It was both a reunion and a farewell on Saturday night for the Crystal Blue Band. Latrobe was where they started and where they ended, and their last gig at the Great American Banana Split Celebration was, vocalist Mike Vale told the audience, a piece of musical history.
“And you are as much a part of it as we are,” he said.
It’s all over, he told the Newsletter“the way it was meant to be.”
It was the swan song of the last of the original Shondells who 50 years ago parted ways with Tommy James, and eight years ago were reborn as the Crystal Blue Band.
“We had about 25 shows in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Florida,” Vale said. “We were coming out of our last show in Florida when COVID hit and we had no idea what was going on. My family would call me and tell me to get in the car and go home. We’ve canceled five or six shows, and until recently we weren’t doing any. We talked seriously about the fact that maybe it was time to hang up, and it was finally going in that direction.
Two of them had caught the virus, and Johnny Angel, whose band was on their show, got really sick of it. They didn’t know when or if they would be back on stage.
“Then all of a sudden we got this invitation from the people of Latrobe to play Banana Split Festival,” Vale said. “What a great way to finish. We started at Latrobe and we were going to finish there.
The audience was more than enthusiastic. Many of them remember when Vale and the others played around the area with other bands, at places like Harry’s Danceland in Latrobe, the Red Rooster and other teen dance halls. Many of them were old enough to have danced to the hit music of Tommy James and the Shondells, which made its way across America and Europe.
Vale, 82, real name Michael Vucish Sr., is originally from Salemville in Salem Township and now lives in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. He is one of four members of the Crystal Blue Band which reformed decades after Tommy James and the Shondells split up. Eddie Gray from Scottdale and Ron Rosman from Somerset were also Shondells. Youngwood’s Mike Wilps came on board when the others were looking for a drummer for their new band.
Tommy James and the Shondells rose to fame in the mid-1960s with three hits that went to number one on the charts (“Hanky Panky”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, and “Crimson and Clover”).
They were on the Ed Sullivan Show (twice), the Mike Douglas Show, the Joey Bishop Show and Hullaballoo. They had eight gold records, 19 consecutive singles that hit the Top 100 charts, in addition to three that reached No. 1.
And it all started around 1964 with two bands from the Latrobe area.
One group, the Raconteurs, was made up of music majors from St. Vincent College.
“I was with a band called the Sonics, and we were Harry’s Danceland house band,” Vale said. “We supported all the acts that came out there.”
One night in 1965, while the Sonics were playing at the Sunset Inn in Irwin, some of the Raconteurs arrived after their own show and invited Vale to play in their band.
The following year, while the Raconteurs were playing at the Thunderbird Lounge in Greensburg, a young man named Tommy Jackson – later known as Tommy James – stopped by in search of a band. About five years prior, he had recorded a song, “Hanky Panky”, which went nowhere, but it was rediscovered in Pittsburgh where it was playing. James traveled from Michigan to find out what was going on with his song. Pittsburgh promoter Bob Mack knew the Sonics. This led James, who needed a bass player, to discover Vale with the Raconteurs.
James talked to local musicians about his song “Hanky Panky” and asked if they wanted to join his band, the Shondells.
“We had no idea who he was,” Vale said. “I told him to give me a day or two, that I was going to have to talk to the guys. These guys were in college and I was getting my own job.
The next morning, he heard Chuck Brinkman on KQV radio playing “Hanky Panky”, then predicting that the song was going to go No. 1 in the country.
Vale told the guys, and they got on board. It was Vale on vocals and bass, Rosman on keyboard, guitarist Joe Kessler from Illinois, George Magura from Ohio, who played multiple instruments, and drummer Vinnie Pietropaoli from Greensburg, who was later replaced. by Peter Lucia of New Jersey. Vale co-wrote some of the hit songs.
The band broke up in 1971 when ill health sidelined James. Vale continued with another band, but in 1972 decided to quit. He and his wife Valerie had a family and he continued his initial career as a machinist. He eventually started his own company, Stellar Precision Components in Jeannette, which is now owned by his daughter Lori Albright.
In 2014, Vale organized a tribute, Hats Off to Harry, for Harry Lattanzio, whose Danceland over the decades had attracted generations of teenagers and young adults.
“We all had very special memories of Harry, and when I heard he was getting frail, I got some guys from the Raconteurs and the Sonics together and asked them if they’d join me in a big party to Harry,” he said. “It was the momentum that brought us together again, that drove us to come together as the Crystal Blue Band. Then there was the fact that we all had grandchildren, and in my case, great-grandchildren, who had no knowledge of the legacy we left behind. For a long time I wanted to do something that would draw them into our world. So when I spoke to the guys, they thought that would be a good thing to do.
Vale, Rosman, Gray and Wilps hit the road with Johnny Angel and the Halos, a Pittsburgh band that opened for the Crystal Blue Band and accompanied them in performing some of the Shondells’ best-known music. They were also there at the Banana Split Festival.
That night, Vale and Rosman shared lead vocals for 14 songs and were backed by Gray and Wilps.
“It was good to be back in Latrobe,” Vale said. “I don’t remember feeling what I felt that night on stage. That was how it should be. The crowd went crazy and it was so great to make them feel like they were part of the story.
Crystal Blue Band videos are available on YouTube.
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