"The British Invasion rocked our world – musically and otherwise -- but there was something cool (dare I say groovy) about Chicago groups making music and hitting the charts. Our city was on the musical map and hey, so was our fountain! It’s nice to know The Buckinghams are still around and still sounding great." Rosemary Backes - Rosemary Backes was a junior in high school the first time she heard Kind of a Drag. All these years later she is still enjoying the music of her youth.
Back in the winter of 1967 some cold winds howled through the city of Chicago, but the cold and historic winter couldn't prevent the upbeat sounds of supremely spirited pop/rock music from rolling right on in with old man winter. On that memorable Thursday, January 26, 1967, snow began to come down and it would keep snowing until the following evening. While an entire population of people were locked and stocked in their homes the first single by the Buckinghams was playing on radios all across the country. Three weeks later the song would become the number one song on the Billboard charts and it would sit there triumphantly for two straight weeks. The rest as they say...
The music of the Buckinghams is embedded in the catalog of the musical minds of older and younger baby boomers, but those songs are emblems for older boomers (I'm not an older boomer). Carl Giammarese is one of two original members of The Buckinghams and he and fellow original member, Nick Fortuna continue to tour; and from time to time they create new music. Recently, I went with my entire family to see The Buckinghams perform and they put on a fantastic two hour plus show. Their delivery of their own songs is perfection to the ears, but their interpretations of other 1960s' gems prove to be as gratifying as their performances are of their original material.
Since this a site dedicated to all things Chicago, having an interview with a member of one of the signature pop/rock acts that hailed from the city of big shoulders is a thrill for me. Several other bands called Chicago home, among them, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Styx, the Ides of March, the Cryan' Shames, Rockford's Cheap Trick, the Shadows of Knight, the New Colony Six, the Smashing Pumpkins and more recently, the Plain White T's. The city's legacy of music lives on. Carl Giammarese was kind enough to agree to an hour long session of a series of questions.
Judith: At the performance I was surrounded by mostly older era boomers, so obviously much of the audience was composed of people that assuredly bought your records upon their original release back in the late 1960's. However, there were plenty of teens sitting in the auditorium, including a 17 year old guy in front of me who clearly was enjoying the show. How do you explain the interest of young people loving the music from the 1960's and 1970's?
Carl: I've known it for years. We've long attracted a younger audience and it's particularly noticeable at the fairs and festivals we play. Usually the younger end of the spectrum is 50% of the crowd.
The only thing I could say is the music from the era was great. Younger audiences relate to four or five piece guitar bands. Good music is good music. Don't get me wrong there are a lot of talented people making music today. The songs from the generation I was part of are memorable, but there are some talented people leaving their stamp on and making significant contributions to the music business today.
When I was starting out we didn't really relate to a great deal of the music our parents had been listening to even though I now appreciate much of that music.
Judith: Carl, you mentioned new music. Who are the acts out there today that you genuinely appreciate and follow?
Carl: I like John Mayer very much. He's a gifted guitarist. Maroon 5 are good. Train makes some good music. They have a sound that could be timeless. I think Alicia Keys is fabulous. She's one of the best singer/artist/pianists in the music industry today. Very talented. I listen to a great deal of contemporary music, but I love older music as well. I have grown to appreciate Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett more and more as I've grown older and learned more about music, vocals and styles. I find myself attracted to several different genres, including jazz. My wife likes jazz, so it's playing in the house and it's grown on me. I get my satellite radio going and I play with the buttons and listen to a variety of musical genres. A great song is a great song.
The American Music Awards turn me off. Seeing Justin Bieber's dance routines to songs that have no melody is unappealing. A great song to me should have you sitting down with a guitar or a piano in your living room and you just sing and play and it still should come across without all of the production. That's a great song that will live on for many years.
Judith: At the Joy of Christmas show I noticed you played acoustic guitar, steel guitar and bass guitar. When and why did the guitar become your passion?
Carl: I started playing when I was 13 years old. My dad found a guitar teacher for me. Her name was Mrs. Seitz. Obviously, I still remember her name. Mrs. Seitz was in the neighborhood and she taught me how to play. At first I wanted to play the saxophone, but my mom was a huge fan of Elvis Presley's and she wanted me to play the guitar, because he played the guitar. I always remember her saying you can play the guitar and sing at the same time. Of course, she was right!
Judith: Once you had the guitar who were the influences on your playing and your style?
Carl: Johnny Smith was a gifted jazz guitarist. He used to be Perry Como's guitarist on his television show. Whenever Perry Como sang a song with just the guitar you could really hear Johnny Smith's great talent. Also, I had a deep appreciation for James Burton. Burton was a superb guitarist. He was one of country and country rock's big talents. I loved his playing. The first time I saw him was with Rick Nelson. At that time, Rick would play one or two songs at the end of the The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. I'd watch all the time and I couldn't wait until the end of the show since I knew they'd be playing. Burton played with Elvis Presley and he was a session guitarist on a million different records. Talented guy.
I loved the Ventures, Chet Atkins, Les Paul. When the Beatles came along, I wanted to learn every lick George Harrison was playing with that big "Gretsch" guitar.
I new that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this for the last 40 plus years.
Judith: As a non-professional musician I still enjoy visiting recording studios. I went in to a couple of famed studios while living in Los Angeles. I took a tour of Abbey Road Studios and I went on the Sun Studios tour when I was in Memphis last year. Where did the Buckinghams record?
Carl: Our first recording session took place at the legendary Chess Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. I would never forget the address. At that time, Chess produced some of the great legends of Blues music. Muddy Waters and Little Walter recorded there. Chuck Berry did some of his recordings there. The Rolling Stones came in to do sessions there from time to time. Leonard Chess owned the studio. We were a pop band, so our recording there was unusual. We had a great engineer named Ron Malo. He did a lot of blues albums. We were brought there by our manager and producer, Carl Bonafede and Dan Bellock. Dan owned the Holiday Ballroom on the north side of the city of Chicago. We were basically a house band at his club and we played there every weekend. Dan thought we were special, because every time we played people stopped dancing and watched us perform. At that time, we were a cover band. We would do everything from the Beatles (we even recorded "I Call Your Name" which was a unique John Lennon song), to Wilson Pickett and James Brown.
Judith: Looking back - what was the big break?
Carl: Our first big break was on WGN. WGN was huge. Not as huge as it would become in the cable era, but it had a reach even way beyond Chicago, which at the time was the 2nd largest market in the country. They had a show on the air called All Time Hits. We auditioned for the show with a group of other local acts and we won the audition. They gave us a 13 week contract and every week we would come in and do a few songs. We'd perform whatever was popular at the time. The show was responsible for giving us the name of The Buckinghams. The British invasion had already started and the Beatles were bigger than life, the Rolling Stones were out there, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits. Someone on the set decided we should have a British sounding name, so we became the Buckinghams. Our first album cover photo is in front of Buckingham Fountain. A friend of ours took that photo with a Polaroid camera. The fountain had nothing to do with our name, ironically enough.
All Time Hits led to a contract with USA Records. We covered some songs and had a few regional hits. Carl Bonafede found Jim Holvey and his writing partner, Garry Beisbier and they were writing songs they couldn't use in their band, the Mob. The material they were writing wasn't right for them, so they gave us Kind of a Drag.
We took the song and rehearsed it. Dan Bellock had the idea of putting horns on it. We weren't a horn band, but Dan was a big band leader. He thought the horns would give us polish. His trombone player, Frank Tesinsky did the arrangements since we couldn't arrange horns. The label released it and it ran up the charts. Ultimately, it became a number one song, although initially it was played regionally and then it grew and grew before it went national.
Judith: Carl, you were all from Chicago. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Was then and still is now. What neighborhood were you born and raised in?
Carl: I'm a guy from the Albany Park area. It's near Sacramento and Lawrence. Dennis Tufano lived near Grand & Fullerton. John Poulos, our original drummer lived near me. Nick lived up in Niles and Marty was our sole southsider. He was raised in Blue Island.
Judith: I can remember all kinds of things. Sometimes I can even tell you what outfit I had on when something of consequence took place in my life. Where were you exactly when you first heard Kind of a Drag on the radio?
Carl: The band was rehearsing in my parents' basement. We would rehearse at our houses. We would spend a couple of days at one house - drive the neighbors wild and then we would move to another house. Our parents gave us the freedom to play and enjoy the experience of that first rush of success. The day the song was heard for the first time, we were in my basement. My parents ran down the stairs and said our song was on the radio. It was on WLS. The entire band ran up the stairs to hear the tail end of the song. To be on the big 89 was a big deal. You could hear a song over and over again on a record, but when you heard it on the radio it was like nothing else. Pure magic.
Judith: The Buckinghams appeared on television consistently during the late 1960's. Thanks to YouTube, one can still have a revisit with many of your performances from the time. Any particular standout memory that still lives on with you and Nick?
Carl: Doing The Ed Sullivan Show was a big deal for us, but during that time it was a big deal for any artist. His shows were the "when you knew you had made it moment." Ed Sullivan was smaller and shorter than I thought he would be. Also, the theater itself was small. When you see clips of the audience, you don't realize how small the actual theater seating area was.
When we appeared on The Joey Bishop Show - Joey was interviewing us and a bit of spittle came out of him and landed on Dennis Tufano. From that point on every other act on that night referenced Joey spitting on Dennis.
The appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour has the now wild mishap of the British Union Jack flags on our set. The set designers thought we were British, so we performed in front of a multitude of Union Jack images.
Of course, The Jerry Lewis Show appearance was memorable for the actual meet and greet with Jerry Lewis. We were backstage and Jerry was going into his dressing room. He was all decked out in tie, pressed shirt, but he didn't have pants on. We learned that night that performers put their pants on at the last minute, so they would be as wrinkle free as possible. It's still kind of funny looking back on it and seeing Jerry Lewis standing there in his boxer shorts - just talking, like no big deal.
American Bandstand was an iconic brand for pop/rock music and we enjoyed being on that show. Dick Clark was a wonderful person. Years later, we had the good fortune to work with him. In the 1980's and 1990's, Dick was hired to do a series of big corporate shows and he booked us many times to do the shows. We enjoyed working with him. He was unassuming and down to earth.
Judith: Ok Carl, you're on a desert island. Which albums, artists do you want shipwrecked with you?
Carl: I'd have a crowded island! I'm in love with Joni Mitchell. Her album, Blue is one of my all time favorite albums. She had a great gift for writing lyrics. I can't listen to that album without getting emotional. I have always appreciated James Taylor. His work holds up and I still enjoy what he's doing now. October Road (the album was released in 2002, long after Taylor's chart topping years) is a great album and it can reside on a shelf with some of his classic albums from the 1970's. I love Stevie Wonder. Of course, The Beatles. If I had to pick just one artist - I'd pick the Beatles. Being around during their recording years was exciting, particularly if you were a musician. You anticipated every new album. It was like Christmas bearing gifts when they released a new album. You knew it was going to sound like them, but be something completely different. They were constantly reinventing themselves and everyone else was trying to catch up and no one was able to catch up.
I'm also a big fan of the Eagles. Don Henley and Glenn Frey are talented songwriters, musicians and singers. Led Zeppelin had a unique sound and I loved the band, America. Their music still works today. They were produced by George Martin, who produced all of the albums by the Beatles.
Judith: I'm always fascinated by who is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Who should be inducted that hasn't been inducted yet?
Carl: The Buckinghams! Honestly, you've caught me off guard, but I do think someone from the Happy Together tours should be in the Hall of Fame. Some talented people have been left out. Tommy James and the Shondells, the Grass Roots, the Turtles, Paul Revere & the Raiders. A lot of acts with significantly fewer hits made it in and if it were a time capsule you'd want some of the bands from that period of time in the Hall of Fame.
Judith: My family went to see your show in Chicago and it was billed as a Christmas show. Any particular reason why you wanted to do a Christmas show?
Carl: I still love recording, so recording The Joy of Christmas was a labor of love. We revisited our sound from the 60's and put it to some new music and we did a couple of covers of a few Christmas classics. Every artist either has or should do a collection of Christmas songs. The Joy of Christmas is our contribution to the sounds of Christmas.
Judith: By the way, you do a lovely interpretation of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It's one of my favorite secular Christmas songs. Judy Garland's version in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis still gets to me, but your version is beautiful. Just the right touches of sentimentality. Just thought I'd let you know.
Carl: Thank you.
Judith: Are you political?
Carl: No, we aren't. We just want to entertain people. We live in interesting times. We got offers to perform at one of the inaugural balls in 2004 and again in 2008. We enjoyed it, but when we performed in 2004 we received a ton of hate mail from people that hated George Bush and then when we performed in 2008 we received hate mail from people that hated Barack Obama. It was strange for us, because publicly we are pretty apolitical. Most of the mail was hateful with things like we are so disappointed in you guys and on and on. From my perspective, there is no cooperation between the parties. They are both at fault. Let's do what is best for the country! Personally, I've met a lot of nice people on both sides.
Judith: You are a Chicago born and raised guy and you still live here. If you have guests coming in from out of town who have never been here before what would you set them up to do?
Carl: I'd take them to the city. Grant Park, the lakefront, Millennium Park, the magnificent mile - the entire city center is beautiful and it offers a great deal for residents and visitors. Gorgeous lakefront and skyline.
You have to have Chicago food. I love the Little Italy area, so I'd probably take them to the Rosebud Cafe and then on another night, we'd go to Lou Malnati's for pizza. I'd make sure they had a taste of the city's music scene too. Blues music is still a large part of the city's culture, so pizza and then we'd go to Buddy Guy's.
Judith: Sort of curious about something. You were a major act from our great city and you made it nationally with five huge hit singles. This was all going on during the Vietnam War. Outside of Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix I wasn't able to think of any artists from the rock era during that time that served in the military. Was there an exemption for musicians (I ask knowing that isn't true)?
Carl: Actually, we got lucky. Our draft numbers didn't come up during the draft, but our original lead singer, George LeGros was drafted in 1966. George kept saying at the time that we shouldn't worry, because he had a bad knee, but he did get drafted. We all went to say goodbye to him at the train station when he departed for basic training. Several months later Kind of a Drag went to the top of the charts. George passed away several years ago and it's still all sad.
Judith: Carl, you've been writing an autobiography. What's going on with the project?
Carl: It's been years in the making. I wanted to have it released in conjunction with a new album. The album would pretty much be an acoustic work, but the book has been taking me a lot longer to write than I thought it would.
Judith: Carl, thanks so much for taking us on another part of the journey with you and the Buckinghams. I still love your music and it always makes me feel good! Classic songs - Kind of a Drag, Don't You Care, Hey Baby, Susan and my personal favorite Mercy, Mercy, Mercy should all be listened to - repeatedly. They are great treats for the ears some forty plus years after their initial release dates.
To see upcoming tour dates for The Buckinghams, please visit www.thebuckinghams.com.
Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna
Original Buckinghams today
Copyright Chicago and Then Some 2012