An Interview with Tom Violante of The Shags
It's Shagadelic, Baby!
[Q] Where were the Shags formed, and by whom?
[A] Tom Violante and Carl Augusto, both of whom were schoolmates at Notre Dame H.S. in West Haven CT, decided to try and form a British-style rock group, ala the Beatles, since doo-wop was taking a back seat in music. So in the Spring of 1963, Tom and Carl talked about starting a band - no name yet. At that time, Carl was lead guitar for The Deltons, and sang a little. Also, Johnny Tangredi was drummer for The Deltons. One little known fact is that we had considered calling ourselves "Gemini," since me (June 7), Carl (June 8), Johnny (June 5, I think) and Billy Hall (June?) were all Geminis and all born in Grace-New Haven Hospital in New Haven CT, birthplace of Michael (Bolotin) Bolton (whose brother, Orrin, was a Shags roadie. Michael used to ask Carl to teach him how to play guitar. Michael's mother, Helen, used to come to the revived Shags gigs for "old time's sake") and George W. Bush. The really strange thing is that we were all able to get along without too much trouble. Usually Geminis can't be with one another for more than about a minute! During the summer of 1963, Tom joined with Carl, Rich Ventura (guitar) and Eddie Staffieri to jam in Tom's garage on Cynthia Drive in West Haven. They never played any paid gigs, just jammed. On occasion, Bobby Giannotti (now a popular soloist and former member of Jasper Rath) would also jam with Tom and the guys. In fact, Tom and Bobby went to Sears and bought their first guitars - the Silvertone/Danelectro model with the amp in the guitar case - and practiced together at Bobby's house. Bobby was an accomplished trumpet player and musician. Tom was just a singer who played a little accordion and piano. Learning the guitar was hard because Tom has big hands with long fingers and the beginning of carpal tunnel syndrome. He opted to tune his guitar to an E-tuning, made up his own bar chords, and played rhythm guitar. However, Tom learned to sing nearly every song by the Beatles, Kinks, Buddy Holly, Yardbirds, etc. so he sang most of the songs of this yet-unnamed jam group. Throughout most of early 1964, Tom and Carl worked on harmonies, sharing the leads on cover songs by British and American rock groups. Carl conceived the first name to be used by the emerging band: The Hollywood High Drop-Outs. Tom, who worked at a clothing store in the Connecticut Post, made professional-looking signs on the stores sign-making press for the band, and they used them at the first gig they played together: the wedding of Tom's mother, Betty, to his stepfather, Bud Forte, at the Villa Capri in Milford. In that ensemble were: Tom on rhythm guitar (Silvertone black-and-white), Carl on lead guitar (Fender Jazzmaster sunburst), Rich Ventura on a homemade natural wood left-handed guitar, Ed Staffieri on drums (Slingerland, I believe), and Bobby Giannotti on guitar (Silvertone also). Tom and Bobby each had the big Silvertone amplifier by now. Rich plugged into one of them and Carl had a blonde Fender Bandmaster. The date was November 4, 1964.
[Q] Best known as the Shags, the nucleus of the band evolved throughout many different incarnations. Please detail the various lineups.
[A] In The Hollywood High Drop-Outs, 1st lineup (first performance but for no pay): Tom (Violante) Roberts, rhythm guitar and lead vocals; Carl (Augusto) Donnell, lead guitar and lead vocals; Rich Ventura, guitar and vocals; Bobby Giannotti, guitar and vocals; Ed Staffieri, drums. In The Hollywood High Drop-Outs, 2nd lineup (that played out and got paid): Tom (Violante) Roberts, rhythm guitar and lead vocals; Carl (Augusto) Donnell, lead guitar and lead vocals; Mike Goodwin, bass guitar (Fender precision bass, Fender Bassman amp) and vocals; Jeff Cannata, drums (later went on to found Jasper Rath with Bobby Giannotti). This line-up played ONLY once, a wedding at Frankie's Villa Pompeii on Boston Post Road in Milford sometime in mid-1964. After that, Johnny Tangredi replaced Jeff Cannata on drums. The Deltons, in which both Carl and Johnny had previously played, were now defunct. (That band at that time consisted of Carl, Johnny, Andy Smith, Bobby Sheehan, and Phil Vallie.) In the summer of 1965, the name changed from The Hollywood High Drop-Outs to The Shags, a name coined by Andy Smith, one of The Deltons (the band that Carl and Johnny had quit to form The Hollywood High Drop-Outs with Tom). The name change was ordered by Sam Goldman, the band's first manager and record producer, because HHDO wasn't small enough to fit on the record label of their first release, "Wait and See" b/w "It Hurts Me Bad" on the Nutta label, cut in NYC in the winter of 1964. His suggestion - The Creeps - met with stiff opposition from Tom and Carl. Andy saved the day, and he lettered the name "The Shags" in Old English on the band's 1956 Cadillac hearse. Mike Goodwin was replaced in 1965 by Billy Hall on bass guitar (a Gibson with a Magnatone amp). Billy has been with Victor Matson (Bobby Bennett and the Realms) and Mike traded places with him. So the most well-known, very first lineup of The Shags was: Tom (Violante) Roberts, rhythm guitar and lead vocals; Carl (Augusto) Donnell, lead guitar and lead vocals; Johnny Tangredi, drums (white pearl Slingerland); and Billy Hall, bass guitar. This quartet recorded "Wait and See," "It Hurts Me Bad," and "Cause of You" in New York City in 1965. Other lineups, in order of their appearance, included:
1. Tom, Carl, Johnny and Billy with: John David Perkins, who used the stage name Aaron Perkins, on harmonica, tambourine and vocals. Aaron died in 1989 and is buried in the Perkins family plot in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven CT. Thomas "Doc" Cavalier entered the picture at this time as the band's manager and record producer, along with Dolores "Dee" Dean, wife of Peter Dean who owned The House of Zodiac, a famous popular night club on the corner of Forest Road and Derby Avenue in West Haven where The Shags were regulars. Incidentally, this line-up was the most famous of all Shags lineups, according to popular opinion.
2. Tom, Carl, Johnny and Billy with: Myron Frame, harmonica, tambourine and vocals (who later formed The Farme when he left The Shags). Aaron left for college in Vermont. Tom acquired a Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker which was incorporated into the band.
3. Tom, Carl, Johnny and Myron with: Lance Gardner (Biesele) on bass guitar (a white Fender Precision bass) and vocals. Billy Hall left to play in another band. This was the second most-famous line-up.
4. Tom, Carl, Johnny and Lance with Harvey Thurrott on lead guitar and vocals. Harvey had a collection of Fender guitars including a Strat, a Tele and a lot of others. Harvey later formed Edison Mazda with Johnny when The Shags joined with some of the Bram Rigg Set to form Pulse. Tom played no guitar, sang out front as Myron's replacement, and played a little B3.
5. The last line-up of the "old days" Shags was: Tom, Carl, Johnny and Harvey with: Dave Wasson on bass guitar (he played a Hofner acoustic electric like Paul McCartney's) and vocals. Lance left for artistic reasons.
6. Sometime in 1968, Pulse was formed from remnants of The Shags and Bram Rigg Set, conceived by Tom and Carl as the best of both bands after conferring with Doc. This first Pulse band included Tom, Carl and: Bennett (Beau) Segal on drums; Peter Neri on guitar and vocals; Richie Bednarcyzk on keyboards and vocals; Lance Gardner on bass guitar; and Paul Rosano on bass guitar (yep - two basses!). Tom left Pulse in late 1968.
7. In 1982 through 1984, The Shags reformed under Tom's direction (he owns the trademark on The Shags). This new band included: Tom, rhythm guitar, keyboard and lead vocals; Billy Hall, bass guitar; Joe Arnone, lead guitar and vocals; and Joe Zukowski, drums and vocals (and current Key West Trio drummer). Aaron (John David) Perkins actually returned for about nine months in his original role as percussionist/harmonica and vocals.
8. About 1983, Billy, Joe Arnone and Aaron left and Harvey Thurrott rejoined, bringing with him Charles "Chas" Watson on bass guitar and vocals. This group suspended operations in late 1984 when Tom decided things weren't going well with song selection and artistic direction. Tom continued in music as a soloist, writing and developing songs but not performing live.
9. In 1991, Tom and Johnny (on drums) reformed The Shags once again. Johnny brought in Eddie Gerosa, of the old Roadrunners band, who played rhythm guitar. Eddie brought in Billy Pallman, former lead guitarist of The Chosen Few and a player in the Roadrunners, now playing bass guitar. Billy brought in Fred Callaghan on lead guitar. (This band played until late 1994, when Fred left and Jeff Brown joined on lead guitar and vocals.) This line-up opened for Dion and Gene Pitney at Oakdale Theatre in September 1994.
10. In late 1994, the band dropped Fred Callaghan and auditioned for a new lead guitarist, which turned out to be Jeff Brown. He lasted six months.
11. In early 1995, the band retreaded Harvey Thurrott on lead guitar.
12. In late 1995, Harvey and Johnny both left and we began to sequence guitar leads with the remaining players, adding Joe Zukowski back on drums. Ed, Billy and Tom played on the side as Key West Trio.
13. Bill Pallman left in 1996, replaced by Ray Zukowski, Joe's brother. That lasted to 1997, when we replaced Ray with a bass sequence and increased sequencing of other instruments. Now Key West Trio performs live with drums, guitar and keyboard accompanied by a series of sequenced instruments and bass guitar.
[Q] So contrary to popular belief, the Shags group never performed as the Deltons?
[A] Actually, the "name game" goes like this: The Deltons were first, from about 1958 through 1964; from The Deltons, Johnny and Carl joined Tom in The Hollywood High Drop Outs, leaving The Deltons to continue as themselves with replacements (they eventually stopped playing in about 1966) and Phil Vallie created The Frontiers with most of the old Deltons; The Hollywood High Drop Outs changed their name to The Shags (coined by Andy Smith, of The Deltons) because Shags manager, Sam Goldman, needed a short punchy name and Andy said "Well, you guys are shaggy boys so why don't you call yourself The Shags?" Little did anyone know about the English meaning of the word "shag" back then. They were a hit with everyone. The Shags played as such in 1994 at Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, CT when they opened for Music Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci, and Connecticut native Gene Pitney. In the summer of 1995, Tom created Key West Trio for him, Eddie and Billy to play small venues without a drummer, because clubs were getting tight on their budgets and stage space. Key West Trio remains a very popular Buffett/Beach Boys cover band on the East Coast, with more than 75 gigs a year. It now includes Tom, Eddie, and Joe Zukowski.
[Q] The Shags covered the Beatles' "I Call Your Name." Were the Beatles your biggest influence? If not, what band was?
[A] The Beatles certainly influenced Tom and Carl's musical selection, but we also were impressed with the Wilson brothers and their harmonies in the Beach Boys. Toss in the other British rockers - the Stones, Kinks, Dave Clark Five, etc. - and add Buddy Holly, Everlys and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Incidentally, The Shags' cover of "I Call Your Name" on Laurie Records was No. 72 in the Hot 100 up and coming list of Billboard magazine. It was the highest a Shags' song ever got nationally. Nowadays--in Key West Trio--Jimmy Buffett and his lyrics, as well as plenty of Beach Boys tunes, rule for Tom.
[Q] What type of venues did the band typically perform in?
[A] Most of the original Shags' venues were teen nightclubs and adult nightclubs, with a nice selection of college gigs, outdoor concerts, block parties and show openers for the bigger stars of the day. The Shags played at Oakdale Theater, opening at different shows for The Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Chad and Jeremy. They also opened for The Rascals and Peter and Gordon at The New Haven Arena, for The Animals at Mount Holyoke, the Beau Brummels at the Big E in East Springfield MA, the Lovin' Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel, and Jimmy Ryan & The Critters at The Bushnell, the Righteous Brothers at Kennedy Stadium in Bridgeport CT, The Coasters and B.B. King at the Stamford Motor Lodge nightclub, and several others.
[Q] What was the Shag's best gig?
[A] When we had our own show at the Oakdale Theater in 1968 and nearly sold out with 3,400 of 3,600 seats filled.
[Q] The Shags appeared in "The Show With The Very Long Title." How did this come about?
[A] Steve Geller, who wrote and produced the film, and was a producer at WNHC-TV (now WTNH-TV), needed a "Monkees-type" band to interact with three or four young women he called the "Gritties." He'd seen The Shags play, and contacted Doc to hire us for the pilot of his proposed weekly TV show.
[Q] Was "The Show" ever aired on television? If no, what medium was it filmed for?
[A] The pilot was never aired to my knowledge. It was meant to be a weekly TV show shot on film, not video tape.
[Q] Appearing with the Shags were the Bram Rigg Set. How did their association with "The Show" come about?
[A] The Shags took The Bram Rigg Set (originally, George's Boys, then "The Bramm Rigg Sett") under their creative wing. Bennett "Beau" Segal, Rich Bednarczyk and Tom were buddies, and all got along well. The two groups' repertoires were totally different, except for a few Stones covers, so there wasn't any rivalry. Also, The Shags were 2-4 years older than the BRS guys. When it came time for a "follow" group, BRS were the natural choice.
[Q] Aside from "The Show," does any other film footage of the Shags exist?
[A] To my knowledge, there is no other footage of the original Shags ('60's era), except if someone has home movies and they didn't tell us. There is footage of the '90's Shags on home video as well as at CTV in New Haven CT.
[Q] Did the band make any TV appearances?
[A] In the '60's era, we appeared on a TV show in Vermont and lip-synched "By My Side." In the '90's, we appeared on a Paul Johnston New Year's Eve show on CTV in New Haven. The tape exists somewhere in CTV's vault. There are several reels of KWT playing.
[Q] After the Shags, you joined with a few members of the Bram Rigg Set and formed Pulse. What year was this, and how long did that band stay together?
[A] Pulse was formed in 1968, after The Shags and Bram Rigg Set dissolved--due mostly to changing tastes in music, and a desire to put together a "power" band. We recorded about 12 songs that varied between R&B, rock, and Cream-like atonal drivel. Pulse lasted until about 1971 and dissolved for many reasons, the least of which was staleness.
[Q] Cream-like atonal drivel?!?
[A] A cross between Cream and nails scraping on a blackboard. No kidding! We were atonal at best, with very dreary lyrics and mostly minor-key songs. I tried to bring us back to a happy place, with several up-tempo, bluesy-type songs and even suggested we have a live or taped horn section. I left Pulse in 1969, right after we cut "Can Can Girl" on the ATCO label and "Don't Let This Happen to You," which never saw vinyl.
[Q] Tell me a little about the Key West Trio (KWT).
[A] The idea for KWT came to me in 1994 when I began to fool with Cakewalk and sequencing. It physically materialized in 1995 as "Key West Trio" as a side gig for me, Eddie, and Billy to play in small venues, still keeping The Shags available for oldies dances. Actually, KWT's first gig was a DUO with me and Eddie playing at Cornwall Pub in Cheshire (Billy took ill that night). We then played as a trio with our '80's Shags drummer Joe Zukowski "sitting in" on bigger gigs. Eventually the Buffett/Beach Boys/Oldies format caught fire. Billy Pallman left around 1997, was replaced by Joe's brother, Raymond, who left in 1998. Today, it's just me, Eddie and Joe with a sequenced bass and a few other exotic instruments tossed into the mix. There's a 4th trio member who plays lead guitar and sings when we need a quartet - Joe Salvati, from "Nothing But Trouble" in the Ansonia area. Joe Salvati, who manages Banko's Music Store in Ansonia where we buy mostly all our stuff, also sits in as the "3rd" trio member subbing for Eddie or when we can't fit live drums in the venue. We plan on including Joe more often because he adds great depth with his lead guitar work and great harmonies. KWT will probably last until we can't sing any more or load equipment. The Buffett/Beach Boys format is timeless and there's a huge demand for it. We play mostly private gigs - country clubs, corporate events, private parties - and a few night spots, town concerts and big-venue shows. It's a blast and the people are great. We get wonderful responses and have made thousands of friends over the past seven years . . . http://www.keywesttrio.com
[Q] How often does the Key West Trio perform?
[A] We have been averaging more than 75 gigs a year recently, and could probably triple book every weekend throughout the spring and summer months. We had one weekend off this year so far, and we're already confirmed for about 25 gigs in 2001. It's been very busy and it's getting busier. We're waiting on a wedding in West Virginia, one of our agents is working on a Disney trip, and there may be a cruise or two next year - we'll see. We're on Block Island exclusively at Trader Vic's at Champlin's Resort for the weekends of the 4th of July, V-J Day, Labor Day, and July 28-29 for next year and the foreseeable future. We have a dozen "hold-down" repeat dates and we're looking to work the Hamptons next year. KWT is more popular and works more than The Shags ever did. We're also working on a CD with some originals and covers due out in spring of 2001. We picked up Margaritaville Tequila as a sponsor and they provide us with items we auction off to benefit the Alzheimer's Association.
[Q] "Don't Press Your Luck" and "Hey Little Girl" have been featured on many latter day comps. When did you first become aware that, many years after they were recorded, there is still a following for the Shags' songs?
[A] When Eric Lindgren from Arf Arf Records called me and asked if we could put together an anthology of Shags' songs. I am still amazed, but we haven't been able to put one together with ALL the Shags songs on it. In 1994-1995, the group I had together as The Shags went into Horizon Studios in West Haven with Vic Steffens on the board and laid down a dozen songs, covers of our own stuff as well as others, and that still sits in the can. I think that, even though the old versions are the ones remembered, the new versions were terrific. KWT has recorded covers of some Buffett and Beach Boys tunes and we're looking to release them soon, maybe for next year. I've only seen one comp with us on it, though.
[Q] What is the status of GearFab's Shags CD release? It was announced quite a while ago, but still hasn't been released. What is causing the delay?
[A] You know more about it than I do! I'm not involved in it at all. Someone must have obtained the rights to the masters and is putting it out. That happens a lot in this business. I have masters of most of our songs but I haven't been able to come to reasonable terms with the publishers, so I sit on them. One day, the tapes will be degraded and worthless, but I can't put them out until somebody agrees to a deal.
"Copyrighted and originally printed on The Lance Monthly