Gary James' Interview With John Kuse of
John Kuse and The Excellents
They are probably best known for a song called "Coney Island Baby". Year after year, it's voted in the top 51 favorite songs on New York radio station WCBS-FM 101.1 Top 500 list of all time favorite oldies. The group, John Kuse and The Excellents is still together and performing.
John Kuse talked with us about his group.
Q - John, how did you get started as a singer?
A - In the glee club when I was in public school. It went on to junior high school. I never considered myself much of a singer, but I got together with some of the boys at sixteen, seventeen years of age on the block and we were hitting harmony. Gee, to tell you the truth, I don't know if we had harmony or not. It went on for about a year and then I got together with some other guys and that became more of a singing group. Before you know it, I was getting in touch with the original six members who became The Excellents. After a year or so of playing around with that stuff, yeah, I finally found out what harmony was and that became it.
Q - Now, before The Excellents, you were in a group called The Premiers.
A - Wow! You did your homework. Those were the original five fellows who were in my immediate neighborhood. From there, three of us, my brother, George Kuse, and the original falsetto on the record, Phil Sanchez, ventured over to the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx to a dance at one time. We met up with three other members who said, hey, wanna sing together? We joined up and we just liked that environment and atmosphere over there. Hey, there was a lot of girls over there at the time. Before you know it, three of us from one side of the parkway met up with three of them from the other side of the parkway and we joined and became The Excellents. We were together for about a year, year and a half when we recorded our first record, "Red, Red Robin".
Q - Where did you perform with The Premiers?
A - That was a local group. We performed in just a couple of restaurants. I remember Mayer's Restaurant one time. We were just a local, take us to a party kind of group. There was nothing special about it.
Q - You were a vocal group?
A - Yeah. Anybody could've done that. We weren't a name group, just a local group that sang a number of songs from other people.
Q - Did you ever require instrumental backing?
A - No. It was strictly acapella.
Q - How then, did you get this deal with Mermaid Records?
A - So, when I joined up with the other three fellows on the other side of the parkway, after about a year of singing and getting songs together, we make a demonstration record. Back in those days, it cost like twenty-five dollars. You went in and put down a number of songs on there. You then went downtown from the Bronx and you knocked on a couple of doors..."Hey, do you want to listen to our rendition of "You, Baby You", or our rendition of this one or that one?" And finally found 1721 Broadway, which was called Sinclair Records. Mermaid was an affiliate, along with Blast, which is the label "Coney Island Baby" is on. Then there was Whale Records and number of singers were also affiliated with them. So, we want in. We gave them the stuff we had and they liked "You, Baby You". "Red, Red Robin" was the first one. But I can't honestly tell you why they held off on "You, Baby You". I'm sorry, we went down in '61 with "Red, Red Robin". They liked it. They put it on the Mermaid label. A year later, they put us on the Blast label, when we brought "You, Baby You" down. They liked that. So, there was no other side, so they gave us "Coney Island Baby", which was written by Vinnie Catalano. We went outside in the bathroom, where there's echo and they said "you're recording that." So, Mermaid was "Red, Red Robin" and a year later was "Coney Island Baby".
Q - "Coney Island Baby" was released when?
A - About June of '62 I think. I remember when it hit the Murray The K, Boss Record Of The Week...it was warm outside as I remember. I don't really remember, but it was between January and June of '62.
Q - After "Coney Island Baby" became a hit, what did you do to promote it? Did you go on the road?
A - Not much.
Q - Did you do the Dick Clark Show?
A - No. We did abut five or six shows within the New York area. I was told and we were very dis-satisfied and understand we were kids, they were our managers and they did everything for us, which was really nothing for us. We found out we had to go places ourselves. They didn't pay for any transportation. They didn't give us anything. They didn't pay for our outfits or whatever. The final nail in the coffin came when we sang in Atlantic City, on Steel Pier. And of course that was piped into Philly. Next week, I get a call from whoever they are, one of them... "We don't care about the group. We just care about the lead singer", to my mother and father. "We want him on the Dick Clark Show." I'm not gonna go into details but, I was afraid, I didn't like the way these guys were handling me in the first place. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to go. For all purposes, I never went to the Dick Clark Show and it ended right there. In fact, The Excellents ended right there and walked right out of the studio. Thank God they never came after us and that was the end of that. The group went on its own in various ways doing things, but not having them as a manager any more.
Q - How many records did you sell? Do you have any idea?
A - No. I do know it went to number 51 on Billboard 'cause we did try to sue and go into court and get some money back from sales. I remember something at 19,000 - 20,000 records. I don't know. I really don't know. As I speak to you now, none of my original members ever wanted to pursue it, so we never went further, but I know that every darn time the record is played, I could be making some royalties...but that's another story. I've never pursued it because no one else wanted to and I never had the funds or guidance to go any further on that. As we speak, I'm singing with three or four other fellows. I'm finishing up a CD and I'm having a ball doing now at age sixty-two what I didn't do at age nineteen. I'm recognized now with my name John Kuse and The Excellents. No longer The Excellents 'cause that was a court case which I'm not going to go into, back in 1990. I had fun when I was eighteen, nineteen, but I didn't have the glory...shows...the stage...making money. A CD, I have that now. I'm happy as a pig in you know what.
Q - This hostess, Lili Loftus that inspired "Coney Island Baby"...what happened to her?
A - Nothing. All made up by the company. I don't know who she is. They were going to have a Coney Island Baby contest. Nothing happened with that.
Q - What was so special about the Bronx that so many vocal groups originated there?
A - I wouldn't' say that. I could give you ten on my hands which is nothing compared to groups coming out of Brooklyn. The Bronx, I can't really say. Honestly, I cannot say. Of course, you've got number one, Dion and The Belmonts. You've got The Dimensions, who made "Over The Rainbow". Larry Chance and The Earls...Us... The Regents, to name a few. If you think that was a lot, ten groups, Nino and The Ebb Tides, I don't know. It's possible. I would say Brooklyn was more. Nothing special out of the Bronx that I know of.
Q - Are you still a supervisor at an investment banking firm?
A - No, I left that. That went down the tubes right after the World Trade Center. That was stress related. Of course Wall Street was related. Of course Wall Street was. Now, I'm doing the job of my lifetime. I love it to death. I'm sixty-two. I'm not retired yet. But I'm driving a Senior Citizen bus and I'm supervisor of three buses. I provide happiness for a bunch of Seniors. They all know me 'cause I'm the "Coney Island Baby". I sing to them and they come to my shows. It's fabulous. I go home with a smile on my face everyday.