Encounters can still doo-wop it like 1963
Monday, September 22nd 2008, 6:15 PM
Members of The Encounters include (clockwise from top) Charlie DiComo, Steve Hirschhorn, Roy (Hutch) Hutchings, Peter Milazzo and Peter DeBenedetto.
They're an echo of old Brooklyn comin' right back atcha.
This doo-wop group lives up to the declaration on the first page of its Web site: "The Encounters will bring you back to a street corner in Brooklyn, where the group originated in 1963."
And 45 years later when I listen to them I still can see and hear the guys I saw all over Brooklyn as a kid, singing in subway stations, in apartment-building hallways, under lampposts, chasing an echo, or snapping their fingers and harmonizing in front of swooning girls.
"The Encounters started in Bushwick," says Pete Milazzo, a Wall Street headhunter by day who still sings with The Encounters on weekends. "It was a blue-collar Italian, German, Irish neighborhood of six-story apartment houses with about 150 kids per block. The el ran right behind my house. We had a club on Wilson Ave. called The Sportsman."
There were a lot of storefront social clubs in those days because there were a lot of gangs in the area and the police from the 83rd Precinct didn't let you walk in groups of three or more.
"The Sportsman had stickball, softball, and football teams that played other clubs," Milazzo says. "We had about 30 members and about 150 girls used to come to our social nights for the dancing as we spun 45s on a record player. And one night in early '63 one of the fellas started singing. I started harmonizing with him. Two other guys joined in. And soon we formed a group. That's how it happened all over Brooklyn."
To meet chicks, the group started singing in Grove St. Park and because the subway in their neighborhood was an elevated train they'd walk all the way down to the Myrtle Ave. subway stop to catch an echo.
Then some local guy who knew a guy over in the city who knew a guy in the record business heard the guys from The Sportsman club and sent them to audition for a guy named Joe Venneri.
"Venneri was the guitar player and a vocalist for The Tokens," says Milazzo. "And he was starting a producing career. He heard us and by the end of 1963 we had a recording contract with Swan Records and we recorded an original song called 'Don't Stop,' written by Venneri and Billy Carlucci, of Billy and The Essentials."
But Swan Records also had another single called "She Loves You," by some obscure British group called The Beatles.
"We were running around doing live gigs all over the place to promote the record," says Milazzo. "Then we got the news that they were gonna book us on the Clay Cole Show. We couldn't have been more excited. Four guys from Bushwick on Clay Cole! Then a week before we were gonna be on we got a call that we were canceled because Swan Records wanted to put their promotion behind this new fad called The Beatles. We were so disappointed. But we were told we'd get our chance when this fad blew over. But of course the fad called The Beatles never blew over."
The Encounters had encountered a wall of musical history. They also had the bad timing to come along at the time just when doo-wop was on the way out. "Countless other doo-wop groups just disappeared," says Milazzo.
But Milazzo stuck it out with The Encounters, even as original members left and new ones joined, going from a cappella to a live cover band, and performing in local VFW Posts and later in venues like Laurel's Country Club, The New York Hilton and the Friar's Club as well as hundreds of corporate and private gigs.
"We became a wedding band for a while," Milazzo says. "We all had day jobs and played gigs in our spare time to pay off mortgages and tuition for our kids. After 1979 we put it to bed."
But doo-wop is like a vampire. It might cease to live but remains undead.
"In 1991 we reformed," says Milazzo. "A lot of people missed this music as much as I did. We've played a lot of the big hotels in Atlantic City - the Sands, Claridge, Tropicana. We've appeared at Westbury four times. We have a Web site, www.theencounters.com, and a new CD out called 'Back to the Streets.' Today the group consists of Peter DeBenedetto, Charlie DiComo, Steve Hirschhorn, Roy (Hutch) Hutchings, and me."
On Oct. 3, Nov. 7, and Dec. 5, The Encounters will be playing at La Focaccia in Levittown, L.I.
"At a venue like that we can do two hours of oldies," says Milazzo. "And when I'm harmonizing with the guys I'm always 20 again in The Sportsman on Wilson Ave., singing with the neighborhood fellas. Because as long as I sing this music it will always be 1963 in Brooklyn."
Where Friends Play Music For Friends
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This is from the Cordial album titled Blue-eyed Soul on Catamount.
TRIBUTE TO PORKY CHEDWICK
Pat McArdle read a PG story last week about Pittsburgh characters, and noticed one name
conspicuous in its absence.
Porky Chedwick, the "Daddio of the Raddio," the "Platter Pushin' Papa" who brought rhythm and
blues to Pittsburgh from his perch at WAMO, is turning 92 on Thursday. And Porky is still sharper
than a phonograph needle, Mr. McArdle said.
After getting Porky's home phone number from Mr. McArdle, I met the legend and his wife, Jeanie,
for lunch at the Eat'n Park on Route 51 in Whitehall on Monday. When I asked his secret for eternal youth, Jeanie's hand rose.
He smiled and agreed she's part of his secret, but added it's also "attitude."
She told how they moved to Tarpon Springs near Florida's Gulf Coast in the summer of 2008,
figuring they'd stay. But they went to the pool one day and he turned to her and said, "Did we
just walk into the cemetery?"
She tried to shush him but he said, "These people are old." So when they came back to Pittsburgh that
December, and he had to deal with some health issues, they decided to stay put. It's hard to leave a place
where, as his wife puts it, "Porky walks in and the waters part."
If that's an exaggeration, it's slight. The word "legend" is overused, but Porky was playing what they
called "race records" here in 1948, years before fellow disc jockey Alan Freed coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll."
What radio personality today could be transported to that period of time and have the guts to play black
music in a white country? Nobody," says Jim Merkel, longtime DJ at the oldies station 3WS.
"Porky never looked at skin color," Mr. Merkel said, "only the quality of their music. His ear was unmatched, with an ability to know what could ultimately be a hit record."
At his peak, he shut down the Golden Triangle simply by doing a remote broadcast outside the old Stanley Theater (now the Benedum) in the summer of 1961. Somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 fans showed up, mostly teenagers. No cars could move until Mayor Joseph Barr sent someone to get that DJ out of there.
Pat McArdle, who grew up in Ford City but now lives in Edgewood, started listening in 1961 when he was in the seventh grade. An eighth-grader, Freno Lenzi, instructed him: "You got to listen to Porky. He's the coolest."
The man took his calling seriously. Porky said he'd often go to the Cathedral of Learning to sit in an empty classroom and rehearse. "I was my professor."
Then he'd go on the air, find an overlooked song on a record's B side, and say, "I'm going to shatter this platter and make your liver quiver."
Jack Hunt grew up in Manchester and remembers being drawn to Porky's show because the rest of the radio dial was a mishmash of styles while "this was just the stuff we weren't supposed to listen to."
If you went to one of Porky's dance parties, "you were cool," Mr. Hunt said. He saw his first one at a VFW hall north of the city, and when Mr. Hunt grew up to be the oldies singer "Johnny Angel," he and Porky became good friends.
Mrs. Chedwick, 28 years Porky's junior, grew up in Baldwin and also counts herself among "Porky's kids." She finally met him when he did a show at Linden Grove in Castle Shannon in 1990. He asked what songs she liked, and she rattled off six including "For Your Precious Love" by Jerry Butler.
Porky played all six. After the show, she gave him a ride home. Seven months later they were married.
The following month he endured a seven-hour operation to remove a brain tumor. She wept as she recalled how she feared she'd lost him.
But years later she'd see James Brown, backstage in curlers, telling her husband, "My man, Pork," and Smokey Robinson hugging him and saying, "Thank you" for playing his records when nobody else did.
There is clear comfort in longevity. Mr. Merkel says when Porky heard Mr. Merkel had passed the 30-year mark on the radio, he told him, "Oh, you're the new guy."
The birthday party at Spencer's Down Under in West Mifflin will go from 7 to 11 p.m. Thursday.
There is no cover charge for the oldies that will be played -- or the old stories that will be retold.
Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century," is
available in the PG store.