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The Hillrocker from New Jersey
By Shane Hughes
The Big Beat era produced a vast and diverse number of quality singers, some receiving the
recognition they strove for, the majority, though, languishing in obscurity, only earning
belated acknowledgement many years after making their famed recordings via collector
oriented reissue packages and touring the European festival circuit. This is an often
told saga that many aficionados of the Big Beat are too familiar with, however there
were a handful of artists who were more than just talented singers and performers.
Some were also equally talented songwriters, a fact that is rarely acceded. Chuck Bene'
falls into this latter category. Not only was he a superb vocalist and a more than
capable guitarist, he was a gifted writer as well. His list of compositions is impressive,
as is the list of producers and songwriters he worked with during his career, namely
Jerry Fuller, Trade Martin, Rose Marie McCoy and one time member of the Four Seasons
Nick Masi. Before he found his niche amongst the pool of song peddlers in New York City,
he was living in New Jersey and fronting a local band of teenagers, plying the high
school and party circuit and driving the young crowds into hysteria with their brand of
sax driven, guitar laden rock and roll.
Johnny Dentz's Hillrockrockers, 1957
Born in Hackensack, New Jersey on June 26, 1941 Charles Salvatore Bene' developed a
keen interest in music at an early age,
"We always had the radio on in the house and my mother would sing along to the music.
At about 11 years old, at breakfast one day, I heard Benny Goodman playing a song
and decided that I wanted to play the clarinet. Back then, the schools would loan and
teach an instrument if you signed up for the band. I went to the band director and told
him of my intention, however there were no more clarinets available so I was out of luck.
My mother told the family of my interest and an uncle who played the guitar on and off
(more off than on) offered to give me an old guitar, which I began to take lessons
on when I was 12".
A few years later, Chuck witnessed the phenomenon of Alan Freed and the coming of
rock and roll when he saw one of Moondawg's shows in Brooklyn. Sold on the new beat,
he wasted no time falling in with a bunch of eager young musicians in 1956. His only
recollection about this early group was that he joined as guitarist. He was still
a student at Bogota High School when he hitched up with local combo the Hillrockers,
led by Johnny Dentz, in 1957. Dentz's band were all from the Hackensack area and already
comprised Dentz on drums, Tony Laino on piano, guitarist Vic Cenicola, sax blower Dick
Anzalone and Ronnie Penque on bass, when Chuck joined as vocalist and second guitarist.
Chuck has fond memories playing weekly CYO dances, high school dances and parties with the
Hillrockers and within a year the boys were making the clubs along Sin Strip, just outside
of New York City.
Chuck and the Hillrockers were building an impressive reputation through '57 when they
found themselves in New York City's Bell Sound Studios, cutting a session financed by a
local businessman who had taken a keen interest in the group. Laying down only two tunes,
Chuck and the group were certainly in fine form. Both Come Back Baby and I Want My Mama
were prime examples of thunderous east coast rock and roll. If the Hillrockers produced
this kind of sound at their live gigs, it certainly wouldn't be too surprising if they
raised every venue they played to the ground and drove their fans into a frenzy. Come
Back Baby is a driving, unremitting rocker that kicks off with a searing lead intro
from Vic Cenicola. Johnny Dentz's solid drumming ensures the rhythm section keeps
up an energetic and unfaltering pace, while Chuck's vocals are no less impressive.
Buddy Tate's sax blowing is slightly hesitant in the background, not being afforded
any solo space, instead Vic is given all the room to move and he certainly generates
excitement. Just how Chuck and the Hillrockers managed to convince tenor sax great
Buddy Tate to sit in on the session is not known. Chuck has confessed that he didn't
even know who Buddy Tate was at the time! Tate (born in '14 in Sherman, Texas) had
already enjoyed a lengthy career as a tenor sax man in bands led by Count Basie,
Andy Kirk, Lucky Millinder and Hot Lips Page by the time he cut this session with the
Hillrockers. Shortly after the Hillrockers date, Buddy headed to Europe for a tour with
Buck Clayton and would remain a very busy musician well into the nineteen eighties.
The intended flip side, I Want My Mama is far more subdued in comparison, with the
band working around a standard 12 bar blues arrangement that works surprisingly well
and is perfectly suited to Chuck's lyrics. Chuck also proves that he can handle
slower, less frantic material with ease and his vocals are indeed convincing.
Released on the obscure Rock label (Rock 101), Chuck and the Hillrockers two sides
should have generated major interest with teens. Instead, any success that may have been
reaped would have only been local. The fact that the Rock imprint was, apparently,
based in Texas may have influenced the lack of national success, as would the limited
pressing of only 500 copies. Despite any absence of sales, Chuck and the group were
still a popular local attraction, spurring Chuck to join the Musicians Union later in
the year and obtain a cabaret license in '58 after lying about his age. He also remembers
the Hillrockers opening a show for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in New York.
The Hillrockers lasted only another year or so. After graduation, the group disbanded
with Dentz heading to Los Angeles where he became a respected drummer in jazz circles.
Chuck stayed active too, cutting a session with Joey Rich and the Vermillions in '59 at
Dick Charles' studio in New York City (produced by Rose Marie McCoy, the infamous
R&B songstress behind Dippin' In My Business on Cat (111)). Featured on guitar,
Chuck lent his support to the Vermillions Hey Vinnie and Hiya Red. Joey Rich (real
name Joe Durante) was from Hackensack, New Jersey, but just who the Vermillions
were and for what label they cut these sides is still unknown. During the early
sixties Chuck decided to take the college route, as did Tony Laino. The pair
remained friends after the Hillrockers split and decided to reunite some time in '63,
forming the Gadabouts with John Morano on sax and drummer Skip Cherubino (who would
shortly be replaced by Cookie Moreno). Playing what Chuck describes as ‘50's and 60's
rock', the Gadabouts were often seen at the Wagon Wheel Club in New York City, with
regular gigs at other clubs around NYC and New Jersey. The group never recorded and
after Chuck left college the Gadabouts split up.
The mid-nineteen sixties was a fruitful period for Chuck. He began to concentrate more
on songwriting, penning I'll Get You Yet for Lesley Gore and Ricky Nelson (Nelson would
record two further Chuck Bene inked tunes) and in 1965 or '66 met Jerry Fuller, who flew
into NYC to set up a branch office for Four Star Music. Texan teen pop singer Jerry
Fuller had already carved a niche for himself in the songwriting and production field
since recording his first sides for Joe Leonard's Lin label in Gainesville, Texas in
1957. By the time he had arrived in New York, he had cut a slew of sides for Challenge
and didn't hesitate in striking a songwriting partnership with Chuck. The duo immediately
set about cutting demos and peddling their work. Initially there were no takers, so
Chuck cast his lot with long time friend and fellow songwriter from Hackensack, Hugh
McCracken. Probably best known for writing There Must Be A Better World Somewhere for
B. B. King, Hugh was not just a songwriter but a noted harmonica player and guitarist
as well, recording with Peter Allen and Mose Allison, among others. Before finding
fame as a session player and songwriter though, Hugh was based in NYC putting pen to
paper with Chuck. The pair was soon approached by the manager of Lada Edmunds, a
dancer on the Hullabaloo television show, to write two songs for her to feature on the
show. Chuck and Hugh came up with I Know Something and Once Upon A Time, which Lada
cut for Decca in '66 (Decca 9-31937).
The Gadabouts,. L-R: Tony Laino, Chuck Bene', John Morano, Skip C.
Chuck seemed to have a knack for collaborating with the best in the field as this
period of his career also saw him work with Trade Martin, the renowned producer/songwriter/musician
who had been involved with the Rome label from 1960 and had himself recorded for a variety of
companies since 1963, including Roulette. Further, Chuck found more than enough session work,
recording behind a host of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced artists. Lieber and Stoller
were quick to cut any new act that showed potential and originality, and they saw just those
very qualities in Chuck. When he and Hugh McCracken, both fans of the Soupy Sales show,
decided to cash in on Soupy's novelty appeal and cut a record based on Soupy's dance
called The Mouse, Lieber and Stoller didn't hesitate in offering to take care of
the production. The only condition was that Chuck and Hugh had to travel to Atlantic City
to cut the record. As they couldn't afford the bus fare, Nick Masi of the Four Seasons,
who had heard of the project, decided he'd take over production. Backed by the Four Seasons,
Chuck headed a studio group on guitar for the two sided instrumental offering The Ole Mouse.
The recordings were sold to Columbia and released as by Chuck Bene' and the Mice (Columbia
43265), with promo copies sent to Cashbox and Billboard for review. Soon after the record
was released and standing every chance of being distributed nationally and selling in
good numbers (not to mention making a few dollars for Chuck and Hugh), Soupy himself
decided to cut a version of the same song, but retitled Do The Mouse. To add insult
to injury, Soupy employed Four Seasons musical director Charlie Colello to produce his
record. Needless to say, Chuck was more than just a little rankled when Soupy's record
hit the market, while his Columbia release sank without a trace. "That incident soured
me on the New York recording scene" recalls Chuck and he faded into the shadows with Hugh
to work with Les Paul at the latter's home studio in New Jersey.
Fortunately, he didn't remain too soured over the Soupy Sales' saga for long and was back
on the club scene by '69 with the Bobby Lane Trio, a group put together to temporarily
back Connie Carroll on live gigs. Comprising Bobby Lane on guitar, Chuck on bass and
sax player Neil Bonsanti, the group continued long after their engagement with Connie
had ended. They took on drummer George Agila and became a lounge act, working hotels in
New York and New Jersey through until around 1980.
The Gadabouts, 1963
The eighties and early nineties were a quiet time for Chuck, although he still worked as a
freelance musician. He moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in '96 and shortly after formed
a reconstituted Gadabouts, this time billed as The Fabulous Gadabouts. He kept
busy with this new group, changing his repertoire to incorporate more of a variety
type show at his gigs and was soon back in the studio playing guitar behind local
singer Peggy Kaye on her Texas Chic album. More recordings followed with a group
called Plan B, before Chuck cut his own nine track album supervised by Robert
Sampler at O-Tu Studios, encompassing the gamut of all musical styles that
influenced him over his long and propitious career. He is certainly appreciative of
the recognition he's now receiving and he's certainly deserving of it too. Chuck
remains humble though, "One of the biggest honors that I have received is being
inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, along with the other many deserving
artists who haven't been forgotten. I personally thank Bob Timmers for his assistance
and untiring efforts"; and your fans thank you, Chuck, not least for the vibrant music
you crafted with the Hillrockers way back in 1957, but for your impeccable memory and
willingness to share your past with the rest of us.
©2004 Rockabilly Hall of Fame ® / Shane Hughes