John Cunningham of The Twintones - "Jo-Ann"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with John Cunningham.


Artist: The Twintones, The Playmates
Writers: John and Jim Cunningham (The Twintones)
Year: 1957
Chart Position: #19 (US)
Label: RCA
Hoisting Jo-Ann up onto the pantheon of rock and roll girl's names, alongside Gloria, Sara, Annie, Beth, and Sherry was the presence in my life of a real Jo-Ann, this apple-cheeked cherub of 12, who perfectly encapsulated my unrequited youth by remaining unattainable until she moved from the neighborhood when I was 16. Fifty some years later, the song "Jo-Ann" by the Playmates probably holds up a whole lot better than the real Jo-Ann, who is probably somebody's grandma by now. The Playmates, not so much.

As you can see from the cover of their biggest album, At Play with the Playmates, they were only a rock and roll group by the largest stretch of the imagination, these three almost middle-aged, goofy-looking guys, hunched together on a motor scooter: Donny, Morey, and Chic. In 1980, I interviewed Morey, the Playmate bringing up the rear, for my book, When Rock Was Young. He was in real estate in New Jersey then, Chic a schoolteacher, Donny a manufacturer's rep. Although he dismissed the classic saxophone solo, soundtrack to my impossible quest for the elusive "Jo-Ann," as out of tune, the interview provided me with at least one more sobering insight.

"For a while there was a battle on between our record and the original," Morey revealed. "What were their names? Oh yeah, the Twintones. We did a cover on their tune and our version took off. Never heard of the Twintones after that."

The Twintones, I realized after the interview was over and wrote in my book, "were my story all along! These two guys, John and Jim Cunningham, from Hicksville, Long Island, originators and writers of the song, who gave the world "Jo-ann," one burst of passion and universal meaning, and that was it. One bunt single in the majors and then back to the carwash of oblivion."

Well, I couldn't let it go at that, could I? So after thirty years of constantly searching (well, not constantly), I finally uncovered the Cunninghams, now based in Arkansas, long out of the business and with full lives behind them. And it turns out John, who gave the song it's title, had a "Jo-Ann" of his own, and it wasn't the famous Blonde Bombshell of the '50s, Jo-Ann Campbell, either, although the twins knew her and tried to fool the public with that story for a while. "She's a real person," John Cunningham said, "and she told all her friends about it. In fact, I went to her senior prom with her, but we never really went together. Things were a lot more innocent in those days. I probably haven't seen her since 1958."

Although his work in aerospace design led him for a spell to employment at Sikorsky Airport in Connecticut, home state of the Playmates, he never did meet the guys who stole his single, sobbing, signature moment. "When I worked in Connecticut," he said, without a trace of rancor, "my dentist was the same dentist for one of the Playmates. That's as close as I got." Neither was he aware that among the cognoscenti, the Twintones original has always been considered the far superior version of the song.

"Well, I never heard that," he said after I mentioned it in passing. "You're really the first person to tell me that. It's awfully nice and kind of you to mention it. Thanks for telling me."
John Cunningham:
Edward Heller was an A&R man for RCA/Victor and he would frequent a little record shop on Broadway in Hicksville owned by Danny Tarkoff. I think it was called Tarkoff's Music, which was within walking distance of the Goldman Brothers store, which wasn't too far from the Chevy dealer, which wasn't too far from the high school and the Long Island Railroad station. My brother and I used to hang out there, because record stores were the place to be. That's where all the new music was, that's where you heard the town gossip; it was basically the center of life. We were juniors in high school and we had multiple interests. We were in the high school band, high school chorus, the marching band, the concert band, and were involved in a couple of local groups that basically didn't really have a name, but were just impromptu things that we put together. So my brother and I met him, and we talked for a while and he said he wanted to hear what we were doing. I think we were there on a Wednesday and we came back and we met him on a Friday. And somewhere in between we put that song together in our basement at the old Knabe piano. We didn't even have a tape recorder in those days. Nobody, did. We're talking about a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth - 1956, '57. So "Jo-Ann" was actually written the night before we met him again on his way home from the Long Island Railroad.

My brother came up with the initial melody and I did some of the lyrics, and I used Jo-Ann's name in it, because the name worked with the melody. It was a complete group effort; my brother and I just sat there and banged it out in a few hours. The next day we sang it for Edward Heller at the back of the store. My brother played the guitar and we sang to his accompaniment. That's the only song we played him, that one song, and from that we just about had a record contract deal on the spot. He said, "I like it and we're going to see what we can do with it." He came out to visit my mom and dad at our house there on Charles Street in Hicksville and he brought Leroy Kirkland with him, who was the director and the main composer for Alan Freed's Orchestra. Alan Freed published the song. Our family was always supportive, but I think they were pretty much traumatized and afraid of the whole situation. It was like the audience being very supportive of the lion tamer who's in the cage and they're not. Our mom and my dad didn't come from any kind of worldly home. Neither one finished high school and they weren't musicians. They were just hardscrabble people growing up the hard way through the Depression. So they had every evil suspicion in mind you can imagine.

This was a time where in the industry there was a push to go from single records to multiple sided records as an attempt to get customers to buy albums and move away from singles. And so it was decided that "Jo-Ann" would originally be released on an extended play record, with three other songs. So they had my brother and I rehearse the four songs that we were going to do, then Edward Hiller set up a formal recording date at RCA Studios in New York City. We used Leroy Kirkland, Alan Freed's arranger, and selected members of Alan Freed's rock and roll band were on the record. That was Leroy Kirkland's idea to do the saxophone solo. We had top-of-the-line people, King Curtis and Sam the Man Taylor, blowin' on the horn. Also and little discussion has ever been made about it, we were actually the first group to use Afro/American backup singers on a record.

Our birthday is on the 22nd of September, and I think about that time is when the recordings were made. It was released the end of 1957 going into 1958. We were working with Alan Freed at the time and the idea was to put it out early enough so that we could see how it was going to play with the public. It went over very well initially. Alan Freed then demanded RCA go back and make it a single, because he was convinced that that was the only way to really get this record out. But, of course, that never happened. RCA and Alan Freed had quite a battle about it. Alan Freed talked about it many times over the radio during that time. But what had happened was once you publish music, anyone else can come along and copy off it, once it's published. We knew the people at Roulette Records had a group called the Playmates, who immediately copied it. They even used the same band, the same musicians, the same everything. They made a copy of it and they put it out, and the term years ago was "smeared," which meant getting as many records out into the distributors as you can. So they basically sold more records. But this was after the record had become a hit on the radio. It was already a turntable hit. Alan Freed exclusively played my and my brother's version on WINS, New York and it was doing quite well.

That New Year's Eve, 1957, Alan Freed had a huge rock and roll show at the Times Square Paramount in New York City that ran for a week and he signed up my brother and I within that show. So we performed at the Times Square Paramount with all the headliners of 1957 at that show. The Times Square Paramount was one of the largest theaters in New York City. It was huge. It could seat thousands and thousands of people. It was built in the days of Vaudeville. This is a building that's several stories high and some of the dressing rooms and practice rooms were as big as a gymnasium in that building. You could take a 100 piece orchestra and go up on to, I don't know whether it's the 5th or 6th floor, and you could rehearse up there. So we were doing, I think, three shows a day there for a week and we got to meet a lot of great people. I met Fats Domino and Buddy Holly and on and on, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Jo-Ann Campbell, who became a family friend. I met Bobby Darin before he was Bobby Darin. It was a great experience. When you weren't performing, a lot of us would just dress real down and mingle with the crowd. Nobody knew who you were. I was absolutely amazed about the expectation of the audience that you'll look a certain way and if you don't look that way, they don't recognize you at all.

Going on the road would have been a problem because of the draft situation. When you were 17 turning 18, you had to sign up for the draft and then you could just about count the number of days after you were 18 when you were going to get a letter and be drafted. Even Elvis Presley had a tough time, because he got drafted. And so it was difficult to get the label to promote you. That's why you had so many of what they call one hit wonders, because you couldn't get money to keep it going, because they knew that sooner or later you were going to get drafted. Besides, I was in high school full time, so there wasn't really anything that was going to happen to disturb my schooling. Let's put it this way: If you're performing and doing music and you're working on something and you're in the chorus and you're trying to get through your senior year, you really don't have time for doing anything else but your school work. I wanted to apply to a college. The college I wanted to go to was Hofstra, right out there on Long Island, which is a very good school. But again, you were threatened with the idea of getting drafted. So you kind of knew that might not work. Not everyone got a deferment. It really depended on what subject you were studying. You pretty much knew when you were 18 you had another year or so and you were going to have to either enlist in the military in a branch of your choice, or you were going to get drafted into whatever was open at the time. I went in the Air Force and I went to tech school and became a flight engineer and a crew member. I stayed in there for four years, and by that time all the contracts and everything else were up. An attorney explained it to me, once you were in the government, once you were government property, all of the contracts you had with RCA became frozen. So that if you have three years left on your contract with RCA and you're going to go be drafted for three years, then basically when you come out, you don't have a contract with anybody. By then I was over age for that kind of business, actually. They were really looking for 15, 16, 17 year old people. So I came out and started a different life, a different career. I think my parents were very relieved about that.

Since we were minors at the time of "Jo-Ann" there were a lot of clubs you couldn't work in, because they wouldn't allow you to. So we were pretty much dependent on doing television work. We did Alan Freed, we did some shows in Boston, and we appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand several times. Actually, it was the kids that wanted us back on American Bandstand. One of the things that Dick Clark asked us before the show started is whether we wanted to dance with the kids. And so, yeah, we made a point of dancing on the show with the kids and a lot of guest stars wouldn't do that. It was a slow dance, usually something from the Platters or something from the Moonglows. Going on American Bandstand, you couldn't get any better than that. That was national TV. You'd take a train out of New York City to Philadelphia and you could ride in a passenger seat or you could ride in a club car. The club car was a little more expensive, but we always rode in the club car. It was a major thrill for anybody, and especially at my age, 17 going on 18. A lot of people don't know this, but Bandstand put out a yearbook every year, and I wanted to get a hold of the yearbook for 1958, because I heard from a disc jockey that the Bandstand members, the regulars who were there, elect their favorite guest stars for the year, and in 1958, I believe, they elected the Twintones as their favorite guest stars.

I'll tell you something about Dick Clark. He was so polished you would think that he was almost mechanical. Of course, he wasn't. He had a wonderful personality. You couldn't not like him. You had to like him. It's just the way he was. You met Dick Clark and the very first time you talked to him he just overwhelmed you with what it's like to be nice and what it's like to have good manners and what it's like to be interested in what you're saying and what you're doing. Just a very exceptional person. Alan Freed was a totally different personality. Alan Freed was very intense. He was an intense person. You knew it when you heard him talking. You knew it when you talked to him that he was so focused. Whereas, Dick Clark was so polished and smooth that he didn't have to be intense. He didn't have to focus or go over the top with anything. He could just be laid back and easy spoken and everything about him was very comfortable. I thought the world of Alan Freed. He realized it was tough getting this type of music played, especially in the South, and he very much wanted to see rock and roll and rhythm and blues and that type of music become a success. I think he doubted that it would last. And, well, he only lived eight years after that New Year's Eve show.

The album that went out was titled The Twintones. It was called a 45 EP Economy Package. The number was EPA 4107. It had four tunes on it: "Jo-Ann," "Before You Go," "My Dancing Lady," and "One Mail a Day." The only one my brother and I wrote was "Jo-Ann." After that we wrote a song called "My Dear," which went out as a single on RCA and the number was 477148. It was released on January 23rd, 1958. Nothing happened with it. Later on, Eddie Hiller, who was the A&R man at RCA, was looking for some way of resurrecting the "Jo-Ann" thing again. At the time we were putting an album together and were looking for, I guess, 12 songs for that album. He knew a songwriter who had a friend who needed to get some work, so he came up with this song, "Jo-Ann's Sister," and we put that on the album. But it never caught on. There's a complete album out there, with 16 tracks. I think it's called Let's Take a Ride or The Twins Take a Ride. It might be an import. I heard something about "Jo-Ann" once being released as a single in Germany. I'm kind of waiting to see what happens with that.

Did I ever make any money in those days? You've got to be kidding. Because what you get in the record contract is you have a debt to pay to the company. In other words, the first earnings on that record have to pay the studio costs, the pressing costs, the distribution costs, advertising costs. You don't get an advance, you get a bill. Most entertainers I know, even the very big names in those days were all basically out of pocket on everything. When you did television and screen shows and things like that, whatever income you got went right out the same day for expenses. There was no income. You basically starved to death. You lived on hotdogs and candy bars. Nobody was making any money. Anybody who went out and started buying things found themselves in a lot of trouble because they knew that the record was selling and making money, but they didn't realize that all those bills have to be paid first. You're talking about people with adolescent brains. When you're 16, 17 years old, you're really not mentally ready for anything. I mean, your brain's not fully developed yet and here you are in a situation which really demands some adult thinking. But that's the way it was for all of us getting in the record business at that time.

One of the biggest perks of being a songwriter is the opportunity for the world to cover your song. The only control of the process the songwriter has is in the first recorded version; in many cases a privilege reserved for said songwriter. If the songwriter is not a performer, then the initial recording is a highly sought after prize, one which usually comes with the best shot at having a hit. Unless the song is a stiff, in which case nobody wants it and the performing songwriter is dropped from the label, or never given the chance to peddle future demos to any artist on that label.

Once the song is recorded the first time, the cat is out of the bag. At that point anyone else can mangle it on American Idol; a corrupt corporation can offer the writer tons of money for a soundalike artist to sing it in a jingle, or a movie company may pay to place a weird cover version of it at the end credits for a sum whopping enough to buy the writer a house. These are the dreams that sustain most writers, although in the case of the Cunningham twins, this perk worked against them. Since RCA released "Jo-ann" as part of an EP, not as a single, when the Playmates copied the song, the sound, and the arrangement, they were the ones who capitalized on the song's growing radio popularity. The Cunninghams got their writers' royalties, but their superior version of the song never got the respect it deserved.
As the composer, you're paid according to the song itself. You make your income on copyright royalty. So you really want to see more people perform the song and you want to see it performed more, because that's really where you make your income. In addition to the Playmates, "Jo-Ann" was recorded by a group called the Lancers. I have that 45. Once you write a song, that's like a pipeline income. It will always come in whenever the song is bought or played. Right now that income is very small, but the royalties still come.

When I got out of the Air Force, it's like anything else, you're no older than yesterday's newspaper. New people were emerging into show business at a tremendous pace. At the time we came up, there really weren't any other models to look at, because there were no twin acts in show business at the time that were recognized. So we really were just on our own. The Everly Brothers came out about the same time we did. Robert and Johnny came out about that time, too, and they were a duo. But everything was really in its infancy and everything was happening all at the same time. It was very transient time in music, because we were going from jazz and going from swing to rhythm and blues, and rock and roll and blues, it was all happening at the same time. It was quite an event. I know we were on the same label as Elvis, but Elvis, and his entire entourage, was kept, I guess you would call it in very close security. They didn't mingle with anybody. They were very cautious. And I don't blame them. It was a kaleidoscope of things going on. But, it was lots of fun.

Once I was in the service there was no time for it, because you were in the flight line, you were working with engines, you're working with airplanes. So it's like you're just totally in a different world. And then after I got out of the Air Force I went back and started college all over again. So, yeah, it was gone. I realized it was gone and I wasn't going to hold onto it. I wasn't going to live in the past. So I can't really say I would have done anything over, because you were really caught in a whirlwind of excitement and things going on that are really not in your own control. So it isn't like you could have done this or you could have done that. That doesn't even exist. In a world like this, you're doing what you're led into, and it's just a moment by moment existence.

They didn't have any oldies circuit yet. Thank goodness. To get into the oldies thing, you had to have a manager who was pushing to get you in there. I had no interest in it. Jim had no interest in it. He had his career choices, I had mine, and they were totally different. I went and studied design and engineering and business and earned a Bachelor of Science degree, then went on and got an MBA from Sacred Heart in Engineering. My brother wrote a couple of songs, "Pain a Pill Won't Reach" and another was called "Since I Gave the Lord Control." So you can make up your own story just from those two titles. He lives in Arkansas, as well, now. He and his wife live in a community where they've got people around them all the time. I live way out in the Ozarks. That's the way I like it. I have a grandson named Paul who married his high school sweetheart two years ago who is named Natalie Turgeon. And if you go to her website you'll find that she's quite a celebrity up there in New Hampshire. She does country tunes and they do a lot of their own original stuff. My son, John Jr., is one of the best lead guitar players in the world and he plays lead guitar in her band. This is his daughter-in-law, and he helped put the band together for her and he's quite a master on the guitar. So I guess the family's still in the music game.

March 4, 2013
More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 15

  • Scott John Cunningham from Cottonwood AlabamaThere is one little piece of the story you did not get, Thats me. I am the first born of James Cunningham Jan 22 1961. To my mother Leslie Ann Macleod from Hicksville LI NY. I have my Birth certificate to prove it. As Paul Harvey would say, Now you know the rest of the story.
  • Jmvernal from PennsylvaniaJames Cunningham Jr.
    By Staff -June 2, 2018
    Ozark Radio Nes
    James William Cunningham Jr., 77, of Cullman, AL passed peacefully in his sleep on the morning of May 29, 2018 into the loving arms of our Lord.

    He was born on September 22, 1940 in Flushing, New York to the late James W. Cunningham, Sr. and Gladys (Carrol) Cunningham.

    He was a loving husband to Barbara A. Cunningham, his wife of almost 54 years who preceded him in death only a few months ago.

    He spent most of his working years as a conductor on the Long Island Railroad before he retired from that company in the early 1990s. James was a member of the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion. He was a devout man and a veteran of the US Army. He was also a singer in the late 1950s.

    James is survived by his five children; James Cunningham III(Christine) of Unionville Connecticut, Stephanie Scudiero of Palm Harbor Florida, Alexandra(Brian) Groh of Satellite Beach Florida, Anastasia(Eddie) Ryman of Shohola PA, Amanda(Miguel) Irizarry of Milford PA, his sister Susan Happel of West Palm Beach Florida, and his grandchildren; Brandon, Kevin, and Caitlin Cunningham, Anthony and Mia Scudiero, Kimberly Midkiff, Mitchell and Hunter Curreri, Logan Ryman, Connor Maggard, and Miguel Irizarry. James’ twin brother John and his parents preceded him death.

    A funeral mass will be held June 4, 2018 at 11:00AM at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Cherokee Village. Arrangements are by Wortham Funeral Home.
  • Joann Connelly from Bellmore Long Island New YorkThis song will always be special to me and my husband of 48 years .We met in 1958 and he sang this song to me .Believe or not someone sang it to me today in Florida when he heard my name today .Bought back many good memories of growing up in the fifties on Long Island .
  • Mike Borchetta from BorchettaSo sorry to here about John passing. Would love to hear from you.
  • Tom D. from Lancaster, PaJohn Grant Cunningham of Brockwell, Arkansas
    John Grant Cunningham, son of the late James William Cunningham, Sr and Gladys Carole Cunningham, was born September 22, 1940 in Flushing Queens, New York. He departed this life July 18, 2016 at his home in Brockwell, Arkansas at the age of 75 years, 5 months and 26 days. He served four years in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. He spent his life as a loving son, brother, father, uncle, grandfather, great grandfather, provider and friend. He attended college and earned an MBA. During his working years, he was employed by Sikorsky Aircraft.
    He is survived by three sons: John Cunningham and wife Briggitt of Concord, New Hampshire, Phillip Cunningham of Oxford and Alan Cunningham of Houston, Texas; one daughter: Joann Cunningham of Greensboro, North Carolina; one brother: James William Cunningham of West Palm Beach, Florida; one sister: Susan Happel of West Palm Beach, Florida; one grandson: Paul Cunningham and wife Natalie of Concord, New Hampshire; two great grandchildren: Alexander Cunningham and Lilly Cunningham and a host of other relatives and good friends. He was preceded in death by his parents.
    A private memorial service will be held at a later date.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn this day in 1957 {December 20th} the Twin-Tones performed "Jo-Ann" on the Dick Clark ABC-TV weekday-afternoon program, 'American Bandstand'...
    A little over two weeks later on January 5th, 1958 the Playmates' covered version of "Jo-Ann" entered Billboard's Top 100 chart at position #45, three weeks later it would peak at #19 {for 1 week} on Billboard's Best-Sellers in Stores chart and it spent thirteen weeks on the Top 100...
  • J.d.crider from Knob Creek ArkansasWe Lost John This Year, Family Friend Here In The Ozarks, He Always Had Thanksgiving Dinner With Us,He Is Missed
  • Laing Batchler from Cape Coral FlI remember you two telling the drum instructor to let the MADADA go and let me play my own stuff but never happened. Then I ran into you guys at the Grennada dance hall in WILKES-BARRE pa
  • Dick Smith from Scituate, Mass.Jim if you see this would you please Email me a concerning a possible radio interview. I live just south of Boston so we are not far apart.
  • Gene VenagliaJohn we went to Summer School together in Hicksville. I remember you and your brother and I attended your show at the Paramount in NYC. I live in Nevada as an Old Retired Guy.
  • Laing Batchler from Cape Coral FlWent to Hicksville High with u guys. Moved back to Wilkes Barre Pa where I ran into u guys
    playing at the Granada teen dances
  • Bill Goldman from Levittown Then, Bloomfield, Nj, Now.Hi, Ronnie! My grandmother used to babysit for you.Florence Goldman. She lived on what was called Marginal Road then, but is called Newbridge Road now. Across from the little shopping center.
  • Bruce PollockRonnie, get in touch with me and I can give you an email address for John.
  • Ronnie Hammond from Hicksville NyI am Danny tarkoffs daughter and I was the twin tones first groupie at age 6. They would practice at our house. I still have the 45. Would love to connect with them
  • Matt Griffin from TexasAwesome! I found "Jo Ann's Sister" in a stack of old 45s, googled the Twins and found this great article. Thanks!
see more comments

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