Chart-topping crooner — and Asbury Park native — LENNY WELCH returns to the city of his origin for the first time “since high school” on November 12, for the big salute to the vintage West Side Sound known as THE SOUL OF ASBURY PARK.
By HELEN-CHANTAL PIKE (special guest to upperWETside)
If you are of a certain age or among the cognoscenti, you instantly recognize the names on the bill for the upcoming Paramount Theatre concert, The Soul of Asbury Park on Saturday, November 12. But if you are relatively new to the Jersey Shore scene or if your lane is classical, what follows is the 411 on a one-time-only reunion of singing legends as the Asbury Park Music Heritage Festival winds down its inaugural year.
The thread to follow is the one that connects these famous names to the current generation of teen rappers and neo-soul singers who are using the city’s stages as a training ground for a much-hoped for commercial career. The public got to see that in August with The Lymon Legacy: Do Teenagers Change Music? when the festival turned the spotlight on soul singer Kimberly Puryear, blues guitarist Mikey Butler, and rapper Lil POP. Composer and panelist Carlton Wilkinson blogged about that gig here: These are the new voices of the new century.
Their back story continues the city’s celebrated post-World War II music heritage. when African and Italian Americans gathered on street corners and in public-building stairwells to hone what is undeniably a God-given talent: to sing in harmony and without any instrumental back-up. The lead performer in The Soul of Asbury Park is handsome crooner Lenny Welch, who was graduated from the high school in 1957 and has never been back to perform until now. He took his voice to New York where Fate positioned him as a competitor to Johnny Mathis. Lenny launched his national reputation covering the Big Band standard, “Since I Fell For You” in 1964, and followed it up with “Ebb Tide“.
At left, Asbury’s own Billy Brown is pictured in order of billing with Harry Ray and Al Goodman. At right, fellow West Side streetcorner serenader Bobby Thomas is seen surrounded by his mid 1950s lineup of The Vibes (aka Vibranaires).
Lenny is going to share the stage with the still boyishly good-looking rhythm-and-blues singer Billy Brown, who was discovered back in the day at Big Bill Sanders’ ultra hot night club on Springwood Avenue. If you are old enough to remember “Love On A Two Way Street” you know that Billy’s sweet voice pushed The Moments’ soul ballad onto the 1968 pop charts, certifying it as a cross-over hit. He continues to tour with the self-named group Ray, Goodman & Brown (listen to the shout out Billy receives in “Special Lady”).
Like Lenny and Billy, Bobby Thomas always wanted to sing. He had a natural ear for sound and a talent for putting together other male voices that could harmonize without the use of instruments. Members of his first group, The Crooners, were all from the city. The name morphed into The Vibranaires thanks to a bass vibrato that gave the teens a unique sound. When he got out of the army, Bobby came back to the city and formed another a capella group called the V-Eights. As the story goes, in the Piner’s Lounge somewhere on the city’s fringes, Bobby was discovered by his music idol, Sonny Till of The Orioles. What followed was the classic success story about making the kind of beautiful music that can strum even the most hardened of heart strings (if you don’t believe it, listen to Bobby sing the immortal classic “Crying in the Chapel”).
Doing Bobby’s intro in that clip is Nicky Addeo. Nicky sat at my dining room table and told me a lot about these voices when I was researching my second book about the city, Asbury Park’s Glory Days. Point of fact: Nicky, whose versatility enables him to sing both opera and R&B, soul and just about anything else you might want to hear, contributed an editorial sidebar to Asbury Park’s Glory Days about growing up in the 1950s on the West Side, and what music meant to him and his friends. At the Paramount, he’ll be singing harmony with his group, The Night Owls.
I’m willing to bet his pal and local legend Leon Trent of The Broadways (a group that also featured Billy Brown), will be there, too. Leon had a key role in shaping the city’s heritage in both song and satorial style. Blues musician Sonny Kenn recalled Leon’s far-reaching influence in the anthology Asbury Park: Where Music Lives, which will be available for purchase for all of you who want a souvenir and the chance to get Leon’s signature.
I’m also putting money down that another special guest might include Patsy Siciliano, who paid tribute to Lenny in his anthology essay “The Sound of Asbury Park”. Another fellow from the West Side music scene is the uberprodigious songwriter Ray Dahrouge, who’s been busy working on his first solo CD after all these years (and in whose group, The Darchaes, Nicky used to sing along with Patsy.)
Yes, the night of the twelfth has a six-degrees-of-separation angle for the homeboys. So, no hand of cards would be complete if I didn’t bet on Southside Johnny showing up. (Yep, he’s also in the anthology that we published in March to chronicle the full range of Asbury Park’s music history.)
And that other guy, Bruce Springsteen, who showed up at the sold-out heritage concert April 3 at the Wonder Bar…will he be one of the surprise guests? I’ll bet on Bruce if someone else will bet on the girl group The Shirelles performing at the Paramount. The closest they’ve ever come to performing for a mainstream audience at the Jersey Shore was opening the Fast Lane on Fourth Avenue in 1974.
But by that point, all the local fellas were on their way with major-label recording contracts and national tours. And, someone is bound to snark in and say The Shirelles aren’t from Asbury Park. And they’d be right. Which then begs the question: What city girls were singing back then?
Tickets for the 8pm concert on November 12 are $20, $35, $50. Lush, the posh new libation store on Cookman Avenue, is sponsoring the special pre-show VIP reception; tickets are $100 and include choice seating inside the Paramount. Valet parking will be available for a fee. The concert is scheduled to start at 8pm. A credit card enables you can buy a ticket and a copy of the anthology at http://www.asburyparkmusic.org.
You can also purchase tickets via Ticketmaster, The Stone Pony, or Experience Asbury, located on the Boardwalk at the Fourth Avenue pavilion (11am to 6pm, Thursdays through Mondays). Cash-only sales are available at the Asbury Park Historical Society Museum located on the lower level of the Shoppes at the Arcade (look for the classic Woolworth red front on Cookman). The museum is open Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and this First Saturday of November 5 until 9pm. For more information, call 732.897.6500.
Both the society and the newly launched Asbury Park Musical Heritage Foundation are co-sponsors of The Soul of Asbury Park. Other civic organizations which will have a presence at the concert are Madonna House from Neptune, which serves area infants and children in need, and the West Side Community Center from DeWitt Avenue which was a home-away-from-home for many of the night’s musicians when they were teenagers.
Bottom line: Don’t you want to say you were in the audience the night of November 12 when music history was made?
A member of the Asbury Park Musical Heritage Festival steering committee, Helen-Chantal Pike is the editor of the anthology Asbury Park: Where Music Lives. She maintains a website about all her books on Asbury Park, New Jersey and other history titles.