Being born in Brooklyn at a time when only AM radio existed didn’t afford me many choices in the music I listened to, but the radio was always on and Mom played the piano and sang. Dad, by his own admission, was tone deaf. I can remember harmonizing in my crib.
One day while searching the dial on the radio, I was held captive by the plaintive honesty of a guy singing a country song. His name was Hank Williams and I became an instant fan, giving up my piano lessons for a pawn shop guitar (to my mom’s consternation.) I became somewhat of an anachronism wandering around on my bike, guitar on my back committing attempted sideburns and looking for other like-minded kids or trying to make converts.
At about the same time, another form of music was being born out of the black race music and kids my age were singing their versions on street corners, subways and hallways. Some were actually making records with local and sometimes national success. I sang along with these kids and started a duo with my neighbor Dave and some other 4 and 5 piece groups. Most sang acapella but with my guitar they had an added benefit so I was always welcomed.
Simultaneous to getting a record deal with Dave as the “Two Chaps,” there was another group “The Harborlites,” with Sandy, Kenny, and Sydelle, signed to the same label, “Ivy Records.” We never crossed paths at that time, but, also at that time, John (Jay Traynor) was filling in as a “Mystic.”
Howie K and I were friends and fellow college students and he was now singing with his old neighborhood buddy, Sandy along with Kenny and Jay Traynor on leads. One day Howie invited me (or I invited myself, who remembers?) and my guitar to his folks apartment for a rehearsal with the as yet un-named group and I insinuated myself therein. I had already gotten a songwriting contract with Hill & Range Music, hanging out with Tony Orlando, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. My young career seemed rosy, but war was looming on several fronts and I was in danger of being drafted. I got some sage advice from Barry Mann, “join the reserves, 6 months instead of 18 or more.” So late spring of 1961 I joined and went to basic training at Fort Dix, then on to Colombia South Carolina (Ft Jackson.) While down there I got a letter from Howie saying he and the guys had been signed by our heroes, Lieber & Stoller and given the name “Jay & The Americans.” Their first release was “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” I remember laughing out loud at the name but I also remember that he said I could rejoin them upon my release from the reserves. When I got out I started hanging out at the Brill Building pursuing songwriting and playing with J & A’s. Tonight wasn’t a hit but Lieber & Stoller didn’t give up and I wound up singing with them on their recording of the “She Cried” album though my picture isn’t on the jacket and I have no name credit.
We were doing local record hops and TV shows when we got word that a Baltimore DJ, “Fat Daddy” had broken “She Cried.” When he saw us at our first out of town gig at the “Rocket Room” in D.C. he said “I thought you guys were black.” It was at this time that I was asked to be a full partner in “Jay & The Americans” by their manager, Danny Kessler. I was touched and honored until I discovered that I would be earning less money than as a hired hand! Of course with our continued success this became a non-issue.