock performances. A third supporter being inducted is Charlie Gibb, known for his photographs of Delaware’s leading rock musicians.

Details for the Delaware Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony from 2 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 15, at the baby grand, 818 N. Market St., Wilmington, are still being finalized. For ticket information, check the July edition of Out & About or visit the hall’s page on Facebook.

Background information on the inductees was provided by George and Paula Wolkind, Steven Leech, Scott Birney and Tim Cleary.

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