The Best That Could Happen
Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge

by Ray D'Ariano and Brian McAlley

When you talk about the truly great voices of rock and roll – the artists who can really sing like Elvis, Jay Black, Bobby Hatfield and Roy Orbison – you must include Johnny Maestro.  His strong and distinctive voice has entertained millions for over 50 years. He was part of rock and roll's early days and is still at the very top of his game. 

Born John Mastrangelo he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a teen he was influenced by the vocal sounds of The Harptones, The Flamingos and other R&B groups that Alan Freed played every night on the radio.

He formed a group in high school, but they didn't click. Then in ‘57 three guys with an interest in learning gospel harmony asked if he wanted to join them for a rehearsal. They sounded pretty good together and Johnny became part of The Crests.

The group consisted of Maestro, Harold Torres, Talmadge Gough, and J.T. Carter. (Patricia Vandross, older sister of Luther Vandross, became a member the following year). The wife of popular bandleader Al Browne heard them and introduced the group to her husband. Maestro told The New York Times, “He helped us sign a record contract. It said we could make a record. It didn’t say anything about getting paid. The Crests never made any money on record.”

“Sweetest One” was their first record on the Joyce label, but it was the B-side, “My Juanita” that was a local hit on the R&B charts. In ‘58 they signed with Coed Records, and released their second single, “Pretty Little Angel” along with the B-side, “I Thank the Moon.” Their next release was “Beside You,” but Alan Freed decided to play the flip side and soon “Sixteen Candles” became the first Top 10 hit for The Crests, peaking at #2 on The Billboard charts.

From “American Bandstand – Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock & Roll Empire” by John A. Jackson: “Johnny Maestro and The Crests, who made their national TV debut (on The Dick Clark Show) the Saturday night they performed “Sixteen Candles” had already run through their afternoon dress rehearsal, at which time they lip-synched the song. The group was then informed of an additional rehearsal to be filmed for a kinescope, scheduled to take place prior to the actual TV production that night. But the Crests were erroneously told to be at the kinescope performance and hour later than they should have been and ‘When it came their turn, the curtains opened and we weren’t there,’ recalled Maestro with a hearty laugh. (Dick) Clark did not laugh the night it happened, however. “They had to start the whole show over again,” said Maestro “and Dick never let us forget about that.”

The group was integrated and Dick Clark was the only TV producer who allowed them to perform on nationwide television. The Crests also had problems when they appeared as part of Clark’s live road shows because Southern audiences were segregated. Depending upon the venue either the whites or the blacks were confined to the balcony. In other theaters a rope ran down the center of the audience separating the two. “Black on one side and white on the other side,” said Maestro. “And I would have to perform on the side with the whites, and the other guys would be on the black side.

In the South The Crests were refused service in diners and Maestro had to sleep at a hotel with the white artists and his group in another with the black artists. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Maestro. “And there was nothing I could do about it.”

At a rock and roll seminar held recently at Long Island University, members of many early R&B groups such as the Teenagers and The Willows were in attendance. One of the guys told a story about the time Bo Diddley had to go to the black hotel where Maestro had decided to stay with his group to tell him that the locals were coming to get him. According to the story, Bo put Johnny in the trunk of his car and drove him to the safety of the “white-only” hotel.

The Crests followed up the success of “16 Candles,” with “Step by Step,” “The Angels Listened In,” and “Trouble in Paradise,” but in ‘61 Maestro left for a solo career. “Nobody really knew what to do with us” he stated. “We were integrated. We couldn’t appear on television together.”

As a solo artist he signed with the Coed label and The Crests continued to back him vocally. He had three singles on the charts: the Top 20, “Model Girl,” the Top 40, “What a Surprise,” and the lesser entry, “Mr. Happiness.”

Around this time there was another group consisting of Les Cauchi (first tenor), Keith Koestner (second tenor), Fred Ferrara (baritone), his brother Tom Ferrara (bass), and Stan Ziska (lead vocals) called The Del-Satins. They put their name together as a tribute to The Dells and The Five Satins.

Their manager heard that Dion, who had split with The Belmonts, was looking for a new backup group to record with and The Del-Satins auditioned with a tune called “Beside My Love.” A short time later Dion and the group recorded the #1 smash hit, "Runaround Sue," which was followed  by “The Wanderer,” “Lovers Who Wander,” “Little Diane,” “Love Came to Me,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” and “Drip Drop.”  Dion and the Del-Satins were a winning combination yet the backup singers never received any credit as these were Dion’s solo hits.

The group became regulars on the extremely popular Clay Cole TV Show and released the single, “Teardrops Follow Me” which went Top 10 in several Eastern cities.

What happened next is rock and roll history. On the concert DVD titled, "Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge – Pop Legends Live," the group explains how they got together.

The members of the Del-Satins used to play a lot of basketball and in between periods they sang doo wop in the bathrooms. As Kenny Vance sings, they were “looking for an echo.” In the mid 60’s they were also looking for a new lead singer as Les Cauchi recalls, “We walked into this gym and we saw this guy singing on stage all by himself, plucking away on his guitar. It was Johnny Maestro.”

They asked if he’d like to join the group. At first he turned them down, but later he changed his mind. For the next few years they were backed by a guitarist and a drummer. Then they found a seven piece horn group and Maestro explains, “We decided to merge.”

Impressed with each other's skills and talents, The Del-Satins and the Rhythm Method decided to join forces, but there was still one unresolved task, and that was coming up with a name for the newly-formed unit. From The New York Times: “We were sitting around the office and someone said: 'this is going to be difficult. We have 11 people. That’s a hard sell. It’s easier to sell The Brooklyn Bridge.' We said, “That’s the name.”

The original Brooklyn Bridge featured a solid brass musical backing along with beautiful and amazing harmonies behind Maestro's powerful vocals. It consisted of Johnny Maestro (lead vocals), Les Cauchi (vocals), Fred Ferrara (vocals), Mike Gregario (vocals), Tom Sullivan (sax), Shelly Davis (trumpet & Piano), Carolyn Wood (organ), Jimmy Rosica (bass), Richie Macioce (guitar), Artie Cantanza (drums), and Joe Ruvio (sax).

They became a hot attraction especially at The Cheetah, one of the hippest nightclubs in Manhattan at the time. Wes Farrell who was involved with The Cowsills and The Partridge Family wanted to produce the band and Neil Bogart signed them to Buddah Records in ‘68. Their first single was Jim Webb’s dramatic ballad, “The Worst That Could Happen,” a tune recorded by The Fifth Dimension on their “The Magic Garden” LP.  Maestro said, “I liked The Fifth Dimension. We took the song and put our own arrangement on it.”

The band appeared on several TV shows including The Ed Sullivan Show which helped attain the group a national audience and within weeks their version of “The Worst That Could Happen” soared to the #3 spot on the Billboard Pop Charts.

The first two albums, “Brooklyn Bridge,” and “The Second Brooklyn Bridge” are perfect examples of mid-60’s pop. They were unique with a horn section that rivaled Blood, Sweat & Tears, East Coast harmonies that created their own sort of Doo Wop Pop sound, and an amazing lead singer.

Their version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” featuring Maestro’s emotional lead vocal is simply the best-ever recording of that tune. It is equal in its production and performance to anything ever done by The Righteous Brothers and yet The Bridge did it without Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

On their third album, “The Brooklyn Bridge,” they covered some of the more progressive and thought-provoking tunes of the day. Material that Murray the K on WOR-FM used to call “attitude music.” They did Neil Young’s “Down By The River,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and the Moody Blues' “Nights In White Satin.” The results were stunning and these interpretations hold up very well today. They are beautiful recordings.

There is a cut on their fourth album, “The Bridge In Blue” called “Man In A Band” that stands up to anything Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago ever recorded. In fact, when you listen to all of the Bridge’s Buddah albums there can be no doubt that they had a huge influence on Chicago. Cream’s “I Feel Free” also gets the Bridge’s harmony and horns treatment on this album as well.

They remained hot for the next several years with chart singles “Welcome Me Love,” “Blessed Is the Rain,” “You'll Never Walk Alone," and the controversial “Your Husband, My Wife.”

Les Cauchi: “We were riding on about 3 or 4 big hit records. We did the Ed Sullivan Show. We did a variety of big shows at the time like The Hollywood Palace; we toured throughout the country, constantly in the studio recording. It was a very active time musically in our career.”

A few years later when the hits stopped, The Bridge downsized to a five-man group with the vocalists playing their own instruments. Later when the Rock and Roll Revival took hold they became an eight-piece group and their set included The Crests, Brooklyn Bridge and even the Dion hits that The Del-Satins had performed on.

In 2005 the band released a full concert-length DVD, “Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge Pops Legends Live,” and was featured on PBS's “Doo Wop 50,” doing “Sixteen Candles” and “The Worst That Could Happen.” That show is also available on DVD.

In 2006, the band was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. They are also members of South Carolina’s Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, the New England Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and Harmony Group Hall of Fame, and recently the group earned a star on the New Jersey “Walk of Fame.” They are worthy of a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After four decades, Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge continue to record and tour. The current and long-time lineup consists of Maestro, Fred Ferrara (baritone), Les Cauchi (tenor), Jim Rosica (bass), Jimmy Sarle (Guitar), Marty D’Amico (keyboards), and Lou Agiesta (Drums). Together they make up one of the classiest and smoothest acts in show business.

Freddie Ferrara, the former Del-Satin who has stood on stage next to Maestro since the very beginning sums it up this way: “I hope that they recognize us as artists that had created some bit of music at a certain time period and that they thought that we were, you know, one of the elite groups of the time. That’s what I feel about us.”

As they begin their fifth decade performing, Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge are “the elite group of their time.” They are the very best.

Quotes from: The New York Times, article by Diane Ketcham, July 1994; Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge -
Pop Legends Live, 2005,
DVD (Standing Room Only Productions)
Excerpts from: American Bandstand – Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock & Roll Empire by John A. Jackson