Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Joey Gee traces Blue Tones era

Vocalist Joe Giannunzio, using his professional name,
autographed this photograph of Joey Gee and the Blue
Tones. The Iron Mountain-based group, which also included Bill
Morrison, Craig Sorenson and Ricky Bates, recorded a 45 rpm
single at Cuca Records in 1964.


Iron Mountain's Joe Giannunzio was an early rock 'n' roll enthusiast, fronting a band in the era before the Beatles inspired an explosion of fledgling pop groups.

Formed in the summer of 1963, the Bluetones were comprised of Bill Morrison, rhythm guitar; Craig Sorenson, lead guitar, Ricky Bates, drums; and Giannunzio, vocals. Bates was also from Iron Mountain, while the other two band members resided in neighboring Kingsford.

Their debut gig came during a dance at the Iron County Armory in Kingsford on Friday, July 26, 1963. On a poster for the event, the band was billed as the "Bluetones with singer Joey G." The vocalist's last name was reduced to a single letter "because there wasn't enough room on the poster for my full name. I later added a couple of e's and came up with Joey Gee," Giannunzio recalled.

Giannunzio drove to many early gigs in his 1958 Ford convertible, with band-mate Sorenson riding shotgun and a microphone in the backseat. "We did our entire show, including the PA for my voice, with just one Fender amp," Giannunzio remembered.

Targeting a young audience, the group also performed at the Tri-City Outdoor Theatre. On one Saturday in 1964 the band played during a program which also featured the movies "Beach Party" and "The Young Racers." For an admission fee of 85 cents, movie-goers also received free Beatles miniature novelty records, according to a newspaper advertisement.

To give the audience the best perspective, they played on the concession stand roof

The band also drew a record number of patrons during a performance at the Braumart Theater in Iron Mountain, Giannunzio said.

Managed by Frank Osteroth, the group grew in popularity. Soon, their attention was drawn to cutting a 45 rpm single. Giannunzio learned from the Fendermen about Cuca Record Corp., located near Madison. Jim Sundquist, a guitarist for the Fendermen, came from nearby Niagara, Wis. A few years before, the Fendermen had taped a record called "Muleskinner Blues" at Cuca. The song became an unexpected hit.

Giannunzio contacted Cuca for more information. Shortly after, he received a letter from Jim Kirchstein, owner of Cuca. "Please find enclosed our brochure 62A explaining a widely used recording program," Kirchstein wrote from the business at 123 Water St. in Sauk City, Wis.

So it was that Joey Gee and the Blue Tones found themselves in the recording studio in May, 1964. Giannunzio came armed with a song he wrote called "Little Searcher." The band recorded five takes of the original composition, one take of "Don't You Just Know It," written by Huey Piano Smith; and two takes of "Heartbreakin' Special," a tune recorded by the Fendermen in 1960.

"Don't You Just Know It," was chosen as the single's A side while the B side was occupied by "Little Searcher." The Bluetones' version of "Heartbreakin' Special" was never released.

The 45 rpm single was assigned number 6451 and appeared on the Cuca subsidiary label, Sara.

Joey Gee and the Blue Tones returned to the Upper Peninsula and waited. Kirchstein followed the recording session with a personal note to the group, telling them their records should arrive shortly. "Nice working with you. Good luck," the record executive wrote.

Finally, the big day came on June 17, 1964. Clairmont Transfer Co., headquartered in Escanaba, delivered three cartons of phonograph records, collecting a fee of $5.72. Although recorded in Wisconsin, the records were pressed by Kay Bank Recording Corp.of Minneapolis.

Giannunzio didn't wait long to bring one of the records to WMIQ, the only radio station in Iron Mounain. Disc jockey Dean Barry listened to both sides. The band liked "Little Searcher," but Barry thought "Don't You Just Know It" could be a hit. "He played that side the most," Giannunzio remembered.

"It was kind of a thrill riding through downtown Iron Mountain in my convertible and hearing those songs on the radio in other teens' cars. I aways kept a few of the 45s with me because people would want to buy them. Gave a lot away, too," the singer recalled.

The band set about a promotional campaign to get radio airplay outside their home base. Giannunzio drafted an introductory letter to radio stations, including a copy of the 45. "We are hoping this record will be a hit for us and we could use all the help you can give us. We would appreciate it very much if you would plug it for us on your station. We would appreciate your comment on our record. Thank you for the time you have taken to read this letter," said the typed document, signed by Giannunzio.

Major radio stations seldom played records that hadn't already generated some interest, so it was rather remarkable that Chicago powerhouse WLS paid any attention. Popular disc jockey Dick Biondi read Giannunzio's letter on the air and played the record, as well.

While Joey Gee and the Bluetones were meeting with some success on a regional level, Giannunzio decided to take a more pragmatic route to get on the airwaves. He moved to Milwaukee to attend broadcasting school at Career Academy.

In 1965, the broadcasting student put together another band in Milwaukee. Giannunzio handled lead vocals for Joey Gee and the Come-ons, but this time he also took on harmonica duties. They played around the southern Wisconsin area, even placing highly in a band of the bands contest..

And, true to form, Giannunzio made another trip to Cuca to record a second 45 rpm single in September.

This time, the band recorded four numbers. "She's Mean" and "You Know Till the End of Time" were paired as Sara 6599. Giannunzio composed and sang lead on both songs. In addition, they taped "Jenny, Jenny," a top ten smash for Little Richard in 1957, and "Little Latin Lupe Lu," a hit for the Righteous Brothers, Kingsmen and Mitch Ryder.

Unfortunately, Giannunzio's second single didn't ignite at radio either, although "She's Mean" has garnered many admirers over the years. Because 45s released on small independent labels lacked the distribution muscle, production values and promotional budgets of the major labels, such records rarely registered on the national charts.

Still, "She's Mean" and "You Know Till the End of Time" were featured on a 2005 compact disc collection called "Garage Beat '66," issued by Sundazed Music in 2005.

The two cover tunes Giannunzio and his band recorded at the 1965 session remained unreleased until 2006 when all four tracks appeared on a compilation compact disc, "The Cuca Records Story, Vol. 2," on Ace Records.

Returning to Michigan to pursue his radio career after graduating broadcasting school, Giannunzio continued to sing in bands in the northern lower peninsula and U. P. The Heathens lasted for a few months in 1966, while Gross National Product survived until 1968, when Giannunzio made a job change and decided to concentrate solely on radio.

Giannunzio also performed in the Detroit area for one memorable show, opening for Chubby Checker. Giannunzio was in the Motor City the same day as the Beatles played their last show in Michigan, at Olympia Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 13, 1966. "The Beatles where there at that time but I never had enough money to buy a ticket to see them. Sorry I didn't."

Following a lengthy radio career, Giannunzio returned to the Upper Peninsula last summer to play with his old band-mates during Kingsford's Hog Wild Music Jam. After more than four decades, Joey Gee and the Bluetones came full circle, performing a classic set, including "Little Searcher," their 1964 single.

Editor's note: Go to YouTube to see Joey Gee and the Blue Tones videos for "Little Searcher," "Alley Oop," and "Don't You Just Know It."

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