Gary James' Interview With Kenny Vance of
Jay and the Americans
He formed the group Jay and the Americans, a group that recorded 15 albums, toured extensively and opened for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for each of their first US performances. He produced the first Steely Dan record. He was the musical director for Saturday Night Live and music supervisor for such films as Animal House, Eddie And The Cruisers and American Hot Wax. He either produced or performed with artists such as Toni Basil, Danny O'Keefe, Delbert McClinton, Peter Allen, Don McLean and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
We are talking about the one, the only, Kenny Vance.
Q - As we speak, do you have any recorded products available?
A - I don't know where to begin. In 1978, I did the music for the movie American Hot Wax. It was the Alan Freed story. We re-created the Alan Freed story with Jay Leno and Fran Drescher. Part of my gig was I had to re-create The Alan Freed Show at the Brooklyn Paramount. So, aside from some authentic performers like Chuck Berry and Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, I got to re-create other groups. I put together the first incarnation of The Planotones. Then the movie came out and I got busy and I did other movies. For many, many years, I worked on other films. What happened is, in the 90s, I decided to start The Planotones over again. We made our first recording, a 'live' recording called "Teen-age Jazz". Then, we did an album called "Looking For An Echo". On that album was a new version of "Looking For An Echo" and the original one that I had done in 1975 for Atlantic Records, The Kenny Vance album called "Vance 32". I sent that album as a CD, to a friend of mine who worked in the movie business, that I had done Eddie And The Cruisers with, "Long Gone" with him, "Heart of Dixie" and three or four other movies. He was working on a screenplay about an old Doo Wop singer. When I sent him this CD, he said "You know what? I love this music and I'm gonna call the movie Looking For An Echo" So, we wound up doing this movie, starring Armand Assante. We completed the movie and then I did a soundtrack for the movie, including some of the original songs from the original CD for "Looking For An Echo", plus new ones, plus a new version of "Looking For An Echo". Amande Assante lip-synchs in the movie. My voice comes out of his mouth when he sings. So, we had that CD out also which is the soundtrack to Looking For An Echo. Then we did another CD called "Live And Out Of This World", which is a 'live' recording at The Bitter End. And, I just completed a new CD, February 2005, that I'm having pressed up right now. It's called "Lover's Island". That's Kenny Vance And The Planotones. That's the newest CD.
A - Last year we were blessed and lucky enough...we had about a hundred jobs.
Q - What type of venues?
A - Well, everywhere from the most amazing showroom, for example at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, to a place like an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn (laughs)... Madison Square Garden...The Mohican Sun in Connecticut...The Sands Hotel in Atlantic City...and dumps. (laughs)
Q - That shouldn't be for a guy like you.
A - Well, you know what? I don't mind because I look at it like every job is a challenge. And every job creates new challenges. So, if you're playing at the MGM Grand and you're opening for Jay Leno, there's a certain dynamic to that, a certain tension to that, a certain nervousness that goes along with it and there's a certain type of gratification you get from it. And then when you play in a really crummy place, aesthetically crummy place, and the sound isn't that great, the people are really appreciative. You almost have to work harder in a place like that, 'cause the sound isn't so good. It's challenging. Our group is very diverse and we're able to play for 20 minutes or play for 2 hours. Different challenges come along with different situations. So, I really don't have an ego problem with it.
Q - At 15, you were hanging around the Brill Building. What were you hoping to accomplish there?
A - I think once, when I was 13, I kind of heard Alan Freed and got involved in the music and I don't even know why, but it just seemed like the natural thing to do, to form a group of guys that sing and go over there in the hopes of being discovered I guess. So, we would learn a couple of songs, a cappella songs that we heard on the radio and make up a couple of our own. We didn't really have any contacts, so, we'd go and hang out there. One thing led to the next and we wound up in this building down the street, which is 1697 Broadway, which is where the David Letterman Show is, the Ed Sullivan Theater. We just started to knock on doors. In those days, there were a lot of office record companies. You gotta remember, for like, a hundred dollar investment, you could make a record in those days that could conceivably sell a million copies. There were a lot of guys who were furriers, (laughs) who decided to go into the record business. They didn't necessarily have to know much about music. For a small investment they could go in there and they recorded us. I had a group called The Harbor Lights and we made a couple of records. It was around that time that I met a guy that was in 1697 Broadway. His name was Jim Grible. He was a manager. He managed groups like The Mystics and The Classics and The Mello-Kings and The Jarmels. I met Paul Simon up there. I met Al Kooper up there, who was a songwriter. I also met this guy who was in The Mystics at the time, a guy named Jay Traynor. Jay Traynor and myself and another guy named Sandy Yaguda started to sing together. Somebody in my neighborhood knew Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and they got us an audition with them. I wound up going over there, to the Brill Building with these three guys and we sang a song that we heard, that we knew by The Five Keys called "Wisdom Of The Fool". We sang that for them. We also had a couple of original songs. About three or four months later, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller decided to record us and they didn't record any of the songs we had prepared, but they recorded us for United Artists on a song called "Tonight", from West Side Story. It became a territorial hit in several cities and because of the success of that, they decided to record us again. This time they recorded a song called "Dawning" and a song called "She Cried". They put it out and about four months after they put it out, "She Cried" became a huge number one hit on the West coast and slowly made its way back to the East coast and it became a Top 5 record in Billboard and Cashbox. We were basically starting to get some bookings from that. We made a "She Cried" album and we also made two other singles. One single was called "This Is It And It's My Turn To Cry" and the other single was called "Tomorrow". None of these records were successful, so we kind of packed it in 'cause in those days, if you didn't have another hit, you were basically out of show business. We were only 18 years old anyway.
Q - Were you writing any of your own material?
A - No. There was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller mostly. In those days, they had their own office in the Brill Building and a stream of aspiring songwriters...Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Diamond, Tony Powers and Mark Barkin, just to name a few. We would sit in Jerry Lieber's office and these people would come in and sit down at the piano or play the guitar and try to pitch songs. It was a long time ago and just sort of...it was the end of Tin Pan Alley as they knew it in the 40s and early 50s and now rock 'n roll was coming in. You had Hill and Range music with Doe Pomus and Mort Schman and Otis Blackwell. This was just sort of a few years after that, where all of these people were learning their craft. So, we would hear songs by all of these people. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were the producers and they'd teach us the songs and we'd go in. Basically we were just an extension of them. We really didn't know what was happening on some level. We were just the singers of the material they would pick. It wasn't until awhile later where we didn't have any hits and Jay Traynor left the group and we wound up with another guy by the name of Jay Black and about a year or two had gone by and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had a song called "Only In America". It was recorded by The Drifters originally and they decided to give the song to us. That became a big hit in 1963. Then, as time went by, we started to grow as people. We were maturing a little bit. We were also getting to watch some of the most talented people make records, like Burt Bacharach and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and Phil Spector. We started to get some savvy as to what songs we thought the public would like. We were now on tour and we were exchanging ideas with other people that we would come into contact with that were also making records. We had a string of hit records after "Only In America" We had "Come A Little Bit Closer", produced by Artie Ripp, who was producing the Shangri-Las and some other groups for his company. We did "Let's Lock The Door And Throw Away The Key" and then we did a song "Think Of The Good Times". Then United Artists bought our contract from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Up until that time, they were just the distributors of the records. Now we were produced by them. We began to have artistic control. We had always done this song in our act called "Cara Mia". No one wanted to record it. We decided we wanted to record it and Jerry Granahan, who also had been in the business a long time with Dicky Do and The Don'ts. He produced James Ray - "If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody". I think he also produced "Til" by The Angels. He became our producer. We recorded "Some Enchanted Evening", followed by "Sunday And Me", the first song Neil Diamond ever had a hit with. This is before he was an artist. We had been playing a lot down South as the opening act for Roy Orbison and we decided to record "Crying" which became somewhat of a hit. Then basically, things cooled off for us for a couple of years. United Artists didn't really know what to do with us, so they got us different producers. They got us the guy that produced The Turtles, a guy named Joe Wizard. They got us a guy that produced Traffic and Steve Winwood. They got us Jimmy Miller, who produced "Jumpin' Jack Flash". They got us a couple of other people...Ron Dante. We made these interesting records but they weren't Jay and The American records. They were more records that were fueled by sort of the talent of the producers. It sort of changed our style around. The public really didn't go for it. In '69, they let us produce ourselves and we produced an album that was kind of a tribute to Alan Freed. It was called "The Sands Of Time". We did a lot of the songs we had grown up with. One of the songs was "This Magic Moment". They put it out immediately and it became, I think, the biggest hit in terms of sales that we ever had. That kind of brought us back and at that time, Richard Nader was doing the Rock 'n Roll Revivals. We got on those shows and people just loved Jay and The Americans. It was exciting because this was a comeback for us. Then in 1970, we recorded "Walkin' In The Rain", which also became a very big hit. And, at that time, we had an office in the Brill Building. Those two young guys that were playing with us were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who later on, wound up becoming Steely Dan.
Q - When you were a part of The Harbor Lights, did you make any money?
A - Well, no one knew we were supposed to make any money. We didn't know that, that was a part of it. We just did it because this is sort of an extension to who you were in the boy. The fact that you grew into a man in it was just something that happened. Then at some point, you realized...wait a minute, it would be great if I got some money for this, but, it was really an afterthought. It was just the fact of making a record was unbelievable. The fact of getting matching suits was an unbelievable thing. The fact of performing on national television was something outside of anything any of us had dreamed possible. Our families sitting at home in Brooklyn, watching us on Shindig!, that was 'live' from Hollywood...those things didn't really occur in those days. I mean, not on a regular basis certainly. These things were extraordinary for us. When the smoke all cleared, and it was all over, we went "we didn't get paid for this!" But I can't say that it was anyone's fault more than our own. They weren't planning on paying us and we weren't planning on getting paid. It was because of people like us that the people that came after us realize that they had to protect themselves and realized they had to get somebody on their side that understood the ways of business.
Q - Are you the guy that put Jay and The Americans together?
A - Me and another guy, Sandy Yaguda are the two founding members of Jay and The Americans.
Q - How did you get the opening slots for both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?
A - Well, at that time we were represented by William Morris, which is a very big and famous booking agency and was a very big and famous booking agency in 1966, and also a very big agency now. I believe The Beatles were represented by them (note: The Beatles were represented by G.A.C. - General Artists Corporation) along with Franki Valli and The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys. We were right here in New York. Murray The K was a fan of ours. He was the fifth Beatle supposedly. When The Beatles played in Washington, D.C., I think February 18th, 1964, we were the opening act. Then a year later when The Stones played at Carnegie Hall, Murray The K was the emcee, we also were the opening act. As a matter of fact, there were two shows, I believe Bobby Goldsboro was also on that show. Murray The K said to us "you guys gotta close the second show." I said "close the second show? Are you nuts? These people are going crazy for the Rolling Stones. They don't really care so much about us." What happened was The Rolling Stones opened the second show. They finished playing and Murray The K said "And now from Brooklyn, New York, Jay and The Americans." We came out wearing these tight black pants and alpaca sweaters, doing some sort of dance steps. We opened with "Only In America" and while we were singing, the audience was getting up and running out of Carnegie Hall. By the time we had finished the song, we had cleared Carnegie Hall. They were running out back, trying to catch The Stones as their limo left. So, it was pretty interesting. (laughs) I guess I've never forgotten it. It was a pretty interesting observation because I personally realize that things were changing. We were really on the pulse of seeing that. You hope the group grows, but, it's really up to me to try and understand what's going on. It seemed like the consciousness of the country was changing, and it really was. Integration...drugs...fashion. It was like a whole intellectual, spiritual and cultural revolution going on.
Q - You never did a tour with The Beatles?
A - No. We came back on the train with them. I think they were coming back to New York. I think we got back to New York on Monday morning and there were thousands of people waiting at Penn Station. I thought "oh my God, we're on the train with The Beatles." The door opens up and they see us and they say "Oh, it's only Jay and The Americans." It was all of a sudden the crowd parted like the Red Sea parting. They let us walk through. I caught a cab back to Brooklyn. I was sitting there thinking "the most unbelievable thing just happened and what does it all mean?" I'm sure I had a very different perspective on things than The Beatles did at that time.
Q - Did you meet The Beatles?
A - Yes. We were in the same room downstairs. They knew us. They said "you're Jay and The Americans." They were just kids. They were our age. They didn't know what was going to happen for them. They basically were a cover band. They had "I Want To Hold Your Hand", but they basically played Little Richard songs...they played "Shout" and Chuck Berry songs.
Q - What about their look? Had you ever seen long hair like that?
A - In retrospect, they had their hair combed straight down. I didn't know what to make of it. I didn't think much of it personally because I was a fan of The Drifters, The a Flamingos, The Moonglows, The Heartbeats. I dug Buddy Holly, but when I saw him at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, he wasn't one of my favorites. I could say that James Shepherd and The Heartbeats were. The Moonglows were. The Flamingos were. So, I didn't really connect to that. So here were some guys with instruments. I was more into a different kind of thing.
Q - There were no musicians walking around at the time who looked like The Beatles.
A - It was a phenomenon. I remember when we came out on stage, I had been used to crowds screaming, because we played at the Brooklyn Fox. The crowd would scream because they knew we had hit records. And the same thing happened when we played in Washington, D.C. with The Beatles. The crowd screamed and it was like I had known before. But, when they announced The Beatles, there was a roar that went up that I had never heard anything like it in my life. Magnify the sound you heard for us 50 times! It blew the roof off of the place. It was like the sound that ushered in a revolution of some sort, as we know.
Q - You had to be asking yourself what's going on here?
A - Absolutely. It was like we were caught up in this happening, in an almost unbelievable sociological, profound happening up until that time I think. Certainly in a musical sense, or a pop cultural sense.
Q - Did you meet all the guys in The Stones?
A - Yeah. Sure did.
Q - How did you find them to be? Unlike The Beatles, they didn't wear matching suits, did they?
A - No, they didn't. They were kind of scruffy. I remember Bill Wyman was leaning up against the wall, playing a bass and chewing gum, and I thought "What is this?" Yet the audience was going crazy. I didn't really get it. And basically, I wasn't into the Blues. I wasn't into Muddy Waters. I wasn't into the early Chess Records sound. I didn't know about Little Walter and Jimmie Rodgers, the guitar player from Muddy Waters. I didn't know about that stuff really. Basically, that's what The Stones were into.
Q - How about their act?
A - There was no act. Jagger was imitating Muddy Waters. Those were their idols. They were into the American Blues...Chess Records. The Beatles were more into mainstream stuff.
Q - Since you were rooted in the 50s music and came of age in the 60s, how were you able to relate to the music of Steely Dan?
A - Sometimes when you come in contact with something you don't understand, if you're able to get out of your own way, get out of your own pre-conceived ideas about things, you can see it more clearly. At first, for some reason, I might not have seen it so clearly, but, somehow I was able to. Why was I supportive of them? I think because I had been out on the road. I had been to Europe. We played all over. I just think I was more open to things that weren't the usual and I got behind it. As you know, as time went by, a lot of other people got behind it. I remember in the very beginning, in 1968, when I started working with them and I would bring them to different people including Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, nobody got it. Nobody wanted to take a chance with it. Nobody understood it. It was too far out. I think as the consciousness of America changed, they were able to embrace it. Sometimes the consciousness changes and there's only a few people and then there are more people and all of a sudden it gets to the point where they become a majority. But, that's a slow, slow process. I can say that I saw what they were doing earlier on than most people and then of course, it took a couple of more years before they did "Do It Again", "Reeling In The Years", and then made ten albums as Steely Dan.