Joey Gee and the Blue Tones, featuring
the vocals of Joe Giannunzio, performed for
the first time in over four decades at the Hog
Wild Music Jam in Kingsford.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
A group of local and national rock bands turned back time during the 2008 Hog Wild Music Jam at Lodal Park in Kingsford.
My wife Sue and I were happy to see the Buckinghams and Chubby Checker for the first time in decades, but we were also drawn by a rare performance by Joey Gee and the Blue Tones.
If you didn't know, Joey Gee and his band made a sensation around Iron Mountain in 1964 when they released a 45 rpm recording they cut on the Cuca label called "Don't You Just Know It," backed with "Little Searcher." Not long after, the band's leader moved to Milwaukee to attend broadcast school and the Blue Tones went their separate ways.
Last fall, I got in touch with the the band's frontman, Joe Giannunzio, who now lives in Seattle. We corresponded by email as I prepared a column on his career as a musician and well-known disc jockey and radio personality. When I asked Giannunzio, born in 1942, if he would ever resume performing, he responded that he had "often thought of singing again."
His opportunity came when Giannunzio returned to Iron Mountain for a vacation this summer. He got together with guitarists Bill Morrison and Ricky Bates, along with bassist Craig Sorenson, to re-unite the original Blue Tones. Drummer Mark Ellis was added during four practice sessions.
When the band took to the stage on July 12, it was their first public performance in over four decades.
With Giannunzio handling lead vocals, the band treated the audience to a 13-song set of classic rock songs by Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. Bates took the microphone to sing three Ricky Nelson numbers.
But, the highlight had to be "Little Searcher," the song they committed to wax during a trip to a Sauk City, Wis., recording studio in May, 1964.
I didn't have to ask Giannunzio if he enjoyed the reunion when I met him after the show, it was clear by the smile on his face.
On this day, Giannunzio was just the first person from the 1960s Iron Mountain music scene I was to meet.
Original Buckinghams Carl
Giammarese, left, and Nick Fortuna
Sue and I had set up our chairs near the front of the stage to get a good view of the Buckinghams, the Chicago-area band which released a handful of great singles, including the chart-topping "Kind of a Drag," beginning in 1966. We had last seen the Buckinghams in 1985 at Marquette's Lakeview Arena during the incredibly-successful Happy Together Tour.
All these years later, the band still included original members singer/guitarist Carl Giammarese and bassist Nick Fortuna. With the addition of keyboard player Bruce Soboroff, guitarist Bob Abrams and drummer Tom Scheckel, they ran through faithful versions of the group's half-dozen big hits, such as "Don't You Care," "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and "Susan."
Many Upper Peninsula fans, however, were familiar with the Buckinghams' pre-fame singles, including "I'll Go Crazy," because the songs were played on 50,000-watt radio station WLS months before the group was recognized nationally.
In fact, the Buckinghams even toured the U. P. in the summer of 1966 with Iron Mountain's Ravelles as one of the opening acts. I had phoned both Buckinghams' frontman Carl Giammarese and Carmella Altobelli, lead singer for the Ravelles, about that long-ago tour. The two musicians both told me they'd like to meet each other to share their musical memories.
While Sue and I were watching the show in Kingsford, a woman sat next to us. By chance or fate, it was Carmella Altobelli. She brought her scrapbook along, so after the Buckinghams ended their concert we headed backstage to show 59-year-old Giammarese her tour memorabilia. Rand Alquist, drummer for the Ravelles, came along, too.
Giammarese was quite pleased to see some old color photographs of the Buckinghams in concert. He signed Altobelli's book and we had some pictures taken with him to mark the occasion.
More 1960's memories were in store when Chubby Checker and the Wilcats took their energy-filled show to the stage. Sue and I had last seen Checker at the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba on Aug. 17, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died.
The man described as the "fountain of youth" seemed to have lost none of his enthusiasm in the intervening 31 years. He fired up the crowd with "The Hucklebuck," "Pony Time," "Mess Around," "The Fly," and "Limbo Rock."
Of course, he performed "The Twist," a song he brought to the No. 1 position two times. It wasn't all oldies either, as the 66-year-old singer played a new composition called "Knock Down the Walls."
He even sang "Happy Birthday" for Molly Altobelli, Carmella's mother, who had turned 87-years-old. She was busy dancing at the front of the stage for Checker's entire set.
It turns out you're never too old to rock 'n' roll.