Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Doowop debacle

Noah Schaffer reports on a disappointing show.
It was an unforgettable afternoon of music -- but for all the wrong reasons. Billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars for 2017,” it promised sixteen acts, including a number of the last remaining pioneers of doo-wop and rhythm & blues, all taking place on the field outside Lamont’s, one of the Eastern Seaboard’s great juke joints. 
Instead it ended prematurely with the sound system being disassembled while groups were standing in the wings waiting to perform, the promoters using an armed escort to flee the venue, 7 advertised acts never appearing and a field of shocked and angry ticketbuyers and stiffed performers. 
One can’t say there weren’t warning signs. Two of the promoters are veterans of the doo-wop business: New York-based agent Paul Errante and DC-based Millie Russell, the manager of the current Orioles group and the widow of Diz Russell who kept the group going after original lead Sonny Til passed away. 
But the third raised a number of eyebrows: Florida teenager Peter Lemongello Jr., whose face graced the flyer. One obvious question is why a high school student would be mounting a high-risk concert requiring tens of thousands of dollars in upfront funding hundreds of miles from home. And Lemengello’s family history seems straight out of a John Waters film. His father, Peter Lemengello, was a 1970’s lounge singer who starred in what is said to be the first ever direct-order TV commercial for a recording. The ads for 'Love 76' were so incessant that they inspired the Chevy Chase character of Peter Lemon Mood Ring on Saturday Night Live. Lemongello Sr. also made scores of “Tonight Show” appearances and even had a bit part in the “Godfather.”  But after a major label deal fizzled, he ended up linked to a bizarre series of kidnappings and arsons in which his cousin, a professional baseball player, was also charged. The 1980’s press accounts don’t say whether he served any jailtime, but today he lives in Florida and performs at the retirement communities where many of his New York-bred fans now reside. 
Peter Jr. hosts an Internet doo-wop radio show, “Peter Lemongello Jr’s Swingin’ Soiree,” and performs locally as an Elvis impersonator. His past efforts to mount concerts in Florida resulted in events that were postponed before eventually get cancelled amid accusations that some acts were advertised without ever being confirmed. 
Despite this dubious past he somehow convinced Errante and Russell to join forces for a marathon concert at Lamont’s, the Pomonkey, Maryland venue that has long been the only chitlin’ circuit spot in the Northeast. The likes of William Bell, J. Blackfoot and Clarence Carter have graced its stage, and Southern soul favorites Hardway Connection perform biweekly for a “grown folks” crowd. Lamont’s is also a popular gathering spot for African-American motorcycle enthusiasts. 
Besides oldies circuits favorites like Charlie Thomas’ Drifters, the Dubs and Peaches & Herb, the show also advertised some major coups. Tommy Hunt sang lead for the Flamingos before having a solo smash with “Human.” He’s lived in the United Kingdom for decades where even at 84 he keeps up a steady schedule of live dates but hasn’t done a US concert in years.  Also billed were Joe Grier and the Charts and Eddie Rich and the Swallows, two groups that are beloved by group harmony fans but who are rarely booked onto commercial oldies events. 
Although several DC and Baltimore residents told me local publicity was nominal, a vintage-style flyer for the show quickly spread on social media. Friends and associates of Tommy Hunt were stunned to see him advertised, as Hunt had said he was willing to do the show but was never sent a contract, airline ticket, hotel arrangements or the deposit entertainers typically obtain before they travel to a concert date. Even after promoters admitted he wouldn’t be present (shamefully claiming non-existent health issues) he was still on the flyer and his name was on the Lamont’s marquee the day of the show. 
Also surprised to see his name advertised was veteran Baltimore musician and bandleader Milton Dugger Jr, who said he had also never confirmed that he would lead the house band during the revue. Despite a string of increasingly angry Facebook posts threatening legal action his name remained on the flyer as well. 
It was enough to make one doubt the entire event. But then the bulk of the roster called into Washington radio station WPFW the week before the show to promote it and confirm their planned presence. Herb Fame of Peaches & Herb (and a former DC cop) came by the studio and discussed the show at length. One of the Charts posted that he had boarded his plane to the gig. It seemed like, aside from Hunt and Dugger, audiences would still get to hear a long afternoon of R&B heavy hitters. 
The afternoon of August 5 couldn’t have been more perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor was there any of the humidity that can make DC unbearable in the summer. At the gate of Lamont’s stood none other than Peter Lemongello Sr. and his wife Karen taking cash from walk-up buyers. As the 1 p.m. start time approached one artist was finishing their sound check: JT Carter, the last surviving member of the Crests. Carter’s group boasted a new lead singer on “16 Candles”: Peter Lemongello Jr. 
The place wasn’t empty, but the audience was modest considering the number of groups slated to perform. There were perhaps 150 present, and when one took out the group members, their families and guests and members of the media, it was hard to see how, even at $40 a pop, the ticket revenue could come close to matching the talent budget. 
About 20 minutes after the show was slated to start local singer Barbara Washington sang a few tunes to pre-recorded tracks. She was followed by the Voices of Harmony. The Young Bucks, a longtime DC band led by Eddie Jones, did some well-received covers, including a duet with Eddie’s sister on “Private Number.” Then it was back to tracks with Baltimore soul man Winfield Parker (doing mostly covers plus his “SOS") and an unannounced set from the Dynamic Superiors, the Motown act famous for their ballad “Shoe Shoe Shine.” 
Finally, well after 3pm, the audience was treated to a vintage legend singing live to a band: Ronnie Dove, the only white artist on the bill. Opening with “Mountain of Love” and closing with his pop hit of Wanda Jackson’s “Right or Wrong,” the 82-year old Dove displayed a great example of blue-eyed soul at its finest. 
The show really picked up steam with the Swallows (pictured below), still led by 86-year old Eddie Rich, who is surely one of the only living singers who recorded in the late 40’s. Not only were his vocals as passionate as ever on the ballads like “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano” and “Beside You” but he showed he can still dance up a storm on “Ride, Eddie, Ride.” This was living group harmony history at its finest. The Orioles’ backing band did a good job behind Dove and Rich. 
While there are no living Orioles left, the current group of singers who spent years with Russell did an excellent job recreating their classic sound. The current Washington-DC Clovers (there’s another version out there that includes original Harold Winley) did their best although they were hampered by a poor backing track. 
At this point I went to the parking lot to grab something from my car and witnessed a strange sight: a woman was following the Lemongellos and Errante yelling at them about someone not getting paid. Although she didn’t personally say she would do anything violent, she made it clear that “someone” might want to do them bodily harm unless the money showed up.
Shortly thereafter the band members started unplugging their instruments and packing up, grumbling to each other about getting stiffed. The promoters, via their armed escort, took off as well. Rumors started flying. Shep’s Limelites, another legacy group, went on with tracks and did an admirable job entertaining the audience considering they knew their chances of going home with their full pay was nominal. 
Once the Limelites exited the sound crew quickly broke down the PA equipment. Charlie Thomas of the Drifters, a trooper if there ever was one, stood by the stage greeting his fans and saying he still hoped to somehow gather a band and sing. The Dubs also walked around apologizing for the situation. Peaches & Herb were never spotted. Of course with no PA there could be no announcement. Inside Lamont’s annoyed ticketholders vented to the security staff, who explained that the club had simply been rented to the outsiders. Slowly people dispersed. Group members compared notes to figure out who had been paid in full, in part or not at all. 
In the aftermath fingers started pointing. Millie Russell said her only role was to arrange the Washington-based groups, which were unpaid. Errante said the sound crew had been paid but had only been hired to work until 5 p.m. and that they had a later gig. Saying that he was also a “victim,” he added that an unnamed third party had promised funding which he only learned during the show would never materialize, and pledged to get the artists their full fees although he himself was out a considerable sum. As for Lemengello and his parents, there’s been total silence in the days following the show. 
All of the promoters have a true love for the music. Errante and Russell have been involved in it for decades. It’s inconceivable that anyone set out on this ill-fated journey with the intent of ripping off the singers they love or the dwindling fans of 1950’s harmony. But the adults involved should have stopped indulging the unrealistic dreams of a 50’s obsessed teen long before the day of the show. Let’s hope that they can figure out a way to make things whole for both the artists, who’ve long suffered through the financial indignities of the music industry, and for the fans who got far less than the show they bought tickets for.


At 3:18 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had me until you said "It’s inconceivable that anyone set out on this ill-fated journey with the intent of ripping" people off. There are people that very obviously have that intent. And yet others still encourage them again and again.

At 8:38 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I performed on the oldies circuit for some 40 years with a new york-based group. This brought to mind an incident back in the 80s. All the groups assembled at the venue some groups did their sound check but before the opening act went on the box office receipts with seized subject to a lien by the local radio station for advertising. The promoter and the talent agency were going back and forth about the money until finally the promoter says "I'll get the money if I have to rob a bank" The next day we found out the promoter was in jail for attempting to rob a bank!

At 9:28 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

150 x 40.00 is 6k, probably not even enough to pay the band and the sound folks let alone all of the acts, Total rip off and I hope no one ever falls for this kids BS again.

At 11:15 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a real shame for the artist and the fans. I know you think you are seeing straight on this Noah but you are missing one big point, 3 people boasted that they were the "promoters" on this. Millie Russell and Paul Errante, no matter what "experience" they have in this business are just are responsible as that lunatic from florida. If the show was a success Millie and Paul would be the 1st ones to flaunt the success for their own benefit (as well as enjoy the profits). To try to run, hide, blame others, etc. for a botched show is inexcusable. If Millie Russell and Paul Errante are so professional then they should take it on the chin, pay the artist and crew and reimburse the audience, no matter what it costs them. Anything short of that after they sold themselves as promoters is inexcusable. I am guessing that these 2 are your friends so I understand your intent but you need to call it like it is.

At 11:42 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right, all 3 of them were equally involved. If they were going to share in the glory equally, and the fortune equally, then why shouldn't they share the responsibility equally!

At 5:21 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting scam bam thank you mam. I feel sorry for the performers and their 'duped' audience.

At 3:19 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 12:47 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Errante should be on the hook for this too! He clearly took advantage of a young kid trying to make it in the business and an old lady (Millie Russell) trying to keep active!

At 4:28 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Noah, It was not really 7 acts, that didn't perform. It was said prior to the show that Tommy Hunt was not going to be able to make it due to health reasons which Tommy explained to me when I called him to find out why. Not to mention The Dynamic Superiors who were not advertised and you could say took the place of a "Tommy Hunt" will say. Anyway Only 6 acts did not perform 1 being Lemongello, Jr. himself, who was not a name attraction. The acts not performing were 1. Charlie Thomas' Drifters 2. Peaches & Herb (who I did spot there) 3. The Dubs 4. The Charts 5. The Crests 6. Peter Lemongello, Jr. 17 acts total, 11 performed. 17 - 11 = 6 not 7 and don't forget Lemongello's 3 scheduled songs don't really count, So that leaves 5. I got my information right from the source, since I know most of the acts personally.

At 7:35 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tommy had no health issues, as stated by Tommy himself as well as his publicist. Tommy was asked to do the show and that was it. No contracts were ever sent and no further planning was made. The health issue was a flat out lie.

At 8:22 pm , Blogger Ron Reace said...

It will all come out in the wash trust me on that one and I smell bias on

At 6:39 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"local publicity was nominal"

This makes no sense. Do you mean "minimal"?

At 8:45 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, That kid is doing pretty well for himself now!

After making good with most of the acts from this show,
He is singing lead for "J.T. Carter's Crests" and also booked several groups, including his own, to perform on TJ Lubinsky's PBS new show.
P.S. And Yes they all got paid!

What efforts have the other 2 promoters made to redeem themselves?

At 9:41 pm , Blogger Jacob Leither said...

He hasn’t “made good” with the artists. He simply stays silent on the matter. I’m friends with Ronnie Dove, who is on the poster and actually performed that day, and he says that he has yet to see any money from that performance.

At 6:01 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...
Jacob Leither, I said made good with most of the acts! Now, I don't know about Ronnie Dove, but almost all of the other acts he has made good with! By the way he is not the only one responsible here! What money has Millie Russell or Paul Errante sent Mr. Dove? He is only responsible for a 3rd of it!
He made good with:
The Swallows (who he now manages)
The Drifters
The Crests
The Clovers
The Dubs
The Limelites
And Several Others!
Not to mention some acts who were paid in full and in one case over compensated!

At 2:20 pm , Blogger Ron Reace said...

FYI The Clovers haven't received one dime from the promoters


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