Meet Delaware's Rock 'n' Roll Legends
The First State boasts no shortage of great musicians, including a few who have been kicking around for 40 years or more and made a mark nationally.
From left: Keith Mack, Ed Shockley, Dale Melton, Ritchie Rubini, Dennis Melton, Mark Kenneally and Ben LeRoy on stage at World Cafe Live at The Queen. Collectively, they’ve been rockin’ for about 250 years.
Who are your favorite rock 'n' rollers, and how did you discover them? Who did we forget to include? Which rising stars we should know about? Share your stories with us! Leave a comment below, tag us in a post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Claims to fame: Singer, songwriter and producer best known as the drummer for Jack of Diamonds, considered the hottest homegrown band to play up and down the East Coast and beyond during the 1970s and ’80s. Shockley was the drummer-front man for Vinyl Shockley, a band of his lifelong musical peers that has recorded four CDs. Shockley is currently drummer for The Reminders, an Americana trio.
Anyone who knows the Delaware rock scene has either crossed paths, or wanted to, with Shockley. He’s famous beyond his musicianship for helping bands find the middle ground or make up after rifts.
“My parents fought like cats and dogs,” says Shockley. “I was always compelled to play peacemaker. When bands are having issues, I am one of the guys that gets called.
“Being in a band is hard,” he adds. “You have artistic differences, issues with women, relationship stuff, immature guys. There’s a lot to deal with. Then, if there’s a breakup or someone dies, that’s the lowest of lows, and it doesn’t matter how high you were at the time.”
Success is something Shockley has enjoyed plenty of, from his early days playing the legendary Stone Balloon with his band Jack of Diamonds to being “liked” to “actually getting paid” to make records.
“I loved music from as early on as I can remember,” Shockley says. “I used to play hooky from school to watch reruns of ‘I Love Lucy’ so I could teach myself how to play that mambo beat. I figured I’d either nail it or pursue my other passion, fine art and design.”
Back then the hot musicians—Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles—had dark hair. “Mine was red,” Shockley says. “I didn’t think I had a chance. Then, when The Beatles broke—homely by American standards—I felt a glimmer of hope.” He played his first gig six months after seeing The Beatles.
In the 1970s and ’80s his band Jack of Diamonds was the most popular on the scene, but Shockley’s real dream came true with Vinyl Shockley, which he fronted as a singing drummer—something he had always been discouraged from.
For the past six years, Shockley has been getting his music fix in a band called The Reminders, which plays a blend of roots, gospel, folk and country. He calls the experience “uplifting.”
“Writing these songs, sharing them with people, it’s just how my friend Dale Melton describes it—just like going to the mountaintop. I’m not worried about reaching the top just yet; I can’t see the end of growing. I am a better musician now than I ever was.”
Keith Mack (left) and Ed Shockley
Claims to fame: Guitarist for platinum-selling Patty Smyth and Scandal during the early ’80s, now in resurrected form, Mack has toured and recorded with Joe Cocker, Paul Young and Cyndi Lauper.
For Mack, it’s all about getting lost in the music, no matter where he is or who’s sitting beside him. It was true when he was goofing around on the guitar at age 7, when he was getting paid to play at school dances at 13, and when he’s chilling on the beach. It’s all a journey, each part relished equally. Being able to appreciate the opportunities has helped him to stay deft as a player, relevant as an artist and joyful as a person. All of it has been magical, Mack says, “like the beach.”
It helps that he isn’t caught up in the money chase any longer.
“People don’t buy music anymore. They expect to get it for free, and they do,” Mack says. “That’s why bands play more out live. It’s the only way to make good money.” He comments on the state of music for the younger generation of artists. “They can’t be in it for the money, nor should they be spending so much time writing and recording music if no one is going to buy it.”
Mack isn’t one to take his own advice. He released his first solo album, “The Moment,” two years ago. The CD of original songs features co-writer John Thompson, Eran Asias of Scandal, and local boys Johnny Neel and Ed Shockley, a lifelong friend. Having toured with big names such as Patty Smyth, Joe Cocker and Cyndi Lauper, Mack is enjoying the next chapter: gigging solo.
Claims to fame: Producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist best known as the drummer for The Caulfields, who toured nationally and internationally and had two albums released on A&M Records. Since then, Rubini has played on countless major-label and indie releases and produced songs that have been played on MTV, WB, FOX and other television networks. His work has also appeared on soundtracks for various major and indie films.
Early on, Rubini promised himself he’d play on anything anyone asked him to. The vow sometimes led to long road trips, sleeping in his car and playing for cheesesteaks instead of cash. Yet he developed a priceless trait—adaptability—which, he discovered, would open many musical doors.
Working as a top session player at The Warehouse recording studio in Philadelphia during the late 1980s, he played with many “breaking musicians,” such as Bon Jovi. “It was always special being a part of that excitement,” says Rubini. “I got in on a lot of cool stuff because of the quality of my playing and understanding the difference between playing on stage and in a studio. I was going for it on the first take every time.”
He carried what he learned in the studio back then into his current music life. Though he recalls the days playing with local faves Honor Society in the 1980s and being in awe of their popularity, he says most people look at it more fondly than he does. That’s no knock against his past success—for Rubini, a musical career is grounded in growth.
For him, that has come most profoundly through producing. “I’m pretty much immersed in it,” he says. “What I enjoy is that I’m always discovering new things about myself unrelated to music, yet because of music.”
Rubini looks at music making as a process with many layers, both technical and emotional. “Music is your heart and soul. People can knock it down very quickly. You can’t ignore others’ feedback, but it means constantly being vulnerable,” he says. “If you listen, you realize that everybody you work with unknowingly teaches you something about yourself. You learn about your shortcomings as a person as much as you do a musician.”
Though most people know him as a drummer, he has hit the stage and the studio with a guitar, a keyboard and—something he once thought impossible—a piano. “I got better by putting pressure on myself to try new things. I watched other musicians play different instruments, and I wanted to learn to play them, too.”
Learning, Rubini says, is the key to a fulfilling creative life.
“I may not be as strong on another instrument, but that doesn’t mean I am going to shy away from it. My lifelong goal as a musician has been to keep evolving. The fact that I was able—still am able—to say that at age 56 provides a sense of accomplishment that may only matter to me, but it matters.”
Claims to fame: Front man and red-hot harmonica player for Rockett 88, an ever-evolving band that over the years included everyone from Tommy Conwell of the Young Rumblers and Hank Carter of the Delaware Destroyers to The Bullets’ Michael Davis and The Sin City Band’s Jim Ficca. Rockett 88 was the official band of the Baltimore Orioles for three years.
It all started with a trombone given to Kenneally by his father, who was talked into it by a local music shop owner, thinking it was cooler than the trumpet Kenneally had requested for his 13th birthday.
“It wasn’t cool to me,” says Kenneally, now 67. “I was pretty awful and gave up on it pretty quickly. I think the son of the music store owner felt badly for me, because one day he showed up with two harmonicas. I guess my dad had been reporting in on my lackluster trombone playing. As he handed them to me, he said, ‘I don’t have a trumpet for you, but I think you might have some fun with these.’”
He didn’t know, but those harmonicas would change his life.
Kenneally didn’t have any formal training, but the universe kept sending him talented musicians who liked his style and attitude. One such instructor was George Thorogood, who he met at a school dance.
“George was playing one of Steve Winwood’s organ tracks, and that caught my attention,” Kenneally says. “I approached him at the end of the set to introduce myself and give him a compliment, and suddenly everything changed.”
Thorogood helped him hone his harmonica chops and also introduced him to other musicians. By the time Kenneally—known as Dr. Harmonica—graduated college, it was clear he was headed into music as a full-time career.
The jumping off point was Rockett 88, the same band he plays in today. Unlike peers who evolved by moving from band to band, Kenneally’s musical growth was—and still is—the result of musicians rotating in and out of Rockett 88. Over the years, his bandmates have included Thorogood, Hank Carter, Tommy Conwell, Jim Ficca, Gary Philips and a host of other notables.
Today Kenneally is a sought-after studio musician, touring player and inspired bandleader. Underneath is a man who has struggled with cerebral palsy for decades, a condition that has led to other health issues and depression.
Had it not been for a local bar owner nominating him for the International Blues Hall of Fame in 2013, Kenneally might have given up on music. But just like that, he was inducted and picked up by a record company. Next thing he knew he was on the road with Linda Gail Lewis and cutting tracks with Dee Dee Sharp Gamble. Once worried that his “fun” job felt too much like work, Kenneally is now having the time of his life. But if he ever has to give it all up, you might find him on stage at a comedy club.
“Half the reason I still play out so often is because it gives me a great excuse to tell jokes. Whether I’m funny or not, I have no idea.”
The Melton Brothers Band
Dennis (left) and Dale Melton
Claims to fame: Dennis and Dale Melton served as the rhythm section and vocal support for artists such as Shirley Eikhard (whose “Something to Talk About” was made famous by Bonnie Raitt), Manhattan Transfer founder Erin Dickens, Jesse Frederick, past local faves The Watson Brothers Band, Alfie Moss, Vinyl Shockley and others. They have opened shows for B.B. King, Muddy Waters, The Chambers Brothers, Buddy Miles, Procol Harum, The Kingsmen and more.
The Melton Brothers was born in 1964—the band, not the brothers—about two seconds after The Beatles made their debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Says Dennis, “We looked at each other immediately and said, ‘We’re putting a band together.’”
Fifty-plus years later, what stands out, aside from this cherished moment of sibling bonding, is how focused they are in the now.
“Right now, we are playing in the best band ever,” Dennis says, “and it just keeps getting better.”
At their age, most are bailing on the rock life. The Meltons are still here, Dennis says, due to a calculated decision to “learn about what The Melton Brothers sound like.”
Working with peers in different stages of their careers, the brothers created an opportunity to redefine and refine their personal brand of groove swing, R&B, country blues and roots rock. They’ve also rekindled their appreciation for small venues that aspire to fulfill an authentic concert experience in more of an old-school way, places where the music is the focus and audiences can get lost in the magic.
“It’s never been about making it,” says Dennis, “which happens many times over the course of a lifetime. It’s about communicating with people through music.”
“We’ve always communicated through music,” adds Dale. “Playing together, we only argue occasionally. Because we are brothers and have played together our entire lives, we can anticipate each other through music. We don’t talk things out. We just play.”
By sticking with it, the Meltons have become better musicians, and they can tap into a freer place of creativity and enjoyment because they’re no longer worried about making money through music.
“It’s not that we never did,” says Dennis. “We just found a way to build careers that would allow room for our passion to thrive. We know architecture and publishing and marketing, but what we know the best is music. And with the help of both lifelong and newfound musical friendships, we have discovered an even more rewarding way to keep that passion alive.”
Claims to fame: Founder and front man for Ben LeRoy & the Snap, which has performed with or opened shows for America, The Alarm, Gregg Allman, The Guess Who, John Eddie, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Hooters, Mathew Sweet, Sophie B. Hawkins and Tommy Conwell. Also dabbles in solo gigging.
LeRoy’s journey as a musician, and his inspiration to play, started with his “amazing” big brother Pete and his black Ibanez electric guitar.
“I finally got up the nerve to sneak into his room and crank it up while he was out one day,” LeRoy says. “I was 12, and I will never forget the sound coming out of his slick, padded Kustom tower amp.”
As powerful as that moment was, LeRoy likes to tell people that his love of music began in the womb. His mother is a gifted pianist, and her father played piano at the silent movies. “Our house was—and still is—always full of music,” LeRoy says.
It’s a tradition he’s kept alive in his own home and with his own family. “Not a day goes by without either one of my boys strumming a few chords or writing entire songs on the guitar,” LeRoy says. “I believe their music ability will help shape their lives and the lives of those around them, just like my mother’s did. When they’re in town, all five of us—my brothers Pete and Chris and I and the boys, Jason and Kyle, jam for hours.”
Whether playing out or playing in, music is behind his attitude toward almost everything. Playing rock isn’t so much about “making it” as it is about “keeping it” and evolving with it. Being able to play music for as long as he has, LeRoy says, has been a dream.
The realization of one dream is a stepping stone to the next, he says. “I have mountains of room to grow, and I plan to do so for as long as I am able.”
Among his career highlights are hearing his song on the radio for the first time and opening for several national acts. His fondest memory, however, is a show that he wrote, produced, directed and played in at The Grand in 2009—a personal goal set after seeing so many tremendous musicians command that stage.
“It took me the better part of a year to pull it all together, but in the end, it was worth every moment. With 23 musicians, a drum corps, a string section, horn section, choreographed ballroom dancing and a whole host of other bits, we filled every level and pulled off one of the best shows I have ever been privy to.”
Delaware has bred superstars, been home to others. Here they are.
George Thorogood and The Destroyers
Still the most bad-to-the-bone performer in rock, George Thorogood and his band are the biggest and longest-lasting act to come out of Delaware. From his first gig in 1973 in a University of Delaware dorm to his big break opening for Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat to The Destroyers’ Badder Than Ever tour last year, this Wilmington-born and -bred guitarist is an international icon. Two of his biggest fans are Slash and Steve Miller, both of whom praise him as one of the baddest rock ’n’ roll songwriters-electric slide guitar players ever. With a sound described as high-energy boogie-blues, Thorogood and The Destroyers were a staple of 1980s rock radio (and countless parties). Forty-some years after hitting the scene, Thorogood and his band are still playing more than 100 shows a year and performing his favorite song, “Bad to the Bone.“
Fusing blues, funk, R&B, jazz, gospel, country and reggae into one unique personal sound, Johnny Neel ranks as one of the country’s most soulful and versatile players. A gifted pianist, B-3 organist and harp player, he’s best known for his songwriting. Blind since birth, Neel cut his first single at the age of 12, as Johnny Neel and The Shapes of Soul, highlighting his love of Motown and soul. He eventually moved to Nashville and quickly became a highly sought-after songwriter and session player. While performing at The Bluebird with Traffic alumni Dave Mason and Steve Winwood, he met guitarist Dickey Betts and earned a spot in the reunited Allman Brothers Band. He, Betts and Gregg Allman co-wrote the chart-topping hit “Good Clean Fun” (“Seven Turns” album), the band’s biggest hit since Betts’ “Rambling Man.” He later received a Grammy nomination for keyboard work with the Allman Brothers Band on the instrumental “True Gravity” from that same album. He briefly wrote for Huey Lewis’ publishing company, Babaloo, along with Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby and Delbert McClinton. In 1993 he released a solo effort titled “Johnny Neel & The Last Word.” He remains in high demand among the pros.
Marley may be the biggest name in reggae, but he makes the list for the still-heavy rotation of his music on classic rock and AOR radio stations. Marley called Wilmington home for eight months in the early 1970s, and it was in Wilmington that he wrote several of his early hits. With his band The Wailers, Marley’s 1974 album “Burnin’” gathered cult followings in both the United States and Europe, and produced the song “I Shot the Sheriff,” made a hit by Eric Clapton. A year later, his “No Woman, No Cry” became an international hit and “Rastaman Vibration” became a Billboard Top 10 Album. A string of hits—still beloved by millions—ensued. Marley may never have received a Grammy nomination, but he lives on as a messenger of love, peace, unity and equality and one of the most unique and connecting musicians in history.
Jerry Jeff Walker sums up David Bromberg as “the reason that instruments have strings.” Others describe his guitar work as “a marvel.” Whatever angle you choose to view this “musician’s musician,” Bromberg has had an amazing journey. Along the way, he’s had adventures with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, and music and life lessons from seminal blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis, who claimed the young Bromberg as a son. He co-wrote the song, “The Holdup,” with former Beatle George Harrison and has been the go-to guy for acts ranging from the Eagles to Link Wray to Phoebe Snow. This near-virtuoso is as equally diverse in music styles as he is on stringed instruments. His passion for blues, folk, country, bluegrass and rock ’n’ roll is awesome in the true definition of the word. All over the world, Bromberg, a resident of Wilmington for more than a decade now, is revered for his violin expertise and for his undying passion for instilling an appreciation for blues music in audiences of all ages.
Some reached the big time. Some just flirted with it. Surely you’ve heard a few of them.
Drnec earned his 15 minutes of rock ’n’ roll fame and then some as a drummer for the band Habit, from which he moved on to become the second drummer for Cinderella, a Philly-born hair band that launched big-time because the rock was bigger than their manes. He was replaced before the band recorded its first official album, but his love of music never faded. Today he is a local lawyer who occasionally plays out with his blues band, The Delcats.
“Kid” Davis is best known for pumping out high-energy rockabilly and red-hot guitar playing as front man for The Bullets. Over the years, he’s played with several different acts up and down the East Coast, including Betty & the Bullet, Origami for Addicts, Kid Davis and the Kowpokes and the Kid Davis Band.
A small article in Guitar Player magazine about new talent was all it took to launch Moore to the heights. One of the most influential and important guitarists to come out of the mid- to late ’80s, Moore started playing at the age of 12 and joined his first band as a William Penn High School student at 15. He made several solo records before landing a gig with the British rock band UFO, which is still touring and recording. He earned praise for his work with Alice Cooper, playing on the “Hey Stoopid” album and tour. “It’s what I love,” Moore says. “After 30 years, I’m fortunate to be doing what I’m doing.”
A quintessential singer-songwriter, Knopf has a distinctly soulful baritone voice that lingers on the ears. Over the years, he has written for a number of Nashville hit makers such as Odie Blackmon, Tim McGraw and Lee Anne Womack. In 2013, he released “My Baby Girl,” which over the past three years has become one of the most requested independently released father-daughter dance songs at weddings around the world.
A resident of Los Angeles since graduating high school, local fans keep a special place in their music collection for Wilson. As a founding member of blues-rock trio Mother Superior and later as a member of the Rollins Band, Wilson has played with Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf, Emmylou Harris, George Clinton and Iggy Pop. In 2013, his band was resurrected as Motor Sister with Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian.
Guitarist Conwell’s Young Rumblers is one of several bands credited with putting the Philadelphia region in the music limelight during the 1980s and ’90s. Conwell launched after gigging as bassist for a UD band as a student there in the early 1980s, then serving an apprenticeship as guitarist for Rockett 88. Conwell and his Rumblers wowed audiences with high-energy playing and rowdy showmanship. The result was two albums and a constant place in the hearts of fans who still show up big when he plays live.
“Love Not War” is more than the title of multitalented power pop Cliff Hillis’ most recent record. It’s a way of being—and playing. Flexible, versatile and ever optimistic, Hillis has always been a go-to utility guy who has played with nearly everyone who came up in Delaware and in Philly. Today, the former beach local continues to rock solo and with one of his favorite acts, Patty Smyth and Scandal.
This McKean High alum trained as a classical pianist, but gravitated toward rock music after an encounter with the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.” He is best known as a founding band member of Television, one of the most renowned groups on the 1970s New York underground scene, and later as an eclectic solo artist. His poetic lyrics and accomplished playing technique were highly influential and widely praised in the music media.
A master of bass in all its forms, Cappella has been jamming since he was 15. Taking his cues from one of the original improvisational guitar players, Stanley Clarke, Cappella fashioned a highly successful career emulating similar free-flowing artists such as the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, The Allman Brothers Band and Stevie Ray Vaughn. His band Montana Wildaxe has been kicking it for 25-plus years, but his newest act, Buffalo Chip and the Heard, might just be his favorite.
Love Seed Mama Jump
Thanks to heavy gigging and its talented members, the beach boys of Love Seed Mama Jump have been filling rooms for more than 25 years in Delaware and beyond. They’ve opened for a number of big acts, including Matchbox 20, Beck and The Beach Boys, and they’ve cranked out four original albums that have sold more than 80,000 copies combined. They are arguably the most successful cover band to emerge from Delaware.
The players Everett attracts is testament to his talent. His fifth album, “Music” from 2014, features locals Cliff Hillis, Ritchie Rubini, vocalist Sharon Sable, Eric Miller, sax player Hank Carter of George Thorogood fame and David Uosikkinen, drummer for 1980s Philly phenoms The Hooters. He’s made at least five albums over the past 25 years, and he stays original.
The front woman for Kategory 5, a classic rock band that covers rock, blues, R&B and pop music from the 1970s (give or take a decade), has played with big-name musicians such as guitarists Skunk Baxter of The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan and Nils Lofgren, most recently of Bruce Springsteen’s band. Bred on The Beatles’ harmonies and her father’s boogie woogie-honky tonk organ and piano, Pigliacampi began to master the guitar at age 9. It wasn’t until age 46, however, that she found her groove. Among other accomplishments, Kategory 5 beat hundreds of entries to win the big WMGK Houseband competition last summer. “Being in this band,” she says, “feels like I have made it.”