Gary James' Interview With Tommy Forest of
The Monterays and Wilkesbury Brigade
Every city has their favorite band. In Syracuse, New York in the 1960s that band was The Monterays. In the 1970s it was Wilkesbury Brigade. Tommy Forest has the distinction of being part of both bands. And so we spoke with Tommy Forest about the glory years of Rock 'n' Roll in the city of Syracuse, New York.
Q - Tommy, the first time I heard your name was on an E.S.M. school bus. A guy by the name of Barry Glisker was talking about you and I don't remember what he said. Do you remember Barry Glisker?
A - I remember Barry very well. In fact, we played together for a short period of time.
Q - What band were you two guys in?
A - Well, he was a drummer. We've always been friends. I did live in Florida at one point when I went down to Largo in '85. I did come back to Syracuse for a short stint. I stayed with Barry. As a matter of fact, I stayed at his father's house.
Q - What year was that?
A - It had to be '89.
Q - It had to have been early '89 because Barry passed away in July of '89.
A - I know. I was at his service. We were practicing and I knew he was sick. We tried to put it together but for some reason, and I can't remember why, it didn't work out for whatever reason. So, I ended up going back to Florida. But then when he died I ended up coming back to Syracuse for the service.
Q - Where was this band practicing? At Barry's house?
A - No. The keyboard player worked at some place over on GM Circle. I forget the name of the place. But he had access to the upstairs of this place and we practiced there. Barry was a great drummer. We got along great and then when he died I was really kind of floored over it all. It's funny, when I came up to Syracuse for his service I brought a pair of drum sticks with me and I actually put 'em in the casket with him.
Q - Did you attend Park Hill School?
A - Yes.
Q - Someone told me you would bring your guitar to school and sing and play by a rock. There is a rock on the school grounds. Did you do that?
A - First of all, I wasn't a guitar player. I was a drummer. As a matter of fact, I started taking lessons from Mr. Barry in fourth grade at Park Hill. Mr. Barry was a music teacher and that's who I took drum lessons from.
Q - So, that story is not correct? You didn't sing on the grounds of Park Hill School?
A - I don't think I would've brought a guitar 'cause I didn't have a guitar. I don't remember singing 'cause I wasn't into singing at that point at Park Hill School. The only thing I did was start drum lessons in fourth grade. Of course, I kept it up forever seemingly. I never got into guitar. I got into piano.
Q - What street did you live on?
A - Roby Ave, 214 Roby Ave. If you go down into the basement, my sister actually spray painted on the wall The Monterays sign we put up. As far as I know, it's still there. (laughs)
Q - You joined The Monterays in what year?
A - I was in high school, East Syracuse where I graduated from. It was either the eighth grade or the ninth grade. I'm not exactly sure. Unless I figure it out mathematically, I can't give it to you right off the top of my head.
Q - Were you in The Monterays in July of 1966 when they opened for The Beach Boys at the Syracuse War Memorial?
A - No. I got drafted right out of high school. At that point I was still in the service, just on the verge of getting out actually.
Q - Were you sent to Vietnam?
A - No. I was not sent to Vietnam.
Q - Were you drafted or did you join?
A - I graduated from East Syracuse in '65. I wasn't out of school for more than two weeks and Larry Landry, who was a guitar player for The Monterays, the original guitar player, not the lead player; great guitar player who sounded just like Ricky Nelson and he had these big, blue eyes to match and he would absolutely drive the women up a tree. I got drafted two weeks after graduating from high school. I was staggered. I didn't know what to do. I tried every which way that I knew of and then some to get out and that took me right up until January of '66 at which point I just threw my hands up in despair because it was useless. I couldn't get out. What I ended up doing was joining the Navy for four years at that point. The reason for that was my parents were all U.S. Navy except for my uncle Donny, who was the only Army guy and never came back.
Q - Were you afraid that if you were drafted you would've been sent to Vietnam?
A - You know, it's almost if I think about it, I didn't care. I didn't want to go to Vietnam obviously. So, it was a big thing, two years versus four years. Possible Vietnam tour versus no Vietnam tour. My family was all Navy. Actually the bottom line was, I wanted to make my Dad proud and by virtue of wanting to make my Dad proud, the Navy won out.
Q - Where were you stationed?
A - What happened is me and Larry both went off. He went into the Navy too, so we both were shipped out I think January 6th of 1966. And remember, I graduated in June of 1965. That meant leaving The Monterays, Larry leaving The Monterays. There go two of the original members off in the U.S. Navy. We left the same day. It was uncanny. I went to Great Lakes for boot camp. We both went to Great Lakes.
Q - And where'd you go to?
A - When I got out of boot camp, and I was in a special unit of boot camp which means I was in the drum and bugle corps, and what happened was I played the drums in the band. They came along and wanted to know if anyone had any talent in terms of instruments and of course I did. I took advantage of that and signed up for the special unit which was the marching band, the Drum And Bugle Corps. It was only the boot camp segment of it. It wasn't the actual Navy Drum And Bugle Corps. It was a boot camp version of it. I was there for a little bit longer period of time. I was there for six weeks rather than four weeks.
Q - Did you go on to entertain the troops?
A - No. We practiced during the day. We didn't do a lot of the drilling that everybody else did and we played for the graduation.
Q - When you got out of boot camp, what happened to you?
A - I went home for two weeks 'cause I had a two week leave. I got a "Dear John" letter in boot camp too. My girlfriend all through high school wrote me a "Dear John" letter. You wouldn't believe who she hooked up with, Danny Elliot (lead singer of The Monterays). When I came home from boot camp I had a friend of mine from Boston, Mass., Rodney Davis come back with me for one week and then went back to Boston for the second week. Him and I went to the Fayetteville Manlius Inn where The Monterays were playing. We wore our uniforms, our dress blues, and of course Danny said to me afterwards that he thought for sure I was there to kick his ass. (laughs)
Q - The place you're talking about was called The F.I. (Fayettevillle Inn). That was a historic place.
A - It was historic.
Q - The Supremes performed there. When Lou Reed was attending Syracuse University his band played there. Fexlix Cavaliere of The Rascals performed there. Being an Inn, Bela Lugosi stayed there as well as Betty Grable.
A - We didn't know the true history of it back then, but from our viewpoint it was historic.
Q - It was just another club.
A - No. It wasn't just another club. It was The F.I. and The F.I. in and of itself was on the same level as The Three Rivers Inn. The Monterays used to play at The Red Dog Saloon up in Manlius and that was another great club during that era. On the weekends Larry Csonka and Jim Nance were the bouncers at the door. One on each side of the door when they were letting people in. I don't know if they were there for the entire night, but they must've been bouncers for the entire night. But that was kind of nice.
Q - When you were in the group it was "Dandy" Dan Leonard who was booking The Monterays. He was the guy who held a lot of power in the Syracuse music market, didn't he?
A - Yeah. Don Leonard was the owner of WNDR (radio station).
Q - The owner or one of the owners?
A - That's a good question. I know he was at least one of the owners of not the owner. He might've been part of an ownership package, but I wasn't aware. I just knew that we knew him as being the owner of WNDR. In the '60s every show, regardless of who it was, they all came through WNDR. Because our personal manager was "Dandy" Dan Leonard we were handled by him on a personal basis. He put some money into us too.
Q - In what way?
A - He helped us with recordings. He'd pay for us to go to New York and do our recording down there with a song written by Larry Santos. How much money he put into the group I do not know, but it was a lot of money. Advertising money. As far as I'm aware of, he put a substantial amount of money into the group, signs, posters, advertising and all the stuff that goes along with it. And because we were his pet group, we really got the opportunity to open for just about anybody that came through Syracuse.
Q - Just how popular were The Monterays in Syracuse?
A - We started playing out in 1962. That's a story in and of itself. We practiced at Larry Landry's place and we played our first gig I think at a clam bake. I think it was either Hinerwadel's or that place in Dewitt. I forget the name of it. We did a lot of gigs and there were no vocals initially. It was all instrumentals.
Q - So, you were doing material by who?
A - Santo And Johnny, The Ventures. Jack Abert also played Hawaiian guitar in addition to playing bass guitar, so we would do a lot of stuff by other musicians.
Q - When were vocals introduced into The Monterays?
A - I remember we had a discussion one particular time about how we needed to get somebody singing and I was the only one at that point who seemingly could carry a half way decent tune. So, I was kind of thrust into the lead vocals early on, and of course I was a drummer, so I had to learn how to sing and play drums. So, I did exactly that. We just did simple songs that I could learn the words to and drum to. I think after some point that we started doing that, Johnny Wisnewski became the harmony singer because he was a second tenor or maybe first tenor at one point. He had a high voice and he could do a lot of the harmonies above me. I would be singing the lead and he would be doing the harmony on any particular song that required harmony. Then Larry Landry started singing. Then lo and behold this guy had a voice like Ricky Nelson. He was a good looking dude with big blue eyes, stunning blue eyes actually for a guy. When he sang, he sang "Lonesome Town" and all the Ricky Nelson stuff. So, that was an added feature. So, now we got two singers, myself and Larry Landry, both capable of singing leads and Johnny Wisnewski doing harmony. Jack really never got into the vocal aspect of it although he did try his heart out. He did sing some stuff, but he just wasn't a vocalist. He struggled to be a vocalist, but he wasn't a natural.
Q - Did anyone ever say we got to get Tommy up front, singing?
A - No. That never was a thought. Me drumming and me singing was just fine. How popular were we? I don't remember how many jobs we played. I know we played a lot. I know we played for just about every Rock hop, dance hop and sock hop that WNDR had. Back then, Sam And The Twisters were big. We were playing all the time as far as I can remember and most if it was done through WNDR.
Q - When I interviewed Sam Amato, he said Sam And The Twisters either were or could have worked seven days a week if they wanted to. Would that have been the case with The Monterays?
A - We were more of a weekend band than a full-time band. Could we have worked a lot more? From an age stand point, were we legally of age where we could do bars? There were a lot of times our fathers had to come with us. We didn't play any bars initially. We did all high schools, sock hops, clam bakes all over the place, but no clubs and no bars. We weren't of age and we didn't have any cars. Our fathers had to drive us around to every gig we played.
Q - And the equipment and the band all fit into one vehicle?
A - My Dad and Jack Abert's Dad, with two cars managed to get everything into two cars. Plus the guys.
Q - They had station wagons, did they?
A - No. My Dad had a sedan, an Impala, and if I remember correctly Jack Abert's Dad had a big Oldsmobile Rocket 88 or something like that. If it wasn't for the Dads, there wouldn't have been any Monterays. Thank God for the Dads because they really came through when we were really in some tight spots.
Q - After The Monterays and after you got out of the Service, were you a part of The Sabres or Saints And Sinners?
A - I tried to get back into The Monterays initially and they seemed to be doing just fine the way they were. When Larry and I went into the Service, for the record, at that point they needed a drummer 'cause I was the drummer. So, Dave Usiatynksi came in. Danny (Elliot) had a group called The Dimensions and Danny was Jack's step-brother. Because he was a step-brother they had a close relationship. When Larry and I ended up joining the Navy, David Usiatynksi came from The Dimensions to cover the drums for the group. Danny came in as the lead vocalist to cover my lead vocalist position, and Dave Moziak came along for the ride. So, a guy by the name of Si Sifer and I formed the Saints And Sinners. The group had one purpose in life and one purpose only, and that was to get back at The Monterays. (laughs)
Q - You were a member of this group, The Seven?
A - Yeah.
Q - The original Seven?
A - No. I took Nicky Russo's place. There's a time line that goes through this, how I went from the Saints And Sinners back to The Monterays and from The Monterays to The Seven. The original Seven included Nicky Russo and they had just cut an album, their first album. Frank Syroi, who was the horn player in The Seven who I played with in the Saints And Sinners, gave me a call when I was in The Monterays. Frank said "We got rid or our lead singer and we're auditioning lead singers. Why don't you come out and give it a shot?" I told him, "I can't. I'm back with The Monterays." I couldn't do that. I did tell him I would love the opportunity to just come over and sit in and do a couple of songs, especially with the quality of musicians that were in that group. I had never played with musicians that were that good. So I ended up going over to practice one night and ended up singing a few songs basically for over an hour. We just had fun. To me, it was not an audition because they knew I had no intention of leaving The Monterays, at least I thought they knew. I told them I just wanted to be able to say I sang with Chucky Syrio and Tony Licamele and I sang with Chuck Mallone, the keyboard player. So I did that and the next morning I got a call from Chuck Mallone asking me if I wanted t join the group.
Q - How then did you get the offer to join Wilkesbury Brigade?
A - The Seven broke up in 1971. There was a lot going on. It was really a sad, sad situation. We were supposed to go to England for a thirty day tour and that was all set up. We had recording time set up for our second album. We were going to go to England for a thirty day tour and I was told we were going to open the show for The Moody Blues for part of their tour.
Q - That's big time.
A - Yeah, that was big time. We were all writing material for the second album and the shit hit the fan and the end result of all of that was the lead guitar player, Chuckie Wheeler, ended up leaving the group after finding out he kind of got screwed out of royalties. It was an ugly scene. The group basically imploded from the inside out on this one particular time. After Chuck left we tried to replace him. We did temporarily, but it just didn't work out. So, the group ended up disbanding.
Q - The Seven could've had greater success.
A - Absolutely. No question about it. If we would've managed to get through this English tour they had set up for us, and the management company had it all broken down for us, it was pretty much a done deal. There was shit about, "Why can't we bring our wives?" But it ultimately it came down to it was just the band and the band only. If we would've managed to do that and come back, I think the group would've been a lot bigger than we ended up being. As a matter of fact, when I went with The Seven and they already had an album out, I thought at that point my chances of making it just escalated by 100%.
Q - Once you get the record deal, the real work starts.
A - Yeah. I flew to my first job with them. It was unreal.
Q - For an East Syracuse guy, that's big time!
A - Yeah. Danny came up to me after I left The Monterays and I had really thought about it, and he understood completely. The Monterays were on their last leg anyways. So I took the job with them.
Q - Didn't you rub elbows with quite a few up and coming Rock stars during your time with The Monterays?
A - We opened for Jay And The Americans at The Beginning II. We played there a number of times, but the only show I remember opening for was Jay And The Americans. The Monterays used to play a lot of the S.U. (Syracuse University) fraternities and sororities. A lot of times Felix And The Escorts, Felix Cavaliere, that was his group, were either right next door to us or across the street.
Q - So, you knew Felix Cavaliere?
A - Yeah. I knew Felix, not really on a personal basis. If I saw him today, he may or may not remember me, but when I did see him in Syracuse this one particular time he sort of took me under his wing a little bit and led me out front right next to the stage and we had a conversation. For a short period of time we struck up a really good repertoire. I was a big, big, big Rascals fan. I sing a lot of their tunes. I was a big Dino Danelli fan.
Q - Why do you think that so many bands came out of the East side of Syracuse in the 1960s?
A - There was a lot of talent for sure in Syracuse, but I don't think it was necessarily from the East side. I always looked at it more or less from a Syracuse standpoint rather than an East side, West side, North side, South side standpoint.
Q - We never did get to how you joined Wilkesbury Brigade.
A - I kind of wandered around for two weeks after The Seven broke up and I ended up meeting Timmy Cleary of Wilkesbury Brigade. I got an offer from them. Danny Elliot and Ronnie Leigh were both in Wilkesbury. I guess they wanted me to come into the group and they didn't want to let Danny or Ronnie go in this particular case for whatever reason. So, they disbanded the group and they reformed shortly after that with me in the group at the end of 1971, beginning of '72.
Q - You had a pretty good run with that group then.
A - Yeah. We were together for awhile.
Q - So, what's an East Syracuse, New York guy doing living in the South these days?
A - I lived in Matthews, North Carolina, which is outside of Charlotte. I was basically there for ten years if not closer to eleven. Actually the decision was made to sell our place and we did . My wish was to go back to Syracuse. My wife's wish was to move to Florida. So, after weighing the pros and cons I said to her okay, we'll go to Florida because that was on her bucket list. I'd been in Florida once, in Largo on the West Coast in '85 and I said let's try the other coast this time. So, we ended up in Melbourne, Florida. The reason we ended up in Melbourne is because when I first came down here, which was two years ago, (2014) I filled in for a group that needed a drummer desperately for a month or so. I was staying at a place called Lamplighter Village and I kind of liked that. It was a mobile home and this is where we ended up, primarily because of me filling in with this so-called band that didn't last more than forty-five days for all intents and purposes. But, we ended up here and she fulfilled something on her bucket list. I gave up the idea of going back to Syracuse.
Q - Are there more venues to play in Melbourne than in Syracuse?
A - Actually, I'm retired. At this point in time as we speak my last hurrah is when we got together as Wilkesbury Brigade. That was basically a high point, a dream come true. That's number one that it happened and number two that it happened as good as it did. That was kind of my last 'live' performance unless something else comes up with Wilkesbury Brigade.
Q - Was that reunion with Wilkesbury Brigade the first time you'd been in Syracuse for awhile?
A - The last time I was back in Syracuse was 2013. I came up in March for the SAMMYS (Syracuse Area Music Awards) when The Seven were inducted into the Hall OF Fame. I was in Syracuse for two and a half weeks. This time I went up there on September 7th (2016) and I came back on September 26th. Even when I was in the airplane seeing Syracuse, I got that absolute warm, fuzzy feeling all over 'cause it's home.
Q - It will always be home no matter where you live.
A - No matter where. It's home and home as far as I'm concerned is where the heart is. I can be physically anywhere, but the heart is always in Syracuse.