Flirting with Fame: History of Rock n’ Roll in Delaware
by Steven Leech
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 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 live 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. According to local rock n’ roll record collector
Michael Ace, in Wilmington at least two new labels were founded. One was ABS Records, which recorded a couple 45
rpm’s that are highly valued by collectors today. One of those was “Little Boy Bop” by Ralph Prescott, and “Miss Mary” by Bobby Lee. Another local independent label was Dandy, which a little later in the 50s recorded a couple of Buddy Holly cover tunes by Pat Patterson, who later went on to be a popular disc jockey on Wilmington radio station WAMS.
Another local label, Ritchie, was founded in 1959 by Vinnie Rago. It’s earliest recording was with a band called
Frankie and the C-Notes. Ritchie Records would have a number of close calls and near misses with national notoriety in
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. 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’s 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 were 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.
By the 1960s local rock n’ roll enthusiasts were building a little momentum, thanks largely to success from Vinnie Rago’s Ritchie label and its companion, Universal. Ritchie mainly accommodated the doo wop side of the rock n’ roll sub-genre, while Universal recorded flat-out rock n’ roll or rockabilly, like the Recorders’ “Rock Around the Rosie”, which was written by Rago. Another Universal recordings was “Office Girl” by Ronnie Worth, whose day job was as an accountant in Wilmington. Andy & the Gigolos recorded a song for a new dance called “The Bug” on Universal. Rago’s greatest success was with a doo wop group called Teddy and the Continentals, who had a national hit –– on the Bubbling Under chart –– with “Ev’rybody Pony,” which hit #101 in September 1961, but the flip side “Tick Tick Tock” is the side most aficionados prefer .
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, but by 1964 the Continentals broke up and he recorded a final solo record on Ritchie in 1965 as Teddy Continental. Like a number of other local recording artists to follow, his records are still valued by collectors and have garnered cult status in unlikely places.
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 Ritchie 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.
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, 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.
Rock artists from Delaware were boosted by the reinvigorating musical strides made within the 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 to follow 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 “Papa” Dee Allen. Papa Dee was originally a member of local jazz great Lem Winchester’s Modernists. After Winchester died prematurely in 1961, the Modernist 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.
Another local artist to find national success is Johnny Neel. Neel cut his first records in Wilmington on Vinnie Rago’s Ritchie 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.
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 stared Madonna.
The biggest success story for a local rock musician is George Thorogood. Thorogood attended Brandywine High School and began his career locally doing gigs at local night spots. 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 a couple of 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 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 gigs. Even though Rita agreed to join the band for that single engagement, Bob vetoed the idea, which created an awkward position for him with George.
“I was selling him all his pot,” George confessed.
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.
Most recently, Tom Verlaine took on a good chunk of the music production for the recent Bob Dylan “bio-pic” motion picture, I’m Not There.
Delaware rockers continue to probe the soft underbelly of our national rock n’ roll paradigm. In spite of the close calls, near misses and a few genuine success stories the beat does goes on!
–– A special thanks to Michael Ace, Larry Williams, Scott Birney, and Brian Lee Hart for providing recordings and labels
Into the 1960s: Some Local Record Labels and Producers,
and the Groups They Produced
The story of recordings by early Wilmington rock & rollers is sketchy, but some tantalizing bits of information have surfaced, particularly with regards to local record producers. Currently we know nothing about ABS Records, but Dandy was owned, reportedly along with an uncle, by Andy Ercole of Andy & the Gigolos.
We've already learned some things about Vinnie Rago. He began his involvement in producing and recording local rock & roll artists in the late 1950s on the Universal label, but found greater success with the Ritchie label. Beginning in the early 1960s, Rago produced records by Teddy & the Continentals, the Adapters, and various incarnations of groups led by Johnny Neel. Another successful group to find their way onto the Ritchie label was the Enfields. Chiefly from northern Wilmington, the Enfields had several hits on Wilmington radio station WAMS' Top 30, as had Teddy & the Continentals, the Adapters and several other local rock & roll acts.
Two other local record producers in Wilmington were Effers Bethea and James Chavis.
Bethea's greatest success was the Dynamic Concepts, which was a combination of two previous local groups; the instrumental group, The Dynamics, with the vocal group, The Concepts. Their biggest hit was "The Funky Chicken." Bethea also produced a local label called Hip City. One of the groups that recorded on Hip City was the Overtones with their tune "The Gleam in Your Eye."
Into the 1970s: Two Major Successes from the Wilmington Vicinity
Two of the 1970s most successful rock artists were George Thorogood and Television. The latter took part in that first wave of American punk rock acts that initially performed at CBGBs in New York City.
Ray Charles visits Mitch on his
Saturday Dance Show
Valerie Robinson (top left), Shirley Lewis, & Ventie Jean Williams (bottom left). Not shown are Linda Powell & Jackie Emory.
From suburban Wilmington in the mid 1970s the local band Television made it big in punk rock's first wave at CBGBs in New York City. From the left is Jim Ficca, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Fred Smith.