Gary James' Interview With John Wisniewski Of
The Monterays

Without a doubt, The Monterays were one of the most popular bands to ever come out of Syracuse, New York. If you were around in the 1960s, you know what I'm talking about. 2012 is The Monterays' 50th anniversary. Guitarist and long-time Monterays member John Wisniewski talked with us about the group.

Q - John, this is the 50th anniversary of The Monterays. It only comes around once. So why wouldn't Dan Elliott put together the original members for performances this year? The original members are still alive, aren't they?

A - No. Danny's not original. His brother Jack was. He passed away, maybe two or three years now.

Q - Syracuse knows The Monterays as Danny Elliot as the lead singer.

A - Well, it was Danny and Tommy (Forest) at one time. Tommy Forest was the second original drummer in The Monterays. The first original drummer was Jack Holton. Slim Jim Stew was his group, but he plays bass now. That's what he was doing back then too. He's become quite a bass player. But in any case, Tommy was quoted as the original drummer. Then there was Larry Landry. He was the rhythm player. We didn't have a name at that point, or they didn't. We finally figured out one at Larry's home. We used to practice in his garage. It was a garage band type deal.

Q - The name of the group came from the name of your car?

A - Yeah. It was from the name of a car, for whatever reason. It just sort of stuck for better or for worse. (laughs).

Q - Most Syracusans would probably regard the line-up of the original members of The Monterays to be Dan Elliot, Dave Moziak, Dave Usiatynski, Tommy Forest and yourself.

A - Yeah, but not really. Not at all. It was me, Tommy Forest, Jack Abert and Larry Landry. It was a four piece group when we first started. That went on to about 1962, somewhere around there. Actually, Larry and Tommy both got drafted and that's when Dan and Dave Moziak and Dave Usiatynski came into the group.

Q - You were in the group at that point as well, weren't you?

A - Yeah.

Q - You joined the group in what year?

A - I think we played our first gig in '64. It was pretty funny. I think we knew twelve songs and they were basically all original. We played twelve songs for four hours at a wedding reception.

Q - Original songs? Not cover songs?

A - We're not talking Beatles or anything like that. This is just kids learning.

Q - In '61, you had Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers. I can't even say The Beach Boys were hot then.

A - They weren't. They were hardly around back then.

Q - So, you joined in '61?

A - No. I actually started out with them. The one guy that was sort of the original lead player, he backed out. I just stepped in. I mean, I didn't step in, I sort of floundered. We were all just out to learn this new thing. (laughs) Forming a group. What's a group? It was a whole new thing. We were young. I think I was twelve when we started practicing and thirteen when we started playing out.

Q - You weren't playing bars at thirteen, were you?

A - No. What happened was, Dan Elliot and Dave Moziak and Dave Usiatynski, and there was another guy, Bill Willis, he was the bass player. He ended up getting the shaft on this deal. It was right after that that we did end up playing at The Fayetteville Inn, but we had to have chaperones. We had to be in the bar, but they wouldn't allow us any drinks. It was funny.

Q - What year would that have been?

A - I don't know, maybe '64, somewhere around there. We played a lot of gigs.

Q - What happened to Dave Moziak, Dave Usiatynski and Tommy Forest? They're still alive, aren't they? And they're still in music?

A - Dave Usiatynski is not in music anymore, not that he can't play. He was too good of a drummer to lose that. Tommy Forest came up a couple of months ago and we jammed along with a friend of mine, Dave Gardner, who I've played with for years now, and Bill Willis, who was the bass player for The Dimensions, that got the shaft. We had our differences, but we're friends now and that's cool. He's a good bass player. So he's around. Dave Moziak does not play as far as I know. He has quite a guitar collection. He collected guitars for awhile. But he's down in Florida. He's a good photographer. He had a studio in Syracuse.

Q - And Dave Usiatynski and Tommy Forest still live in Syracuse?

A - No. Dave Usiatynski is in Rochester, New York and Tommy Forest is down in North Carolina.

Q - So, before The Monterays you were just playing guitar in your bedroom?

A - Yeah. I was taking lessons.

Q - Who were you taking lessons from?

A - A guy named Spike McGinley. He lived a few streets over from where I lived in East Syracuse.

Q - After you got a little older, where did The Monterays perform? You were playing places like Suburban Park?

A - Yeah. Suburban Park was a great place. That was prime time really, when you come down to it. At first we started playing on the outside (of Suburban Park). The Beatles were still hot. That would've been with Danny. We played outside. Outside of the roller skating rink, at one time, they had stages that came off of there in the early hours, before dark. It was really a happening place. It was a great place to play.

Q - Was there an admission charged?

A - Well, this was outside. You're playing outside and the people are just coming into the park. There was no admission for us. Then we started going inside playing. They had two stages. One sort of off-set in the middle of the room of the skating area, 'cause it wasn't skating anymore. Then there was a stage that set back into the wall. Then there was a dressing room. I think there might have been one on the other side actually. It was a great place. (laughs)

Q - Did The Monterays have groupies?

A - Yeah. (laughs) We had people that would follow us around, that's for sure.

Q - I'm talking girls.

A - Yes.

Q - Did you guys dress in the matching suits like The Beatles did?

A - No. The original Monterays were dressed in iridescent blue suits with velour collars. I have a picture of us with that. That was our very first picture that the band ever took for any kind of promotion. after that it carried over but it didn't go. We actually had jackets at one time that said "Monterays" on them. These powder blue things.

Q - And the kind of material you would've been playing in the mid-1960s would've been Beatles, Stones, Kinks, all the British Invasion material, right?

A - Right. Yeah. We didn't do that many Stones' tunes, we did a lot of what you got done saying. The Searchers, Chad And Jeremy, The Byrds. We did a few of them, actually not too many of them, which is too bad, but that's the way it went.

Q - Was Dan singing Jay And The Americans material at the time?

A - Oh, yeah. We did tons of Jay And The Americans. We did 'em really good. At that point in time, right up until 1969, our vocals were so strong. It knocked me out, (laughs) that we could actually do something like that so well. We were on the fringe of the tidal wave that was going on. We never were really able to catch the wave, but it was OK. It was still a lot of fun.

Q - You had disc jockey "Dandy" Dan Leonard in your corner at that time. He was either your manager or agent, which was it?

A - Both.

Q - To have him as your manager meant you got the best gigs, didn't it? He was on the radio. He was "The Man."

A - After awhile we started being able to book on our own. But he still wanted his share of 'em. You have something new and once the product is out there, it starts selling itself. And that's sort of what happened, to a point anyway.

Q - Whenever you see The Monterays today, Dan Elliott will say "This is our first song we played when we opened for The Beach Boys at The War Memorial in 1966," and then the band would play "Hang On Sloopy". You were in the band then, weren't you?

A - Right.

Q - What do you remember about that gig?

A - It was a fun gig. At that point there was a song, "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha". Dan Leonard wanted us to start off with that and we said "No, we can't do that." We did sort of compromise. We did "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha" and then into "Hang On Sloopy" after that. We did well. It was quite a trip, playin' in front of I don't know how many thousands of people. We got to eat with The Beach Boys afterwards. They took us out to dinner. That was cool.

Q - You met all the guys in The Beach Boys?

A - They weren't all there. Brian Wilson wasn't there. They had somebody else, Bruce Johnston, 'cause Brian was in his room.

Q - In his room?

A - (laughs) Yeah. "In My Room", that song that he wrote.

Q - OK, gotcha.

A - I'm pretty sure he was in his room at that point.

Q - Where did they take you for dinner?

A - It was the Holiday Inn at Carrier Circle. That's where they were staying.

Q - What were you asking them or talking about? What did they ask you about?

A - I didn't know what to say. All of us were still pretty young. I was sort of flabbergasted that we were even there. (laughs) You're still in a "Wow!" stage instead of "how do you do that?" We held up. Our vocals were equally as good as theirs were. We had some strong vocal stuff going on. We did a lot of experimentation with songs that had two part harmony. When we got done, we had four part harmony. It was fun. Toward the end it started getting back to the basics. It started almost being a job, so that's why I sort of booked out.

Q - What year did you leave the group?

A - 1990.

Q - That's quite a long haul.

A - Well, I wasn't with them all that time. It was an on and off thing. I started off with 'em and then I quit in 1970. It was just one of those things, the hippie years. That's when I started playing with Dave Gardner. He was the first one to really start introducing me to acoustic music, which is something I really enjoy. I made more money, not that I've made a lot of money, playing acoustic than I did electric in the last few years.

Q - You're singing too?

A - Yeah.

Q - Did you sing in The Monterays?

A - Oh, yeah.

Q - You sang lead?

A - Only a couple of times. It was mostly harmony. We were always singing.

Q - How was the money back in the '60s for The Monterays? Did you get a flat fee or a flat fee versus a percentage of the door, whichever was higher? How did that work?

A - It was sort of a flat fee, but I can't remember what it was. It depended. Don't ask me what it depended on. The only time that we had a chance to play for the door, we didn't, and we got killed by it. This was later on. In '70 I quit and '78 we got back together again. The first gig of that was the most memorable, one of the most memorable that I'll ever have. We packed the room. Seven hundred people paid and I let in another fifty or sixty in the back door 'cause they wouldn't let 'em in the front door anymore. I was working on the railroad at the time and then I got laid off. So, we were playing like forever. One of the places we were playing at was Hotel Syracuse. They started off by saying, I can't remember what it was, three hundred or four hundred bucks a night. I can't remember what the amount was or "you can play for the door." So we went with a set price and for probably ten weeks in a row, at four bucks a pop, we probably had four hundred or five hundred people in there. We could've really had a nice gold mine. (laughs) This was on a Tuesday night. It was incredible.

Q - Who was turning out on a Tuesday night?

A - Oh, I don't know. People that we knew. People that we didn't know. Just because it was in the city in the Hotel Syracuse, that was probably half the draw. Then we ended up getting a job right across the street from it (Hotel Syracuse) called Crystals, which was a nightmare.

Q - Why was that a nightmare?

A - The whole place on the inside was a mirror. Mirrors all over the place. We were down inside some sort of ghetto type of thing. It was like eight or nine feet high all the way around. There were two stairways. One on one side, one on the other. We were sitting down in the middle. Our amps are playing against mirrors. You got a be there to understand the misery that was going on.

Q - Sounds like a converted strip joint that was made into a live music club, right?

A - Yeah, pretty much. They had some kind of a laser thing in there that worked once and then it was gone. They never did it again. Thank God we got out of that, but it took us about four weeks to get out of that one. What a horrible place!

Q - Did you ever cross paths with Ronnie James Dio?

A - No. Actually, we might've have seen him. We played once or twice in a place in Cortland. I can't remember the name of the place. That was his stomping ground.

Q - When the Monterays were playing, Ronnie James Dio had a group called Ronnie And The Prophets.

A - Right.

Q - I would've thought your paths would've crossed because there weren't tons of group's like there are today.

A - There was tons of groups, but the thing was, everybody was playing. It was great. Now you have tons of groups and not everybody plays every week as opposed to the way it was before. There were probably 10 to 15 high-end groups right here in the Syracuse area, not including outlying areas, Rochester probably being a bigger music town than we were. There was tons of music going on and tons of places to play at and they're not there anymore.

Q - For of variety of reasons: the drinking age raised from 18 to 21, the increased penalties and patrols for DWI.

A - That would probably be the biggest one right there.

Q - Not to mention that the manufacturing sector has closed down. The people aren't here that maybe used to go out.

A - Yeah. Well, you have to have money to go out. You don't have the money, then basically you don't go out.

Q - I heard that back in the fall of 1967 The Monterays were supposed to leave Syracuse and head out west to California to seek fame and fortune, but one of the guys had a girlfriend who said no. So, the Monterey's never did leave Syracuse. Is that true?

A - I don't recall such a situation. I'm searching my memory banks and nothing seems to point in that direction. I'm not going to say unequivocally, no. But I would definitely lean more towards no than yes. I don't think anything like that ever happened.

Q - Was it the Monterays' intention to become a recording and touring group? Did The Monterays want a record deal on a national level?

A - Well, it was definitely there, but we didn't know how to do it. I don't really think we had that kind of support from Dan Leonard on that one because it would have been dough out of his pocket. Somewhere down the line he wouldn't have been in the mix anymore. I mean, I don't know how that stuff works. I still don't know. There was probably some politics going on there. In the meantime he had a couple of prospects that we were supposed to have a chance at doing, a Pepsi commercial. That never panned out.

Q - I never heard that one.

A - Yeah.

Q - "Dandy" Dan Leonard was going to get that for you?

A - Supposedly, yeah.

Q - That would've been a national commercial or local?

A - National, as far as I know. That would've been a nice kicker right there. We had three records that we put out. I think we ended up making $37.50 apiece or something like that. (Laughs) There was a lot of talk about how things were going to work out, but it just never did (work out). But we had fun. It was great being in a studio. It was great doing the songs. A little bit of a legacy deal, so that's cool.

Q - Many people would probably remember The Monterays for that song / record "If Wishes Were Horses".

A - Right.

Q - How many records did that sell? Do you know?

A - That was the one we made $37.50 on. I can't remember. If I made any money on the records it didn't total over 100 bucks. I wish it would of been more, but what are you going to do?

Q - So, you don't know how many copies that record sold?

A - I couldn't even begin to tell you. I don't even know where the distribution was. They didn't concentrate just on Syracuse. Supposedly it tried to get out. I remember it was a trip listening to it on the radio. You're driving down the road, "that's cool! It's our song!"

Q - That was a ballad more than a rock song. Was that the musical direction the Monterays were going in at the time? That contrasts to what was going on at the time, the British invasion, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.

A - Actually, I think that guy who wrote the song was British. I mean, we did "If Wishes Were Horses". Do you remember what the other side was? I don't even remember. But, we did another song "Conquistador". That never came out on the radio. We had the only American rights on it, but for whatever reason, Procol Harum took 'em back and they came in and they did the song. It got released here. It was a pretty good song.

Q - Were The Monterays considered a rock 'n roll band in the mid-1960s?

A - I still don't know what rock 'n' roll is. I know what music is. Fast. Slow. With the groove. But as far as rock 'n' roll? I don't know. It's always been hard for me to categorize songs. I just try to keep it at the music stage. I don't do a song unless I can own it. If it isn't part of me, then it doesn't last too long in my repertoire. You just develop your own thing. So, as far as rock 'n' roll, I guess we were a rock 'n' roll band. We did faster stuff. We did slow stuff. We did a lot of everything. From slow to medium to fast. One of the best songs we ever did was a song by the Association, "Requiem For The Masses".

Q - The Association had quite a few hits on the radio.

A - Well, this wasn't one of them. This is off one of their albums, but it wasn't a hit. We spent two weeks on the song, a week on the vocal and week on the music. We did it as good as the song. When people heard it, their jaws just dropped. We were a strong vocal group at one time, really strong. We had six voices.

Q - When I see Dan Elliott, he will sing Jay And The Americans and Dion.

A - Dion, I mean he's got a lot of connections there. He toured with the Belmonts for years. He definitely has an affinity for these songs. He's seen the world when you come right down to it, from what I understand anyway.

Q - Have you seen The Monterays lately?

A - Not lately, no. I basically don't go out lately. (Laughs)

Q - You play out don't you?

A - I was playing out in a restaurant called The Copper Turret in Morrisville (New York). It was a nice place and a great gig. I got well-paid. I guess they're going away from any kind of entertainment there.

Q - How long did you play there?

A - I only played seven or eight gigs a year. The money was good and it was only 8 miles away. It worked out pretty darn good. Most of my gigs have all been 25 to 30 to 40 miles away. It was a nice change.

Q - So, you're not performing as we speak?

A - I been out of the main musical venue thing for a long time. I've been playing. Did a lot of stuff, but not what you would call mainstream. Just playing and now I just play at home for the most part. I'll jam with my boys.

Q - What do they play?

A - Guitar and drums the other plays bass and guitar.

Q - You got a band right their.

A - Pretty much.

Q - What are you waiting for? Get out there!

A - (laughs) We put together a CD, just a short one, six songs. A couple of originals and called it "Sour Cherry Jam". My last name interpreted in Polish means sour cherry.

Q - Besides The Beach boys, did the Monterays ever play on the same bill with other national acts?

A - The next big one was Canned Heat, The Turtles and Spirit. Triple bill. That was the next concert. That was a far cry from The Beach boys. I mean, these guys were out there.

Q - There were no other groups on the bill with The Beach Boys other than the Monterays, were there?

A - There were none.

Q - That was a great gig to land.

A - Yeah. It was one of the high points of my life, at that point anyway. I was thrilled. Scared to death too. You look out and there's thousands of people there. I think I might have been 15 when we did that. That's quite a trip.

Q - Did you graduate from the new ESM high school?

A - Right. We had a ball there. The Monterays had some pretty good treatment out there. We rehearsed there in the auditorium. It was pretty neat. It was quite an experience all the way around. It was a good time to be in a band and it was a good time to be a kid. Now it's a horrible time to be in a band and a horrible time to be a kid. You can't walk down the street without looking over your shoulder. We didn't have that problem back then. That's very sad.

Q - What was your equipment set up like back then?

A - We didn't have the P.A.s like they have now. We had nothing like that. Absolutely nothing like that. We used columns that that had four, 12 inch speakers in them. We had eight of them. That was our P.A. system. Four on one side, four on another, with a big amp. I can't remember how the hell we hooked them up. That was our P.A. system. Our first P.A. system was a guitar amp I was renting out from a guy I was taking lessons from up in Eastwood. It had one, 12 inch speaker and two inputs in it. We put a microphone in it on one side and the guitar on the other. That was our P.A. system, my guitar amp.

Q - Would that of been the guy who owned the guitar studio in Eastwood?

A - Yeah, Bill Dundee.

Q - Did you write for the Syracuse Post-Standard?

A - No. That's a different guy with the same initials.

Q - He used to do album reviews.

A - I write, but I didn't write for The Post-Standard. I couldn't believe it because the first time I saw it, I didn't agree with him (laughs). Maybe a year he was with the Post-Standard, maybe longer, I'm not quite sure.

Q - Isn't it strange that there would be two guys in Syracuse with the same name, especially when we're talking Wisniewski.

A - Well, the middle initial was the same. It was John A. Wisniewski. But it wasn't me.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

Note: I have to thank Anne Wisniewski Brooks of Orlando Florida for her help in setting this interview up with her cousin.