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From Binky Jones to The Planotones -
Kenny Vance & all that Teenage Jazz

by Ray D'Ariano / 11/2008


During the German occupation of Belgium, René Magritte the surrealist artist was walking with his wife Georgette when somebody took their photograph and named it "René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog During the War." Paul Simon saw it, wrote a song and gave it the same title as the photo.

In the tune he informs the listener that minutes after the photo was taken, René and Georgette went back to their hotel room, lost their clothes, and danced to "The deep forbidden music they'd been longing for" – The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles, and The Five Satins.

This gem may very well be the finest tribute ever to the doo-wop groups of the 50's. Another lyric in the tune suggests that others have been longing for this deep forbidden music and have it hidden away in their hearts.

One of the people who fit that description is Kenny Vance, practitioner of vocal harmony. He created two groups: Jay and The Americans in the 60's, and The Planotones for a film in the late 70's. His best known solo effort, "Looking For An Echo," was another kind of salute to doo-wop.

Kenny Vance & The Planotones performances and recordings are joyfully preserving this American musical art form and they should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their efforts.

Example: One night last summer, two guys were sitting on wooden stools. One was all in black 'cept for the tan fedora on his head. He was wearing shades. The other guy in the pink rust colored shirt said, "And uh, how 'bout…how 'bout we do a song?" So the guy with the hat gestured and said, "Just like that, no rehearsal?" The other guy smiled and said, "Who needs rehearsal, right? How did we do it in the old days? Hanging out on the street corners. Hey let's sing, OK?"

It was like a Broadway play, but it's wasn't 'cause it was real even though they were on stage in front of an audience of thousands.

"Just follow me or I'll follow you."

"I'll follow you."

And then those two guys, Johnny Maestro and Kenny Vance proceeded to sing an amazing and gorgeous version of "Let It Be Me." It was a version so perfect that if the Everly Brothers heard it they'd cry, and Jerry Butler would shake his head and think, "So that's how it's done."

Understand that this was just a spur of the moment thing, something they decided to do when their groups, The Brooklyn Bridge and The Planotones, were on the same bill somewhere in 2008, decades after this was supposed to be over and done with. That is preserving an art form.
 

It hasn't been easy. In 1964 The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and almost wiped out the entire genre. Here's a little background: Fifty-one years earlier in 1913, a building located at 1619 Broadway in New York City opened. Eventually it was purchased by Maurice and Samuel Brill, owners of the street-level clothing store, and it's been called The Brill Building ever since.

During the big band era, music publishers and songwriters flocked to the place. Once a tune was published, song pluggers would go to cats like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller to encourage them to play the new songs in their sets. By the late 50's there were over a hundred music-related businesses in the building, ranging from publishing, radio promotion, and demo recording,. It was the center of the universe for pop and rock and roll. Songwriters like Doc Pomus, Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Neil Sedaka were churning out hits on a daily basis. "Save The Last Dance For Me," "Calendar Girl," "Be My Baby," "Yakety Yak", "Chapel of Love," and hundreds of others were all composed in the Brill Building.

After the Beatles took America by storm on that February evening in 1964, Brill Building pop, nationwide dance crazes, and smooth doo-wop style vocalizing were out. Longhaired English bands with electric guitars were in. When the British Invasion hit, American radio stopped playing dozens of American acts. It was a phenomenon, it was exciting, and it was very sad. Overnight, artists like Bobby Rydell, Lenny Welch, The Diamonds, Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, Del Shannon, The Shirelles, The Mello Kings, The Five Satins, Gary U.S. Bonds, and The Crests vanished from the radio, the charts, and the fan's radar.

They were wiped out; over; yesterday's news.

They were replaced by a lot of great groups like The Animals, The Zombies, The Stones, and the DC5. But there were a bunch of others, like Freddie and The Dreamers, Herman's Hermits, and The Honeycombs who couldn't hold a candle to the pure harmonious sounds of, say The Earls, The Capris or The Duprees. Several American artists however, managed to ride out the storm. Motown went toe-to-toe with The British invasion. The Beach Boys and The Four Seasons gave the Brit's a run for their money as well. There was one American group that was often overlooked, but they managed to stay on the charts throughout the decade, and they were Jay and The Americans.

From that night in February right up and into 1970, this crew of guys from Brooklyn withstood the "invasion" by touring extensively and creating a decades' worth of hits on 15 albums that included "Come A Little Bit Closer," "Let's Lock the Door," and "Cara Mia." In fact in 1964, while other groups were stunned and depressed, Jay and The Americans appeared with The Beatles at their first American concert. In those days The Beatles had a few hits like "I Want To Hold Your Hand," but most of their set consisted of material by The Isley Brothers, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. When they made their American debut they were a cover band with a gimmick.

A short while later, Jay and the Americans had a taste of the heartbreak that the British invasion was dealing out to their peers when they were the opening act for The Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall. After the first show they were told that they had to close the second show. The Stones opened that performance and when they were done, the local boys began with "Only In America." While they were singing, the audience emptied out to try and catch a glimpse of The Stones in their limo. The home team had cleared the theater and learned first hand that the times were a changing.

It was only a few years earlier when Sandy Yaguda and Kenny Vance formed the group. They had started out singing with The Harbor Lights, a group from Belle Harbor in Queens. Kenny Vance was captivated by the magic of rock and roll and at 15 he was listening to The Moonglows, The Elegants, The Silhouettes, and a group whose name would influence him years later, The Monotones. He began hanging around the Brill Building where he met some other kids who shared his passion, guys like Paul Simon and Al Kooper.

It was there that Sandy and Kenny crossed paths with a guy named John "Jay" Traynor who had been on a few Mystics records, and they started singing together. Soon they auditioned for Lieber and Stoller – who had become the hottest producers and writers in the game – with an accapella version of The Five Keys' "Wisdom of the Fool." Some kind of dispute erupted and the producers threw the group out, but it was Kenny who went back in and told them off. Nobody ever did that and several months later Lieber and Stoller decided to record them and name them Binky Jones and The Americans. Fortunately, Traynor didn't want to be Binky Jones and offered to be called by his nickname, Jay.

Jay and The Americans were born. "Tonight," from West Side Story became a territorial hit, but the next record, "She Cried," originally the B-side of a tune called "Dawning," went Top 5 in Billboard and Cashbox. When the next few singles bombed Traynor left the group.

Marty Sanders and David Blatt were in a group called The Empires and Sanders brought Blatt to audition for the Americans. He was working at a Thom McAnn shoe store, but when he did an acapella version of "Cara Mia" he was in. He was using the stage name David Black and agreed to become Jay Black in order to keep the Jay and The Americans name intact.

Around that time The Drifters had recorded "Only In America," but the record company didn't feel it was the right lyric for a black group in those pre-Civil Rights times. After all, they were singing about a ridiculous notion that anyone, despite the color of their skin, could become President of the United States. Jay and The Americans laid down vocals over the Drifters tracks and it became the first hit with their new singer.

"Cara Mia, was written by the Italian composer Mantovani. The title translated to "My Beloved," and Jay Black loved it ever since he heard British singer David Whitfield do it on The Ed Sullivan Show. The group did it in the act for over three years, but no one wanted to record it. Finally in 1965, the record was produced by Jerry Granahan and it became a smash hit. In fact, "Cara Mia" with Jay Black singing lead for Jay and The Americans is one of those perfect records. "Cara Mia was followed by several other hits including "Some Enchanted Evening," and the first hit for writer Neil Diamond called "Sunday and Me."

In 1968 they recorded an album of their favorite oldies called "Sands Of Time," and early the next year, when their last incarnation had Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in the group, (who would later become Steely Dan), they entered the Billboard Top Ten once again with a remake of The Drifters "This Magic Moment." Jay and The Americans were not only able to hang in, but strive during the entire decade of the 60's because they had the talent and the magic. You'd be blessed to have either/or, but to have both is the stuff of legends. The group broke up in the early 70's.

Jay Black, with various musicians who made up his version of "the Americans," did the oldies shows for decades. In 2006 he filed for bankruptcy due to back taxes. The court appointed trustee decided that the things he had of value were the names he had been performing with for thirty years – Jay Black, and Jay and The Americans. The group name, Jay and The Americans, was put up for auction with the stipulation that the music had to be represented in a proper manner similar to the past. Sandy Yaguda, original American, purchased it and the current incarnation of Jay and The Americans was born with a third Jay – John "Jay" Reincke. Jay Black was permitted to continue using that name.

During the thirty years since the original Jay and the Americans split, Kenny Vance had gone solo and recorded the previously mentioned masterpiece, "Looking For an Echo." He served as musical director for "Saturday Night Live" during the Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy era where he booked Prince, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Kenny was also music supervisor for the film "Animal House," during which time he produced John Belusi performing "Money," and "Louie Louie." He also had similar gigs on other films including "Eddie & The Cruisers."

In 1978 he recreated the first-ever rock and roll show at The Brooklyn Paramount for the film "American Hot Wax," which was based on the true-life story of Alan Freed. Kenny cast Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis to play themselves, but he needed a vocal group so he enlisted some friends and along with himself they became Professor La Plano and The Planotones. In 1992, out of his love for singing and performing, he re-formed The Planotones as a real group. Their first recording was a live CD called "Teenage Jazz."

The group produced thousands of Planotones fans worldwide and for over a decade and a half Kenny has used his smooth and soulful vocals to elevate the art form known as doo-wop to new heights. This is not some goofy, poodle skirt, greaser parody of the music, this is a genuine and respectful presentation of some of the greatest music ever composed. The Planotones bring new life into The Shields' "You Cheated," The Genies' "Who's That Knocking," The Penguins' "Hey Senorita," Robert & Johnny's "We Belong Together," The Cadillacs' "Gloria," The Impressions' "It's All Right," and Roy Head's "Treat Her Right."

In all instances, Kenny's vocals – sweet tenor and/or falsetto – are the glue that holds this easygoing equivalent to an audio valium together. This is adult doo-wop harmony that never forgets the teen angst and passion embedded in its roots. Kenny Vance and The Planotones, featuring Vance, musical director and producer Johnny Gale, Kurt "Frenchy" Yahjian, keyboardist Chip Degaard, Jimmy Bense, and drummer Tony Gallino, are not an oldies act. They are a modern vocal group who have just as much in common with The Manhattan Transfer as they do with The Moonglows. They are not a slick cruise ship attraction, they are rock and roll. In fact, they are the Grateful Dead of doo-wop, often calling their set while on stage and doing extended vocal jams. Their music is sophisticated and fresh. They know what year it is, but they also remember where they are from: Brooklyn USA.

They tip their fedoras to Jay and The Americans during their live performances when Kenny does a killer version of "Cara Mia." On occasion the group even perform a fun unplugged version of "Come A Little Bit Closer." I urge you to see this group live wherever and whenever you can. You will be thrilled, and will have a real good time.

Their CDs are equally brilliant. If you've never heard them before I suggest you start with the British import, "Soundtrack to the Doo-Wop Era: A Kenny Vance Collection." The blurb on the back of the CD nails it. It's a collection of "classic doo-wop songs lovingly crafted into late-night listening, for a mature audience, in Kenny's inimitable style." The CD contains tracks taken from several of their albums and soundtracks including: "For Your Precious Love," "Sha Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)," "Diamonds And Pearls," "Hushabye," "To Be Loved," "Gloria," "Looking For An Echo," and "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday."

Another CD worth looking out for is the soundtrack to the film "Looking For An Echo," which contains the title track plus "This I Swear," "Wisdom of a Fool," and the greatest version ever of "Life Is But a Dream." This group are the real thing and a delight to behold. The next time you hear "American Pie" don't believe it. The music didn't die. It is alive and well and it's under the care of Kenny Vance and the Planotones.

To purchase any of their CDs and for their full schedule, check out their official web site: www.planotones.com