Branford man’s book explores Connecticut’s place in rock ‘n’ roll
If you grew up in Morris Cove or the Annex section of New Haven during the 1960s and enjoyed the music of The Four Seasons, as we did, you also loved The Van Dykes (“Miracle After Miracle,” with Frank Ruggiero’s vocals), who once appeared on the same bill as other local heroes The Shags of West Haven and New Haven’s Fred Parris of The Five Satins at the Teen Tempo ’66 show in Milford.
That was a year before The Fifth Estate of Stamford had a hit with “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead.”
Nuggets like these and other music memories are part of Tony Renzoni’s new book, “Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll: A History.”
Renzoni, who lives in Branford and spent 38 years as a federal employee, said the rock scene has always been a passion of his, and while he never even dreamed about writing a book, he has been researching the topic all his life.
“Finally, Colleen (his wife) and my daughter, Kerry, said, ‘Hey, Dad, you gotta write a book.’ It came down to that.” (And Kerry should know; she’s an assistant professor of music at Buffalo State.)
The result is a 6-by-9 paperback book from The History Press ($21.99), that was being released Monday from the Arcadia Publishing wing. It explores many interesting local and regional topics as it includes scores of photos — 150 in this case.
Renzoni will do several book signings in the coming months, kicking off the tour 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 19 at Costco in Milford.
Renzoni, 68, said from a young age he would marvel at the great records his older brother would bring home — by the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis — and his brother would always have him listen to the “B” sides of the 45 rpm discs. (We’re reminded of the line from the movie “Diner,” when the record collector husband says, “You never ask me what’s on the flip side, Beth!”)
Renzoni, raised in Waterbury, did. “So I got a really good taste of all these great songs, some of which the radio never played.”
In high school and college, Renzoni noticed the increasing impact that rock ‘n’ roll had on everyday life. Transistor radios and earphones led to more freedom for teens to play what they wanted.
“So I began to research rock ‘n’ roll especially for its influence on our society. And what began as a hobby turned into a passion for me,” said Renzoni.
He amassed a collection of about 10,000 records — many of them vinyl — and during his research he noticed talented rockers from Connecticut.
“And I also noticed that all these rock ‘n’ roll cultural events that occurred in Connecticut mirrored what was going on throughout the rest of the country and outside the country,” he said.
He’s talking partly about record hops, socials or mixers, where kids would go to hear music and dance.
“You go there and listen to the music ... of groups like the Shags or the Wildweeds (“No Good to Cry”). ... Record hops in Connecticut, record hops in Cleveland or England were all the same,” said Renzoni. “If you take all these artists and all the fans and cultural events and merge them all together, you get the rock ‘n’ roll music scene.”
But as a lifelong Connecticut guy, Renzoni was especially curious about the state’s contribution.
“I’m not saying that Connecticut was a mecca of rock music, but we had our share,” said Renzoni. “But the more I researched, the more I realized the important role that Connecticut has played in rock history. For me ... artists from Connecticut have been somewhat neglected by rock historians.”
It’s the little connections between songs and artists where that’s evident, and where his research pays dividends.
“New Haven’s own Karen Carpenter, when she was on the road, loved to play this song “And When He Smiles” ... written as “And When She Smiles” by Al Anderson of the Wildweeds (of Windsor), at the time.
“And then he (Anderson) became the lead singer for NRBQ, and now he’s the most sought-after songwriter in Nashville. So, it’s kind of cool how one leads to another.”
It may be his first book, but Renzoni did write a weekly column for many years in the Connecticut Post, a sister paper to the Register since June.
When area folks look back, he said, they always mention The Wildweeds and Gene Pitney (“Only Love Can Break a Heart”).
“The purpose of the book is to pay tribute to all these great artists from Connecticut,” said Renzoni, noting that the lesser names are just as important. “I said (to the publisher), ‘I’ll put the famous people in but I also know people who became famous on a regional basis or popular on a local basis. And hey, that’s all rock ‘n’ roll to me. I understood how hard these people worked.”
Fans of music, he said, maybe fell in love to the sound of a local record, so he there’s a strong tie there. And he’s also intrigued by the social and historical value.
The book could have value beyond Connecticut, actually, in recounting stories of Jim Morrison getting arrested in New Haven, a then-unknown Bob Dylan appearing at the Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford and Jimmy Hendrix performing at Yale’s Woolsey Hall (with shadowy photo by renowned Joe Sia of Fairfield, part of the book’s cover).
And for another reason: “Gene Pitney was beloved, and I mean beloved, in the United Kingdom and Australia, especially,” said Renzoni, a Sacred Heart University grad. And Pitney concentrated on that market after the Beatles came and “wiped out just about everybody in America except the Beach Boys.”
The book covers from the 1950s to recent years, including when “Beehive Queen” Christine Ohlman performed in the “Saturday Night Live” band and then around the region. “She is fantastic,” said Renzoni of Ohlman’s cooperation. “She’s a rock enthusiast herself.”
Also helping with the book was state guy Dennis Dunaway of the Alice Cooper Band. Of course, we also get tales of record company bungling and misconduct, such as what befell Bridgeport’s Gary DeCarlo (who died recently) and his tune “Kiss Him Goodbye,” which became the famous “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” for the (fictional) group Steam.