Kenny Vance is a founding member of Jay and the Americans, where he opened for both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He worked for Saturday Night Live, where he was responsible for booking musical guests, and he's been the music supervisor for lots of movies, including Animal House and Eddie and the Cruisers.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What years were you working on Saturday Night Live?
Kenny Vance: I was on Saturday Night Live as a guest singer on the second season in 1977, and I had wound up developing a relationship with the people up there: Chevy Chase was there, Belushi. And then I did Animal House. Then they were changing the guard up there, and the original cast was leaving in 1980, and they hired me to be the music director of the new season, which was with Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, and Gilbert Gottfried - that crowd.
I had Prince on, I had James Brown on, and I had Aretha on, and I remember I had worked with James Brown in '66 with Jay and the Americans; we were the opening act for his James Brown Revue for a Christmas show for 10 days in Newark. I was allowed to bring basically whoever I wanted on, and James Brown in 1980 really wasn't happening. So I talked them into bringing him on, and we met that Saturday morning, and he came in and kind of remembered me. I said, "Well, I'm the music director here now, and this is what we're going to do." He had a four-minute section, and once he got on TV, he played his four minutes and then he kept playing. And kept playing. And kept playing. The producer... you could see the sweat pouring off of people's faces, and they came over to me, they wanted to kill me: "Get him off!" And I'm going, "Cut, cut, cut!" And he wasn't gonna stop. Ever. They had to go to a commercial.
Songfacts: They just had to fade it to a commercial?
Kenny: Yeah, I mean, he wasn't gonna stop. And Prince, at the end of his song he threw the mike down and he said, "Fuck." (Prince performed "Partyup" from his album Dirty Mind on the show. He did not appear again on Saturday Night Live until 2006)
Songfacts: Oh no.
Kenny: Yeah. And of course, all of the suits came running out of the tower, going crazy. We had no control over that.
Songfacts: What was it like having Aretha on that show?
Kenny: I can't tell you that it was like a piece of cake, because she had a pretty big attitude. And once she got there then she started to make certain demands about what augmentation she needed in the band, and we had to deliver that day. But then she comes out and she's Aretha. But I can't say that it was pleasant.
Songfacts: So you ended up working on Animal House, which ended up being a very ground-breaking movie, especially because of the music.
Songfacts: So can you tell me anything about Otis Day and the Nights, how that was created?
Kenny: Well, all of that stuff was prerecorded. And those guys really aren't singing it - it's lip synched in the film. But, you know, I think Otis Day and the Nights to this day play, but that was not a real band or anything at that point. (DeWayne Jessie portrayed Otis Day in the movie. He performs as Otis Day and the Knights, singing the songs from the movie.)
Songfacts: So as the musical director for Animal House, what were you doing?
Kenny: I produced the music. I produced the records that were used in the film. Like, I produced Stephen Bishop singing "Animal House." That's me in the background going, "Animal House." And I produced the record with John Belushi singing "Louie Louie," and "Money."
Songfacts: Now, when John Belushi's singing, this was before the Blues Brothers, wasn't it?
Kenny: That's correct. As a matter of fact, his next movie was the Blues Brothers movie.
Songfacts: So what was it like directing John Belushi in the studio? Did he have any idea how to sing?
Kenny: Well, he was in a garage band, he told me that he was in a group that played fraternities. And he said he actually recorded. One night when we were working, he recorded the dirty version of "Louie Louie." He says, "I'm gonna give you the version that I used to sing at the fraternity houses." I saved that tape, and one day when I went back to the studio to get it I couldn't find it.
Songfacts: Oh no.
Kenny: Yeah. But he did it in one take. He sang the version that I guess everybody imagined that the Kingsmen sang with the dirty words.
The 2000 movie Looking For An Echo is about a former Doo-Wop star struggling to raise his teenage son and deal with the loss of his wife. The movie's title came from a song Kenny recorded in 1975. With his group Kenny Vance and The Planotones, he recorded the soundtrack for the film.
Songfacts: I remember hearing "Looking For An Echo" and thinking it was one of those great songs from the '50s. Would you tell me about that song?
Kenny Vance: Yeah. The song was originally recorded in 1975, and it was basically a folk song. I did it acoustically. How I recorded the original was I put down an acoustic guitar, and then I sang it, and then I basically stacked all the vocals on there. And then we added a drum, bass, and keyboard. And that's basically it. Somehow it captures that feeling... it could make you cry in a way. I don't know what it was, but it evokes a certain emotion in the listener. It's so many years later that I'm detached from what I did originally, and I think I can hear it objectively. It was basically a folk song about growing up in Brooklyn, about those days. And then as the years went by, it never died. It never was a hit, but it never went away. And it was played on a lot of these doo-wop shows all throughout the country, these guys would close their show with it. Then in the year 2000, there was a friend of mine who I actually did Eddie And The Cruisers with, Marty Davidson, the director. He was doing a film and wanted a choral of "Looking For An Echo," and I re-recorded it at that point. It's more bombastic. I mean, it's not really, but it has a lot more energy to it.
Songfacts: Kenny, did you write the song?
Kenny: No. A guy named Richie Reicheg did. He was a friend of mine, and he had this song - whether he wrote it for me, I don't know. But he had it in a different form, and I kind of changed it around and I left out certain verses. It was kind of corny. I mean, I wouldn't criticize him in any way, but I changed it around, put the modulations in - there's two half step modulations in it to kind of build it up a little bit.
Songfacts: And you were talking about the Eddie And The Cruisers movie, can you tell me about how that and specifically the song "On The Dark Side" came together?
Kenny: I can. I met Marty Davidson at a party. I'd never met him before, and he talked to me about the fact that he was getting ready to do a movie in South Jersey. I didn't know there was a book Eddie And The Cruisers by P.F. Kluge, I didn't know any of that stuff. And I said to him: I used to be a in a group called Jay and The Americans, and we used to play a lot down there. I have a lot of photographs of us in those days down at the Jersey Shore. So he said, "Boy, I'd really like to see that stuff, would you come up to the production office?" And the next day I went up to the production office, and I showed him all these pictures. We had an old Chevy, and we had a U-haul that we pulled our equipment in, and I also had the marquee of this place that we played in Wildwood called The Beachcomber, and we played there with the Isley Brothers, I think in 1962. And also Steve Gibson and the Modern Redcaps. Which was kind of a throwback group, like from the late '40s, early '50s. Really old, historical stuff. While I was there, he says to me, "Let me play you the music." There was a song called "On The Dark Side" - I think that title was from the book. He played me the music and he says, "What do you think?" And I said, "It's horrible. It's a joke." It was like a jingle writer or a Broadway guy writing his version of what he thought that should be. And he says to me, "Well, what do you think it should be?" And I said, "It should be authentic." I took the script home and while I'm reading the script, I'm envisioning this group that I had seen about a year ago while I just was walking on Bleeker and McDougal - I saw John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band at The Bitter End. And as I'm reading the script, I keep thinking of these guys. I think of Tunes, the sax player, and I called Marty up and I said, "I kind of know the real life Eddie And The Cruisers." I didn't know where they were from, even. And I started to do some research, and I wound up going up to Rhode Island. Marty Davidson trusted me, and he said, "Well, what can you do?" I gave Cafferty the script, and he came up with his version of "On The Dark Side" based on kind of a Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels song. I told Marty that I thought we had something great, and he says, "Well, I could give you a couple of dollars to make some demos." We brought the guys down to RCA Studios in New York, and we recorded "On The Dark Side," we recorded "Oldies But Goodies" with me singing, and "Betty Lou's Got A New Pair Of Shoes." And that night the Hollywood guys flew in from California, because Cafferty was going to be playing in a bar in New Jersey. I got them in my car, and we drove out there, and in the parking lot of the bar, I played them "On The Dark Side." And then we went in, and when they saw Cafferty kind of like destroy the room, with "Wild Summer Nights," and all the other stuff, they immediately had a template for who Eddie and the Cruisers should be, and also what the music should be. And they basically fired the guy that they had hired, and they hired us, and we wound up doing all the music for the film.
Songfacts: Must have been pretty satisfying to see that become a hit song.
Kenny: What happened was, the movie came out and that was the end of it. And about a year later, Cafferty and I were working on his second album. The big deal out of the whole thing was that Cafferty got a record deal. And so we were working on the second album and we got a phone call from Columbia that said, "You just sold 25,000 albums today." What are you talking about? They said, "Eddie and the Cruisers." When HBO first went on the air, they would play a movie for a month in rotation, like, you'd see it 7 times a day. And it became a fucking smash. And we were stunned. It just goes to show you, you show up, you do a great job to the best of your ability, and you never really know about the results.
Songfacts: That's unbelievable. I didn't even make that connection with HBO.
Kenny: Yeah, that's how it happened. Because when the movie came out it bombed. We were very, very lucky with that, and wound up selling almost 4 million albums.
Songfacts: You've had a very long career, and you've chosen many different songs to perform. I'm interested to hear what you think are some of these great songs, and maybe get a little history of them. Like "This Magic Moment," for instance. Can you tell me about that song?
Kenny: Yeah. That's a song that's sort of been following me, or maybe I've been following it. It's on the soundtrack album and it's in the movie Looking For An Echo. I did an acoustic version of it, kind of like the original "Looking For An Echo," and I remember when Dion heard it, he said, "This is the first time I really understood that song." And I mean, it's a fantastic sentiment: This magic moment, while your lips are close to mine, will last forever, forever 'til the end of time. Songs like that, they just don't seem to exist anymore. It says something about who people were in those days. It says something about who the writers were, what kind of people they were, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who also wrote "Save the Last Dance for Me." And it also says something about what people were interested in. There's a whole world of people that are still interested in that, but most of this music has been taken off of the radio, and there's a whole other thing on the radio that doesn't have this purity or sentimentality or honesty. It's a great song that transcends time for me.
Songfacts: I watch movies like The Wizard of Oz and these old films. And I'll look at them...
Kenny: Right, me too.
Songfacts: And I'll say, How come you can't do this today? And you just can't. There's no way you could ever do that, get it to look like that. And in some ways I think the same things about the songs.
Kenny: Right. You know, I mean, did you ever see That's Entertainment? The documentary with all the musicals from the old days?
Kenny: I mean, that stuff is unbelievable. You just watch it and it's like a whole meal. It's just fantastic. And I think some of these old songs, they weren't protest songs, they weren't message songs, they were just poetic teenage anthems.
Songfacts: How do you feel about the song "Anyone Who Had A Heart"?
Kenny: It's such a great song. I kind of did it like you're sitting in your living room just telling somebody, that's how I interpreted that. And a lot of the other songs, for example, "Why Do You Have To Go?" by the Dells, what I loved about those songs in the early days, they created an atmosphere. They were atmospheric. It wasn't about the lyrics so much, or the melody, but when they put the whole thing together it had a certain feeling. And that's to me what connected the audience when we were kids. It just had a feeling that you couldn't get away from. When adults tried to copy those records to make money, they couldn't do it. Those records were made by teenagers. And there's something about what they captured on those records viscerally that I think entered the listener. And what I do is if a song had that impact on me as a kid, I'll listen to that song now, and it has to hold up. I'll do a scratch track in the studio, and then me and Johnny Gale will take a look at it, and if it holds up also as a song for the 21st Century, then we'll continue with it, and we'll try to recapture the atmosphere that was on the original.
Songfacts: So can you tell me about the song "Only In America"?
Kenny: Sure. "Only In America" was originally recorded by the Drifters. I happened to go up to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's office, because I used to hang out there as a kid - they produced us. I guess I was like a barometer for them, and they played me "Only In America." I said, "Boy, that would be great if we could have that," because we're Jay and the Americans. They took us over to Atlantic recording, who had a brand new-fangled machine, an 8-track machine. Up until those dark days we were recording all four-track. And I remember it became a hit in Florida. There's a friend of mine, he's a film director by the name of Leon Ichaso, and he told me that when they were kids that had come from Cuba in 1963, "Only In America" was an anthem for them. That they couldn't speak English, but phonetically they could all sing "Only In America." And I remember when we played down in Florida in 1963, the whole audience was Cuban, and I didn't know why. But it took me about 30 years and finally that question was answered.
Songfacts: What about the song "Come A Little Bit Closer"?
Kenny: "Come A Little Bit Closer" was recorded in the last probably five minutes of a session where we were trying to record something else that we spent the whole session on. In those days, a session ran three hours, I think the musicians got $65 for a three hour session. They didn't want to go overtime, and they had recorded this one song and they needed a flip side, and they just said, Okay, boom, let's do it. And we recorded it, and that's it. There it is. It just captured that. Willie Bobo played timbalis and Johnny Rodriguez played conga drums, Gary Chester played drums. "Come A Little Bit Closer" was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and I think that Jerry Leiber re-wrote the last verse and he never got credit for that. But as I recall, that's how it went down.
Songfacts: And how did you guys end up doing "Some Enchanted Evening"?
Kenny: Well, after "Cara Mia," that was the follow up. "Some Enchanted Evening" was just something we were playing around with, and we actually recorded other songs in that ilk, but I don't know if they ever came out. We just were sticking with the trend.
Songfacts: And do you remember how you guys even decided to do "Cara Mia"?
Kenny: Yeah. When Jay Traynor left the group, Jay Black came over to one of the guys' houses. He was selling shoes for Thom McAn making $60 a week, and he drove up with an old car, with a rope holding the hood down, and he came in the house and he had that song in mind, because I think he thought that the original guy that did that was David Whitfield, and he sang it on the Ed Sullivan Show. That version, there's a bridge to it, there's a whole kind of different feeling to it. Like in a Johnny Cash movie, because we only knew three or four chords ourselves, those are the four chords we played to it, and it became a rock and roll song. We left out the bridge because we couldn't play it. And that was it, he loved the song. We would do it in our show for many years, and then finally I think in '65 when our contract was sold to United Artists, they decided to record it, and it became a smash.
The Beatles were already superstars when they played their first American concert at the Washington Coliseum in February, 1964. The Rolling Stones first played America in June, 1964, but they had yet to hit it big in The States.
Songfacts: I've learned that over time history tends to distort certain things, and with the Beatles that's certainly probably the case. I'd love to hear from you what it was like with that experience you had with the Beatles.
Kenny: Well, we went to Washington, D.C. We didn't go down there with the Beatles, but we came back with them. I think it was February 16, 1964. We were a big American group that had a bunch of hits, and they booked us to be the opening act. We came down there and they were in the dressing room backstage underneath the stadium. They knew us because we were friends with the Ronettes from the Murray the K Show in Brooklyn. And I guess when the Ronettes went to England they mentioned us to the Beatles. We played, and then all of a sudden the Beatles kind of made an appearance at the top of the stadium surrounded by cops. And as they came down, the place just went into an uproar. I always likened it to the sound that might have been when Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run. It was just like an unbelievable sound. Then they came on stage, and in those days they just had little amplifiers, they didn't even have big amplifiers. But when they shook their heads, and their hair moved, the girls were going crazy. And it really wasn't about the music, they were playing songs by Little Richard, and playing songs by the Isley Brothers, and that was basically it. I remember going back on the train with them the next day, and we get into Penn Station, and you could see the platform was kind of like A Hard Day's Night. The door opens, and we're standing there, and the crowd says, "Oh, it's Jay and the Americans." And it was like the Red Sea parted, and we just walked out. I remember taking a cab back to Brooklyn and thinking, Well, something just happened. I'm not sure what it was.
I'm almost sure that that show was filmed, including our segment. And there was a review in a Washington, D.C. paper: "Jay and the Americans came out with their red alpaca sweaters on…"
Songfacts: What was it like with the Rolling Stones?
Kenny: Interesting. We were hired after we opened for the Beatles, to open for the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall. We were hired by Murray the K who was the MC. He was the disc jockey in New York, and we played at Carnegie Hall with them. We all had shared a dressing room upstairs, and we had been using these makeup sponges that we had - we had been doing a lot of TV shows, and they put this sponge makeup on us. So I remember Mick Jagger and Brian Jones came over to me, and they said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I'm putting this makeup on." So they took this sponge and they put the makeup on themselves, which is kind of a cute thing. We went on, and then the Rolling Stones went on. I was watching them, and Bill Wyman was basically leaning up against the wall chewing gum. I didn't really know what they were doing, it was kind of copying Muddy Waters, but the people were going crazy. You know, it was a complete sellout. And then there was a second show. So Murray the K comes over to us, he says, "You know, if you guys don't close the second show, there's gonna be a riot." And we said, "We can't close the second show. What, are you nuts?" But he wouldn't hear it, because it was going to be a problem. So the Rolling Stones come out, they do their thing, and he says, "Right now, from Brooklyn, New York, Jay and the Americans." And we come out singing "Only In America." And while we're coming out, the audience is getting up and running out the back door to try to run around the block to catch the Rolling Stones coming out in their limo. And by the time we finished the song, we had cleared the theater.
Songfacts: Now, you had the distinction of working with Becker and Fagan back before they were Steely Dan.
Songfacts: Tell me about that.
Kenny: Jay and the Americans, the last hit we had was in '66, which was Roy Orbison's "Cryin'," and then we had a dry spell for a while. It wasn't 'til '69 that we had "This Magic Moment." In 1969 we opened a production company in the Brill building. And one day these two guys knocked on the door, and they came in, and I took them to the room, and Fagan stood at the piano, and Becker stood up, and they started to play songs, like "Charlie Freak," and "The Brain Tap Shuffle," and "Any World That I'm Welcome To," and "Shuffling Up Your Downs," "Tell It To The Fat Man." I started to record them, and they put an ad in the paper and they got Denny Dias and a couple of the other guys. And basically I sang a lot of the songs. And then we did a movie called You've Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, the soundtrack to that, and I was supposed to sing one of the songs. I sang a couple of them. But there was this one song called "Dog Eat Dog" that I couldn't sing. And I said to Donald, "Why don't you sing it? You have the great phrasing." He didn't really want to do it, but that was basically the first lead vocal that he did. And then they became part of our group, the last incarnation of Jay and The Americans had Becker and Fagan as the band. And then we actually recorded an album called Capture The Moment in 1969/1970, where they're playing on it, and they did all the arrangements. Then they wound up leaving and going to California and making Can't Buy A Thrill.
Songfacts: What were they like?
Kenny: They were unusual. We were guys that grew up in Brooklyn - street guys. I don't want to say uneducated, but certainly not as educated as they were. And they were intellectuals that had gone to Bard College, and they were weird, for lack of a better word, for 1968. But at that particular moment in time, I think it was like worlds colliding, because we had been pop stars, we had traveled around, we had played in England and France and had gone out to California, and we started dressing in a certain kind of clothes, and they were just two guys that had a band that were steeped in jazz and Duke Ellington. Becker always had a book with him, and, you know, drugs were around. They were different. But then as time went by, at some point I discovered the depth that was contained there, and I always believed that they were going to be huge. I took the demos to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and I took the demos to many other people. But everybody thought it was too far out, or it was, "Where's the hook?" And I would say, "The whole thing is the hook." I don't know what made me think that this was going to happen for them, but I guess time proved that I was right. But it was a very, very, very tough sell in 1968, '69. And ultimately they wound up going to California and making the record.
We spoke with Kenny on April 3, 2008. Learn more about Kenny Vance and The Planotones at planotones.com.