Debut CD from The Sons of Saint Rocco
is a roots of Rhythm & Blues explosion
The River View Observer sat down with Phil Granito and talked about his debut album, The Sons of Saint Rocco, which “drops” this week, to talk about the tracks, life, and whatever comes up.
RVO : I have to say the record sounds like fun from beginning to end.
Phil: I was doing it for fun. I brought in a lot of friends to work with me. Bobby Jay and Angel Risoffs both came in and helped me out with the vocals. Bobby sang bass on all the tracks and Angel performed the background vocals on BOOT ‘EM UP. Just terrific, and very humbling, the caliber of players who came together for me. These guys have played with Chuck Berry, Darlene Love and Bo Diddely, just to name a very few. It’s not about name-dropping, you know, it’s about heritage. They’ve been at the center of the scene for the last quarter century and they feel the same way about this music as I do.
RVO: Yes, it’s obvious from listening to the performances that there’s a deep knowledge here, but also a very authentic passion.
Phil: I hope that comes across. I’m glad it does. I’ve always felt that it’s just as important to play the roots of Rhythm & Blues as it is to play the roots of jazz or of folk. I’m not a jazz singer, but if I was I would love to hand down the roots of jazz. But these songs are important too; as important as Gershwin or Ellington, I think. It’s a great American art form, and even though it’s not played on the radio anymore, except on the “collector” shows, new generations should hear it, and not just as museum pieces but as an art form that’s alive and accessible. Hey, Rhythm & Blues had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll, ya know?
RVO: Is that what you grew up with? R&B?
Phil: I first heard Rhythm & Blues from my older brothers. The first two songs I was ever attracted to were: SHAKE A HAND by Faye Adams in the early 50’s, and MY DEAR, MY DARLING by The Counts. My ears perked up, that’s all I know – and they still do! At 58 years old, my ears still perk up when I hear these songs.
RVO: Do you think that you’ll record those songs someday?
Phil: Maybe, maybe, they’re songs that I love.
RVO: Tell us about Seth Glassman, who I see here produced the record.
Phil: Seth and I get on beautifully, in and out of the studio. This is a guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of music – groups no one’s ever heard of – which I remember from the Fillmore East in the 60’s; people like Sopwith Camel, or Baby Huey & the Babysitters, and he’s like, “oh yeah I remember them,” and then goes on to reference his favorite tracks and session players. So having that shared vocabulary and appreciation, it was a very natural process getting to the sound we wanted on this record. And when we were done we were both able to say, “we’ve got somethin’ here that sounds fresh, and yet very old at the same time.” Perfect.
RVO: Where does the name, The Sons of Saint Rocco, come from?
Phil: Saint Rocco’s was the Catholic School I attended in Newark as a kid. The very first musical training I had was in the choir there, taught by the nuns. I remember singing OH HOLY NIGHT, and when we all got to that part of the song where we sang “fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices…,” hearing that harmony, even as a little child, it sounded so beautiful to me that my heart skipped a beat! So in a way, I’m paying homage to that musical instruction that I received from the nuns, letting them know that I appreciate what they did for my education.
RVO: So what all happened between the choir and the making of this record? How did you get here? Can you talk to us about that?
Phil: Sure. Back in the mid 60s, about 1965, there was an acappella vocal group explosion in the northeast, from Boston all the way down to Philly. A few friends and I – we were only 13 or 14 – got caught up in the excitement, and after going to shows at the Fox Theater in Hackensack, decided to start our own group. We called ourselves The 4 Winds. We’d sing at school dances, and we came in 2nd in a sort of “Battle of the Bands.” We’d hang out and sing with other groups – some friends from Jersey City had a group called Joann and the Heartaches, who ended up recording for Catamount. Well, one of those friends from The Heartaches was Joe Calamito. So, fast forward, to ten years later when I see him performing at a show being sponsored by UGHA* – this is the late 70’s – and Joe asks me if I’d like to start another vocal group with him, just for fun. We round up Tommy D’Alesandro, who sang with The Heartaches in the 60’s, and our friend, Raul Vicente, who was singing with this group called Image. We decided to keep the name The Heartaches. We were only together a couple months before Ronnie Italiano asked us to sing at a UGHA show, which got a wonderful response. So Ronnie, who was a great friend to us, tells us Richard Nader (the concert promoter) called, asking him to send one group to represent UGHA in an acappella contest he was hosting at Madison Square Garden, and he’d like to send us. To say the least, we were honored. We competed against 25 groups from all over the east coast, including some “ringers” from a Broadway show called A SOLDIER’S STORY, but we brought it home for UGHA and won 1st prize! From there we went on to sing in some TV spots and to perform with The Righteous Brothers, who offered to take us on the road with them. They said they missed our style of singing in California, and that it was refreshing to them. So that was the start. From there I went on to tour the U.S. and Canada for two years with Frankie Lymon’s Teenagers, who had always been musical heroes of mine. That brought the opportunity to sing with The Bon Aires, and then, of course, I’ve been singing with The Duprees for the past 23 years, which continues to be a great blessing and joy in my life. And of course, I have to mention The Cliftonaires, a group that Ronnie put together, not only for the love of music, but for love of friendship.
* UGHA (United in Group Harmony Association: an organization started in 1976 by Ronnie Italiano for the preservation of vocal group singing)
RVO: Wow! That’s a journey and a half.
Phil: Right? And all along that road I was delving into the history, living in record shops, and discovering songs that I knew I’d love to sing someday; songs that didn’t, for one reason or another, fit what I was doing at the time. So The Sons of Saint Rocco is THAT collection, or the first part of it, anyway. It just couldn’t live in my imagination any longer; it was time to make it a record.
RVO: Would you call this record a Rhythm & Blues record? Or soul? Or Rock ‘n Roll? Or what?
Phil: As terms that people can key into, sure, there’s a little bit of everything in this collection, but nowadays I find labels like that to be misused, which is why I hesitate to use them myself. Though at the time that “R&B” was coined, it was very useful and extremely welcomed. Jerry Wexler had been a writer at Billboard (before he went with Atlantic Records), and he grew increasingly offended, watching the charts list this music every week as “Race Music,” which even in 1948 seemed antiquated. So he came up with Rhythm & Blues, which is why it’s forever attached to black music. But nowadays kids use ‘Rhythm & Blues’ and ‘Soul’ to describe any number of things, so how do you talk to them, ya know?
But whatever you want to call it, I just wanted to have some fun in the studio with some friends.
RVO: Talk to us about your choice of tracks, a little bit. How did you choose?
Phil: Well, I tend to approach music as much as a collector as I do a singer. Also, I hang with a crowd of die-hard aficionados and liner-note junkies. I wanted the album to appeal to them as well – to be new for them in some sense. Some of them, hopefully, will be hearing a couple of these tunes for the first time.
RVO: Which, if any, of these songs would you say is the best well-known?
Phil: Well known? Oh, I dunno, JUMP CHILDREN, maybe. I always loved that song and hoped someone would make a good cover of it someday.
RVO: I love that one too. A great way to finish the album, I thought.
Phil: Thanks. Yeah, I might have been channeling Cab Calloway that day, he’s the one who made “jump music” something you could jitterbug to.
RVO: Can you jitterbug to JUMP CHILDREN?
Phil: Absolutely, that’s a full-on jitterbug record! I hope the swing community latches onto that song. DO YOU WANNA ROCK, is another one for the jitterbuggers.
RVO: I know it makes me want to dance. Phil, thanks so much for talking with us today. Much continued success with The Sons of Saint Rocco.
Phil: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.