Rondels RAY PIZZI and LENNIE PETZE interviewed by Dave Burke
Although The Rondels enjoyed a ten year career that produced a healthy eight singles between 1961 and 1964, scoring a US Top 100 hit in 1961 with Back Beat No. 1, comparatively little has been written about the band. Theirs is another of those great untold tales of the '60s. Indeed, so little has been known that even the redoubtable Stuart Coleman was in error when he referred to The Rondels as a New York band in his notes to Ace's Teen Beat Vol. 3 compilation. In fact they were from Boston, Massachusetts and they also had a further single release under their former name of The Rhythm Rockers, enjoying a regional hit with Madness on Square Records during 1960, as well as a later single under the name of The Northern Lites. Here, at last, is their full story.
The seeds of The Rhythm Rockers were first sown back in 1954 when a young teenager by the name of Lennie Petze witnessed one of the first TV performances by Elvis Presley on The Jackie Gleason Show. He was already deeply interested in music and his early influences included Johnnie Ray, Little Richard and Gene Autry, but it was Presley who really made the major impact. Lennie recalled: "When I saw Elvis on TV I knew that I had to have a guitar. I spent the summer of 1954 doing any odd job that I could just to earn enough money to buy that first guitar. It was an acoustic Silvertone from Sears & Roebuck. I would have to say that seeing Elvis actually changed my life."
Lennie continued: "I grew up in a home that was full of music. Both of my older sisters played piano and my Dad picked on a banjo. I used to enjoy singing along while my sisters played all the hits of the day on the piano." On the opposite side of the duplex where he lived in the Boston suburb of Weymouth was his cousin James Petze, better known as Jimmy. Lennie confided: "He was so close he was more like my brother. His mother was my mother's sister and his father was my father's brother. His dad played saxophone, his sister played the accordion, and the house was always full of music."
Lennie and Jimmy first met another future member of The Rhythm Rockers, Nicky Latteo. at a school function where he performed as a tap dancer in a variety show. "He was great and was a real showman" enthused Lennie. "He was also a terrific singer and from that day we all became firm friends. I knew I wanted Nicky in the band that I was planning in my mind. At that time Jimmy and I were taking guitar lessons from the same teacher and afterwards I would call Nicky on the telephone and teach him everything I had learned. His parents refused to have him take guitar lessons as they were spending all this money on teaching him tap dancing! The three of us would get together in an old garage behind mine and Jimmy's house and it was there that the raw sounds of The Rhythm Rockers first came together. We decided on the name after Jimmy's sister Judy had suggested it, and we would get together after school and learn current songs with Nicky and me singing together over our three guitars. Nicky and I played rhythm while Jimmy look care of the lead. We were sounding so good that we decided to enter a talent contest at the school we were attending. Needless to say we won the contest and from that day on we were officially known as The Rhythm Rockers."
The band were unusually enterprising and ambitious from the start and were soon thinking about the opportunities they could take advantage of. Lennie explained: "Although we had only just started this venture we began writing our own material and I would say that writing songs in this period was one of our strengths. The first song that I wrote and sang was called Honey and the three of us went to a music store that had a direct to disk recording room. This was "sometime in 1957, and once we made that recording I was completely hooked. We kept on writing and recording for a long time. We also started writing instrumentals, mostly influenced by hits of the day by the likes of Duane Eddy, Santo & Johnny, Sandy Nelson, Preston Epps and The Ventures."
By this time another close friend, Eddie Grispi, had joined the band on drums, and as he also sang he added to their options. Lennie: "We would rehearse with him whenever we could but Eddie was a couple of years older than us and so he was already driving and into cars and girls. This early version of the band recorded a lot of music, probably around ten or fifteen tracks. We were together for a year playing as a quartet but three guitars and drums left a lot to be desired. Then, as luck would have it, through a friend we met a saxophone player named Ray Pizzi and it was like the lights suddenly went on. At fourteen he was so good it was scary. He was playing as well as any
Article written by Dave Burke of Pipeline Magazine www.pipelinemag.co.uk