Gary James' Interview With Tony Testa Of
The Duprees enjoyed a number of hit records in the early 1960s. We're talking, "You Belong To Me", "My Own True Love", "Have You Heard" and "Why Don't You Believe". Duprees member Tony Testa spoke to us about the history of the group.
Q - Tony, you've pulling double duty in The Duprees. You're the leader and the emcee. Is that because you've been involved with the group for so long?
A - (laughs) It's actually a little more involved than that. I got involved with the group back in the mid-60s. I was actually a guitar player and worked with the group many times. That's how I got to know all of the original members. Through the years, as they came and went, we kind of crossed paths different times until the mid-'80s when Michael Arnone, one of the original members, asked me to return to the group to kind of "fix it". At that point the group was in a little bit of disarray. So it became a labor of love for me because it's where I started and where I expected myself to be eventually anyway. It was a labor of love to put all the right music, all the right harmony back together to a classy show which was indicative of the group back in the early days.
Q - And that's what Michael Arnone meant when he said "fix it"?
A - Yeah, right. (laughs) Absolutely fix it because again it just kind of fell by the wayside as far as someone attending to the structure and the correct harmony and music.
Q - And you had the background to do that. You were more than just a guitarist.
A - Yeah, exactly. I guess that's always been my main, let's say strength, not so much being a lead singer. I'm not the lead singer type. I've always been one to put harmonies together, structure a show and present a show. So, it kind of fell into place neatly when Mike asked me to take care of all that stuff and then unfortunately when he passed away in 2005, the family, which inherited the name obviously, entrusted me with the exclusive licence to continue the group. So even though I never expected that, I gladly undertook the responsibility and honor of continuing that legend and legacy of The Duprees.
Q - You've done everything legally and above board with The Duprees, haven't you?
A - Absolutely.
Q - Yet, the two remaining guys from the original Duprees are not happy. Why are they so unhappy?
A - You know what? I never was personally involved with what went on before I returned full-time with the group. All I know is Mike was involved with a lawsuit with John Salvato. It turned out that Mike regained or maintained the name of the group in his name and obviously I can understand why John wouldn't be very happy with that, but that was the way it was. Legally he had every right to it. So that's why Mike continued with the group. To this day it bothers me that John feels that way because I've even offered him many times the opportunity to re-visit the group. I'd gladly bring him on stage, honor him up and down as one of the original members, but I don't know why he's always turned me down. I don't understand why. He deserves those accolades.
Q - You have the exclusive licence for The Duprees, which means what? You can put out merchandise on the group?
A - Oh, yeah. We've been recording for the last twenty years actually, but yeah, all different kinds of CDs...
Q - Sweat shirts and ball caps.
A - Oh, sure.
Q - And when a booking agent calls, you say, "We're the official Duprees"?
A - I never say we're the original. Never on stage do I ever represent us as being original members. I say we've the evolution of the group, which we are actually. Tommy Petillo, the current lead singer, was the lead singer with John and Mike back in the late '70s, so there's history there. We don't take it lightly. But as I said, on stage I never mis-represent who we are. The good thing about that is, people have really grown to respect who we are now. The group as it is now has been doing what we do for more than twenty-five years. So people have grown to respect the name and the music of what came before us, but I think equally, especially in recent years, they've come to know and appreciate who we've become in addition to that with our new CDs and different kinds of things that we put into our shows nowadays.
Q - What groups were you in before The Duprees?
A - Well, you're talking about back in the '60s. I had my own group. I had a few different groups that I was involved with. At the time I met The Duprees for the first time my group was called The Little Giants. (laughs) We recorded for CBS for awhile. We played around the same venues as The Duprees. Whenever they would appear we would be the back-up band for them. So, it was a very interesting time.
Q - What kind of material were The Little Giants playing?
A - Oh, just cover songs. Basically everything including Duprees songs.
Q - To get on CBS Records didn't you need original songs?
A - We were on Epic Records actually. We had original songs written for us. As a matter of fact, Sandy Linzer and Danny Randall, who wrote a lot of tunes for The Four Seasons, were our producers. So, it was a pretty exciting time. Obviously nothing came out of them unfortunately, but it was quite exciting.
Q - Besides The Duprees, who else did The Little Giants share the stage with?
A - Oh God, all of the contemporaries, The Chiffons, Ruby And The Romantics, The Drifters, The Coasters, the who's who of whoever was performing back then.
Q - Any of the British Invasions groups?
A - No. That was something that was separate. In the circuit that we were performing, The British Invasion groups really took hold of, let's say their presence, going into the mid, late '60s and when they did, it was mostly at much bigger venues.
Q - Did you ever perform at a place called The Three Rivers Inn in Phoenix, New York?
A - As a matter of fact, I did. That was a long time ago. It was with another act I was with called The Pat Gallo Show. That was in the early '70s.
Q - Did you make TV appearances with either The Duprees or one of your other groups?
A - Yeah. Those were isolated circumstances where we made guest appearances. There were a number of performances for PBS in Pittsburgh and Atlantic City. We did some spot appearances on morning shows in New York. We were on Joe Franklin. He was giving us all kinds of accolades. It was great.
Q - Do you tour with your own band?
A - I carry a number of rhythm section instrumentalists. Two keyboards, bass and drums. It took me years to do this and not too cheaply either I might say to not only get the best musicians but in addition to that configuration I'm able to use four horns, six horns, ten horns, strings. We performed with The Glenn Miller Orchestra a number of times and those are specific charts I had to have written. So we can literally perform in front of any kind of configuration that we need, or that the client requires.
Q - You would almost have to have an arrangement for those songs.
A - Oh, yeah. They're so beautiful you can't cut corners with them and I don't. The music is that pristine and that beautiful. You can imagine when we perform with The Glenn Miller Orchestra. That sound which is so indicative of the original sound of "You Belong To Me" and the rest of the big hits. That was specifically done like that by George Paxton, the owner of Coed Records back in the day. He came from a Big Band experience himself. So, when he got the brilliant idea of melding that beautiful Glenn Miller sound orchestration with what I call the youthful exuberance of Joey Canzano and the rest of the guys, it was magic. It still is magic. The appeal for that song and that orchestration is amazing.
Q - When you listen to The Duprees' music, you can really appreciate the lyrics, the harmonies. It's refreshing. Rock music, Rock 'n' Roll has just about gone as far as it can go, so when you listen to the music of The Duprees it sounds new!
A - Unfortunately I have to agree with you 100%. I say unfortunately because it's a result of the technology that is wonderful today. It's absolutely incredible the way we can record today as opposed to forty or fifty years ago. However, the trade-off there is that, in my opinion, the sound of the recording has lost its humanness. You don't get that feeling of little idiosyncrasies aren't perfect. Right now every recording you hear is perfect. It's pitch corrected for everything. The instrumentation is exactly perfect and that almost clinical perfect sound doesn't emote emotion. But when you listen to some of the early Rock 'n' Roll recordings, they are relatable because they're human.
Q - Frank Sinatra used to sing in a studio with a 'live' orchestra. That's what gave his records that special sound.
A - You couldn't be more right. One of the things we took on as challenge is our latest CD, which is in celebration of Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday, which is December of 2015. We call it "Happy 100th Mr. Sinatra". We think it's kind of unique because it's a vocal group's approach to some of Sinatra's signature songs. There's a lot of four part harmony instead of one singer singing. First of all, you can't really duplicate what Sinatra did, but the music and the approach to the arrangements done with four voices is, I have to say, it came out great! He was so significant as a performer for more than five decades that everybody has their own take of their perception of him, their experience with him. He was really a unique entertainer.
Q - I don't suppose you ever crossed paths with him, did you?
A - Oh, God. I wish I did. No. (laughs)
Q - To find guys that can sing Duprees material must mean they have to be of a certain age group?
A - They don't have to, but they have to let's say have a maturity about them. So, I think I know what you're alluding to, only because the music comes from the Big Band era. It's not something that's simply sung. That's another reason why it made Joey Canzano and the rest of the group so unique at the time. They weren't doing typical street corner harmony songs. They were doing something that was unique and challenging vocally with harmony that very few groups were doing.
Q - What I was alluding to was there will come a day when the current members will not want to perform anymore. To find replacements going forward may prove challenge.
A - Well, nothing is impossible. I think that's the reason you see happening the last five or so years the incredible number of "tribute acts." I mean it is absolutely stunning. I can almost understand why you would want a tribute act, let's say from the '60s or early '70s, but it's amazing there aren't any acts that came from the late '70s, '80s or '90s that have the sustainability that acts from my generation have. The Duprees, The Beatles, The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys. They just don't have that appeal, that ability to last that long. The tribute acts are wonderful. I've seen so many of them. They're terrifically talented. The do the job of bringing you back and making you remember and re-envision the wonderful magic from back then.
Q - Is there a Duprees tribute act that you're aware of?
A - No, not that I'm aware of.
Q - And I don't suppose there would be one out there since you're still performing.
A - Well, let's hope we're out there for a long time! (laughs)