Gary James' Interview With Pepe Cardona of
Alive N Kickin'
In 1970, their song "Tighter and Tighter" climbed the Billboard chart. They toured with some of the biggest names in Rock, including Chicago, Frank Zappa, Seals and Crofts, Mott The Hoople and Rare Earth. They appeared on national television shows such as Dick Clark's American Bandstand and The Mike Douglas Show. They played major venues such as Madison Square Garden, the Baltimore Civic Center and Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
Pepe Cardona, the original founder of Alive N Kickin' talked with us about his band.
Q - Pepe, you bill Alive N Kickin' as one of the premier nightclub and wedding bands in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). Given your background, how can you be happy playing a nightclub or even a wedding for that matter?
A - Why not? (laughs) This is what I do for a living. After we recorded the hit single, we released a couple of songs after that. We released "Just Let It Come". That only sold about 250,000. "Tighter and Tighter" sold about a million at the time. Then we did a re-make of a David Gates song called "London Bridge" and that didn't go anywhere. Consequently, we were all very unhappy and we broke up. That was the end of '71, beginning of '72. For four years I just like fiddled around. I took dance lessons, vocal lessons. I tried to be better. I formed a band again in '76. This time I decided I was going to make a living out of this. For years I had little odd jobs here and there. I was working in a bank. I was working on Wall Street, and all the time I'm thinking what am I doing? I have this great talent I should be using. So, in '76 I decided to go back into the business. I'm gonna form Alive N Kickin' again and see what my hit record under my belt can do for me. Can I make a living out of this without ever having to take a 9 to 5 job again? And that's what I did. So, we played clubs for about fifteen years. We made a great living out of playing clubs. We became a top notch, number one club band in New York. It was totally awesome. That led to the advent of the DJ era. As soon as the 90s came, the clubs weren't paying that much anymore. So, at that point I said alright, it's time for another change. Had to go into the wedding circuit. That's what I did. I changed my whole repertoire. I learned all the wedding shtik and continued because I wasn't going to lose this band that I had nurtured and kept going all these years. We became a wedding band. I started doing corporate parties. I continued to do the clubs because I have a nice fan base out there that still enjoy watching Alive N Kickin'. So, I kept doing the clubs and I do a club here and there. I do a club in just about every borough, like once a month.
Q - Have you played any celebrity weddings?
A - No. I do roughly about 80 to 85 weddings a year. We charge about six grand a wedding and it's really doing good. We gotta learn all the wedding songs. We do at least one or two bridal showcases every month, where brides come and check out your band for their affair. That's why I don't mind doing this. (laughs) It's a living. It's how I make a living. Everybody still remembers the song. I have a Gold record on my wall.
Q - Would you play "Tighter and Tighter" at a wedding?
A - Oh, yes.
Q - And someone might say that sounds like the record and you say, we did the record.
A - We make a big deal out of "Tighter and Tighter". Right off the bat, when we book, they know we had a hit song. We have a DVD out and on the DVD it has our number one hit single "Tighter and Tighter" from the 70s. So, they know that we have it. At the wedding, we invite the bride and groom to come up with us and that particular song, "Tighter and Tighter", they can join the band. We give them a tambourine. And the video photographers and all the people gather around. It's like a big part of the wedding. We introduce ourselves. "By the way, we had a hit song. We're gonna bring the bride and groom up." And everybody goes "oh yeah." We do a verse and a chorus. We say "OK, who remembers?" You got the hands coming up.
Q - Are you the only original member in Alive N Kickin'?
A - No. There's the guitar player that was on the record. He's the only original member left. Everybody dropped out. When we broke up in '72, our keyboard player Bruce Sudano went out to California. He was a writer. He met Donna Summer. He married Donna Summer. He still tours with her. He kind of semi-manages her. Sings background on her tours. They live in Nashville. Still a very close friend of mine. They've had three girls. They came out of our family tree there.
Q - What he should do is put Alive N Kickin' on the same bill as Donna Summer.
A - When I started putting Alive N Kickin' back together in New York, he started a band called Brooklyn Dreams in California, with a couple of guys I grew up with here in Brooklyn. They started opening up for Donna Summer. They wrote a couple of her hits. They wrote "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff". And they're on that album that she recorded in the late 70s with those songs on it.
Q - Who wrote "Tighter and Tighter"?
A - Well, Tommy James wrote that for me. It's a great story. When I first started the band with Bruce, we decided we were gonna do a duet. So, we found this girl named Sandra Toder. Her sister was actually very good friends with Tommy James' wife. So, through that connection we got Tommy James to come down and see us at this little, tiny club. At the time, in 1969, there were all these little Hullabaloo clubs that were sprouting up throughout the country and there was one in Brooklyn. We got Tommy to come down and see us there. He liked us and we formed a little relationship. My bass player Woody Wilson and Bruce Sudano both got together with Tommy and helped him write one of his hits, a song called "Ball Of Fire". That was a Top 20 hit for him. In any case, he said I'm gonna write a song for you guys. So, one day he comes down with this song called "Crystal Blue Persuasion". We went down to my guitar player's basement, the one that's still with me, in Brooklyn. He worked out the whole song. We did harmonies to it. We were ready to record it. Then he comes down and tells us, "Guys, I'm really sorry but I decided to record that song myself. I'm gonna put it on my album. But I'll write you another song." So, six months later he comes down with "Tighter and Tighter". We go into the studio and record it and it became a big hit for us. It was an amazing thing. (laughs)
Q - These Hullabaloo clubs, would they have been like the TV show where you'd see girls dancing in cages?
A - Yeah, that kind of thing. They were like an off shoot of the TV show.
Q - This is the first time I've ever heard about clubs like this. I never knew they existed.
A - Yeah. There was one we played in Massachusetts. I think it was in Springfield and there was one in Brooklyn. There were a couple more around the country. They didn't last long. That particular club acted as a springboard actually to our meeting Tommy James.
Q - After "Tighter and Tighter" became a hit, where did the group perform?
A - We did a tour where we went around the country. We went to the West coast. We did American Bandstand. That was pretty cool. While we were there we performed at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. Then we did a TV show in Houston and a couple of clubs there...went to Florida. I remember going into Florida and the song was number one. That was pretty cool. Did a big outdoor concert in Texas. Did an outdoor concert in Miami. Went up the East coast, North Carolina, all these little clubs that were accepting 'hit' bands. We even did a show in Cleveland. It was called Upbeat. We went to Montreal and did a TV show up there. It was a great little tour.
Q - Didn't you open for Frank Zappa?
A - Yes. During this tour, we did a lot of colleges also. This was a the College of California in Pennsylvania. There's actually a little town in Pennsylvania called California. We opened up for Frank Zappa and at the time he had Flo and Eddie from The Turtles. Those two were backing him up on vocals. It was actually Frank Zappa and War. Eric Burdon and War. We actually opened for them at the Felt Forum. At the time it was a theatre in Madison Square Garden. We also did the Baltimore Civic Center where we opened up for Chicago. Now, did this bill: it was Chicago, Alive N Kickin and third billing was Seals and Crofts. Would you believe that? That was before Seals and Crofts really made it big.
Q - What was it like being on the Mike Douglas Show?
A - It was kind of bittersweet. It was national TV. Dick Clark was very personable. He came to the dressing room and he met us and introduced himself and "Hey, I love your song. Thanks for coming on the show." On the other hand, Mike Douglas was totally not into us at all. I don't know if he didn't like our look. We were kind of hippie looking. We were dressed like the early 70s bands, dressed with fringe vests and long hair. And, he announced us on national TV as Alive N Cookin'.
Q - Well, you were cookin' when you performed.
A - Yeah, I know.
Q - Imagine what Ed Sullivan would've done with your name.
A - (laughs) But, it was a great experience doing Mike Douglas.
Q - How was the money back then for personal appearances?
A - The money was OK. The only problem was we should've gotten a hell of a lot more money. Unfortunately we were on a label called Roulette Records. They were run by this guy named Morris Levy.
Q - He was "connected" as they say.
A - Yeah. notoriously connected to the Mafia. He ran the ship like the Mafia would. (laughs) Didn't give us the money we were supposed to get. He didn't do that with any of his artists. All of his artists suffered because he kept all of the royalties himself and just doled out little miniscule amounts. He gave us money to buy a P.A. system. A little bit here and there for spending money. He laid out the advance money to record and gave us a miniscule amount to record our album. So, consequently our album wasn't the best selling album that we could have come up with, because we had a very limited budget. When it came time to do a follow-up to "Tighter and Tighter", we wanted to do something really good and he chose this song called "Just Let It Come". We weren't crazy about this song, but he insisted on it. He said "This is the song you're going to go in to do." Consequently, it bombed. And then after that we had our choice of picking a song and we picked a song called "London Bridge" that David Gates had on his first album. Unfortunately, Roulette wasn't behind it at the time. Morris Levy wasn't happy about our choice of songs. He wanted to make the choice again. Consequently, he didn't push the song. He didn't do anything. The song never went anywhere. With "Tighter and Tighter" he had every DJ in the country vying for who would break the record Top Ten first. Whoever did, that DJ won a trip to Spain. We had a lot of push with "Tighter and Tighter". The song is a great song.
Q - Do you have any new product out as we speak?
A - No. You know what? I've tried to do that over the years. It was very hard. Record companies do not want to hear anything about what happened in the 70s. You know how hard it is for even Paul McCartney to sell right now. The Rolling Stones can go on tour and make millions and millions of dollars. But if they put out any product, it's not going to be played on the radio. Paul McCartney just put out an album on the Starbucks label. Tommy's new CD that he put out last Summer was being sold at Wal-mart.
Q - You wouldn't entertain the idea of putting out your own CD?
A - No. To tell you the truth, it really takes a lot of time and effort to keep Alive N Kickin' going. A lot of marketing...tele-marketing to do. We constantly book Alive N Kickin' year round with weddings and corporate parties. We do a lot of nice outdoor concerts during the Summer. I have to keep making these calls constantly and sending our e-mails. It's a lot of work.
Q - Did Morris Levy ever catch you in concert?
A - Hmmm...let's see...he must've in the beginning, I imagine. But then after that, he hardly ever came. He just wanted into the artist representation side of it. He just sat behind a desk and doled out orders. (laughs) And that's the way it was.
Q - I don't think a guy could do that today.
A - Things changed radically after that era. After that, all the artist got what they should've gotten and what they deserved. Things started changing. Unfortunately, we were at the latter end of that era where the artist didn't get anything.
Q - Well, you did get a hit record. That's something.
A - I got one hit record. I have parlayed it into a wonderful career. I love my career. I make good money. I make a good living. And, I'm still doing it! I'm still singing! I get great satisfaction. People love the band. The band is top notch.