photo credit: Greg Cohen
LA Weekly declared that Jim Bianco "...has catapulted himself onto the level of eclectic song craft on par with Elvis Costello and Tom Waits." Bianco's album Loudmouth drops April 5th, with "Sinners" as the first single. "The song is not about bad people, it's about good people who like to do bad things," says Bianco, who raised over $30,000 from his fans to fund the release of Loudmouth.
Presented here is an exclusive HuffPost premiere of the single, "Sinners," which just might become your new favorite party anthem.
photo courtesy of TJL Productions
A Conversation with The Crystals' La La Brooks
Mike Ragogna: La La, let's first get an official recap of The Crystals' history.
La La Brooks: I came on board when I was 13, I was going to school at PS73 in Brooklyn, and after school, I would have to go back into the building because my mom didn't like us being on the street. So, I went back home at three o'clock and every time my mom would say, "Go back to school and do some kind of recreation." I went to the afterschool program, usually you would have to do some sort of sport. On this particular day, I heard this guy named Leo down the hallway and he was playing the piano, so I jumped out of the dance class where everybody was dancing and I followed the piano. I stood in this door and I said to this man, "Could I sing?" He said, "Can you?" and I said, "Yeah." I started singing, and my voice, I guess, with the echoes in the hallway came so strong...Dee Dee Kenniebrew's mom was working in the school at the time. She came down the hallway and said, "Was that you singing with that big voice?" and I said, "Yeah." She said, "Would you like to join a group called The Crystals?" I said "Sure." I knew they had out "There's Nobody Like My Baby," and I knew Barbara Austin did that recording. So, that was the only recording that I wasn't on.
She went to my house and talked with my mom, and I ended up being in the group at 13. There was a girl named Myrna Gerard, and she had gotten pregnant and she was a background singer for the group. Then, I joined the group and took her place. From 13 years I was in the group since then. I started doing all background for Barbara's songs, Phil Spector started recording me after. I started doing "There's Nobody Like My Baby" on stage because Barbara was afraid to perform even though she did all of the lead vocals in the studio.
MR: So, the opportunity came about because Myrna left?
LLB: Yes, it's because she got pregnant but I also think they were looking for a stronger voice. Her voice was very light. When I got in the group I had a gospel sound. I started singing gospel with my brother and sister in church. I started with them when I was 7. I just got to be in the professional group at 13.
MR: Now, some of your hits were written by Ellie Greenwich, please can we talk about her for a bit? I worked with her and Tommy West on her Razor & Tie anthology, and she was one of the funniest, smartest people I ever met. Not many people know that beyond writing some of the most memorable pop hits of her time, she was in Jim Croce and Blondie background vocal groups, sang a ton of commercials...
LLB: ...she was fabulous. Ellie Greenwich was so sweet and she was a great writer, a great person, and when she passed away, I was devastated. I saw her two years before she passed away. I was working in The Cutting Room, the guy that manages it called me on the phone and I hadn't seen her in years and he said Ellie Greenwich just left. I ran up the street to get her because I hadn't seen her since we recorded "Da Do Run Run." Ellie Greenwhich had her shoes off because her feet were hurting. She was walking up the street and that's the only reason I caught her was because she was walking so slow. I ran up 24th street in New York and I was yelling, "Ellie Greenwich!" She said, "Damn it, La La! I haven't seen you since I was a little girl. When you recorded 'Da Do Run Run' and 'Then He Kissed Me,' I knew I had a hit." It was with a kid's voice because I was 15.
MR: When you saw her, I imagine you noticed she put on some weight?
LLB: Yeah, she put on a lot of weight. In fact, I was sending her messages saying come down and see me at The Cutting Room, but she didn't want to go out that much because she had gained a lot of weight. I think sometimes she was tired, that's why when I saw her that day, she had her shoes off because she gained that weight. She was walking kind of slow, and I knew she had a problem with weight. She was very self-conscious of that. I stopped trying to see her because she was staying in the house most of the time because of that.
MR: Also, though everybody tends to credit just Jeff Barry for discovering Neil Diamond, actually, it was Ellie Greenwich along with Jeff.
LLB: You know how they sometimes flip the truth. Ellie was tough, she wasn't no pushover. She was very strong when it came to recording. She would tell you the way she wanted the song done, you would say okay in a second. She was a tough cookie.
MR: There are great stories she told like when she tried to break the ice with the boys in the studio who naturally would cluster at sessions. Apparently, she'd walk up to the group and "freshen-up" by applying a penis-shaped lipstick, that's what she told Tommy West in his liner notes for her collection. Anyway, let's get to the elephant in the room, Phil Spector.
LLB: When we were recording with Phil, nobody else was on the scene at the time. Phil was recording us in New York, and he had an apartment on York Street.
MR: Nice Brill Building-era story, but sorry about the missed opportunity. What else have you got on The Crystals and Phil?
LLB: Phil was in New York and recorded all of our stuff and he was cool. He was young and we were the first ones on his label. Then, how Darlene (Love) came about was that he wanted to put out a record so bad because we had some management that had an iron fist. I think he was afraid of them. We had Joe Scandore, who was the manager of us and for forty-something years, he managed Don Rickles. He was very powerful. Phil wanted to throw a record out there, and that's when he moved out to California. He still was with us and he wanted a record out. He recorded Darlene on the lead vocals on "He's A Rebel" and "He's Sure The Boy I Love." We didn't even know anything about it because we thought he was going to record us again, but they were having some problems with him in the rivalry and all kind of nonsense dealing with crazy things.
MR: You must have been furious over that.
LLB: What happened was The Crystals had a gig to do, and we were all in the car driving to the gig and we hear this song on the radio and we didn't think anything about it, we just thought it was a recording. Then, all of a sudden, we heard, "That was The Crystals, I think it's going to #1." All us originals looked at each other and said, "We didn't do that. Who is that girl?" We were shocked and then it made a big hit. Barbara couldn't sing it on stage because she didn't have the power, I had the power. So, I had to go and sing it on stage, and nobody knew the difference because by me having a gospel strong sound, it was okay. The problem was he also threw out "He's Sure The Boy I Love" on Darlene under The Crystals' name. That was difficult for me to do--not the vocals, but I had the Brooklyn accent, so I had to keep practicing to not let that get through. I had to learn that dialect. I was able to do the notes, I was able to do the power, and that was okay.
MR: Did anyone try to hook up Darlene with The Crystals, like with a meeting to make her an official member?
LLB: We had never met Darlene, she was never a Crystal, she was not a part of the group at all. In fact, she was older than me and some of the other girls.
MR: And you had come in to do lead earlier on. It must have ben confusing since there was so much musical mixing and matching in Spectorworld.
LLB: Phil always used The Blossoms for backup, even Cher is on the backup, and I'm on the backup. But the lead vocals I did, and as I said, Darlene was never a Crystal. From that day on, Phil was recording me, it ended up where people had to be told the truth. Phil should have never put Darlene under The Crystals' name.
MR: Were The Crystals or you ever given an explanation?
LLB: What happened was when I met Jack Nitzsche before he died, I went to The Mayflower Hotel, he was on drugs, he was older now and I was older too. Jack Nitzsche was telling me that the reason (Phil) put The Crystals' name under Darlene's voice was because he couldn't get a hit with Darlene. He figured, "The Crystals' name was hot as heck, if I put her voice under The Crystals name, it will explode." That's what happened. When I came out with "Da Do Run Run," it put the original members of The Crystals back on the map. That was a big problem for us at the time. Now, all the truth is coming out in the liner notes of the stuff that's being released. I'm really happy about that because I had to come so far under so much stress of having to tell the truth. Also Nitzsche's wife was doing background vocals.
MR: Did that include Buffy Sainte-Marie?
LLB: No, Buffy Sainte-Marie was his lover (later). When I saw Nitzsche in New York, he was with Willy Deville. They were in the hotel and I brought an assistant with me, I was so stupid I didn't know they were going in the bathroom back and forth smoking cocaine. He started talking to me about recording again. He said, "La La, we are going to knock Phil's socks off. Phil cheated me out of money and didn't have any respect for me." I was listening to all of this but I'm coming from a child's mind because I didn't know all of this was going on. Jack said, "He treated me like a piece of crap, didn't pay me my money and if it wasn't for me, there would be no Phil Spector. We are going to record and I'm going to take every sound because it's me that made every sound for Phil."
This other guy named David was with us in the room and he was going to write the words, Jack was going to do the music. We called Jackie DeShannon because Jack played one of her records that I liked, so I said I would like to do that and also original stuff. We got her on the phone and I told her that Jack wanted to do one of your songs and that I loved one of her songs. She said, "Fine, do it." Then, after we were talking he said, "La La, I want to tell you something you've never known before." He said, "Phil used to treat me like a piece of s**t." I said, "What?" I was so hurt in my heart because I'm coming from a teenager and now I'm an adult and I'm loving Phil because I just admired him. I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "He used to put me in the studio and sorting through tapes over and over. I would be there from 11 o'clock till 5 o'clock the next morning. We didn't eat." When Jack Nitzsche said that, I got such a cramp in my stomach, I got déjà vu.I remember going to the vending machine to get a coke and peanuts to fill my stomach because there were no sandwiches, or no pizza. He said, "He used to work you like a horse." I said, "Really?" I was so sad because I didn't see that in Phil. Because I was a kid, I saw the goodness in Phil where other people would see the negative part. I guess he wouldn't treat me like that because I was a child.
MR: What about your post-Crystals story?
LLB: Well, after I recorded with The Crystals and I did all the work for Phil, I started auditioning for Broadway. I was in the original cast of Hair on Broadway--I did "Aquarius." I would do "Aquarius" every night in Hair with Galt McDermott and James Rado, all of the original cast in Hair. I also would do "What A Piece Of Work Is Man" with Melba Moore. At that time when I was in Hair, I was in the dressing room with Diane Keaton, she was the lead principle. I was so fortunate to do all of those songs.
MR: Wasn't "Aquarius" and Hair in general a spiritual experience in ways?
LLB: Oh my God, it was. All of the songs had some kind of meaning--a spiritual meaning or a freedom of the mind. I spoke to Galt McDermott the other day, he is around 81 now. I invited him to come down to B.B. King's with me because I'm working there, so I called Galt and asked him if he was free. He still plays the piano and still has his faculties.
MR: Okay, what happened to La La post-Hair?
LLB: After Hair, I did Two Gentleman Of Verona on Broadway. That was a great Broadway show. That was the time of Nixon because I remember he and his wife had come to see the show; the dressing room had to be cleared, the Secret Service men were there and looking under things. I remember going on stage and seeing Nixon and his wife in the middle with all of their Secret Service men around him. Then, after that, I did some modeling and some backup, and the movie Cotton Comes To Harlem. I did it with Melba Moore and Leata Galloway, and we did all of the soundtrack. Ossie Davis directed that. Then, I went to Europe and lived in England for six and a half years, went to Vienna and lived there for close to eight years. I had my own radio show in Vienna called "La La Brooks--Come On Everybody." I played music on Sundays from '40s to '60s music.
MR: You also had the CD La La And Friends right?
LLB: Yeah, on that CD, I had Bobby Womack, also all of The Neville Brothers. There is some music on there that's unbelievable. We did it in New Orleans live, it took nine days for us to do, and it has a Mardi Gras song and a funky song on it. They ended up releasing it in Vienna and then in Germany. We had some contract trouble, but they ended up releasing it in Europe. When I came here, I spoke to Isaac Hayes and he said, "If you released this in America, it would be a hit."
MR: I bet these are all people you could pick up the phone and have casual conversations with.
LLB: Yeah, because they are sweethearts. Everybody knows everybody in the business, and everybody keeps in touch. When we come across each other, it's still the same because we all came from the same era. In fact, Valerie Simpson--when Phil stopped recording The Crystals--she was 17 and so was I. I'm on two or three songs Valerie Simpson recorded, and she was on the background with The Crystals. When we were in the studio, she said, "La La, your voice is so fabulous, why don't you leave The Crystals and come with us because we are singing with Ray Charles. You could join us as background." I thought about it, I thought about the money, I thought about everything. Then, I looked at the girls in the studio and I said, "I can't leave my girls."
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
LLB: For new artists and young artists? I was 13 when I joined The Crystals, and I was fortunate because I had a guardian. I went to private schools, I went to school with Patty Duke, Duncan Quinn, Bernadette Peters. So, I would say for young people, make sure that you're grounded because the business can swallow you up. Make sure you have a guardian to protect you morally. I had a woman named Mrs. Wright, she was my guardian on the road. When people say, "It was so young when you joined the group," I was protected. I had to be there at a certain time, I had my homework. I would say that always make sure when you're in a group or if you're a single artist and you're young, stay grounded. I remember playing England and getting off the plane and The Beatles were waiting because they were coming to America. We had just arrived, and I remember guys coming up and asking me at a young age, "Do you want purple hearts?" which were drugs and I didn't know it at the time. That was available for me when I was 14 and 15. The reason these things come at you is that, if they know that you are into drugs and stuff like that, it's a control mechanism. When you get into drugs, you don't have a balance of right and wrong. I was always guarded from the time I was very young to know that it's not right. That's what kept my spiritual part and my longevity. There are wolves out there and people out there that would steer you in the wrong direction. Before you start the show business thing, you have to love yourself; if you don't love yourself someone else will come in on you. When the show business is going and you're hung up on the thrills and glitter, it's not the real world.
MR: Well, speaking of thrills and glitter, what do you think of American Idol?
LLB: I love American Idol. The only thing that I have a problem with is that when they reject someone, it's the sensitivity part, because I'm on the outside looking in. That's what hurts me, when they are rejected, they take it so seriously. Sometimes, when I'm watching them, I want to give them a hug and say, "It's not that serious. You can go on and just because one door closed, there are other doors that are open." I think that's what I'm very sensitive to. Show business is like a 9 to 5 job, you're onstage, then you get off and you live a normal life. I'm so humble and grateful for the fans out there because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be sitting here at this age doing performances and shows. I'm just like anybody else--I'm normal, I get upset, I have ups and downs. But when It comes to show business, you have to have a balance.
MR: What are your plans for the future?
LLB: I'm doing shows at B.B. King's, and I don't only do The Crystals. I do U2, I do Tina Turner, I do The Rolling Stones, I go out of the box. I would love to continue on working. There comes a time where I have to sit down and say, "You know what? Thank you to the fans and the longevity you've given me." When you get older, you have to stop at some point...I'm not going to be 70 or 80 years old doing "Da Do Run Run." There is a time and a place for everything. There is a time when that bell rings and says, "You're too darn old to be doing 'Da Do Run Run,' let somebody else take the flag and run with it and wish them the best."
(transcribed by Theo Shier)
photos courtesy of TJL Productions
MY MUSIC: ROCK, POP & DOO WOP
March 2011 PBS PREMIERE (check local listings)
Ronnie Spector, La La Brooks, Jay Black & Other Legends Finally Get To Sing Their Hits
Rock and pop legends Ronnie Spector (of The Ronettes), and Jon "Bowzer" Bauman (formerly of Sha Na Na) team up to host a celebration of the best-loved songs from the late 1950s and early 1960s in an all-new MY MUSIC concert event. Recorded in May, 2010, this special offers emotion-packed performances from iconic voices singing songs that have remained popular for over forty years. MY MUSIC: ROCK, POP AND DOO WOP premieres on PBS stations beginning March 5, 2011 and airs throughout March (check local listings).
Highlights: For the first time in four decades, pop-rock royalty Ronnie Spector is able to sing on TV the biggest hits from her days as the star of The Ronettes: "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You." History is also made when La La Brooks performs "Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home") and "Then He Kissed Me," two girl group classics from The Crystals and songs on which Brooks sang lead vocals on the original recordings. The beloved Jay Black, formerly of Jay & The Americans, renders his show-stopping smash "Cara Mia" and Len Barry makes a rare appearance to offer his #1 hit "1-2-3." The Orlons hit the stage with"The Wah-Watusi" in tribute to the Philly teen dance music of American Bandstand era in the early 1960s.
"This show is also unique in that we've been able to acquire lost footage from archives around the world that hasn't been seen since originally aired," says My Music creator and executive producer TJ Lubinsky. "Included are anthems like 'Get A Job' by the Silhouettes and 'Book Of Love' by The Monotones." Also featured is an original performance by Johnny Maestro & The Crests (before Maestro formed The Brooklyn Bridge). "Johnny was an all-time legend of vocal group harmony," said Lubinsky. "After his recent passing, seeing him in his prime is a highly poignant moment."
Carl Gardner's Coasters
Johnny Maestro & The Crests
John Gummoe (of The Cascades)
Barbara Harris & The Toys
Shirley Alston Reeves (original lead singer of The Shirelles)
Jay Black (originally with Jay & The Americans)
La La Brooks (originally with The Crystals)
Kenny Vance & The Planotones
Rock, Pop & Doo Wop debuts on PBS stations nationwide the first weekend in March and repeats throughout the month. Check for local listings.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008