“OK you guys, ready?…Da Doo Ron Ron on four…1,2,3,4!”
Ray Miller’s guitar riff cut through the smoke and rang out across the dance floor all the way to the parking lot. Here comes Steve Popovich’s heavy bass line thumping the bottom and Denny’s tenor sax filling in… and now Tony’s powerful voice on top.
“I met her on a Monday and my heart stood still”
I was working the shuffle beat as hard and fast as my bony fingers could manipulate the sticks…the fourteen inch Zildjian high hat cymbals snapped and clicked crisp on the two and four beat…the bass drum whumped. I looked out from behind my drum set on the bandstand through the spotlights and scanned over the parquet dance floor of the Torchlight Supper Club.
All I could see was heads and bodies…hundreds of them…at one dollar apiece…a sea of humanity bobbing and weaving…humping and bumping…twisting and turning…big-haired redheads and pony-tailed blondes…brunettes with pointy bras and tight skirts…tall, thin boys with slicked back New Yorkers…preppie collegiate types with George Hamilton alpaca sweaters in salmon, canary yellow and powder blue…a blur of twisting, turning young American energy.
The Twilighters…Tony Liotta, Dennis Samsa, Randy Brown, Ray Miller, Steve Popovich
“Somebody told me that her name was Jill…”
From where I sat behind my Ludwig Galaxy Sparkle drum kit, it was a wild scene…I was the drummer in a rock n roll band with chaos and pandemonium all around me…packed bars, free drinks, smokes, music, a pocketful of money and girls, girls, girls…I had it made.
I was all lathered up. I was 21 years old.
“Yeah, when she walked me home…Da Doo Ron Ron Ron, Da Doo Ron Ron”…and the tenor sax wailed…
Early Twilighters publicity shot, right after we started the group, circa 1964…our hair was perfect!
It was 1965 at the center of the rock and roll world…Cleveland, Ohio. We were The Twilighters and we were smoking hot…we were packing them in…four and five nights a week…standing room only…at The Torchlight Supper Club, Shibley’s Sahara, Hire’s Lounge and The Eastgate Coliseum. We had a record label deal, two managers, bouncers, groupies, ruffle shirts, mohair suits and a fan club.
It wasn’t always that way.
FLAM PARA DIDDLE-DIDDLE
Remember when the music teacher came around in fifth or sixth grade and had each kid pick an instrument? For some reason I grabbed a drum…ok, not really a drum…one of those little rubber practice pads stapled to a slanted wood stand along with two drum sticks. I looked around the room and kids had flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, a ukulele, even a tuba…I felt a little cheated without a real drum to bang on…I set out to change all that.
Motter’s Music today on Mayfield Rd…it didn’t always look like this.
Luckily, I got hooked up with Howard Brush…a cool little dude with a butch haircut and one of the best drum teachers in Cleveland. Howard had played drums with the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis road show and he knew his stuff.
My mother would drive me to drum lessons at Motter’s Music and Gene Beecher’s Studio. I would sit there and slap out the single stroke rolls, the paradiddles and the rim shots while Howard Brush squirmed.
I hated drum lessons.
Finally the day came. I got a hold of a used set of black laquer Slingerlands and set them up in the cold, dark, dank basement of our little two bedroom, one bathroom house.
I was ready to rock.
Revved up and ready…1962
I learned from Jackie Wilson and Johnny and the Hurricanes and Buddy Rich versus Max Roach…Ronnie Hawkins and Dale Hawkins…Duane Eddy…Bill Doggett and Phil Upchurch…Jimmy Reed…Del Shannon….Joey Dee and The Starlighters…Dave “Baby” Cortez and his Happy Organ…Red Prysock. I sat down there banging away for hours.
Joey Dee & The Starlighters Jackie Wilson
Ronnie Hawkins with Rick Danko
It drove my mother bonkers.
SHIMMY, SHIMMY KOKO BOP!
Growing up in Cleveland in the fifties and sixties, music was everywhere. Car radios blaring with AM radio turned all the way up listening to Mad Daddy Pete Myers playing the banned record “Young Blood” by the Coasters and “The Greasy Chicken” by Andre Williams, Bill Randle pimping Elvis and Little Richard on WERE, Johnny Holiday and the WHK Good Guys…or The “Big 8” CKLW Detroit cranking out 50,000 watts of Motown power across Lake Erie while blasting Martha and the Vandellas, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, The Four Tops and the Tempting Temptations.
CLICK HERE to listen:
It was a night scene right out of American Graffitti, complete with Manners Drive-In and drag races up the Mayfield Road Hill.
Rock and Roll was here to stay.
And at night, tucked away in a dark bedroom, if you dialed just right, you could tune in to John R at WLAC Nashville to get all the blues you needed, sponsored by Ernie’s Record Mart… Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lazy Lester, Little Milton, John Lee Hooker.
John Lee Hooker
But my career as a drummer was going nowhere fast. Boring, tedious work as an office mail boy or an auto body shop grunt by day, bouncing around the bars, pool halls or teen clubs by night .
Oh sure, I occasionally got to sit in at a couple of high school dances and once or twice at the Green Darby on Lake Shore Blvd., but mostly I just stood in the back and listened…to the hot Cleveland bands like Dave C and the Sharptones, Frank Samson and The Wailers, Tom King and the Starfires, Joey and the Continentals…I was another nameless face in the crowd with a black rubber ink stamp on the back of his hand…another kid wanting to be somebody.
Dave C and the Sharptones played a lot of gigs in Cleveland in the 1960s
All of that was about to change…the day I met Glenn Schwartz.
There was only one Glenn Schwartz…by the early 1960s, he had already made a name for himself in Cleveland…the funky white boy sitting in with the famous blues cats in the all-black clubs downtown…B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker…they all knew Glenn…he was young, electrifying…and boy, could he play. He was a star before he knew it.
Glenn had this quirky photographer dude with horn-rimmed glasses named Jim Marcus who followed him around.
Marcus was an odd duck. His hobbies were photography, dynamite, trains, and Glenn Schwartz. I met Glenn through Marcus at one of his gigs and we’re hanging around shooting the breeze and Glenn says,
“I’m quittin this band…gonna start a new one.”
“Hey Glenn, I play drums, how about me?”
So he looks over at me and, typical Glenn, he says,
“Yeah, yeah, cool, why not?”
Jim Marcus, me and guitarist Dave Griggs clowning around in Cleveland Hts…circa early 1960s.
Next stop…Glenn’s place in the Briardale projects off Babbitt Rd. We got a bass player and a horn man and we jammed at his house. Glenn’s wife Marlene had little Glennie Jr. with her and Glenn’s mom popped in and out as did brother Gene.
We did “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James and “Tore Up” by Hank Ballard, tunes from both the Alberts (Collins and King) and “Oh Charlena” by the Sevilles. Glenn loved Freddie King so we called ourselves the “Sensations” after one of Freddie’s instrumental hits “Sen-Say-Shun”.
Glenn was well known around town so we got some gigs…they were in mostly low down, nasty, gut bucket, rat-ridden dives with hardly any pay…but we got some gigs.
The Band Box, The Peppermint Lounge, Tramend Lounge, Leo’s Cafe…all on the “funky” side of the street.
To watch silent movie of Sensations live in 1963…CLICK HERE
One of the “nightclubs” we played was no more than the basement of an office complex…the downstairs entrance was next to the dumpster. Throw in a 3.2 beer license, a back bar and a bandstand and “presto”!
There was a security fence on one side because the backyard was a cemetery! During breaks we would go outside by the dumpsters for a smoke and shoot at rats with a pellet pistol!
Leo’s Cafe…E. 75th & St. Clair Ave, Cleveland, Oh.
One Saturday night at Leo’s Cafe a nasty fight broke out in the middle of one of our sets complete with beer bottles busted over guys heads, girls on girls, tables and chairs turned upside down, the whole works. Leo’s had a bouncer named Eddie who was known to pack a gun. Right in the middle of the fight I looked down from the bandstand which was up quite a bit higher than the dance floor (luckily), and there was Eddie with his pistol out. He turned it around and grabbed it by the barrel and started whacking people on the head with the butt end. I was waiting for the bullets to start flying. Blood was everywhere. You could hear the sirens and see the flashing lights outside and bursting through the front door comes a half dozen of Cleveland’s Finest waving their billy clubs and smacking a few more people around. When the smoke cleared and the paddy wagons on St. Clair Ave. got filled up, the cops came back in and shut us down.
“That’s it for tonight, boys…music is over”
Rare photos of Glenn Schwartz jamming in Germany, March, 1965, with The Chosen Few…Glenn wore his “wig hat on his head”…pics are from my personal collection
Playing drums behind Glenn Schwartz was always an adventure and the fun didn’t stop at 2AM. In fact, we were just getting warmed up. One night after the gig, me and Glenn and a couple of “fans” ended up on the front yard of Hall Of Fame Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller’s sprawling estate in Gates Mills, Ohio.
When I woke up the sun was rising, the birds were chirping and Glenn and the girls were long gone.
My favorite photo of Glenn Schwartz…shot by Jim Marcus in California..from my personal collection.
The Sensations’ time in the spotlight didn’t last long. Glenn Schwartz had bigger plans and he eventually joined the James Gang and then moved to L.A. to hook up with Pacific Gas and Electric…the band, not the power company. I lost track of him for a while but caught up with him one night when he came home to Cleveland for a visit. We met up on a cold winter night and I gave him a ride home.
He was a different guy. He told me he was seeing stuff…seeing the devil peeking out behind a tree. Seeing evil everywhere. He told me when he looked at his son Glennie he saw the devil…when he looked at his wife Marlene he saw the devil. He told me he dropped a lot of acid in L.A. and it had changed him, altered him. He told me not to take that road.
“Don’t do it”, he said, “it messed me up”.
And then my old friend, one of the greatest guitar players ever, got out of my car, trudged through the snow, walked under the street light, and disappeared into the shadows of the East Cleveland projects.
HERE THEY COME…
It was a secret meeting…a closed rehearsal…all on the hush-hush…on a Sunday afternoon at Shibley’s Sahara Lounge in Willoughby, Ohio. I packed my drum set in through the front door and set up on the stage. Five of us were there, and nobody was supposed to know. Four of us were playing steady gigs with other bands at the time. If the word got out it would be trouble.
Denny tweaked and moistened his reed, Steve thumped a few bass notes, Ray tuned up his black Gretsch, I did a single stroke roll or two and tightened the snare strands on my Rogers Dynasonic…Tony tapped on the mic…
“Testing 1,2,3…testing”…ONE, TWO, THREE GO!
“Where were you on our wedding day?
I got bad news that you went away.
Where were you on our wedding day?
You did me wrong and now you must pay.
Whoa oh…a give me a-backa my ring…Whoa oh….Whoa oh…”
Tony’s voice cut through dim light under the low ceiling at Shibley’s and filled up the empty room like a powerful life force. The four of us looked at each other.
We knew we had something special.
Probably the first photo of us together…just before our first gig at the Eastgate Coliseum. We were young…and we were so skinny!
Flyer for our first pay gig…we packed them in!
There were plenty of good bands around Cleveland in the 1960s…Bocky & The Visions, The Outsiders, The Grasshoppers, The Choir, The Tulu Babies, Charade and many more. Lots of competition, tons of talent.
Bocky and the Visions on stage in Cleveland, early 1960s
But none of them had what the Twilighters had…we had Tony Liotta.
He was a natural…a raw talent…totally untrained…a God-given voice. He could sing anything…slow, fast, soft, smooth or edgy. Most important, people loved to hear him sing and they showed up in droves. The Twilighters were pretty much an instant hit. Before long we were packing them in four or five nights a week.
Tony Liotta on stage at Shibley’s Sahara Lounge…circa 1964.
At Shibley’s with a packed house.
We drew wall to wall crowds.
Check out the white kicks!
Packed crowd at the Torchlight
Rockin’ out behind my big, 22 inch Zildjian ride sizzle cymbal!
Twilighter original set list below…complete with barroom DNA!
Listen to rare Twilighters bootleg garage tape from one of our gigs in 1965!
CLICK HERE: TWILIGHTERS LIVE IN 65
Recorded live at the Torchlight Supper Club, Mentor, Ohio
“Treat Her Right” guitar intro: Ray…vocal: Tony
“Hang On Sloopy”…vocals: Tony/Dennis
“Wooly Bully”…vocal: Randy
“Fanny Mae…vocal: Tony
Slowin’ the pace down just a little bit.
MOHAIR SUITS AND 100% OF THE GATE
As members of the Cleveland Musicians Union, Loc. 4, AF of M, we were obliged to work for Union Scale which came to $121.48 for a four hour gig…almost $25 apiece! But that didn’t last long. We were packing the bars so heavy we soon cut a deal to play for Union Scale plus 100% of the gate. At the Torchlight we were jamming in 800-1000 people on a Sat. night at a dollar a head. The fire law (maximum occupancy) at Shibley’s was around 150 people and were drawing over 300 on a hot Sunday night. The Willoughby Fire Marshall was one of our biggest fans!
The Twilighters were a hot commodity. At our peak we were knocking down $250-$300 apiece a week when shots and beers were 50 cents and gas was 30 cents per gallon!
With local fame comes fortune and pretty soon we paying for it….paying a door man to take the money, paying a bouncer, or two or three…paying TWO managers at 20% of our gross, paying for mohair suits in royal blue, mustard and burnt orange, patent leather shoes, ruffle shirts, 8X10 glossies, Beatle boots, equipment managers, roadies…you name it.
We even paid disc jockeys.
Payola (paying money for radio airplay) was a dirty word in those days. It was also illegal. Several prominent radio personalities had been caught up and blackballed during the Payola Scandal, including local legend Alan “Moondog” Freed whose career was ruined. Once the most powerful radio DJ and Rock promoter in the world, Freed died in 1965 of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism…broke and destitute in a Palm Springs, Ca. hospital. He was 43 years old.
Alan Freed during his radio days in Akron, Ohio
But there was nothing illegal about hiring a DJ to work for us as an Emcee on the side and that is what we did. The radio guy would come to our gigs, walk out on stage and introduce us:
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Dick Drury from WHK Radio Cleveland…welcome to the Torchlight Supper Club… and here they are now, the moment you’ve been waiting for…stars of stage, TV and records, featuring their latest hit “Be Faithful” on the Bell Records label…let’s hear it for “The Twilighters”!
“Be Faithful” by The Twilighters on Bell Records…click to hear our hit!
For that 60 second intro Dick Drury pocketed some cash and our record shot up the WHK charts! Just another loyal employee on the Twilighter payroll!
“Be Faithful” was a nice local hit. Written by myself, Ray Miller and Steve Popovich, we cut the main track and vocals at Cleveland Recording and our producer, Bill Justis sweetened it up in Nashville. Tony and Denny’s vocals were outstanding.
“Be Faithful” got us a spot on this Greatest Hits LP, “Pride Of Cleveland Past”
And the gigs just kept on coming. We played high school dances, shopping malls, TV shows…we even opened for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra!
Live on the set…The Jerry G TV Show!
TV show was hosted by KYW disc jockey “Jerry G” Bishop
We were a cover band but we knew what to cover. We did a lot of Motown stuff…we did some British stuff…we liked the girl groups. Having an all guy band do girl group tunes was kind of different and it went over big. Dusty Springfield was one of our faves.
Mainly, we stuck to tunes that would fill up the dance floor…and we filled it up!
Me and Steve in our dressing room backstage at the Torchlight.
“Hang On Sloopy”…big dance at Chanel High School.
With Smokey and the Miracles backstage at Leo’s Casino in Cleveland after a Twilighters gig.
Me and Ray always had a good time!
We tried our hand at a few more recordings, travelling to Nashville and working in the studio with Bill Justis as our producer.
Justis was a unique cat. A short, thoughtful, chubby bald dude with a fondeness for Jack Daniels, he held two college degrees including one as a music major at Vanderbilt. He got his start as many did with Sam Phillips who owned Sun Records out of Memphis. Sun/Phillips was famous for starting the record careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and many others.
In 1957, Justis had a huge, oddball instrumental hit with the tune “Raunchy” on the Phillips label. The song was such a big hit that Justis was forced to go on the road to perform. He used to joke about the hair piece he wore on stage looking like a pawn shop “beaver pelt”. He took the rug off after the gig and no one recognized him!
Working in the studio was a challenge. After 20 or 30 lousy takes, Justis would mumble into the mic from the control room,
“Ricky Rotten and The Rocka-Teens, take two hundred”…and then he would take another long pull from the Jack Daniels bottle.
In the studio with Bill Justis and our “entourage”…
Back row, L to R…Frank Samson-organ, Bobby Igoe-mgr., Bob “Boo” Edel-doorman, George Bitsko-enforcer, Ray Miller.
Front row. L to R…Tony Liotta, Randy Brown, Bill Justis, Dennis Samsa, Steve Popovich
Eventually, Bill Justis had to call in some of the Nashville session cats to rescue us (and him).
KEEP ON SWINGIN!
Time passed, and The Twilghters cooled off, simmered down and levelled out. Our managers wanted a career with Tony and Dennis and as happens so often, we broke up, got back together, then drifted apart. Three of us stayed together for a while, then went our separate ways. Steve Popovich and myself pursued sales/promotion/marketing careers in the music biz. Tony, Dennis and Ray all continued on as musicians in other bands.
To me, the best thing that came out of all the days and nights with the Twilighters…all the rehearsals, studio sessions and long nights playing in crowded, noisy nightclubs and bars, is our friendship which we have all maintained to this very day.
We have stayed in touch and we even got together for a reunion gig 30 years later!
recorded live in 1994.
CLICK HERE: TWILIGHTERS REUNION VIDEO
Recorded live at Muldoon’s, Willowick, Ohio, 1994
The Twilighters at our reunion rhearsal in Mentor, Ohio…1994.
So it was a good run…and a fun ride….and for a few awesome years together in the mid 1960s in Cleveland, Ohio, we had a rockin’ good time!
GOOD NIGHT EVERYBODY…THANKS FOR COMING…DRIVE SAFE!
Dedicated to our bad-azz bass player, master blaster and groovemeister…
Special thanks to Kelly Liotta Zupich and most of all to Judi Liotta!
did you guys record on imperial the single i still love you and if so who sang lead
Tony Liotta sang lead on that one…Dennis Samsa sang the high harmony.
Didn’t the group later change its name in order to divest itself of a vast number of hangers on? I seem to recall someone saying “we had a payroll as big as LBJ.”
HI George…We had a lot of “expenses”…thanks, RB
You guys were great, loved the 60’s. I’ll always remember playing your drums during your breaks; until you finally gave me a few private lessons @ the music store where you worked. In the pic below, that’s me in the rust-colored V-neck sweater dancing with Janet Charlillo. we married in ’71.
You guys were great. Loved the 60’s. Especially enjoyed your cover of “Woolly Bully”, when you sang lead. I’ll always remember googling around on your drums during the breaks, until you finally gave me a couple of free lessons @ the music store where you taught. Sorry I missed your reunion session. In your picture “at Shibley’s with a packed house”, That’s me in the rust-colored V-neck sweater facing the camera while dancing with Janet Charlillo @ Shibley’s. We later married in ’71.
If I ever make it to Montana, Would love to learn to fly-fish with you.