Doo Wop and Ronnie Italiano: Passion or Obsession?

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you are probably a fan of doo wop and rock and roll music. Maybe even a very big fan. If you are, let me pose this question to you. Would you prefer to have your love of doo wop and rock and roll described as passionate or obsessive? According to my thesaurus, some synonyms listed for passion include; adoration, attachment, enthusiasm, excitement, fascination, fervor, fondness, infatuation, joy, love, verve, zeal, and zest. In the same thesaurus under obsession we have; bee in one’s bonnet, complex, fetish, fixation, hang-up, mania, monomania, phobia, preoccupation, and zelotypia.

I made my choice rather quickly. How about you? What made me rethink that choice several months later, however, involved a 700 mile trip to Clifton, New Jersey, and meeting a man with the somewhat unusual name of Ronnie Italiano.

I bring this up because my sweet wife and best friend, Lynn-J, once described my love of rock and roll to our dinner companions as “obsessive”. Well, I confess that there are thousands of records, CDs, magazines, DVDs, books, and VHS tapes in our home and garage, and the overwhelming majority of them do indeed deal with rock and roll.

Then there’s the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends website that I spend a lot of time working on, and the research that I’m constantly doing for the rock and roll history courses I teach through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Saginaw Valley State University. I’ve also been involved in an ongoing display of Michigan rock and roll history at the Bay City Motor Company as well as temporary rock and roll displays at the Wirt Public Library and at one of Bay City’s monthly Gallery Walks. Lynn-J also witnessed firsthand my 15 years of producing the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Trivia Show”.

Strolling through our house, I notice that of the 32 framed pictures on the walls, 21 directly or indirectly deal with rock and roll. On my back burner is a visual presentation of Bay City’s rock and roll history for the Bay County Historical Museum. Last but not least, there is the project to have the site of the former Schiell Recording Studio on Raymond Street designated as a historical landmark by the State Historical Preservation Office in Lansing. This one has been going on for over a year and will probably take a good deal longer to complete.

At first, I was a little taken aback at Lynn-J’s suggestion that I was "obsessive", but after writing out the above list, I think I can understand why she might feel that way. But I still prefer to think of myself as passionate about rock and roll, a term that I feel has positive connotations, and bristle at being described as obsessive which I believe veers toward the negative.

Because she loves me, Lynn-J now refers to rock and roll as “my passion”, but is she still secretly thinking that it’s really the “o” word? How could I show her the difference between passionate and obsessive? I thought I might have discovered the answer in an unusual book entitled Weird N.J (Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets) by Mark Sceurmann and Mark Moran.

Our son Brennan and his wife JoJo had just bought their first house in Roselle, New Jersey, and we had bought the book for them as a fun little house-warming gift. As the title suggests, the book lists all the odd, mysterious, and offbeat spots that you can visit in the Garden State. It was fun leafing through the tome, but something on page 240 really caught my eye. Listed under a chapter with the charming title of Cemetery Safari was a segment called “In Clifton They Remember Frankie Lymon”. It briefly recounted the story of record shop owner Ronnie Italiano and how he happened to have the tombstone of 50’s teen rock and roll star Frankie Lymon displayed in the front window of his Clifton Music Store. Frankie L's headstone

13-year-old Frankie Lymon once fronted a popular doo wop group called The Teenagers. In 1956, they recorded the classic “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, along with other nuggets such as “I Promise To Remember”, “The ABC’s Of Love”, and one of my all-time favorites, “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent”.

Frankie Lymon's tombstone at Clifton Music.

Frankie left The Teenagers to go solo in 1957, but by 1960, the combination of a vocal change as he grew older along with his addiction to heroin had effectively sabotaged his career.

Lymon eventually died of a heroin overdose in 1968, at the age of 25, just as he was about to attempt a comeback in the music industry. Since Frankie was born in New York City, his body was buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. So why is his tombstone in Clifton, New Jersey, in the front window of a record shop?

In 1976, Italiano founded a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization called the United In Group Harmony Association dedicated to the preservation, exposure and education of the authentic vocal group music he loved and grew up with.

Ten years later in 1985, Ronnie discovered that Frankie Lymon’s grave was unmarked. The U.G.H.A. contacted Frankie’s widow, Emira, in Georgia about raising money to buy Lymon a headstone. She liked the idea so the U.G.H.A. rented a hall, lined up a few vocal groups, and charged people $10 a ticket. The benefit was a great success and raised $3,000 for the purchase of a stone.

Shortly after the headstone was cut and engraved, Emira asked Ronnie to hold off on placing it on the grave because of what she described as “some legal problems”. Apparently, at the time of his death, Lymon was actually married to three women, and they were all fighting in court for the royalty rights from the estate. In order to strengthen her legal position, Emira decided to put a stone on Frankie’s grave herself, thereby leaving the U.G.H.A. with a Frankie Lymon headstone and no place to put it.

Not to be deterred, Ronnie declared it as the “official headstone” of Frankie Lymon and displayed it in the front window of Clifton Music. He claims that it’s a good conversation piece. In Weird N.J. he’s quoted as saying, “Sometimes people will come in to the shop and ask me if I’m a stonecutter and if I can carve a stone for them. No, I tell them, I’m just a fan.”

I don’t know about you, but Ronnie Italiano sounded to me like an excellent candidate for “obsessive” fan and also a pretty interesting character. Clifton was about a 25-minute car ride from Roselle, so Lynn-J and I planned to drive over and meet Ronnie at his music store on our next visit to New Jersey.

A few months later, we were back in New Jersey and decided to motor over to Clifton while our son and daughter-in-law were working. Clifton is a city of roughly 80,000 with a tidy downtown area that shows none of the signs of urban decay such as boarded-up storefronts and broken windows. That might be because the largest ethnic group in the city is made up of Italian-Americans, followed closely by the Polish-Americans and then Irish-Americans.

Clifton Music is located in the business district on Main Avenue and, sure enough, the first thing we see as we walk up to the shop is Frankie Lymon’s headstone in the front window on a riser surrounded by artificial flowers.

An independently owned music store like Ronnie’s is a throwback to earlier times. It’s relatively small, but Italiano has made it successful by catering to a niche that is ignored by the larger chain retailers. Ronnie claims that Clifton Music is the largest retail outlet of vocal harmony records in the world. Most of us call this type of music doo wop but not Ronnie I. He hates the term “doo wop”, which he feels both trivializes and insults the music he loves and grew up with.

Of course, he is really swimming against the tide in this respect because doo wop is the universally accepted term for the vocal group music popular in rock and roll’s first decade. In addition, nearly all of the compilations of vocal harmony groups that he sells in his shop have “doo wop” in their titles. But in Italiano’s defense, his interest in vocal group harmony predates the rock and roll era. More than 25% of the U.G.H.A.’s Hall of Fame honors artists such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers who were making records long before the 1950’s.

There is an impressive selection of vinyl records, CD’s, books, magazines, videos and DVD’s at Clifton Music. As you can probably imagine, almost everything in his shop deals with vocal harmony groups, although I did find a nice collection of Mary Wells songs that she cut after leaving Motown. I also bought a copy of Phil Groia’s They All Sang On The Corner, one of the earliest published books about the vocal groups of the fifties that came out of the New York City area. In addition, Ronnie sells t-shirts and jackets with the U.G.H.A logo, vocal group recordings that he has produced on his own Clifton label, and DVD’s of the many vocal harmony shows he has put together over the years.

Most of the shows are centered on the inductions into the United In Group Harmony Association’s Hall of Fame. Started in 1991, it now contains 84 inductees. Unless you are a hardcore fan of vocal harmony groups, there are probably many that you have never heard. Most are black vocal groups, although there are a couple of mixed groups (Crests, Dell Vikings), only one all-girl group (Chantels), and a few that had a female singer (Platters, Kodaks, and Mellows). Almost all of the groups were formed prior to 1960. I asked Ronnie about the Shirelles from his hometown of nearby Passaic, New Jersey, but he dismissed them as lacking the vocal harmony skills to qualify for induction.

Even though Motown artists like the Miracles, Four Tops, and Temptations were heavily influenced by the early doo wop groups, they are also not included. Ronnie explained that he feels that Motown is a separate thing from the vocal harmony groups that he loves. In his opinion, Motown was basically dance music, and he was openly dismissive of the singing ability of the label’s most successful girl group, the Supremes. Since the doo wop era did not produce very many groups in Michigan, the only artists from the state that are in the U.G.H.A. Hall of Fame are the Diablos and the Midnighters.

                 Ronnie Italiano

Ronnie’s appearance is what some might expect an Italian guy from Jersey to look like. He’s short, with dark hair combed back in a style that was popular in the fifties. He wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Sopranos in which Tony, Paulie and Sylvio stop by the shop to pick up a couple of their favorite doo wop collections to listen to on their way to whack some wise guys. In fact, some exterior scenes for the popular HBO series were shot in Clifton.

Ronnie was also battling cancer at the time of our visit. I only know this because I overheard a phone conversation while I was in the shop during which Italiano described some of the tests that were run on him the previous day.

Ronnie and I also talked about Frankie Lymon and the movie Why Do Fools Fall In Love, loosely based on Lymon’s life and the court battle that involved the three women all claiming to be his rightful heir. Ronnie was excited about the next show he was producing in Clifton featuring Earl Lewis and The Channels and invited us to come. I explained that we were just visiting, but I promised to check out his website and would try to catch one of his shows if we were in New Jersey at the same time. It was a fun afternoon both talking to him and checking out Clifton Music.

If I lived in the Clifton area, I would certainly join Ronnie’s organization. I’m a fan of doo wop and $25 buys a one-year membership in United In Group Harmony Association. This entitles you all club benefits such as discounts on everything sold at Clifton Music. It also includes discount admissions for the U.G.H.A.’s monthly meetings/shows that usually feature contemporary harmony groups like the Infernos or the Cliftonaires who can emulate the classic sounds of the past.

The gatherings also provide an opportunity for Ronnie to track down the singers of such great groups as the Cadillacs, Heartbeats, and Five Discs and have them perform, in some cases for the first time in decades. In a 1998 interview, Ronnie explained “What we do is keep the music alive for the people who love it and the people who made it. There aren’t many other places to hear it.”

After we got back to Michigan, I looked up Ronnie’s name on the Internet and found out some more interesting information about him. On the New York Times website there were several stories about his rock and roll exploits. One involved Joe Frazier, not the fighter but the black lead singer of an interracial group called the Impalas, who had a big hit in 1959 with “Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home)”. Frazier had lost both of his legs to diabetes and Ronnie had hosted a benefit for him featuring the Duprees, the Dell Vikings, and the Cadillacs.

Then there was the story of Gerald ‘Bounce’ Gregory who had performed with the Spaniels for over 45 years. Gregory had sung the “dip-du-dup-dup-dum” riff at the start of the group’s classic recording of “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight”, but he was buried in an unmarked grave. Ronnie and the U.G.H.A. raised $3,000 for an engraved tombstone for his resting place.

Another dealt with Harry Douglass, the lead singer of the Deep River Boys, one of the four or five groups that defined the black vocal quartet style of the 1930’s and 40’s. Because of the U.G.H.A., Douglass’ career was revived and he was able to share his music and his history with a whole new audience.

I also found out that Ronnie had hosted group harmony radio shows on WNWK, WHBI, and WNYE-FM for over 23 years. It was also reported that he got into a very public feud with New York’s biggest oldies station, WCBS-FM, when they eliminated vocal harmony groups from their playlists. Ronnie accused the station of abandoning the city’s musical roots.

All these things came at a price, however. Keeping Italiano's dream alive resulted in a thirty-year struggle to keep the U.G.H.A. solvent. Travel and production costs for his shows ran into thousands of dollars, which had to be recouped through admissions, raffles, dues, donations, souvenirs, vendor fees and sales of videotapes and DVD’s. If these things couldn’t cover the costs, Ronnie or his friends would go into their own pockets.

I hadn’t seen or talked to Ronnie for over a year. Early last summer we were planning a trip to New Jersey, and we were going to set aside a day to drive down the Garden State Parkway and visit Ronnie at his Clifton Music Store. Earlier in the spring, myself and friends Ron Witucki and John Len had put together a list of 25 Great Doo Wop Songs. I brought a copy along to run by Ronnie and to get his opinion.

I’m sure that if the U.G.H.A. were to construct a list, it would be vastly different from ours. Only seven groups who were inducted into the U.G.H.A. Hall of Fame (Five Satins, Del Vikings, Flamingos, Dells, Crests, Jive Five, and Teenagers) were on our list of 25. But I didn’t get the chance. While checking the Clifton Music’s web site to find out the store hours, I saw the memorial notice that Ronnie had died in March from liver cancer.

I’m not sure why I felt so bad reading of Ronnie’s death. I didn’t know him that well, and Lynn-J and I only went over to Clifton in the first place because I thought he would be an entertaining example of a rock and roll obsessive. While uncovering more about him, however, I learned that Ronnie Italiano took the vocal group harmony that he loved and he found a way to make it his life. In the process, he also helped make the world a little better place to live for the people who made that music and for those who shared his love of it.

Upon reflection, it now seems clear to me that doing what you love and making the world a better place while doing so would probably be a pretty good definition of a life well-lived.

Meeting Ronnie also helped me learn that the words passion and obsession are just labels that mean different things to different people, and I think that if someone ever refers to me as obsessive in the future I’ll be much more willing to accept the title… in honor of Ronnie I.