Wednesday, November 19, 2008

DJ tapped top bands for U. P.

Iron Mountain native Joe Giannunzio worked as a disc jockey, rock band vocalist and promoter of concerts in the eastern Upper Peninsula.


Joe Giannunzio had a whirlwind career in the 1960s as a rock vocalist and disc jockey, culminating with the Dickinson County native booking top bands to play in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

Born in Iron Mountain, Giannunzio fronted the rock group Joey Gee and the Blue Tones which cut a 45 rpm single, "Little Searcher," in 1964. Giannunzio formed Joey Gee and the Come-Ons when he moved to Milwaukee to attend broadcasting school at Career Academy.

After graduation in 1966, Giannunzio moved to Rogers City, Michigan, bordering Lake Huron, where he nabbed a DJ job at radio station WHAK, using the professional name Joe Arthur. He also founded another group, the Heathens.

With Giannunzio on lead vocals, the Heathens performed live on WHAK a number of times on Saturday mornings.

The Heathens were short lived, however. The station owner and his wife, who were "religious fanatics," didn't like the band's name. Giannunzio was told he shouldn't be in radio and abruptly fired.

The unemployed DJ lived in his car until he drove to St. Ignace and found a job at WIDG.

Back in the U. P., Giannunzio put together another group, Gross National Product. "I got the name off the teletype wire when retrieving the news I had to read," Giannunzio told me.

The band consisted of Jim Fitzpatrick, lead guitar; Bill Becker, bass; David Pectah, rhythm guitar; Lynn Witmer, drums; and Joey Gee, vocals. (Giannunzio maintained separate personas for his radio and band roles.)

Gross National Product

Gross National Product played hits by many of the top acts of the period including the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Beatles.

"We played mostly near St. Ignace, Sault Ste.Marie and in northern lower Michigan, once in Norway in 1968," Giannunzio said.

In addition to his radio job and band gigs, Giannunzio started a teen club in St. Ignace. Called "The Scene," Giannunzio founded the facility in a bar which had gone out of business.

"I brought in a few acts so we could perform with them and I might make a little money doing it," Giannunzio said.

Seeing a larger teenage audience for live shows, Giannunzio also booked a pair of well-known Michigan acts for a dance at St. Ignace High School on Friday, July 14, 1967.

Called a "Psychedelic Summer Sock Hop," the event featured Terry Knight's "Fabulous Pack," and The Bossmen.

Both acts were based in Flint and recorded for the Lucky Eleven label.

The Pack included guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer who later became Grand Fund Railroad with the addition of bassist Mel Schacher. Former leader Knight became the band's manager.

For their U. P. appearance, The Pack even boasted an album and a hit single in "I (Who Have Nothing)," which just missed the national Top 40 a few months before.

The Bossmen, meanwhile, featured ace guitarist Dick Wagner who went on to front The Frost, famous for "Rock and Roll Music." Wagner later worked with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.

Giannunzio recalled signing both bands for $350 and charged teens a $2.50 admission fee.

The young promoter also rented the armory in Sault Ste. Marie to stage rock 'n' shows featuring the Detroit Wheels and the Blues Magoos.

The Blues Magoos

From the Bronx, the Blues Magoos were little known in the midwest when he booked them to perform in the Soo, Giannunzio said. The psychedelic rock quintet was composed of Emil "Peppy Castro" Thielhelm, vocals, rhythm guitar; Mike Esposito, lead guitar; Ralph Scala, keyboards; Ronnie Gilbert, bass; and Geoff Daking, drums.

In November, 1966, the Blues Magoos had released "Psychedelic Lollipop," one of the first albums to use "psychedelic" in the title. "Thousands of you who have seen them perform and who have made this album possible, know very well that the Blues Magoos are the foundation of the new music revolution," producer Bobby Wyld proclaimed in the record's liner notes.

The group started out at the Nite Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village where they won over "critics, poets, writers, artists, groupies, record executives, disc jockeys and even Madison Avenue."

During a 12- day period in 1966, the Blues Magoos drew 7,000 people to the Chessmate Club in Detroit, which had a capacity of just 300.

By the time the group came to the Upper Peninsula, however, they had registered a Top Five hit with "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet," composed by group members Gilbert, Scala and Eposito.

"I'm not sure they even wanted to play a small city at that time, but I had a contract with them. Admission was $3.00, a lot of money at that time. I thought I would do really well," Giannunzio recalled.

Promoted as a "Psychedelic Show and Dance," the event was staged from 9 p. m. to midnight on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1967.

Giannunzio's Gross National Product opened the show for the Blues Magoos. "When I went to get them to perform after our band did, the lead singer was laying on the floor. I was told he had taken some kind of drug. The manager of the band wasn't sure he would be able to sing that night. Lucky for me he finally did, although not very well," recalled Giannunzio.

The night also held some bad luck for Giannunzio. "Some one left the back door of the armory open and half the crowd got in free. There was only about ten feet in front of the stage that didn't have a person. Wouldn't you know, the cop I had hired and my concession people never showed up. I made about $100 when I should have made $5,000," Giannunzio exclaimed.

With the success of "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet," in 1967, the Blues Magoos toured the United States on a triple bill in an unlikely combination with The Who and Herman's Hermits.

On Tuesday, Aug. 29, 1967, exactly three weeks after the Blues Magoos performed in the Soo, Giannunzio promoted an appearance by the Detroit Wheels, also at the armory.

Fronted by the dynamic Mitch Ryder, the group recorded such hits as "Jenny Take a Ride," "Devil With the Blue Dress On & Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Sock It to Me Baby."

Giannunzio's Gross National Product again served as opening act.

A poster advertising the dance promised the headliners would deliver "the driving sound of Detroit."

Giannunzio also rubbed shoulders with Bobby Helms, who showed up one day at the St. Ignace resident's teen club.

A native of Bloomington, Indiana, Helms was a country & western singer and guitarist known for "My Special Angel" and the perennial novelty hit, "Jingle Bell Rock."

"He showed up in St. Ignace and performed with us just before Christmas in 1967. I thought it kind of curious. He had a little car with his guitar in the back seat and his wife in the front. Our band backed him up," Giannunzio recalled.

While he was gaining expertise booking bands, Giannunzio continued as a disc jockey at WIDG, the radio station known locally as "widge by the bridge," due to its proximity to the span known as "Big Mac."

With his confidence renewed, Giannunzio soon moved back downstate to take a job at WJIM Radio in Lansing. This time he concentrated on radio and didn't start a new band.

He then did a morning show at WGRD in Grand Rapids as Gary Mitchell, before moving to WKNR in Detroit under the name Bobby Lane. By 1974, he had moved to the west coast. He worked in radio in Portland and Seattle as Joe Cooper, before ending his lengthy radio career.

Giannunzio now lives in Redmond, Washington, with his wife, the former Kathleen Sweeney, whom he met and married in St. Ignace.




Jack in Cheboygan said...

Wow! I was at that concert of the future Grand Funk Railroad. Hey, why weren't the Rainmakers mentioned? They were there. I remember rocking the roller rink in Mackinaw City with the GNP. What a great summer! Thanks to Joe Arthur. You made a minor hit out of "I see the Light" flip side of "Little Bit of Soul".

Gail Wendorf Studio said...

Interesting....there was another 60's garage band at the same time as GNP, called.... The Gross National Product - played original music, opened for the Doors in Las Vegas, etc. Must've been a popular name at the time! One of the founding members is a close friend of mine.