Kenny Vance and the Planotones perform their unique take on the oldies at Trump Plaza — while staying forever young.
Kenny Vance doesn’t check his e-mail every day. He doesn’t text much. He has a cell phone, but it’s unlikely that the mobile device is hooked up with a Facebook and Twitter account.
Even with mobile capabilities, Vance, who performs with his doo-wop singing group the Planotones Saturday, March 12, at Trump Plaza, prefers to do interviews on a landline.
It’s not hard to figure why.
The technological gadgets of today simply weren’t around when Vance was a young Jewish kid from Brooklyn, a music lover who would become a founding member of Jay & The Americans in the early 1960s. It was an era in music when things like pop charts, 45s and live radio DJs were still relevant and made a huge impact on mainstream culture.
Today, Vance does talk about his Web site — and the Internet in general — with a bit of awe and curious wonder. He’s been excited lately thanks to the amount of hits he’s been getting on his site in relation, he figures, to his appearance on a nationally broadcast PBS fund drive program, My Music: Pop, Rock and Doo Wop, which debuted earlier this month and is running on PBS stations across the country. He says it’s bumped his YouTube hits to new heights.
“The power of television is unbelievable,” says Vance.
Apart from being a founder of Jay & the Americans, a group that had several Billboard hits between 1962-70, including “Come a Little Bit Closer” (1964), “Cara Mia” (1965) and the Doc Pomus-penned “This Magic Moment” (1969), Vance has worked extensively for years in the music industry.
After leaving the Americans, he set off on a path that would include everything from singing backup for noted jazz man Yusef Lateef and producing albums for 1970s singer-songwriters like Danny O’Keefe, to getting heavily involved in producing music for movies (American Hot Wax, Animal House, The Warriors, Eddie & The Cruisers), acting in a few films, and assuming the prestigious position of musical director for NBC’s Saturday Night Live from 1980-81.
Just over a decade later, Kenny and the Planotones were born and the doo-wop group, despite recently losing original member Jerry Friedman, is going strong, recently performing two packed shows in Florida, “a hotbed for this kind of music,” says Vance.
Vance, who lives in New York, is no stranger to southern New Jersey either. In 1982, it was Vance who persuaded film director Martin Davidson to use a veteran Rhode Island bar band for the music in his 1983 film Eddie & the Cruisers, most of which was filmed in Somers Point at the old Tony Mart’s club, with some scenes shot over the bridge in Ocean City.
Not only did John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band get their big break — after toiling in New England clubs for more than 10 years — thanks to Vance and Eddie & The Cruisers (“Selling, thank God, almost four million albums,” says Vance) but Vance also, with his work locally on the film, began a tradition of appearing in the Atlantic City region.
It wouldn’t take hold until the 1990s, but once Kenny Vance and the Planotones was birthed, and one renowned local music fan (hint: he’s also an AC Weekly columnist and Kool 98.3FM DJ extraordinaire) heard them perform, the Jersey shore became an annual gig for the reinvigorated Kenny Vance and the Planotones.
“It’s funny because I’m actually one of the first guys to bring Kenny to town,” says Jerry “The Geator” Blavat, a radio legend who’s been on the air in the tri-state area for more than 50 years, and who currently has a weekday evening show on Kool 98.3FM.
“What happened was, [about 15 years ago] Kenny was working as an opening act for Jay Leno in Atlantic City. And a friend of mine, Joel Dorn, was a producer who produced a CD for [Vance & the Planotones, Looking for an Echo]. So when Joel sent me the CD I absolutely flipped. And I started to play it [on the radio].”
The funny thing is, recalls Blavat, after he had been playing cuts off of Kenny Vance and The Planotones’ 1996 CD Looking for an Echo, he “didn’t realize that I had gone back with Kenny when he was singing with Jay & The Americans with Jay Black. So I flipped over it and Joel said, ‘Well, why don’t you have [the band] at Memories?’
“So they came over to Memories, did a set and I absolutely flipped. I then booked him at the Kimmel Center [in Philadelphia]. This is 10 years ago. And he’s been with me every Kimmel Center show and I booked him every Memorial Day at Memories in Margate. And because of the exposure he has become the number-one a cappella group that absolutely represents the music of our day.
“[He has] the ability to take a song, which was a hit in the ’50s or early ’60s and with his style make it fashionable for a new audience that hears it in a different way.”
Take a song like “Earth Angel,” says Blavat, and he “creates it in a modern-day form.”
Vance and his band will return to Philly for Blavat’s annual doo-wop show at the Kimmel Center on May 8.
“Now Jay Black is also on the bill this year, so what I may do is have them reunite and maybe do ‘This Magic Moment’ together.”
Vance is looking forward to the Kimmel Center show, but says he doesn’t think he will be back at Memories this coming Memorial Day.
Via a landline in Florida, Vance, 68, took the time to talk to Atlantic City Weekly earlier this week. He had just woken up after spending the night prior out late.
You’ve been down in Florida for a few days, how’s the weather?
The weather is very different than it is back where we come from, especially in the month of January — it’s brutal. Here, it’s, you know, 80 degrees, with no humidity. Now, there’s a beautiful breeze. The month of March is really the best month to be here. That’s the month they run most of these [doo-wop] shows like the ones we just did.
You got up just for this [10am] interview, are you an early riser normally?
Normally, yeah, I am, but last night we were out real late.
How often on average are The Planotones on the road?
You know, we don’t go on the road that much because we’re not a really nationally known name. Although this week and this month we’re on the PBS special, which is a national TV special.
You told me that your YouTube and Web site hits have been going crazy due to the recent national coverage.
Yeah, from that one appearance on the show, they keep playing it several times a day. It’s kind of like when Eddie & the Cruisers came to HBO [a year after its theatrical release] and they played it over and over and thanks to that it became such a successful movie and soundtrack.
Even in this day of digital this and Web that and mobile this, TV still has that power?
You get on TV and it can make your career.
How did you migrate from Jay & The Americans into doing film and TV work?
When I left Jay & The Americans, around like the last incarnation of Jay & The Americans, which, as you know had Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in it [both of whom would soon co-found Steely Dan and release the band’s 1972 album Can’t Buy a Thrill], I started to produce records for musicians. So I kind of started getting into production and then [Fagen and Becker] left and wound up going out to California and about a year later I left Jay & The Americans. It was 1971 or ’72. About a year after I left, I kind of wound up making my own album for Atlantic Records and it had the original version of “Looking for an Echo” on it. It was basically an acoustic version, kind of like a folk song, reminiscing about the old days. And the album really didn’t really do much, but people in L.A. had already heard it. They were getting ready to do this movie called American Hot Wax (1978). The director was Floyd Mutrux — who has this new play on Broadway, Baby It’s You [a biographical musical about composer Florence Greenberg, which, according to Variety, is about the “groundbreaking girl group, The Shirelles and Florence Greenberg, the New Jersey housewife who discovered them. With the help of African-American songwriter, producer Luther Dixon, Florence took on a male dominated industry and revolutionized pop music. Her company, Scepter Records, created the most important songs in the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll, from artists including The Isley Brothers, The Kingsmen, Chuck Jackson and Dionne Warwick.”]
So Floyd heard the song and they thought, ‘Hey, this guy could be the right guy to do this film [based on] the Alan Freed story. Part of the job was to recreate the Alan Freed Show at the Brooklyn Paramount, and I had been there as a kid, and when they heard “Looking for an Echo,” they flew me out to Paramount Pictures and I met with them and they hired me. So for the next six to eight months I was working on the film and wound up in the film … with the Planotones. After [Hot Wax] I was kind of hot in Hollywood … and I wound up doing Animal House after that and producing John Belushi. So I got known to be the guy that did period film [music] and then after that I did the film The Warriors.
One of my favorite movies. And then after spending time in L.A. working on films and TV music you returned to New York?
I was hired to be the music director on Saturday Night Live in 1980. … I always kept recording, but while all of this was going on, the recording of “Looking for an Echo” was kind of steadily being played on all of these oldies stations and it was starting to become a hit — unbeknownst to me.
This would have been in the 1980s?
In the ’70s and all throughout the ’80s. And then ... I just kept going, doing a bunch more movies all the way into the late ’80s with Hairspray (1988). And then I started touring with a little band, and when I say “touring” I mean playing clubs in Manhattan. And then one night some of the guys from the original Planotones came down to the show and they had these hats on and I thought, you know, it would be kind of cool to get a vocal harmony group going. And I thought, let’s try, maybe we should start this up again, because my true love was always being a singer.
And now you have become one of the true torchbearers of the doo-wop, a cappella group era.
Well, at that point, “Looking for an Echo” is on all of these oldies stations. And a lot of people are calling in for “Looking for an Echo” and some oldies shows use it as their theme song. So that gave me an opportunity of accessibility and visibility to be able to book the group. Here we are, it’s going to be our 20th anniversary next year. It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 20 years.
You recently lost one of the original members.
Unfortunately, you know, Jerry Friedman passed away about six months ago. It was a very heartfelt tragedy. When you lose a friend and a great musician and, you know.
Yeah, it sucks.
While you were musical director on SNL, one of the acts you booked was Prince. Do you remember anything in particular about that booking?
Yeah, you know, I don’t think he had ever been [on TV] and we were always trying to be cutting edge.
This is pre-1999 Prince.
Yeah, exactly. We had scouts and he was turned on to us and boom! I said, let’s book this guy and we booked him and he came in and there was a certain standoffishness. I guess the attitude. I don’t want to say arrogance, but you know, a new, young attitude. We were live and he did this song [“Partyup” from 1980’s Dirty Mind].
Do you remember what it was?
You know, I swear I don’t remember, but at the end of the song he threw the mike on the floor and it went “boom” and he said, “Fuck!”
Yeah. I think he wanted to make a statement on live TV.
That he was a badass.
Right. It’s kind of like when you see Eminem and he wins the Grammy, but he still has to be angry. [Laughter] So he can’t break character and smile and say —
It’s great. You know, this prick goes up there [to pick up his award] and he has to keep his head down. You know, that scowl. And Prince I guess was a forerunner for that type of badass attitude.
And then there was the memorable James Brown appearance on SNL.
Oh my god, I love James Brown. I got an opportunity to book whomever I wanted, so I booked Aretha [Franklin] and James Brown. I think basically, in 1980, it was probably a low point in his career and at that point he was, to me, the godfather. So we brought him in and he remembered me — I had played with him and Jay & The Americans in 1966. We played with him for 10 days. We were like the opening token white act on the James Brown Revue in Newark during Christmas. I watched him three times a day.
He would destroy, absolutely destroy an audience. In ’66 he was at the top of his game. [For SNL in 1980] we met Saturday morning and we discussed what he was going to do [that night] and we did a run through, he brought the band and everything. It was thrilling to me to be able to feature him on Saturday Night Live.
Do you remember what he played? Some of his big hits?
Yeah, he did a medley of them, except the medley was supposed to be three minutes! But once he was on live TV there was no stopping him; he didn’t have any restrictions in his mind. He didn’t realize we had to go to commercials or to do it like we did in rehearsal, so he was just going and going and he wouldn’t stop.
He was in the zone.
He was in the zone. I remember the producer came running screaming, “Get him off!” And I’m saying, “Cut, cut!” But he wouldn’t stop.
John Cafferty and his band got a big break thanks to you. Are there a lot of little Beaver Brown Band kids named “Kenny” now? How did John Cafferty ever repay you for Eddie & The Cruisers?
John is a great guy and I just think that with certain people, you can just see it in their eyes. You can just see a certain gratitude or appreciation. I always felt that it was fortuitous and a magical collaboration. It was just meant to be. If it’s meant to be it’s gonna go down; that’s how just how it goes.
(LEFT: Michael Paré with Kenny Vance on the set of the 1983 film Eddie & The Cruisers)
Eventually, “Looking for an Echo” became a film in 2000.
Yes, thanks to [Eddie & The Cruisers director Marty Davidson], who directed it.
How would you describe your show to someone who hasn’t seen The Planotones live?
Luckily I’m still able to deliver the mail.
Your voice is amazing.
Thank you. So, you know, I’m still fueled by this child inside of me that grew up loving this music ... in Brooklyn and going to the Alan Freed Show as a kid and hearing this music when I was 13. So when I get up there [on stage] I’m kind of fueled by that inspiration and I think that the audience picks up on that and they’re also transported back to a time in their lives when they were young and when they just felt so inspired and in love with this music. I think they walk out of there on a high based on that. I don’t know if that made sense.
Totally. It also offers a younger audience the ability to latch on to those magical and important songs from the history of American pop music.
Exactly. A lot of times a young audience, they come back stage, and, like these two young girls come back stage recently and I said, “What are you doing here?” And one of the girls said that her mother couldn’t make the show so “they gave us the tickets” and they were like, “What is this? This is great.” They never heard this music before. But this is so great. They pick up on the —
The magic, the inspiration of it, the truth of it. It’s real.
It’s American and its authentic and it came from the street corners.
Everyone wants to be cool, and when you mention the oldies they are not cool, but the truth of it is all of America knows this music. It’s ingrained in us no matter how old you are. This is really the music of America. I love the blues — Robert Johnson, you know, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, you know, I love all of it. But when you think of The Penguins or The Moonglows, The Flamingos or Buddy Holly, or Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, that’s really the music of America. Sam Cooke.
That’s when it crossed over basically. When America embraced it. The doo-wop and early rock groups took a couple things from Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton and pioneers like them and brought it to the mainstream.
Sure, without that there wouldn’t have been this for sure.
What band or musician on the charts today has what it takes, in your estimation, to make a career in music?
You mean a lasting career?
Yeah, I mean like The Stones, The Who, Zeppelin — Prince.
I don’t know much about it, but I know Jack White is really good. I have respect for what he does as a producer. I wish he would produce an album. He’s somebody I respect. And John Mayer is somebody I respect — as a musician.
They’ve both been going on for a good while now putting in their heart and soul and time.
Yes, absolutely. I don’t really know as much as you do about the rest of them, but those two guys come to mind.
When the music that you still sing was at its most popular point, in the 1950s and ’60s, the charts were so important, and requesting songs, real DJs — most of that is pretty much gone now.
Yeah, I guess in my mind, I still live in that world, but like you said, it doesn’t exist anymore.
And the charts?
The charts don’t mean anything. I even tried recently to put my stuff on the Internet, Internet radio — there’s a lot of stuff now, that’s how it is. In the old days you would have WIBG and they would bang your record 10 times a day everyday, seven days a week, and then it would ride up the charts and then you’d go on Dick Clark and lip sync your records — that’s just how it was over the years.
The Geator is still carrying that torch.
Yes, the Geator is still carrying that torch.
How did you meet Jerry?
I know Jerry, the Geator, as one of us, one of me. He’s a throwback and he’s also got that child in his eyes. You look in his eyes and see the child, that 13-year-old child, the same as me. And he’s inspired and, you know, when he plays those records he’s not faking it. He’s totally connected to [them], riveted by the truth when he first heard them when he was 13. And here he is in his late 60s and he’s still got that smile and is carrying that torch.
Everyday he’s traveling somewhere to do a show here or there.
He’s too much.
Kenny Vance & The Planotones
Where: Trump Plaza
When: Saturday, March 12, 9pm
How Much: $25
Greetings and salutations. As you are aware, next weekend the Geator, the Bubba Mac Blues Band, Pinky Kravitz, and the entire Longport Media group, WOND and WTKU and my man, Dave Coskey, will be heading down to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla., for South Jersey “Boardwalk Live” weekend. Also joining the Geator will be my pal Frankie Valli, who’s performing at the Hard Rock Live. We’ll dance starting at 5pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 1, 2, and 3, and I know we’ll see lots of our Florida fans, like Carlos & Vicki, Judi & Jim, and Ed & Linda, down there — hope to see you, too. Before we get to your questions, one of our readers was able to answer a question posed by Joe Breitner in this column a couple months back. The name of the song, from...
Once again, greetings and salutations to all who had a ball with the Geator at the Kimmel. Fabulous show, so nice that we’re going to do it twice. Mark the date: Saturday, April 7, and this will be a doo wop reunion, bringing back some of the classic stars who’ve been with me over the last 10 years — folks like Little Anthony, the Duprees, the Harptones, the Skyliners, the Classics, the Dubs, and more of your favorites. Stay tuned and we’ll announce the complete lineup shortly. And don’t forget, the Geator and the South Jersey/Philly crowd heading down south to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 1-3. That’s got to be a blast, along with Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ appearance there, so make your reservations now. And yes, we...
Once again, greetings and salutations. And wow, what a tremendous Memorial Day weekend. It all started off Friday night in Egg Harbor Township when we went live at 5 at Chickie’s & Pete’s on Cruisin’ 92.1 and KOOL 98.3, and then on to Mia’s at Caesars, the fabulous restaurant from Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio. Mia’s was packed — so much so that starting this Friday we’ll be going live on KOOL 98.3 from Caesars’ Pool Bar so that you Geator Gold guys and gals can have more room to dance after you dine at Mia’s. Over at Memories, the big 65th birthday party for Carol Kauffmann took place, with family and friends. Of course, Carol belongs to our dear friend Justice Bruce Kauffman. Some of the Who’s Who who came to pay respects: My old friends Lewis & Margie Katz,...
Once again, greetings and salutations. And for you folks who joined us last Sunday for our Mother’s Day spectacular at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, what can I say? Outstanding. Another sold-out show, with thanks going out to Jay Black, Frankie Avalon, the Soul Survivors, the Orlons, the Tymes, and the Planotones. And with that behind us, let’s talk about Memorial Day weekend, right around the corner. Would you believe this year will mark 40 years that you and I have been together at that legendary spot, Memories in Margate? Look for some exciting things to happen when we go live on KOOL 98.3 on weekends, not only from Memories on Saturday nights, but also on Friday nights from Mia’s Restaurant at Caesars Atlantic City. More about that as the weeks go by — now, let’s ask the Geator. After a bunch of people (including me) were reminiscing about the good ol’...
ONCE AGAIN, greetings and salutations. Hard to believe — tomorrow is April 1 and the opening of baseball season. The Geator’s prediction? The Phillies are going all the way. Also going all the way are the tickets for our Kimmel Center show May 8, Mother’s Day. I guess because everybody wants to give the gift of love to their moms, they’re giving that along with the gift of music. Hope to see you there. Now let’s ask the Geator. I read here in the Weekly that Kenny Vance and Jay Black are on the bill at your next show at the Kimmel Center. Will you have them perform together like they did when they were with Jay & the Americans? — Gil D. Absolutely....
Once again, greetings and salutations, and a very happy St. Paddy’s Day to all. Hard to believe that Memorial Day weekend is only 10 weeks away, and with it, the opening of our 40th year at Memories in Margate and partying down at the Jersey shore. Meanwhile, back in Philly we’re getting things together for our special Mother’s Day show at the Kimmel Center on May 8, “A Gift of Music,” with special guest stars Frankie Avalon, Jay Black, the Tymes, the Orlons, the Soul Survivors, and Kenny Vance & the Planotones. More about that next week — but now, it’s time to ask the Geator. We saw you in the PBS documentary on rock DJs, Airplay: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio. Do you think that with the variety of programming available on satellite radio, those great days of creativity on the air will...
'A.C.' Last for Lancaster? Once again, greetings and salutations. Crowds galore as they head on down to the Jersey shore, and Memories is in full swing. It's "Thursday Night Live" with DJ Chris Soun...
Once again, greetings and salutations. Hard to believe, just a couple of weeks till Labor Day. And, of course, our pal Kenny Vance, along with the Planotones, who opened up our season, will close our...
To All a 'Goodnight' Greetings and salutations. And just a week away, on Oct. 26, the Monster Mash Ball starring Kenny Vance & the Planotones, 9pm at the Hilton. You'll dance the night away with all...
Once again, greetings and salutations. Yep, it happens every year. Here it is, the Labor Day weekend, and here we are again lifting our glasses for a toast to all of you who made our 33rd season at Memories in Margate as memorable as the rest. There are so many faces, new and old, that make up the history of this club year in and year out. Too many to thank in such a short space, so a blanket thanks to all of you who came, partied, danced and enjoyed. And this weekend will be no exception. We'll go nonstop Friday, Saturday - and on Sunday night, live with Kenny Vance & the Planotones. You can get your tickets this weekend at Memories or Sunday night at the door. And before going to your questions, a special hello to Herb Lipson of Philadelphia Magazine, along with Frank Binswanger, who partied last weekend at Memories. And now, let's ask the Geator. Will Jay Black ever do another one of your shows? - Eileen, Clifton Heights Now, there in my opinion is one of the great voices. Just as Tony Williams of the Platters and Jackie Wilson were able to sing rock and achieve operatic stature...
Once again, greetings and salutations. With the holidays upon us and Christmas right around the corner, we wish you all good cheer. And for all of the Geator Gold guys and gals who have been asking, we will celebrate by having our annual Christmas party this year at the SugarHouse Casino in Philly on Wednesday, Dec. 21, from 5-7pm, and it will be live on WVLT Cruisin’ 92.1 FM. Hope to see you there. And a reminder that if you’re going to join us for our gala Fire and Ice New Year’s Eve bash in the Mark Etess Arena at the Taj, I suggest that you get your tickets now, simply because this event will be sold out, as it is every year, well before the New Year approaches. For your tickets, contact the box office at 609-449-1000 or...
Best Albums of 2012
Rap Legends Return to House of Blues