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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

An Informal History Of Bubblegum Music, Part 3

Continuing my history of bubblegum music, originally published in the April 25, 1997 issue of Goldmine.  It was subsequently edited for an appearance in the book Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, partially for length and style, but also to avoid duplication with subjects discussed elsewhere in the book.  Writer Gary Pig Gold and I revamped my original article's section on The Monkees into an amusing debate on whether or not The Monkees were every really a bubblegum group.  Except for some minor editing, this restores the original, full-length piece as it appeared in Goldmine.  You can read Part 1 and Part 2

You can also read about what it might have been like If The Archies Had Been A Real Band



No Sleep 'Til Riverdale

The story of how a TV cartoon group based on a then-20-year-old comic strip came to be the hottest band in the land has its roots in what happened with the previous made-for-TV rock 'n' roll group.

"The whole thing about The Archies was that it was Don Kirshner's revenge," Bill Pitzonka says. "That was the whole story behind The Archies.  He was really upset that he was ousted from The Monkees and he said, 'I'm gonna make sure, I'm not gonna have anybody take this away from me.  I'm gonna make a two-dimensional band.'"

For The Archies, Kirshner enlisted songwriter and producer Jeff Barry to oversee the music.  And, with cartoon characters fronting the act, and without any pesky Monkees around to complicate matters, the singers and players on The Archies' records would be anonymous.  The anonymous voice of The Archies belonged to a young singer-songwriter named Ron Dante (nee Carmine Granito), who'd previously visited the pop charts as the lead singer on The Detergents' 1965 novelty hit, "Leader Of The Laundromat."

Like Joey Levine, Ron Dante was introduced to music through his father.

"A guy who worked for my dad was in a group called The Elegants," Dante says, "and had a hit record called 'Little Star.'  And it was 1969, I think [NOTE:  it was 1958], and it was the # 1 record at the time.  And he was the bass singer.  He had worked for my dad.  And he took me to one of their sessions when I was around 14.  And I got the bug.  I said, 'This is great!'  I thought it was all magic; I had no idea how they made a record.

"So it kind of inspired me, and I just started to form little groups and things, you know, played little local CYO centers and stuff and YMCAs, whatever I could get where there was a stage and they needed a band.

"So I had a band for a while.  And I started writing some songs.  Since I lived in New York City in one of the boroughs [NOTE:  yay, Staten Island!], I would go to Manhattan on my off hours, with my guitar, and visit the Brill Building, and also another building called 1650, which was around the corner, [and] was part of that Brill Building-Tin Pan Alley type scene.

"And I kept walking into people's offices, and I got a manager, " Dante says with a laugh.  "I'd just walk in and say, 'I'm a singer, I'm a writer, anybody wanna listen to me?'  Any publisher, anything that had anything to do with music, I would walk in.  I would walk into classical record [firms], jazz, I'd walk into any kind of company before I finally found a pop company.  And I found a manager, and he took me up to audition for Don Kirshner, after about six months of being managed.  And Don Kirshner signed me as a singer-songwriter when I was in my teens."

Dante's first single was called "Little Little Lollipop," released under the name Ronnie Dante.

"Yeah, it was a definite bubblegum song," Dante says.  "I wrote it with two friends of mine, Danny Jordan and Tommy Wynn.  And we recorded a demo, and they put the demo out on some label; Steve Lawrence's brother had a label, and he put it out on his label.  So that was my very first.  That, and I had another record I did with somebody at 1650, which was called 'Kai-Wakki-Kumba,' which was a kind of 'Wimoweh'-type record.  And that came out, but I have never seen it.  To this day, I have never seen a copy of it.  But that was like the first few records that actually got released.  I was thrilled.

 "[Then] I met a fellow named Paul Vance, and Lee Pockriss, two songwriter-producers who had written 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.'  And they had a record for me as a soloist called 'Don't Stand Up In A Canoe.'  So I recorded it, and it came out and it got a lot of attention.  It got some play in New York City as I remember, but it wasn't a hit."

Although "Don't Stand Up In A Canoe" didn't chart, Dante's union with Vance and Pockriss would soon prove beneficial.

"So about six months later they had this novelty idea," Dante continues. "They wrote a song--these are the same fellows who wrote 'Catch A Falling Star' for Perry Como many, many years earlier--and they wrote 'Leader Of The Laundromat.'  And they said, 'Why don't you come in and do one of the voices on the record?'

"Leader Of The Laundromat," a broad but cute parody of The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack," was a # 19 hit at the end of 1964.  Dante had already split from Kirshner at this point.

"I had left Don Kirshner after about two to three years of being with him," he says.  "Things weren't happening, and I saw this opportunity to get recorded and out.  So I didn't speak to him for a few years, three or four years."

Dante toured with The Detergents for a while before returning to New York and a new career making commercials.

"Right after The Detergents came off the road," Dante says, "we were on the road for about a year, year and a half--I came back to New York City and I kind of became popular doing some commercials.  A few of my demo people--I used to do demos for people, I'd be their singing voice on their songs--they started to write commercials.  I ended up singing for Johnson's Baby Oil and all kinds of products that had just started, Kleenex, Campbell's Soup.  So by the time I got to do The Archies again I had become a full-fledged jingle singer, where I would do four or five sessions a week at least, maybe more sometimes."

And, at this point, Riverdale beckoned.

"I heard they were auditioning for The Archies.  A friend of mine was playing in the band, he said, 'They're looking for a voice.'  And I said, 'Well, I know Don Kirshner, he started me.'

"So I called, and the office set up an appointment, and I walked into RCA studio.  And there was the writer, Jeff Barry, producer, and Kirshner.  And they auditioned me, they said, 'Well, can you do different type of voices?'  So I did, like, two or three different type of voices for Jeff and Donnie, and they finally locked into one sound.  They said, 'Oh, you'll be good for this sound, let's use that one.'

"In fact," adds Bill Pitzonka, "Ron Dante wasn't even the original guy they were considering to do The Archies.  He went to an audition and was taken to the audition by Ron Frangipane, who was the arranger for the sessions.  And he went to the auditions, Don Kirshner and Jeff Barry listened to him.  And I don't remember who it was who really flipped out over him.  One of them had to be persuaded by the other one, because they both had worked with him.  So he wound up cutting over 150 songs for The Archies."

Regardless of who else was considered for the singing voice of Archie Andrews, it was indeed Ron Dante who got the gig.  Dante would sing lead on every single Archies track on five albums, plus the mountain of unreleased Archies tracks said to be languishing in Don Kirshner's vaults.  Back-up singers would come and go, and singer Toni Wine would provide occasional second lead vocals on the early records (notably on "Sugar, Sugar"), but the guy in front was always Dante.

Oddly enough, there may be some who believe the voice of The Archies was...Joey Levine?

"You know," Dante says, "my friend Joey Levine did The 1910 Fruitgum Company and '1-2-3 Red Light' [CC'S NOTE:  Noooooooooooooooooooo!].  The Fruitgum Company actually probably gave bubblegum its name.  He'd taken credit for my records half [the time].  The last interview I saw with Joey Levine, he was taking credit for 'Sugar, Sugar.'  I called him up--it was in New York magazine--I said, 'Joey, what's wrong with you?  Don't you have enough credit?  You're only the biggest commrcial producer, jingle producer, in town, in New York.'  And he misspelled my name!  So if you would do me a favor, in this interview, mention that 'Joey Levin'--please do this for me, Joey L-A-N-E-N, something like that.  Misspell his name.  Don't dare spell his name correctly, because I know he definitely did that to me.  He took credit for 'Sugar, Sugar' in that New York interview, and he went ahead and misspelled my name," Dante says, laughing.

Joey Levin, er, Lanen, um--Levine (whew!) replies, "I think I gave him credit for The Archies.  I said I sang with groups, I never sang lead with The Archies.  I was asked to sing lead for The Archies, and I turned it down because they didn't want to pay royalties.  They wanted to pay session payments, double session payments, and I said I wouldn't do it.  I said, you know, my sound's too identifiable, I'm gonna be this group, I'm not gonna get paid as an artist.  And they didn't really need an artist; 'It's all our concept, Jeff Barry's writing all the songs, all we really need's a voice.'

"So Ronnie did it.  So I didn't really do anything with them.  I sang, there's some backgrounds, because I sang backgrounds with a lot of people in those days, The Monkees and The Archies and all of those things.  I'd be like one of the singers in New York that would show up on background sessions and things for people.  But Ronnie's definitely The Archies, him and Toni Wine and Ellie Greenwich, they were the main core Archies.  Jamie Carr, I think, may have been in there.

"Ronnie's only pissed off because they got his name wrong in the article.  They called him 'Ronnie Dugan' or something.  Which I said [to him], 'Hey Ronnie, I didn't call you Ronnie Dugan, I remember your name,' I said.  'But at least I gave you credit!'" he concludes with a laugh.  "He's a nice guy, Ron."

"Once in a while we had groups," Dante recalls, "and Jeff Barry would sing with me.  People would come in and out in the background groups.  But I was the lead voice on every one of the records.  I mean, some girls came in, a few background singers.  Toni Wine, of course, sang on 'Sugar, Sugar,' she was that famous solo voice just for one line [NOTE:  the bubblegum-friendly line "I'm gonna make your life so sweet"].  We did maybe an album's worth of material with Toni.  So the background group was Toni Wine, Jeff Barry, and Ron Dante.  It was nice."

Although The Archies' record-making machinery was obviously cast in the image of The Monkees' hit factory, it did not duplicate The Monkees' immediate sales and radio success.  While The Monkees' debut recordings in 1966 were instant hits--the "Last Train To Clarksville" single went to # 1, and the LP The Monkees topped Billboard's chart for 13 weeks--The Archies' success was far less dramatic.  The debut single, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," was a # 22 hit, but the album The Archies stalled at # 88.  And the second single, "Feelin' So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y.-D.O.O.)," never climbed above a disappointing # 53.

The Archies' chart fortunes changed dramatically, of course, with the third single, "Sugar, Sugar," a # 1 smash for four weeks in 1969.  And, considering The Monkees' own fading success in 1969, the ascent of "Sugar, Sugar" must have made Kirshner's revenge seem all the more triumphant.

For the record, it should be noted that Dante is unaware of The Monkees ever being offered "Sugar, Sugar."  "I don't know about that story," he says.  "To me, it seemed that 'Sugar, Sugar' was written for the project; it was written for The Archies specifically as I remember.  Because everything I thought was being written at the same time."

While the success of "Sugar, Sugar" was no doubt gratifying to Dante, it was an anonymous success.

"When 'Sugar, Sugar' became the # 1 hit in the country, people were still asking me what was I doing, was I doing anything with my career, 'Are you okay, are you still singing those jingles?'

"And then, on a Sunday night, I heard that The Archies were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.  And I turned it on, and sure enough he introduced the # 1 record in the country this week, 'Sugar, Sugar' by The Archies.  And then they played the cartoon from the TV show.  So I got to be on The Ed Sullivan Show, but not on.

"It was wonderful, because it was my first # 1 record with my voice singing,and it was frustrating because I really wasn't known.  It was an anonymous thing--it was a children's project for Saturday morning TV stuff that became a popular record kind of eccentric thing.  So it was frustrating at the time."

Even among the few who knew that Dante was the voice of The Archies, respect was not necessarily forthcoming.

"And a lot of my friends thought bubblegum music was really hokey," Dante says.  "And they said, 'How can you even do this kind of stuff?  This is embarrassing.  You know, we're rock 'n' rollers, we're hip.  It's the late '60s, everybody's hip, Jim Morrison and The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and here you are in this bubblegum group.'"

But even then, Dante knew there was some merit in bubblegum.

"When the record went # 1," Dante says, "I knew it was in the history books.  And then it became the # 1 record of the year, meaning it got more time in the  # 1 position and sold more than any other single.  And that was the year of "Honky Tonk Women" and "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In," two huge, powerful singles.  [NOTE:  The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits credits "Sugar, Sugar" as the top single of 1969, but Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1993 gives that honor to "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In (The Flash Failures)" by The Fifth Dimension, with six weeks in the top spot to "Sugar, Sugar"'s four.]

"So when I noticed that Billboard gave us the # 1 spot for the year, I figured somebody would always wanna know a little bit about this record.  Because it became part of the history, like there was only one 1969 and there's only one # 1 record for that year by Billboard's calculation.  So I figured somebody would be talking about it.

"And also it was a TV show.  But I am astounded that it has had so many incarnations, where they've put it in movies and things, and TV shows and commercials.  So that's astounding, because I know Jeff wrote it in about five minutes," Dante says with a laugh.  "I don't think he took a long time writing 'Sugar, Sugar.'"

Dante remembers Jeff Barry leaving the project around this time, following the second album, Everything's Archie, which was soon re-titled Sugar, Sugar to capitalize on the single's success.

"Jeff came in for the first album, and maybe the second one," Dante says.  "I don't remember if he was involved in the second album.  But he did the first season's music for the TV [show].  And then I think he just got involved in other things--his own label, Bobby Bloom, Andy Kim.  There were other people involved in the next consecutive album.  I actually produced one or two of them."

Barry did, however, co-write (with "Sugar, Sugar" collaborator Andy Kim) and produce the next single, "Jingle Jangle," an irresistible confection that made it to # 10 in late '69.

[NOTE:  Jeff Barry is listed as the producer of the first four Archies albums, as well as the single "Who's Your Baby?".  And, although Toni Wine is widely said not to have appeared on "Jingle Jangle," it most certainly is her doing the fab Betty/Veronica voices on that single.]

Still, that was about it for The Archies as far as big hits were concerned.  The 1970 "Who's Your Baby?" and "Sunshine" singles charted at # 40 and # 57 respectively.  Not counting a greatest-hits set, there were two more Archies albums, Sunshine and This Is Love.  But there was a lot more Archies music recorded.

"There had to be hundreds and hundreds of songs," Dante says.  "Because we were putting two or three in each show, and it was on for three seasons.  So we did a lot of that music for the show.  And then we did five or six albums--I thought there might have been a sixth, there may be a sixth album that was recorded.  So there was at least six albums' worth of material, and then the TV stuff.  So there was a lot of material recorded.  I remember doing 20 to 30 songs in a two or three week period for the TV show.  They didn't use all the stuff we did, so there's a lot of archival material still existing."

NEXT:  Cartoon Rock!