Thursday, November 08, 2007

U. P.'s Joey Gee met radio goal

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Joey Gee, then


Joe Giannunzio was determined to get on the radio, one way or another.

In the period following the Beatles invasion of America, the youthful Iron Mountain native thought making a hit record was one way to get on the airwaves. If that wasn't possible, being a radio disc jockey was another option.

When Giannunzio became known for his skill in singing along to songs on the radio, it wasn't long before he found himself in a rock band with Craig Sorensen, Bill Morrison and Ricky Bates. His Italian moniker shortened, Joey Gee and the Blue Tones began to reach for their dreams.

The group debuted at a record hop at the Kingford Armory in 1964. As their repertoire grew, they played between shows at the Braumart Theatre and the Tri City Drive- In, drawing record crowds. A popular local attraction, Giannunzio recalled the band playing at street dances, utilizing a service station parking lot, drive-in restaurant, or city park.

As the Blues Tones' reputation grew, Giannunzio discovered Cuca Record Corp., a tiny Wisconsin label which made a name for itself with "Mule Skinner Blues," by the Fendermen. "I called (label owner) James Kirchstein and he arranged a recording session with Joey Gee and the Blue Tones," Giannunzio said.

The resulting 45 rpm single, "Don't You Just Know It," backed by "Little Searcher," appeared on Cuca's main subsidiary label, as Sara 6541. With fresh product in hand, Giannunzio sent the 45 to various radio stations, along with a letter introducing the group.

One such mailing ended up in the hands of Dick Biondi, the influential disc jockey credited with being the first to play the Beatles' "Please Please Me" in America. In a stroke of luck, Biondi, then working at powerful Chicago radio station WLS, read the letter on the air and played the song.

While "Don't You Just Know It," didn't become a hit, Giannunzio decided to move to Milwaukee to attend radio broadcasting school at Career Academy. There he formed Joey Gee and the Come-Ons.

"We played all sorts of places in Milwaukee and came in sixth in a battle of the bands contest which had close to 1,000 entries."

Still optimistic, Giannunzio returned to Cuca's studio at 123 Water St. in Sauk City in the summer of 1965 to record a second 45. The group cut "She's Mean" and "You Know Till the End of Time," which were coupled as Sara 6599. Giannunzio wrote and sang lead vocals on both tracks. Although "She's Mean" had plenty of punk attitude, without major label backing to expose the song to a national audience, it failed to get much radio play. However, the song would resurface years later.

With his broadcast schooling completed, Giannunzio was hired by radio station WHAK, and moved to the northern lower Michigan community of Rogers City. When the station owner's wife told Giannunzio that he didn't belong in radio because he wasn't good enough, the young broadcaster took a job in St. Ignace. Undaunted, he worked for WIDG, known locally as widg by the bridge, due to its proximity to the span known as Big Mac.

Keeping his options open, Giannunzio formed another band, Gross National Product. "We never recorded any songs that were released, but the band was very good," the Upper Peninsula native recalled.

While in St. Ignace in 1968, Giannunzio, who chose the radio name Joe Arthur, married Kathleen Sweeney. Deciding to concentrate on broadcasting, Giannunzio's on-air personality led him to some of Michigan's best-known radio stations including WJIM in Lansing, WGRD in Grand Rapids and WKNR in Detroit.

He later moved to KGW, the number one station in Portland, Ore., which offered big city living, but was also close to the wilderness, a reminder of his northern Michigan upbringing. His profession then took him to Seattle's KING and KJR. During his west coast career, Giannunzio became familiar to millions of listeners who knew him as Joe Cooper.
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Joe Giannunzio, now

Born in 1942, Giannunzio is retired but still takes the occasional radio fill-in job and does some commercial work. He and Kathy, who reside in Redmond, WA, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in 2008.

"I have a lot of great memories of the U. P. I always liked going to the State Fair in Escanaba and seeing famous singers perform," Giannunzio said. He attended the Roy Orbison concert at the 1964 fair just as "Oh, Pretty Woman" was beginning to be played on radio. During his rock band days Giannunzio shared the stage with groups which later became famous, including the Mojo Men, Turtles and Grand Fund Railroad.

In those days, it seemed like any rock band with enough talent and determination could made it big. That enthusiasm propelled many small town groups into the recording studio, sometimes emerging with energetic blasts of rock 'n' roll, just like Joey Gee did.
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CD featuring Joey Gee material

Ace Records, a label based in Germany, envisioned a demand for such music. Last year the company issued a 26-track compact disc featuring four songs by Joey Gee and the Come-ons. "Garagemental! The Cuca Records Story, Volume 2," includes their 1965 single along with takes on Little Richard's "Jenny Jenny" and "Little Latin Lupe Lu," the first hit for the Righteous Brothers. Both were previously unreleased.

Until I mentioned the two cover songs, a surprised Giannunzio said he was unaware they had been issued.

Reflecting on those days, Giannunzio said, "A lot of bands from the 60s and 70s had to curtail their music careers and work regular jobs. Many are starting bands again."

Then, Giannunzio added he has "often thought of singing again and maybe I will."

That he was pragmatic enough to follow his music career with one as a broadcaster, makes the return of "Joey Gee" seem perfectly plausible.

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