Part I – Earliest Music Experiences & The Singing Banjos
My love for music was fostered by my family. Some of my fondest childhood memories were reading and learning sing-along lyrics from Mitch Miller records at my grandparents’ house, watching TV variety & music shows with my great-grandmother, or listening to my father play piano. My family recorded my first vocal on tape at 2 years old…the Schaefer beer jingle. I took piano lessons as a youngster for about 5 years with Sue Bachman, a local teacher. My interest picked up a bit when “The Sting” became a hit film, featuring the classic ragtime of Scott Joplin. It was around that time my father introduced me to a piano method book by Rube Bloom which first introduced me to the concept of chord structures, bass patterns and practical music theory.
After that, I got started playing banjo because of my father and a New Year’s resolution challenge. A friend and neighbor, Carolyn Cramp, challenged him to join her in taking banjo lessons after several years of talking about it. She had found a pair of banjos in a local music store for each of them to play and arranged for lessons from a local professional musician, Jim Harkins. Jim had played guitar and banjo for many years with orchestras led by Richard Himber and Vincent Lopez as well Sammy Spear’s orchestra on the Jackie Gleason TV show. Jim also had a classic Irish tenor voice which you can hear on a YouTube video here.
They soon formed a loose association of local players dubbed “The Singing Banjos”. It had to feature plenty of singing because Jim was the only one capable of producing any melody on the instrument…everybody else was playing chords! I had just begun fooling around with a banjo-ukulele using standard uke tuning in the fall of 1976 when the group got an offer to play the intermission for the Chorus of the Peconic barbershop choir show at Riverhead High School. To supplement the regular group, Jim loaned me a student banjo which we re-tuned for uke chords. After that show and one other appearance for the Westhampton Beach PTA in January of 1977, Jim recommended that I go “legit” and learn proper tenor banjo tuning. He started me off by emphasizing sound fundamental mechanics and using the classic Charles MacNeil tenor banjo method book.
The group went through some evolutionary changes. Jim and Carolyn left, but the group added Ray Rienecker – registrar at Suffolk County Community College. While he was first introduced to us as a banjo player, it turned out that Ray also played tuba – quickly improving the band’s sound and converting him into the group’s bass foundation. Paul Libassi, another SCCC administrator, played guitar and sang with unmistakable enthusiasm. Tom Vertefuille and Frank Paret rounded out the early group with Dad & myself. Soon, Ray joined the Long Island Banjo Society and introduced us to another banjo player from Miller Place….Harry Gustafson. Harry was (and still is) mostly a chord player, but he contributed with vocals and brought in a wider repertoire of tunes…mostly from lead sheets which outlined just the essential melody, lyrics and basic chord changes. Harry and his wife Helene (a great graphic artist & painter) have been wonderful friends & supporters of my musical endeavors ever since.
I began learning bass guitar around that time because we had difficulty finding a substitute if Ray was unavailable for a job, but it looked a little out of place with the banjo band. I was introduced to the well-known NY luthier Carlo Greco who built a bass banjo for me – the neck is like a fretted bass guitar, and the body is a converted snare drum. Its flat wound strings and pickup created an effective bass for the group whenever needed.
The group next began playing to larger crowds including the Riverhead Country Fair, on a local telethon to help build the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, and for the campaign of State Senator Ken Lavalle. The Singing Banjos were featured in two consecutive years of local parades across Long Island and New York City for Suffolk County Federal Savings & Loan. The parade floats had themes of “Showboat” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. Bank staff members were featured as performers in choreographed song & dance numbers while the band played live accompaniment. We were generously complimented by Luciano Pavarotti, the Grand Marshal for one of those NYC parades we played. Soon we were performing at the Meadow Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Maidstone Club in the Hamptons, and at the Metropolitan Club and River Club in Manhattan along with numerous private parties for artists, writers and celebrities.
My grandmother’s next door neighbors were Obie and Bunny Obermeyer, who contacted us in 1979 to play a campaign kick-off for Obie’s old Yale classmate who planned on running for the presidency – George H.W. Bush. Check out my website photo gallery – I was playing the bass banjo.