Frank Pingatore III Remembers the Legacy of Late Music and Business Whiz Frank Pingatore Jr.
The late Pingatore was a salon owner, musician and songwriter for Bill Haley & His Comets, with a connection to the Fab Four to boot.
Photo by Ron Dubick
DT: Seems your father was a very special, talented person.
FP: He started playing trumpet at the young age of 10. My grandmother bought him a trumpet, but being from the old school, she told him he was going to practice every day. And he did. When the neighbors came to his viewing, they said, “We would always see little Frankie out there practicing.” He came from a very musical family on my grandmother’s side—the Sicoli family. They were probably the most popular Italian in New York City. When he was little, my grandmother used to take him up on the train. He was 11 and he’d play he trumpet. He’d play the weddings with my grandmother playing the mandolin. It was the Sicoli Brothers orchestra. At 14, during World War II, he was selected to play for the Officers’ Club on DuPont Highway. My grandmother used to have a fit, as any mother would, because there was a curfew in downtown Wilmington and nobody was allowed on the street after, I think, 6 or 8 o’clock. And an Army truck would come pick him up on 26th Street and take him down to the Officers’ Club when nobody else was allowed out on the streets. Any parent would be freaking out at that point because you’re worried about being bombed and all that kind of stuff. The sirens used to go off in downtown Wilmington and you weren’t allowed out.
DT: I read something that said your dad played with Clifford Brown.
FP: Dad went to P.S. du Pont High School. He graduated in 1948. He had some bands through there. He started developing orchestras to play and he got guys in the band who were a lot older than he was. Musicians such as Manny Klein, Rudy Dryden, Clifford Brown, Lem Winchester. They would play everywhere from down at the beach—Bob Carpenter had a club, Club 21, I think it was called, in Ocean City, Md. He played there when he was under age 17. He was down at the beach playing at a nightclub until all hours of the morning. His orchestra played at all the high society events in Greenville. They played at a lot of du Pont family events. At one time, he figured with a name like Pingatore it might be hard to get jobs in the Greenville market, so he changed his name to Mitchell Morgan for a little while. They used to play a lot of dances all around Fournier Hall, at the armory, St. Anthony’s. They used to have dances every Sunday night. He really learned a lot.
DT: He was also a songwriter, correct?
FP: Dad had built a reputation in the town as being an orchestra leader. He went to Juilliard and started to write songs. And he had a lot of friends at WDEL, which back in those days it was a television, WDEL-TV. It was the original Channel 12. He started doing songwriting around 1950. Patti Page recorded one of his songs. I think it was, “I’ve Got News For You.” He did some writing with George Clooney’s father, Nick Clooney, and also for Rosemary Clooney. That was around 1950-51. And then he got involved with Bill Haley.
DT: How did that happen?
FP: Lord Jim Ferguson was Bill Haley’s manager. At the time, the group was called Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. Bill was singing country. They played up in Chester, Marcus Hook, at the Country Bar. Lord Jim Ferguson used to have an office right there at the corner of Foulk Road and Naaman’s Creek Road, where you make a left to go to Booth’s Corner. He contacted WDEL and he said he’s managing Bill Haley and he think’s he has a black voice. We think he has undertones of blues. There were all these cool songs they were hearing on the black radio, i.e. “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Big Joe Turner, all the stuff that was done in the late 1940s, “Around the Clock Blues.” There were just a whole slew of boogie woogie, rhythm & blues kind of stuff being played. It wasn’t played on a white radio station because it was taboo. A lot of the songs were sexually suggestive and you just could not play that stuff on the white radio. But Lord Jim had the insight to say, “Hey, my guy, Bill Haley, he’s playing country music, but I think he has blues tones.” So they hired my dad. They said, “What do you think?” My dad said, “If you want to play some of that cool black music, you’re going to have to make a couple changes to the band. The accordion player has to go. Take the steel guitar player…” and Jim interrupted and said, “but he’s a partner in this band.” My dad said, “OK. I understand. Put him in the back.” In comes Joey d’Ambrosio. They had auditions for sax players and Joey d’Ambrosio (now Ambrose) becomes the sax player. They start listening to black songs to play. “Shake, Rattle & Roll” was one of them, “Around the Clock Blues” was another. “Shake, Rattle & Roll” was actually the first hit for Bill Haley. “Around the Clock” Blues was one that was re-done. Jimmy Myers actually bought the song and my dad actually helped re-do the song. It was basically a takeoff of “Around the Clock Blues.” You could not do “Around the Clock Blues” the way it was because you could never get it played on the white radio stations because it was super sexually … it was about doing something else around the clock. So they re-arranged the song, the way they had to re-do the song—my dad was an integral part of that. He didn’t write it. He re-arranged the song.
DT: That’s pretty cool that he just stepped in and had such an influence.
FP: He was the only one in the whole entourage of Bill Haley who could read or write music. The only one. He used to hum their parts to them. He was actually the guy who put all the charts down and put it all together. He didn’t write the song. A lot of those songs back in those days, they were all black-written but they were bought by recording executives … actually stolen by recording executives for cheap prices. The bottom line is, a lot of those songs were stolen for very, very cheap prices. So my dad pretty much produced and arranged the whole Rock Around the Clock album. He wrote “Two Hound Dogs” and “Happy Baby” on that album.
DT: Do you have an example of songs that were “stolen?”
FP: I remember going up to Vincent’s in West Chester with my family and friends. There was a little black man by the name of Jimmy playing on Friday nights. He had Parkinson’s disease. He was 80 years old and he was sitting there playing. And I came down the steps and I was looking at him. My family said, “We’re leaving.” I said, “You guys go out to the car, I’ll meet you out there. I have to speak to him.” So I said, “What’s your name?” He said, “Jimmy.” I said, “You wouldn’t have ever heard of Bill Haley and the Comets before, would you?” He said, “Bill Haley and the Comets? I wrote ‘ABC Boogie’ and they stole it from me for $500. I couldn’t believe it.” I said, “Do you remember Frankie Pingatore?” He said, “Frankie—he was one of the good guys. He was a songwriter.” I told my dad this, and I said, “Do you remember Jimmy and ‘ABC Boogie’?” He said, “Kind of.” I said, “He plays on Friday nights at Vincent’s up in West Chester.” My dad and mother made a special trip to go see Jimmy. It was kind of weird because something told me to stop and talk to this man when everybody else was saying, let’s go. I felt this connection, but I didn’t know what it was. It turns out, he knew my dad from the ’50s.
DT: Did your dad tour with Bill Haley & His Comets?
FP: They started touring and Bill was not a good flyer. So they flew one time and that was it. They had a string of Cadillacs and they’d ride across the country and do all their gigs. My dad drove him around. One notable job was the Indiana State Fair, I think it was 1954 or ’55. They’re all standing there waiting to go on and there was this young guy opening up for them. And they’re all standing at the side of the stage and they’re saying to each other: Who’s that guy? Look at the way the girls are reacting to him. What’s his name? Anybody know? Well, he was Elvis Presley. He opened up for them at the Indiana State Fair. Haley’s entourage, they were the first rock ‘n’ roll band.
DT: Is that debatable? Are there people who would say you’re not correct?
FP: You have to understand. They merged Country & Western and rhythm & blues. Alan Freed, in Cleveland, used to bang on the bass drum. He basically created the what became the name “rock ‘n’ roll.” What it was was a white guy doing black tunes that could be played on white radio. Shake, Rattle and Roll was before Rock Around the Clock. “Rock Around the Clock” was the B side. I think “Dim, Dim the Lights” or “Thirteen Women” was supposed to be the A side. It was a 45. Alan Freed used to play used to play on the Alan Freed Show in Cleveland. He used to play a big bass drum with it. He’s the one who pushed that song into being what it was. It wasn’t like, We just created rock ‘n’ roll. What it was, it was re-doing songs to be played on the white radio. A mixture of Country & Western and rhythm and blues. And what came was this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t like they said, “We’re going to do this and we’re going to call this rock ‘n’ roll. We’re going to rock around the clock. People say that Rocket 88 was the first rock ‘n’ roll song. That wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roll song because it was rhythm and blues. Haley’s first hit was “Crazy Man, Crazy.” Well that was a country-oriented song. It was pedal steel. There might be people who would debate it, because Rocket 88 was not the first song because it was still in the same genre as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Big Joe Turner was phenomenal. I don’t know if you ever heard, “Honey, Hush” A lot of bands covered that. Aerosmith did it. He had some really cool songs. So people can debate it, but from a timing standpoint, Haley’s band was the one. There’s no doubt about it. Before Elvis. Before Chuck Berry. Before Little Richard. Definitely before The Jodimars, who were the original Comets. Definitely before Rockabilly. That’s later. That’s the combination of rock and country. That came with Carl Perkins and Hank Cochran. But things were moving quickly back them. Bill was the first white star of rock ’n’ roll. There’s no doubt about that. To say that Elvis songs might have sounded like that—no. The first big hit was “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” then “Rock Around the Clock.”
DT: How did your dad wind up leaving Haley’s band?
FP: They were playing in Wildwood. I think it was Labor Day weekend in 1955. Bill and a couple partners in the band had the Cadillacs and the Comets rode back in a truck. They were making about 100 bucks a week and they asked Bill for a raise of 25 bucks a week. And Bill said no. They came to my dad and said, “We’re done.” My dad kind of stayed with Bill because he liked his job, but he started writing songs for these guys. They were Joey Ambrose, Dick Richards and Marshall Lytle. They were called The Jodimars. And so, my dad called Larry Taylor from Capitol Records, who he met up at the Decca sessions with Haley. I guess “Rock Around the Clock” had just started to hit. Capitol Records had Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, but they had none of what became rock acts. So the first rock band to play on Capitol Records was The Jodimars.
DT: So this is when your dad came into his own as a songwriter?
FP: The Jodimars in his day probably did about 20 songs and he probably wrote 10 of them. Some of them were “Well Now Dig This,” “Dance the Bop,” “Clarabella,” “Eat Your Heart Out Annie,” there’s a whole bunch of them. But the ones that sold the most are the ones I told you. They never really made it big in the United States. “Clarabella” maybe sold a couple hundred thousand copies—nothing major. “Clarabella” was a song he wrote in 1956 after I was born, on a little teeny baby piano. We still have it. In late 1956 or ’57, the Jodimars go over to England for a tour. The fans were going crazy. They loved these guys. They go up there with a double bass drum and start playing and they just loved it. They were dancing.
DT: How did your dad’s connection to the Fab Four come about?
FP: When The Jodimars were touring in England, there were two young guys in the audience. Their names were John and Paul—The Beatles. When The Beatles were trying to make it, they used to play at a place called the Cavern Club. The song they used to play near the end of the night was my dad’s song, “Clarabella.” The song was featured on a show called “Pop Go The Beatles” in 1960s. I don’t think it was included on the Decca tape, which was the tape sent over to the United States by The Beatles to try to get signed by Decca Records and they were rejected. And the tapes went back to the archives at the BBC. I’m not sure whether the song was included or not. Some people said it was, some people said it wasn’t. There was a bootleg album that came out in the 1970s and my dad heard that The Beatles’ version of “Clarabella” was on it, however, we couldn’t get our hands on a copy of it. That’s worth a lot of money today.
DT: But there’s apparently more to the story?
FP: The years went on and 1994 comes and he’s driving home from work. He had Pingatore’s Hair Design on Concord Pike. He had on WSTW. And I think it was John Wilson or one of the disc jockeys was saying, “and now a local songwriter’s song is on the new Beatles CD.” Well, dad practically gets into an accident. They said his name, Frank Pingatore. He goes home and he goes upstairs and makes sure he renewed his copyright. It was only good for 27 ½ years in those days. Today it’s like plus 70. But in those days, if you didn’t renew it, they could steal it. So he goes upstairs in a little cabinet, pulls it out … “I renewed it! Yeah!” It got to be a big deal. They had two pages in The News Journal. They came to the house, Fred Comegys took a picture. The story writer was Ed Kenney. Gerald Kolpan for Fox News came down from Philly and did a story in my dad’s shop with my dad cutting my hair. There were pictures of the original record. It sold 19 million copies. It was released around Dec. 15, 1994. When Fox News did the signal, it went all across the country. Dad got calls from Atlanta, L.A. They used to call him Pingy. “Pingy!”
DT: How did the news affect you?
FP: Being a performer myself, when I picked up that CD and took a look at it and I saw the names Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Carl Perkins and I see “Frank Pingatore,” I said, “Holy shit.” I had to sit down. I had the chills. I grew up idolizing The Beatles. Paul sings it on Track 19, CD No. 1. John introduces it: “Now dig this, Paul singing ‘Clarabella.’” He was referring to, “Well Now Dig This,” the Jodimars song that my dad wrote, which was the biggest hit of The Jodimars over there. It probably was a Beatles kind of tune, but it was real difficult to play and sing. But “Clarabella,” Paul kind of did it Little Richard-style. There is a magazine over in England called, Now Dig This. It’s a ‘50s magazine. I’ve been told that the name of that magazine was derived from The Jodimars’ song. I don’t know that for a fact, but people who know it say it was.
DT: So your dad got royalties from The Beatles song?
FP: Oh sure, 19 million copies.
DT: So a nice chunk of change?
FP: Not as much as you think. It’s more of the fact that he is the only Delawarean that I know of that The Beatles ever did one of his tunes. And that is huge.
DT: How did he transition out of the business and start cutting hair?
FP: Once I was born, he wrote some songs for The Red Caps, a doo-wop band in the late ’50s and early ’60s. You can find some on YouTube. He wrote a song called “Everybody Out’ta the Pool” that sold pretty good for the band, The Lifeguards. That was 1959. It sold a couple hundred thousand copies. On the flip side of that is the only song my dad ever sang on, called “Teenage Tango.” It’s pretty funny, but he wasn’t really a singer. It’s one of those things, it’s so quirky that it’s cool. He helped out some other local bands, did some work with The Bastilles in 1965. These were guys who went to Brandywine High School. When he left the business, he did a lot of promotions. He got offered a job with Reprise Records, but he didn’t want to leave. They wanted him to move out to California. He didn’t want to leave the area and he didn’t want to leave his mother. He turned that down and became a hair cutter with my grandfather. He also worked for the Rosen family doing promotions. He was involved in record promotion with Dick Clark. We always had music around the house. We always had demo records. We always had stacks and stacks of them all over the place. There were stacks of records everywhere. Even today, when my band does ‘50s music, it gives me chills. What else can I tell you about my dad? He was master of the hook. He was really good at the hook. His spirit is still up and down Market and King streets. There were a lot of little places to play and he played them all.
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