local bands 9Tom Friedman is right. The world is flat. We have slowly but surely homogenized just about everything consumable to the point that there is, sadly (at least in those areas that add texture and color to life, like food and music) little left in the way of local or regional flavor. Corporate radio, food chains and the interstate highway system have pretty much seen to that.

Yet, even as I was reflecting on that sober thought over coffee recently, I began reflecting as well on the great local (or regional) hits I grew up with in Central New York. Not long ago it was possible for a local band to not just make a record, but release it, and actually have it become a hit on local radio. And thinking of those days (and songs) made me put pen to paper and come up with my all-time favorite local radio hits.

local bands 8Now, if you don’t mind, a few caveats; one, unless you’ve spent any time in the area or have whiled away your formative years schlepping up and down the New York State Thruway (the official name of I-90 as it passes through the Empire State) for whatever reason, these songs likely won’t mean squat to you.

Secondly, while there were any number of local (and regional) bands (and musicians) who hailed from (or once lived in) towns within a hundred miles or so of the old Erie Canal, such as Rick James, the Goo Goo Dolls, Lou Gramm, Jimmy Cavallo, Steve Gadd, Grace Jones, Orleans, Chuck Mangione, Eric Bloom (of Blue Oyster Cult), Spirogyra, Jon Fishman (of Phish), Lou Reed, Larry Santos, Jerry Jeff Walker, to name just a few, those people hit nationally before releasing (at least as far as I know) records that made even a dent locally. Therefore, they’ve been excluded.

local bands 7Also, even though such brilliant artists as banjo wizard Tony Trischka and fiddler Hal Casey of Syracuse, blues wunderkind “Smokin” Joe Bonamassa of New Hartford, acoustic guitar master Loren Barrigar of Elbridge, and bassist and modal jazz legend Scott LaFaro from Geneva, may be regarded as some of the finest in the history of their respective instruments, the genres in which they made their marks remain to this day, at least in terms of Top 40 radio, musical niches. Besides, each was known more for performing live than for any one record he my have released locally. For that reason, they too have been excluded.

Excluded as well have been my hometown’s two most wildly successful songwriters, Oscar winner Jimmy Van Heusen and (former Little League teammate) Bob Halligan, whose brilliant compositions have sold millions worldwide and been recorded by such wildly disparate superstars as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Judas Priest and Cher.  Folk legend Libba Cotton also didn’t make the cut.

Likewise excluded has been that cultural oddity Benny Mardones who, for reasons that continue to confound (given the fact the guy could not fall out of a boat and hit water elsewhere), became catnip to local audiences to such a degree that it’s fair to say the raspy voiced pop crooner is now to Syracuse what Jerry Lewis is to France. Alas, the Cleveland-born and Maryland-raised Mardones, while he lived briefly in the Salt City at the height of all his local bands 7popularity, was not a local musician and, therefore, not eligible.

Special mention needs to be made as well of the many bands  who are not represented here — terrific house rockers such as the Flashcubes, Steak Night, the Buddy Grealey Band, the Stompin Suede Greasers, the Livvin’ End, Out of the Blue, and the Kingsnakes, to name just a few.  Those local bands, a number of whom I saw a number of times, nevertheless left an indelible mark on the music and the pop culture of the Central New York I grew up in, and that will remain for many years no small thing.

And finally, please understand this list was compiled from the perspective of a music-loving, radio-addicted kid who grew up a few miles from exit 39, just west of Syracuse, and if you were to go up and down the Thruway today and ask any person my age to list their favorite local radio hits, their list might include any number of songs I’ve never even heard.

local bands 6That was the beauty of those days, when DJs were king, when local radio airplay was a currency, if not a language onto itself, and when cities and towns along the southern rim of the Great Lakes were far more self-contained and insular than they are in this interconnected, virtual, and one-click information age of ours. Before, in other words, pop culture and other things got steamrolled into an almost mind-numbing sameness.

Nope. These are just a few local songs by a few local artists that in their day managed to somehow find their way onto a few local playlists.

So with that, let me offer you one man’s list (in order) of the greatest local AM and FM hits by a handful of Upstate New York artists who – much like the Erie Canal itself – hailed from Albany to Buffalo, and points in local bands 2between. And if you’re a contemporary of mine, I hope that reading this (and hearing the songs) will stir as many memories as I found myself dusting off while composing it.

One last thing; while the first 15 songs on this list are wonderful recordings, it’s the last 10 to 12 to which you really should pay attention. Because if you do, and if you have even a halfway developed ear, you’ll find yourself asking the same thing that I do every time I hear one of those songs. Why was this not a national hit?

Enjoy.

25. The Waddle
Don Barber and the Dukes
1965
They started out as Donnie and the Dukes, a squeaky clean doo-wop outfit from tiny Cortland, but by the mid-60s had tried to change with the times and add an edge to their sound. This one, which got airplay in their hometown and in Syracuse, and which had a wonderfully raw and unvarnished Mitch Ryder quality to it, was an example of that. Unfortunately, by ‘65 social consciousness had taken root in American music and dance-craze songs were starting to feel passé. But like so many trends, music or otherwise, we Upstate New Yorkers didn’t always get the memo; at least not in a timely fashion. Even though we were just a few miles from the cultural epicenter of the world, New York City, cultural trends always seemed a little bit like the train headed our way from Grand Central; sort of a hit-or-miss proposition.

24. If Wishes Were Horses
Monterays
1968
A seminal fixture in the Syracuse rock scene, Dan Elliott (who is fighting pancreatic cancer as I write this, and to whom I send both my deep thanks and my prayers for a full recovery) has spent his life not only helping to shape it, but chronicle it. This one’s vocals (by Elliott) and arrangement may seem a tad overwrought by today’s standards, but at the height of what was, arguably, this country’s most turbulent year since the Civil War, 1968, it connected with kids and became a hit on local Top 40 power, WOLF. What’s more, much like the Animals’ We Gotta Get Outta This Place emerged as an anthem for so many grunts fighting for survival in Southeast Asia, this one served that very same role in the life of many a Viet Nam soldier from Central New York; young men who just months earlier, it seemed, had been cruising Erie Boulevard, their girl on their arm, and this deliciously sappy ballad on the radio.

23. Keep on Runnin’
Night Caps
1967
When is a cover not a cover? Well OK, technically, a cover is always a cover. But to those of us growing up in Central New York in the early days of rock and Top 40, who did a song first, or even who wrote it, hardly mattered. We only knew what we heard, and we only knew what we liked. To that end, by 1967 most of us had yet to hear Stevie Winwood tearing apart this song for the Spencer Davis Group, since their original version (of, what it turns out, was their own composition) did absolutely nothing in Syracuse the year prior. But during the vaunted Summer of Love, a local band from West Genesee calling itself the Night Caps and led by drummer/vocalist named Billy Wolfe hit the local charts with this one, and we liked it. Sure, Billy Wolfe was no Stevie Winwood, but what the hell did we know? And more importantly, what did we care?

22. Good Morning Merry Sunshine
Gary Frenay
1995
OK, this entry is a bit of a cheat, since it was never really a radio hit. But it was on Frenay’s first solo release, and stood in marked contrast to the glam-inspired power pop that had defined his bands, the Flashcubes and Screen Test. What’s more, as he’s continued to perform this pretty little thing in and around Syracuse over the years, it’s emerged an essential part of the city’s musical footprint. And why not? More than just a soulful, tender, and from-the-heart expression of love from a recovering rocker whose life has just been changed forever, it’s an unbridled and almost awe-struck ode to the little ball of wonder responsible for all that change.

21. Cara Lynn
Jukin’ Bone
1970
For years, at least musically, Auburn’s Mark Doyle and Joe Whiting of Skaneateles seemed joined at the hip. They also constantly seemed this close to hitting. The creative forces behind a series of local bands, unfortunately as great as they were live and in small clubs – Doyle on his blistering guitar, and Whiting providing his smoking, white boy R&B vocals, while launching into equally smoking sax solos – the two never were able to truly capture their stage magic on vinyl. This song, which was released on 45 and got airplay in 1970, was probably as close as they came, a hard rockin’ number written, recorded and released at a time the boys’ future appeared bright, their arc pointed skyward, and the world seemed to be, if only for a heartbeat, their oyster.

20. Syracuse Summer
Tearjerkers
1980
Let’s put one local rumor to rest, shall we? Even though the future voice of that now-legendary stoner icon SpongeBob SquarePants, Tomcat Kenny, was briefly the lead singer of Syracuse’s Tearjerkers, he had not yet joined the band when this one was recorded, so that’s not him handling lead vocals. Yet another brazenly wide-eyed and innocent Gary Frenay tune, just like his previous entry on this list, this one too never made too many waves when first released. However, over the years, as the weather has continued to body slam Central New Yorkers into a fetal position, as the storm clouds continued to not so much drift by as drop anchor, and as the term Syracuse Summer continued to feel less a song title than a sadistic oxymoron, this one found new life as a local rite of passage. And even now, once a year, as the sidewalks begin to dry and start absorbing whatever warmth can be gleaned by whatever shards of sunlight manage to sneak through the clouds, the local DJs dust off this homage to the sunny teen dreams Brian Wilson once planted in town, and give it airtime; even as listeners wheel out their grills, crack open their windows, and celebrate with great anticipation the second of their city’s two exacting seasons; road construction.

19. New York Country Song
Todd Hobin Band
1978
At the first B.A.S.S. tournament held on the St. Lawrence River, founder Ray Scott, a card-carrying southern boy from the heart of Dixie, stood before the assembled anglers, reporters and fans in a high school gym in tiny Clayton, New York, and spoke of landing in Syracuse, driving north up I-81, and then heading west over the rugged Tug Hill Plateau. “I’m from Alabama,” he chuckled, “And I gotta tell ya’, these people are more country than I ever thought of being.” Todd Hobin, who grew up around a bunch of potato and onion farmers and lived just a stone’s throw from the foothills of the Adirondacks, wrote this as a tribute to the strong sense of bucolic simplicity that continues to permeate much of Upstate New York, a recording that, if only out of civic pride, quickly found a home on the area’s first (and, at the time, greatest) AOR station, Utica’s WOUR-FM.

18. I Love You
Endless Knights
1967
Musician friends tell me if they had a dime for every time a 60s-era garage band tried to cover a Zombies tune, only to be stymied by the song’s level of musical sophistication and/or its non-traditional time signature, they’d be rich. (They’re musicians, OK? So grade that on a curve.) Anyway, what was unique about this hit by a bunch of kids from Solvay High on Syracuse’s West Side was, not only was it a cover of a Zombies tune, but the band’s arrangement somehow took what had been an edgy, somewhat off-kilter and slightly ironic British song and utterly transformed it into a radio-friendly, doe-eyed American ballad – albeit one with a truly British vibe. The Knights’ cover was harmonic. It was melodic. And it was – I don’t know – just pretty. Almost as though those Syracuse kids had unwittingly sanded down the song’s rough edges to reveal something about it that, just maybe, even its composer didn’t know existed.

17. Tight Knit Group
Jam Factory
1971
In the late ‘60s, Howie Wyeth (nephew of painter Andrew and grandson of family patriarch N.C.) graduated from Syracuse University with an idea. He wanted to put together a rock group that, much like the big bands of the ‘40s, was full of moving parts. Eleven players, multiple horns, guitars, keyboards, percussion and vocalists, all filling the stage with rich complex sounds and high voltage energy. What’s more, like the band’s name implies, even though many of its songs would be tightly knit groove-fests, they would always have room for soaring solos and flights of musical fancy. And it worked for a time. In fact, the band even caused something of a ripple nationally. But then the faces began to change. Life interceded. Ambitions and interests diverged. And by 1971, Wyeth’s noble musical concept was less a big rock band than a standard-sized (but still talented and still remarkably tight) funk group. The slimmed down version of the band had a couple of minor AM hits around that time; Talk is Cheap, written and sung by guitarist Mark Hoffmann, who would go on to a 30-year career as a cameraman at the local CBS affiliate, and this one, written and sung by B3 whiz and keyboardist, Gene McCormick. Both would be appropriate for inclusion on this list. Because both were not only local radio hits Jam Factory had in its later, funkier years. They were radio hits by Jam Factory at its absolute finest.

16. Valleri
Pineapple Heard
1967
In the days when bands regularly gave themselves odd-sounding, mash-up names like Strawberry Alarm Clock, Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband and Bubble Puppy, five kids from Watertown decided to call their band Pineapple Heard. Their first single, written by two then-unknowns, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, was recorded in New York and released just weeks before the Monkees would record the same song 3,000 mile to the west in L.A. Unfortunately for those North Country kids, a combination of superior musicianship and marketing muscle quickly relegated their version to the cut-out bins, where it lived out the rest of its shelf life gathering dust – but not before it got to bask in a few weeks’ worth of airplay and got to slowly but surely feel its way inching up the Central New York playlists.

15. I Want to Do It
Bobby Comstock
1965
Comstock, who hailed from Ithaca, was one of those early rockabilly-sounding, hip-swinging B-listers whose influence probably outstripped the quality of their music. Think Bill Haley. Think Dale Hawkins. Think Richie Valens. Comstock recorded this terrific little foot-stomper in the 50s, while on the way up. Then, when he finally started to gain traction on the national charts (traction, of course, being relative), his record label decided to release a few of his early recordings. Though this one never made any waves outside of a few college towns in the Northeast, it shot all the way to #1 on WOLF in Syracuse.

14. Fooba Wooba John
Sam and the Twisters
1963
Sam Amato
and Jan Fetterly were two Syracuse kids with talent and ambition; the former a skilled guitarist who embraced the twangy surf guitar sound that guys like Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and Bob Bogle were making popular out west, and the latter a tall, powerful drummer and reedy voiced lead singer. One day, with manager “Dandy” Dan Leonard, a local DJ and rock impresario, they sat down, deconstructed an old Burl Ives folk song that Leonard’s daughter had learned in school, surgically implanted onto it a pair of man-sized testicles, and emerged with a hometown hit in the summer of ’63 that, not surprisingly (given their name), was perfect for twisting the night away.

13.  Gazebo
Gentlehood
1970
In the late 60s, a musical oddity calling itself psychedelic rock somehow managed to be simultaneously mind-expanding and entirely forgettable. And to the rogue’s gallery of trippy nuggets that regularly popped up on the charts at that time came Gazebo, Gentlehood’s one shot at cultural relevance and an endearing little 45 that got a smattering of airplay on Upstate Top 40 stations in the summer of ‘70, even as its sound was hurdling toward radio oblivion. An often non-sensical and not-so-thinly disguised homage to the joys of marijuana, complete with a Jew’s harp, the song remains, perhaps, the best (and only) reason to call to mind a one-time band of dreamers who spent their summer nights rehearsing in someone’s basement on Syracuse’s North Side.


 

12. Hoochie Koochie Lady
Elf
1972
Before Ronnie Dio joined Blackmore’s Rainbow, before he fronted Black Sabbath, before he started his own legendary heavy metal band, Dio, (and, hell, before he even started billing himself as Ronnie James Dio), he was just a young pop crooner from Cortland County trying like hell to become next Paul Anka or Bobby Darin. After performing for years in and around Syracuse in a suit and tie with his band, the Prophets, snapping his fingers, and using his wiles to musically seduce the ladies, one day he decided to ditch that whole teen idol shtick and re-imagine himself as a balls-to-the-wall rocker. The first band Dio formed following that career 180 was Elf, a hard rocking, pre-metal group of Syracuse young men who were eventually hired en masse by Richie Blackmore after he left Deep Purple, only to be fired en masse a short time later. Only Dio, the screeching lead singer, made the cut. But while in Syracuse, Ronnie Dio wrote, sang and released a number of really solid rock songs, including this ferocious single that would, in very real way, stand alongside anything he would subsequently record; a song that became a hit in his adopted hometown, but, oddly enough, nowhere else.

11.  Of the Lites
C.R.A.C
1975
There were few CNY bands any more progressive or interesting than C.R.A.C. (And no, the band’s name is not what you think. Check the year. C.R.A.C. was simply an acronym of the first letter of each band member’s last name.) This wildly dated but somehow still wonderfully retro-hip single was written and sung by bassist Rick Cua, whose long and winding career path would soon have him joining the Outlaws of southern rock fame, embarking on a solo career, embracing Christianity, pioneering a brand of arena rock that would praise Jesus, becoming a Vice President at EMI Records, and launching companies that would publish Christian music and/or mentor Christian artists. But what was so terrific about this one (beyond the delectable chord change at the beginning of the chorus) was the fact that, even as it stood firmly in one musical era, it foretold of others soon to come. Listen to this recording now, especially Larry Arlotta’s atmospheric, period-specific and almost note-perfect synthesizer, you can hear wisps of the slow, ethereal grooves of late-‘70s soul and the seeds of the heavily electronic, almost nocturnal TV themes of the ‘80s. But what’s more, if you listen closely enough (and squint real hard) you might even be able to detect faint traces of whatever it was deep inside Cua that made him believe there was more to this life than material success, and that compelled him to, at least eventually, seek salvation in Christ.

10. Transylvania Twist
Baron Daemon
1963
Maybe the greatest gimmick song ever. And if that sounds like tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it’s not meant to be. The Transylvania Twist is a garage gem of the highest order. Co-written by a Syracuse-area ad man and the town’s go-to recording engineer/studio wizard, altered radically during rehearsal by Sam and the Twisters (who provided the accompaniment), and featuring three Mohawk Indian girls calling themselves the Bigtree Sisters (Jeanne, Norma and Sandy), this one was sung with a delectable mix of high camp and even higher-level octane by Mike Price, a young staff announcer at WNYS (the city’s all-new ABC affiliate) who just weeks prior had stumbled into what would become a lifelong gig; the pun-spewing, bwah-hah-hahing Dracula-like character, Baron Daemon. Remarkably, this little nugget not only finds itself still dusted off every Halloween by another generation of CNY DJs, it remains to this day the top selling local record in Syracuse history.

9.  Wild Weekend
Rockin’ Rebels
1963
Space doesn’t allow the full story, but here’s the Cliff Notes version. In 1959, DJ Tom Shannon of Buffalo’s WKBW sat down with Phil Todaro and wrote a theme song (with lyrics) for his radio show. Then months later while doing a local record hop, four high school kids came up and said their band, the Rebels, had arranged a sax-driven instrumental version of Mr. Shannon’s theme, and would he like to hear it? Blown away, Shannon recorded the kids and released them on his own label as the Buffalo Rebels (since Duane Eddy had already laid claim to the name, Rebels). The 45 went nowhere, even locally, and Shannon in time quit radio and joined the army. But a few years later, Jim O’Brien of WNDR, about 150 miles to the east in Syracuse, took the song, reworked the lyrics, hired Sam and the Twisters to record it, and then used that version as his theme, which developed something of a pulse on WNDR’s request line. Shannon heard O’Brien’s version and knew the song had as-yet untapped potential, which caused him to hire a third band to re-record the school kids’ instrumental and release his song yet one more time, this time as the Rockin’ Rebels. And the rest, as they say, is history.


 

8.  Never Gonna Find Another Love
Sermon
1969
Morris Levy
, a street-smart New York Jew with an ear for a hit song and more mob money in need of laundering than he knew what to do with, started dozens of record labels in his time, not the least of which was Kama Sutra, which in 1970 signed Syracuse’s Sermon to a recording contract. Unfortunately for those hopeful kids from the Salt City, even as they signed their deal, Levy was in the process of inking a band from Pittsburgh called the Jaggerz. And, as luck would have it, at that point in time there happened to be relatively little mob money that needed laundering. So Levy (David Chase’s inspiration for the Sopranos character, Hesh) announced he had only budgeted promotion dollars for one song, and one new artist. He chose The Rapper, a song by the Jaggerz, leaving this wonderful little 45 to twist in the wind. So even though Never Gonna Find Another Love went nowhere nationally, it can take solace in the fact it rose to #1 in its hometown in the fall of ’69. (And even if you don’t choose to listen to the full song below, do your ears a favor. Listen from about the 1:25 mark. Because at that point the song’s background vocals – arranged and performed by the Dedrick siblings, two brothers and a sister from the Buffalo area – take over and transform an otherwise pretty little ballad into one of the most stunningly beautiful recordings in CNY history. Vocal arrangements just don’t get much better.)


 

7.  Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
All Night Workers
1965
Let’s put another local rumor to bed while we’re at it; Lou Reed did not play on this 45, one of the finest in CNY history. By the time it was recorded, he’d already packed his bags for New York City, leaving his S.U. classmates and occasional bandmates in his rear view mirror. But that said; in ‘65 the All Night Workers (billed locally as Otis and the All Night Workers) remained one of the truly great bands to call the Salt City home. Fronted by Otis Smith, a fiery singer from the nearby and mostly black 15th Ward (who, ironically, didn’t appear on the record either), the band became a staple of frat parties and the local club scene, and had members go on to bigger things (and paychecks) with groups like Seatrain (Lloyd Baskin) and the Blues Magoos (Mike Esposito). But the All Night Workers’ legacy in Syracuse begins and ends with this gem, a rocking but long-forgotten example of Northern Soul that in the winter of ’65 went toe-to-toe with Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and kicked its pious, poetic and earnest ass up and down Salina Street – this at a time when the latter was the reigning #1 song in the country and topped the charts in markets, big and small, across the U.S.

6.  Young Boy
805
1982
In the early days of MTV, how bands looked was as important as how they sounded. And 805 front man Dave Porter had the look. But more than that, his band had a sound that was just about perfect for the cynical, what’s-in-it-for-me ‘80s. It was edgy. It was polished without being too slick. And it possessed just enough post-punk, WTF-attitude to make even the most jaundiced Gen Xer stand up and take notice. What’s more, 805 aspired to a level of artfulness not normally associated with garage bands. But perhaps, above all, Porter and his bandmates could really play. For those reasons and others, MTV began putting this one in rotation and giving it what amounted to semi-regular airplay. Unfortunately, Young Boy never really caught on nationally, at least not to the extent that it should have, and certainly not to the extent it did back in Syracuse, where it remains to this day one of the finest examples of homegrown rock ever committed to vinyl.


 

5. Days Between Us
Duke Jupiter
1976
Before they became just another clunky hard rock band trying to unlock a guitar sound (and maybe the right three chords) in an attempt to fill stadiums, move mass quantities of vinyl, and elbow their way onto MTV’s playlist, Rochester’s Duke Jupiter was an engaging mix of influences; a five-man study in jazz/funk/rock fusion that, at least for a brief while, offered a deliciously alluring sound. This stunning instrumental, which seemed to soar skyward on gossamer wings, fueled by the delicate twin lead guitars of Don Maracle and Greg Walker, was a Finger Lakes staple on college stations and the FM dial during the Bicentennial summer of ’76. And it can still unite those from a certain place and time; people who today, even as they listen to it, find themselves choking back the emotions, swatting away the memories, and wondering where in God’s name they all went; those days between them.

4.  Kites Are Fun
Free Design
1967
Pick a name from the songs above. Any name. Lou Reed, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richie Blackmore; doesn’t matter. Because if you’re of a certain persuasion and musically disposed just so, none of those names is any more important than Chris Dedrick. Dedrick was the not-so-mad musical genius credited with breaking the virgin ground on a small tropical island he alone seemed to inhabit, a place where the treble was always high, where lilting harmonies darted in and out like butterflies, with both whimsy and detailed intricacy, and where, above all, sun-drenched melodies ruled. That’s why artists like Beck and Stereolab still kneel and pray at the altar of Dedrick, singing his praises and declaring themselves his unworthy disciples. To them, Chris Dedrick is king. He’s Ruth, Ali, Jordan, Gandhi, Churchill, and Secretariat all rolled into one. Alas, it would be years before Dedrick, who had since died, would be recognized for his singular brand of genius. As a result, in the fall of ’67, when he, Bruce and Sandy – three siblings from suburban Delevan, near Buffalo, who billed themselves as the Free Design – wrote, recorded and released this Sunshine Pop masterpiece, the single went nowhere – except in a few markets up and down the Thruway, and a few progressive urban areas like Boston, where something about those darting harmonies and playful melodies struck a chord; a chord that, at least to those so inclined, still manages to gently echo to this day.

3.  Who Loves You
Dean Brothers
1977
By the mid-70s, what had started as country rock had morphed into a sort of country-sounding pop that, thanks to bands like the Eagles, Pure Prairie League, Firefall, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Doobie Brothers and Orleans, began utterly dominating FM radio. And one of the reasons for that was the lush three and four-part harmonies such bands made a hallmark of their sound, harmonies that in time became so waxed, buffed and shined to perfection they stopped being special. But out of the blue, three brothers from Skaneateles, Peter, John and Bob Dean, along with friend Holly Gregg, recorded an album in Ithaca they released in the fall of ‘76, an album that in one sense sounded much like those other countrified bands, but in another sounded nothing at all like them. There was a purity, an honesty, and an overriding sense of joy in the band’s often-simple harmonies that seemed missing from the others. Maybe it was that whole shared womb thing the Deans had. Who knows? But while the entire album was terrific, one song in particular – the second single the band released – caught listeners’ ears and began getting airplay on college and local stations up and down the Finger Lakes. And that airplay was a credit to not just the band’s joyous harmonies, but the song’s stunning pedal steel guitar by studio legend David Torn, an almost magical country sound that elevated an otherwise terrific pop recording to a whole new level, and in the process allowed it to ascend to the very heights of local lore. Because while Who Loves You became a radio hit for the Dean Brothers nearly 40 years ago, more than that, for some locals and ex-pats – including yours truly – that 45 turned out to be as good as a Syracuse-area band has ever sounded on vinyl.

2.  What a Wonderful Thing We Have
Fabulous Rhinestones
1972
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, guitarist Kal David was nothing if not a young man with a clear and impeccable eye for talent. His first band as a kid, Kal David and the Exceptions, featured Peter Cetera (Chicago) on bass and keyboardist Marty Grebb (the Buckinghams). And a few years after that, he’d start Illinois Speed Press with Paul Cotton, who’d later join Poco. But in 1971, after spending time in the Bay Area, he, Grebb and former Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks pulled up stakes and headed 3,000 miles east to the Catskills where they set up shop in tiny Woodstock, New York as the blues/jazz/funk-loving Fabulous Rhinestones. Signed by Michael Lang, one of the three Woodstock promoters, the band quickly released a trio of terrific albums that, while garnering tremendous critical acclaim, went absolutely nowhere. Granted, given that the Rhinestones at the time shared bills with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and John Lennon, and jammed with such icons as Paul Butterfield and their neighbors, the Band, this was not your garden-variety local bar band. But that’s exactly the life they led during their time as Upstate New Yorkers. They lived and worked in a small band house, they ate plenty of macaroni and cheese, they played just about anywhere and everywhere they could get a gig, and they worked the Thruway club-and-college circuit incessantly. But of all the Fabulous Rhinestones still-stunning songs in their still-fabulous catalog, this Grebb and Brooks composition stands out, not only because it continues to sound just a little different than anything else the band would ever do, but because it managed to etch a place for itself in the hearts and minds of many who came of age in those early days of FM radio. Picked up by stations up and down the dial, the first cut on Side B of their very first album, became a staple of AOR radio in scattered pockets throughout the Empire State. And while this remarkable little song never came close to hitting nationally, listening to What a Wonderful Thing We Have today – especially Grebb’s soulful vocals, its delicious Tower of Power-style horn arrangement, and David’s melodic, understated and ever-so-slightly jazzy guitar – leaves you only scratching your head and wondering why.

1. Gimme One More Chance
Wilmer and the Dukes
1968
Over the years other markets in the U.S., even Godzilla-sized ones like New York and Boston, have had more than their share of legendary local bands that, for any number of reasons, never hit nationally. But I promise you; none was any better – or any more deserving of the national spotlight – than Wilmer Alexander, Jr. and the Dukes of tiny Geneva, New York, at the very tip of Seneca Lake. Hands down, the most raucous, mind-blowing, and make-the-paint-peel band this lifelong music geek has ever seen. And the Dukes’ level of greatness was tied to one thing and one thing only; its growling, fire-breather of a front man, often the only black face in a sea of white. Take the raw vocal power of Wilson Pickett and the driving sax of Bobby Keys. Then throw in (and I kid you not when I say this) the almost feral stage presence of a young James Brown. Now you have just a hint of what is was like to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a small, sweaty gym or club in the early ‘70s and behold the majesty of Wilmer Alexander’s unique brand of fury. The guy’s voice alone could make the air tremble or the hairs on your neck rise. And his horn could make you swear it had just filled the room with colors. And while the Dukes were terrific at cover songs, such as Steve Miller’s Livin’ in the U.S.A., Billy Stewart’s I Do Love You, and (especially) Alan Toussaint’s Get Out of My Life, Woman, their real moment in the sun turned out to be this otherworldly original composed by guitarist Doug Brown; not only the single greatest record ever pressed in Upstate New York, but – just maybe – the most soulful, powerful and savage 45 in the history of pop music. (And before you even think about raising an eyebrow of protest, take a good hard listen.)

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