The Rhondells 1963
My history of The Cyrkle starts in the fall of 1961 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. when I met Tom Dawes in line to get a medical checkup which I guess must have been required for all freshmen. But before I continue I’d like to share a bit of my personal musical history leading up to that time.
My mom tells me that at the age of 10 months she was surprised to hear me hum “Little Brown Jug” back to her after singing it to me while being diapered. But that spurt of musicality gave me no interest in the guitar and piano lessons that I had for a short time in early grade school.
There were two events that happened around the fifth grade that really turned me on to music.
The first occurred in the car on family trips when we listened to music on the radio and if we were in the car at the right time we would hear Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom” which played the current hits of the day. I found myself harmonizing to Rosemarie Clooney’s “This Old House” It was weird at first but after hearing it several times on different trips I began to own the experience really enjoyed my mastering of the ability to harmonize.
The second event occurred on our back porch in Brooklyn after receiving a portable transistor radio for my birthday. I was with friends tuning to different stations and came across Alan Freed’s rock and roll radio show. I had never heard anything like it and I was totally mesmerized. I listened all evening and happily missed some of my favorite tv shows. One particular song that stands out that evening is “Story Untold” by The Nutmegs. It’s a typical 4 chord doowop song but it was mind blowing to me. From that moment on I was one with rock and roll.
As I’m writing this a third event came to my mind. It’s not significant in my musical development but is an indication of my perception relative to music. There was a tv show called “Your Hit Parade”. They had a house band and house singers that would perform the nations current hits. It was after my bedtime but I could hear it as I was falling asleep. Most of the songs came under the heading of “standards” and the performers and arrangements were fine. One day they performed a rock and roll song that had made it to the national charts. I don’t remember the song but I have a clear memory of noting how poor the performance was. They clearly didn’t understand how to do rock music and I remember saying to myself “this show is over”. It went off the air not long after that.
We moved from Brooklyn to Eastchester, N.Y. in 1955 where I began the 7th grade. I took piano lessons for a while during this time but changed over to guitar, inspired cause I so loved seeing Elvis singing with a guitar in his hand.
I also introduced myself to rudimentary recording techniques. I was given a tape recorder followed by a second tape recorder on subsequent birthdays. The first recorder allowed me to record songs off the radio and also to record myself singing and playing. But the coolest thing happened when I got the second machine. I sang a background part of “In The Still Of The Night” into the first recorder. I then put my head next to the speaker of machine #1 and played back that part while singing the second part with the microphone from the second machine in front of “us”. When finished I had 4 background parts and a lead vocal recorded. The quality was awful but the parts and the concept were correct. Today we simply call it overdubbing and it is taken for granted in the music industry but at the time it was really cool.
In high school I had a decent f hole acoustic guitar with an electric pickup and a decent guitar amp. My friend and next door neighbor played accordion in a band which also had a guitar player. They were scheduled to play at a high school dance when the guitar player’s amp broke. He asked if they could borrow my amp for the evening. Encouraged by my mom, I told them ok if they let me play by myself when they took breaks. It was a time when not everybody played rock songs authentically and I had a pretty good sense of how to do it and capture the essence of the song even as a solo. When I first started playing everyone looked around like they didn’t understand but they quickly got into it, started dancing and I was a big hit. It was an awesome feeling, a feeling that has stayed with me even today.
I finished high school by playing as part of a trio. We were two guitars and a stand up bass and had good experiences doing our rock and roll occasionally when the other guitar player got us a gig. I remember one particular time at Scarsdale High School, the town just north of Eastchester. During our set up I gave a solid strum of an E chord on my guitar just to get a sense of the volume. That single chord rang through the gymnasium in a declaration that “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”. It was a magic moment. Just that single chord got a loud applause. They loved us even before we started.
But alas, as high school ended and I got ready for college, I had the impression that rock and roll would be a thing of the past and that the arena of “high” intellectual level that I was entering left no room for that kind of music. I began to cultivate an interest in jazz, not to play, but to listen to.
And that brings us back to Sept. 1961 at Lafayette College on the line for medical checkups.
We must have been there in alphabetical groups but not in exact order, hence Dannemann and Dawes. We then must have been told to line up by height. Here’s where I have a moment of a pretty clear memory. The guy next to me whose name I didn’t know at the time, seemed to think it was pretty important to be taller than me. We were pretty close in height but he really stretched to prove himself. I don’t remember who won the height battle but that was my first meeting with Tom Dawes.
A wonderful thing happened a short time later. Lafayette was a big fraternity school. There were a number of weekends scheduled each semester where fraternities and social dorms hired bands and had parties, hence the name “party weekends”. First semester freshmen were barred from fraternity contact so all I could do with my newfound college friends was to walk around campus with our tongues hanging out wishing we could go inside. But what was significant about walking around was hearing rock music played by live bands wafting out into the night air. What a glorious moment that was for me. You could go to college and still like rock and roll. Such a beautiful thing. Goodbye jazz.
A short time later we had a freshman mixer where girls from neighboring schools were bused in and there was a band. When the band took a break a few fellow freshman took over the bandstand and started playing. I recognized one of them as the fellow from the “height contest” on the medical line and was amused to watch as they started playing some current and recent rock songs. I was with a friend who knew I played guitar. He insisted that I get my stuff and play with them. He dragged me to my room, helped me carry my guitar and amp down and asked if I could join in. “Sure” was the response. We quickly figured out a few things to play. I recollect Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. But the thing that really got their attention was that I knew the guitar lead to The Venture’s “Walk, Don’t Run”. We played it easily and found that we had really good chemistry. On guitar was Tom Dawes, on piano was Earle Pickens, on drums was Jim Maiella, and there was also a sax player whose name I don’t remember. This spontaneous gathering was the first moment of what was to become “The Rhondells” and eventually “The Cyrkle”.
The excitement of playing at the freshman mixer was followed by the guys talking about forming a band. They asked me if I would join. At the time I had a girlfriend back home. We were “going steady” through most of my high school senior year and were continuing to do so. I envisioned party weekends with my girlfriend and thought that playing in a band would just get in the way so my first response was negative.
But the allure of playing was very strong. I said that I would rehearse with them for the fun of it but would make no commitment. They were ok with that, at least for the time being. And so we met up in a room in the basement of one of the dorms and had our first rehearsal. I have a vague picture in my head of being in that room but it’s not clear who was there. I’m pretty sure it was Tom, Earle, and Jim but I don’t remember if the sax player was there at the beginning.
Eventually it was clear that it was a 4 man band composed of yours truly on guitar, Tom Dawes on guitar [no bass yet], Earle Pickens on electric piano, and Jim Maiella [Marty’s predecessor] on drums. We rehearsed regularly and felt pretty good about ourselves. But I was doing it for fun and still not committed to being in a band.
A sad but fortuitous event then happened. When I got home for Christmas vacation my girlfriend informed me that she was seeing a new guy and that we were breaking up. Sing the lyrics to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears” and you’ll know what that was like. Then give me a moment of your sympathy, and we can move on.
When I got back to school after the holidays, with a pit in my stomach and a pain in my heart, I told the guys that I no longer had a girlfriend and could commit to being in the band. If they got any jobs, I was available.
Now we needed a name. One thing I can say for sure is that it wasn’t me who decided our name was going to be The Rhondells. I’m pretty sure it came from Tom with the full approval of Earle and Jim. It seemed to be a name that was in the genre of rock bands from that era. They never asked me. Tom simply announced to me one day that we had a name and here it is. I didn’t love it at first hearing but had no particular objections. I suppose if I made a big deal out of it I could have gotten them to change it, but I had nothing better. And so I responded not terribly enthusiastically that it was ok with me.
Early in the second semester [winter, 1962] Earle informed us that we had our first job. Funnily enough it was not at Lafayette, but at Lehigh University which was in the next town and was Lafayette’s long time football rival. Earle arranged for a friend of his who lived in town to transport us in his family’s station wagon. It was a very crowded car but we were able to squeeze ourselves and instruments into the vehicle.
And so there we were playing at a fraternity party at one of Lehigh’s party weekends and actually getting paid. I don’t remember the exact amount. It was really small and we ended up with a few bucks apiece. But we did well, got lots of complements, and were on our way, getting a few more jobs that semester.
Summer of 1962 found me at work in my dad’s factory. If you read the liner notes on the Red Rubber Ball album you’ll note a reference to me as “The Sheet Metal Prince”. The company made products out of sheet metal, hence the name. I was a regular worker. I punched a time clock, ran machines that stamped out metal parts, drove a fork lift truck, and tried to be one of the guys. On a few weekends I went with friends to Ocean City on the Jersey shore. There was an area called Somers Point that had all the clubs with bands. It made an impression on me and although no action was taken, the Jersey shore and music now had a connection in my mind.
One more thing happened that summer. Mom got a new car and we worked it out for me to buy her old one. Having worked in the factory all summer I actually had my own money and was able to pay the grand sum of $100 to my mom for her 1952 Chevy which was 10 years old but had amazingly low mileage since it was mainly used locally.
The reason I’m bringing this up is that I now had a car to take to college in the fall. Freshmen and sophomores at Lafayette were not allowed to have cars at the college. I was ok with the restriction on freshmen but thought it was exceedingly unfair to continue it for sophomores. I was always very respectful of authority but in a rare defiance of that rule, I brought my car to Easton and parked it in a garage downtown. The Rhondells now had the use of at least one vehicle to transport ourselves and our stuff. Most of our jobs were at Lafayette but we did play out of town occasionally and the car really came in handy.
Sophomore year, fall 1962 through spring 1963 saw The Rhondells continue to play and slowly gain a reputation for being a pretty good band to hire for a party. We took our music seriously and planned our sets so that parties where The Rhondells played were usually quite successful.
One thing that was a lot of fun and a good learning experience was going into a recording studio in Easton to record a bunch of songs from our repertoire. The engineer simply put out a bunch of mikes and we played and sang live. The mixing was also done live into a mono tape machine. So what we played is what we got, no fixing possible. But it did give us a sense of a recording studio which continued through The Cyrkle years and for Tom and I, segued into our commercial music careers which followed The Cyrkle.
This reminds me that The Rhondells recording in 1962 was not my first professional recording experience. In 1960 during junior year in high school, my mom was taking piano lessons. She and her piano teacher got together and brought me to Nola studios in New York where I played and sang live. I played several existing rock songs and added 2 songs that I had written. I remember mom’s piano teacher telling the engineer to “make him sound like Rick Nelson”. How cool was that! They put some nice reverb on my voice and there was a bit of Rick Nelson quality to the recordings.
One thing I especially liked was that towards the end of the session I was able to overdub the harmony part to one of the songs. The Bell Notes big hit was “I’ve Had It”. They had another smaller hit called “In An Old Spanish Town”. It was a slow song that had lovely two part harmony. My overdub experience had been confined to the poor quality of my home tape recorders so being able to do this with full studio quality was awesome for me. They made a couple of LP discs for me to take home. I listened over and over to those recordings.
My mom’s brother, uncle Sam, had a friend in the record business. If you followed the careers of some of the early writers and record companies in the rock era you may have come across The Brill Building at 1697 [I think] Broadway in Manhattan where many of these companies resided. Sid Feller of ABC Paramount records worked at that address. I proudly brought my recording for him to hear. He politely played small sections of a few of the cuts. I don’t remember his exact words but the bottom line was “no, not interested”. So back I went without a recording career to finish high school with a bit of playing already described.
Back to the Rhondells. The next two events were significant. I think they both occurred in the spring of ’63. As I’ve said, up to that point we were 2 guitars, piano, and drums. We had often talked about how cool it would be to have a bass guitar as part of the band. Tom already knew how to play stand up bass which he had done as part of a folk group. And if you’re a guitar player, it’s not that hard to transition to electric bass since the notes are the same on the bottom 4 strings but the octave is lower. Anyway Tom made the move and bought his famous double neck guitar. One neck was a regular guitar, the other a bass. That allowed him to go back and forth between the 2. And it was either a short time later or at the same time that Earle learned to play bass. That gave us the ability to still have a bass in the band when Tom switched to guitar.
I’m going to try to describe musical notes with words. I know it may be difficult but I feel it’s necessary. Think of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. It was part of our repertoire. The bass line is very simple but plays a significant part of the “feel” of the song. If you count “1, 2, 3, 4” along with the record, the bass plays one note on each count. We couldn’t wait for Tom to play that on his new bass. He did and it was great. But another thing that Tom did was to get creative with bass parts on many of our songs. Since it was not the authentic part that was on the record I used to get annoyed at him straying from the original. What I didn’t realize was how that creativity would serve us down the road. Listen to Turn Down Day and pay attention to the bass. Tommy’s melodic bass part between lyrics was almost a solo lead and added a whole dimension to the feel of the recording. I thank him for that. When our newly reformed Cyrkle got together to perform and record our first show, I made it a point to ask Roscoe to review the original recording and get those bass lines right. He did and if you listen to the recording from the show you’ll hear that Turn down Day was performed quite authentically 50 years later.
So here we were playing frat parties, improving our musicianship and our repertoire and becoming more and more known at Lafayette and around the Lehigh Valley. Drummer Jim Maiella had a girl friend from high school that came regularly on weekends and watched us play. We all loved her and got along great. But there came a time when she decided that Jim was not going to be a rocker, that he needed to worry about moving on to a “legitimate” career, and that she was tired of sitting around at parties while we played. And so Jim announced that he was going to leave the band, which he did. In all fairness to her perception, Jim became a successful insurance agent, they are still married after all this time and we still consider him a friend. He even made a guest appearance with us when we played at our 30th college reunion.
So now we had to find ourselves a drummer. There was a fellow we had heard of who was a class behind us who supposedly was pretty good. We approached him see to see if we could set up a time to hear him play, get a sense of who he was, if he was interested in joining the band, and if we were interested in accepting him. His name was Marty Fried.
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Don's History Of The Cyrkle
I'm Don Dannemann, original Lead singer/guitarist of The Cyrkle. I'm pleased to chronicle my memories. I'll give the date of each entry so you'll know what's been added since your last read. Enjoy!