Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dennis Tufano - The Voice of the Buckinghams

Dennis Tufano
The Voice of
The Buckinghams

The Buckinghams may be just a footnote to the history of Rock & Roll but in 1967 they stormed the Top 40 Charts with a vengeance. The first hit was a teen pop R & B breakup song entitled Kind of a Drag. Before the end of the year they had four more hits in quick succession- Don’t You Care, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song) and Susan. Dennis Tufano’s cool as silk tenor provided the perfect vehicle to cause the girls to swoon and the guys to pick up a microphone. They were influential like other pop bands that created great music yet remained somewhat anonymous despite their hits. These now obscure bands were often the backbone of top forty radio when the Beatles or Stones took a break, bands like Orpheus, The Cryan Shames, the Shadows of Night, Question Mark & the Mysterians, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, The Gentrys, New Colony Six, The Blues Magoos and many more – just google sixties/seventies rock and you’ll find a list that stretches out for miles.
Dennis Tufano is part of a tribe of great musicians and singers that break all the rules by continuing to work their craft into their mid-to-late sixties. They are our traveling minstrels. We need them.

Dennis Tufano is performing all the hits and more @ Nouvel High School on Sunday January 22nd, 2012. Tickets are $18. Show time is 2pm. The proceeds support Saginaw County Crimestoppers. For tickets call 1-800-205-7174 or 989-667-0073. The following is a conversation with Dennis Tufano via the magic of telephone. It was a lot of fun!

Dennis, let’s start with the Buckinghams first LP on USA Records. I have a used copy of it and I love it – Kind of a Drag was the big hit. Can you talk about those early sessions?
We went into Chess Records at 2120 S.Michigan Avenue, a legendary studio where all the blues greats hung out and recorded. It became very popular after the Rolling Stones recorded there. When they went there it was like Mecca to them. Ron Malo was the engineer and he recorded a Stones instrumental entitled 2120 S.Michigan Avenue.
We went down there because it was the hot place to be in Chicago at the time – 1965-66 and USA Records had their offices right next door and it was kind of a little music scene within a one block area. Chess was a small little funky studio with a great warm sound and Ron Malo was an extraordinary engineer. He did the Stones there as well as the Yardbirds, and then we did it. It was amazing to watch him work. In those days we had only 8 tracks and it was like a reel-to-reel recorder with only a half inch of eight tracks
So there was not a lot of signal there. It was amazing the sound he was able to get by combining all of the tracks and making everything right. It was a great experience.

The Buckinghams had a nice warm soulful sound
That’s because Dan Bellec and Carl Bonafede. Carl was our first manager in Chicago and Dan was a big bandleader in a heavy fifties jazz scene-guy. He’s the one who played saxophone on the hits and Frank Tesinski played trombone. They were on Kind of a Drag, I’ll Go Crazy - the whole first album. We performed for a year and a half before we ever recorded. We really just brought our live sound into the studio. It made a big difference because we knew how we sounded live. We wanted to make everything clear so we could always hear each instrument

How did you recreate your sound on stage? I don’t recall that you took a horn section during your tours
No, we didn’t. When we started to tour we had Marty Grebes play keyboards and sax. He’s an incredible musician. He left the Buckinghams in 1970 and he joined up with Leon Russell for six years, Bonnie Rait for seven years and then Eric Clapton. He did amazing things. With the Buckinghams he was a great B3 organ player and he would play the keys and the sax at the same time. He’d do voicings on the organ with the sax that filled out our horn sound. So for the 3 & 1/2 years we toured we could recreate our sound without having to carry a horn section

What was a typical setlist at the time?
Well, we did all the hits as well as funky things like I’ll Go Crazy, In the Midnight Hour, Come on Home from our first album. We did Walking the Dog – our drummer John Poulos sang that one. He get up and sing and I would go back on the kit ad play the drums. We had a real R&B kind of base to our music – that city sound.

I always thought of you as a great singer, your trade off duet vocals on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy were soulful and salacious. Who sang it with you?
It was Marty Grebes. He was really soulful - our version of Ray Charles. We were doing our first Columbia album and when we got back to LA to record there was a demo from Johnny “Guitar” Watson. It was Mercy, Mercy, Mercy with lyrics. He and Larry Williams had just recorded it. So we listened to the demo and Marty and I just looked at each other and knew we had to record it. It was initially just an album cut, it was never intended to be released as a single. But Columbia pulled it and put it out. It was a big hit – Top 5. To this day when I do the song people go crazy – it’s really a good song. The lyrics are great.

Do you have a favorite Buckinghams song?
My all time favorite is Don’t You Care because it was our follow up to Kind of a Drag. It had a jazz R&B feel to it and it was a nice range vocally to go to. It was just a comfortable song to sing and the arrangement was good, John Poulos drum riff set the song up perfectly. So Don’t You Care comes in first then Mercy, Mercy, Mercy…Kind of a Drag. I really enjoyed most of the songs I’ve done with the Buckinghams.

Can you talk about your relationship with James William Guercio when Kind of a Drag took off?
As a producer he was really good. We did Kind of a Drag without him and when brought him Kind of Drag it was already #1 with a bullet. We had just been dropped by USA - this was the last side we were contracted to and they didn’t like it. They thought it was too slow, it wasn’t a hit. They held it for a whole year. Then they had to release it because it was the contractual ending. So they released it and released us. Radio picked up on it and it took off. In November 1966 it was released and by February 1967 it was #1 with a bullet
We needed a manager so we signed with Guercio.. But we soon discovered he had his own agenda. We started to find out that his agenda was moving himself up by stepping on other people’s backs. He signed us to Columbia and he produced some good records for us. During that time we were constantly touring - for a 1 ½ years. We made good money on the road but when we met with our accountant we learned that the money was gone. It ended up in court. From 69-70 we were in court over this. It is one of the reasons that the band stopped. We dissolved Buckinghams Inc. in 1970

Did you make any money from Kind of a Drag or any other of your hit records?
Well, we thought we were … the artist royalty is a very small percentage of the money coming in. Publishing is where the money is but we didn’t write the hits so we weren’t involved with the publishing. The artist royalty is very small, to this day it’s maybe $600 a year for each band member because it is based on sales. We were victimized in the late sixties. Everybody got screwed. There are probably just a handful of acts that went unscathed. It seems like it was part of the time period. We were all nineteen, basically and we didn’t have a business sense. I have no regrets. We made some mistakes, we learned a tough lesson.

You were the original lead singer of the Buckinghams and you sang on all the hits – Kind of a Drag, Susan, Don’t You Care , Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song) but there is some confusion about Carl Gimmerese being the lead singer
I was the lead singer on all of the records. But there are several You Tube videos featuring Carl Gimmerese as the Buckinghams lead singer – Carl often tours as the Buckinghams so I can understand the confusion. Actually Carl only sang on one cut from our first LP entitled You Make Me Feel Good, a song written by the Zombies.

In 1967 you played over 300 dates? How were you able to hold up to that kind of grueling pace?
In 1967 I was 21 years old. We had hit records, it was easy and we were carried along by the wave of popularity of the band. It was non-stop back then we couldn’t turn around without getting on another tour, play colleges and then jumping on a Gene Pitney Tour with six or seven other acts. It was constant work, we were flying every other day and then sometimes we would fly and stop, drive out of a hub for two or three gigs and then fly again.

Did you become close to any of the bands you toured or performed with in the sixties/seventies? Do you still stay in touch?
The one’s I’ve kept in touch with, I’ve tried to stay in touch with but everybody got kind of scattered after the seventies. Some of the people that I’m still in touch with are Bobby Miranda, the lead singer of the Happenings and Paul, Bob and Susan of the Cowsills. We work with them a lot. I also keep in touch with the Easybeats of Friday on My Mind fame. Great band. They were on the Gene Pitney tour with the Buckinghams and we became good friends. They were expatriate Australians that moved to England – like the Bee Gees. Steve Young went on to produce his brother Angus in AC/DC. We were in awe of them, they were so together as a band. I keep in touch with Tommy James through email. Mostly it is the Chicago musicians I stay in touch with – Jimmy Sohns, the singer of the Shadows of Knight, Ronnie Rice of the New Colony Six, Jimmy Pilster and Tom Doody from the Cryan Shames. We used to be very competitive but nowadays 40 years later we laugh about it.

The 1980’s tour with Olivia Newton John sounded like fun. What was it like for you?
It was pretty exciting, a left field kind of thing. I had been working with Tom Scott when he became the musical director for Olivia’s tour and at the time I was mostly acting and developing a screenplay with another guy. I got a call from Tom and he said they’ve been in rehearsals for eight days but the male singer they got was not working out on the duets with Olivia. Tom said that the singer didn’t know how to relate to her - he just wanted to sing. She was a little upset and Tom knew I could sing and act at the same time. So I came down to audition. The show was supposed to hit the road in ten days so time was tight. I auditioned with the song Suddenly from the film Xanadu. At the end of the audition her choreographer/director Kenny Ortega told me I got the job, that he saw the chemistry. Olivia is one of the nicest persons I ever met, very professional. We did a little jitterbug dance during the song You’re The One That I Want from Grease. There is a DVD of the concert

How did you end up collaborating with Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin?
In the mid-seventies I was hanging out at Lou Adler’s bar on Sunset Boulevard having a good time, listening to music and stuff. This girl came in that I knew from Chicago. She was dating Bernie at the time and she introduced us. So we started to hang out and talk about making music. I took some demos over to Bernie and he gave me set of lyrics for a song, two pages long with no repeats – he’s the rock & roll poet. Bernie writes a lot of stuff. His stories are very vivid and tight. The song was entitled The Whores of Paris. I came back with the music and I played three minutes of music. Bernie was lying on the floor, head down, eyes closed. After it played he looked up and said, “That’s it, that’s what I hear in my head." Anyway we completed it. It was a great little album called He Who Rides the Tiger. Elton John actually sang back up on the album and I had the pleasure of asking Elton to do another take. Whew.

I’m a huge Bobby Darin Fan from Splish, Splash, Multiplication, If a Man Answers to Mack the Knife as well as Simple Song of Freedom, If I Were a Carpenter, Amy etc I believe he was a misunderstood genius. How is it that you decided to develop a tribute to Bobby Darin?
I started out with a 110 songs that I wanted to do - it’s amazing that he recorded over 300 songs. As a singer I was looking for something to do, you can’t just walk into a club and sit in. You have to pick your moments to find work – to find another way to enjoy singing. I found the whole repertoire of Bobby Darin to be incredible. He did rock and roll, folk, blues, country, standards. What he did in 37 short years was just amazing – he even had his own record company. He was my inspiration to start singing in the first place. The Darin Tribute is an expensive show to put on. Besides my band, I use a minimum of three horns and two background singers. You can find a few clips of the show on You Tube.

What is your fondest moment of your career?
There’s so many of them – each collaboration I’ve had, carries the essence of some treasured moment in it - Tom Scott, Bernie and Olivia. But the biggest fondest moment was the look on my parents face when Kind of a Drag went to #1. Those early days with the Buckinghams when my parents were so supportive, seeing the look on their faces when our records hit – those were fond moments. My parents were always very happy with what I did in my entertainment career. For me the fondest moment is to have that blessing from my parents.

Any last comments?
I’m just very grateful to still out there singing and performing for people. You know after my thirties I thought it wasn’t feasible for a man in his sixties to be out there performing. But what I realize now is that we are going out there performing with people like Gary Lewis, Bobby Miranda {the Happenings), Eddie Brigati (the Rascals), the Cowsills and everybody acts like they are 30 years old. And they sound great. It is amazing to me because it feels so good. It’s a process. I take care of my instrument so my voice is in good shape. I work out every day. The fact that I can still go out and sing for everybody surprises me. I thought I’d be in a boat in Lake Michigan. Instead I’m up on the stage sweating into the mic – which I love to do. It’s odd, years can go by and you don’t become a millionaire and you wonder if what you did you made an impact on people. I go out on tour now and people come up to me and talk about how my music created a timeline in their life. They tell me these great stories that involved my music and what it meant to them. After the shows, Vietnam Vets have come up to me and thanked me for the music. I thought it should be me thanking them. Back in the day when we were doing it, I never had the chance to talk and get to know the audience. Back then we had no stories to tell. Now we do and after the show I can walk through the audience and make real connections.

Bo White


  1. Bo, excellent interview! Thanks for taking the time to spotlight a true artist and consummate performer! Dennis' Bobby Darin show is OUTSTANDING - a must see for any music lover!!

  2. What a great interview! I've had the honor of singing with Dennis on several shows...and consider him a great friend...but after reading this interview...I feel like I know him even better...Thanks Bo!!!

  3. Great Interview! Dennis is the consumate musician....still such an amazing singer.

  4. Personable interview is reflective of the performance. Dennis connects with the audience, appears to genuninely enjoy himself while performing, and brings energy to the venue.

  5. I thought that Dennis and BJ Thomas were the same person for many years untill I found out other wise. I wonder if other people come up to him and ask if he also goes by the name BJ Thomas.

  6. Its 4:30am, in Wisconsin,I can't sleep and saw Mickey Dolenz pushing a 60's collection set so I watched, I am 56. It made my heart hurt to hear songs I loved and see Davy Jones, and many others, I love it. Then I saw Dennis in the Buckinghams, I was a close friend of Gary Puckett and got to meet a lot of 60's groups living in San Diego then. The Buckinghams are here by me and I saw them many times, but Carl was the lead. I always assumed he WAS the Buckinghams lead from what is said at the concerts. Then I saw Dennis on this show this morning! I ran to the internet and looked up all of this and wow, I did NOT know Dennis IS the Buckinghams lead on all those songs that Carl took credit for. I have listened to many of Dennis' songs past and present history and God bless him, he IS the Buckinghams. I am seeing the Buckinghams Aug 4 in Waukegan for Gary's Happy Together Tour, and I now know that all those hits are Dennis' and I hope to go see Dennis somewhere now, it took a hit of sadness to know we were duped but I love Dennis' songs and I am now a NEW/old fan of Dennis Tufano. I just never realized it till now. Take care Dennison

  7. Great interview. Just found this. Sad that so many young guys were duped back then by the corporate elite.