In the annals of Baltimore musical history, only one act that we know of can claim to be named after a city park. Dru Hill, named after Druid Hill Park, formed in the early ’90s, and scored seven Top 40 and three R&B No. 1 hits including “In My Bed,” “Never Make a Promise” and “How Deep is Your Love?”
The group— Mark “Sisqó” Andrew, James “Woody Rock” Green, Tamir “Nokio” Ruffin and opera student Larry “Jazz” Anthony— famously honed their chops while slinging chocolate at the Inner Harbor’s Fudgery.
By 1996, Dru Hill was signed to Island Records and released a self-titled, gold-selling album. Over the course of a few years, their singles were featured in the films “Rush Hour,” “Soul Food,” “Wild Wild West,” “Def Jam’s How to be a Player” and the soundtrack for Broadway’s “AIDA.”
So where are they now? After temporarily splitting up in 1999 to pursue their own solo projects, Sisqó hit it big with the explosive No. 1 single “Thong Song” from his album “Unleash the Dragon.” Jazz recorded a traditional R&B album, which was never released; however, his songs have turned up on soundtracks for “Nutty Professor II” and “Rush Hour II.” Woody Rock released a gospel album, which reached No. 5 on the gospel charts. Nokio has since served as a producer for rapper DMX and helped discover and develop new R&B acts.
Currently, Woody Rock, Jazz and new Dru Hill member Rufus “Scola” Waller have formed a side group called 3 Da Hardway. Sisqó is working on his third album, “The Last Dragon.” And later this year, Dru Hill will release a Christmas album just in time for the holidays. —L.G.
Crack The Sky
“Hammerjacks had to tear walls down to make room for the crowds,” says Crack The Sky co-founder and guitarist Rick Witkowski , still in awe. “I bet we hold the record there for most consecutive nights sold-out.”
The occasion was the band’s first reunion tour in 1986, but it should have been the reaction to every performance after the group’s 1975 debut album. Rolling Stone named the self-titled progressive rock LP Album of the Year. Critics loved the lyrics, harmonies and musicianship and hailed the band as the Next Big Thing. National superstardom seemed certain for the band that Witkowski and vocalist and guitarist John Palumbo had formed in 1973 in Witkowski’s hometown of Weirton, W.Va. Instead, Crack The Sky reached superstardom only in Baltimore.
Chalk it up to three decades’ worth of hindsight or his easygoing nature, but Witkowski says he has no regrets about the bungled promotion and distribution by the Lifesong label and the band’s subsequent creative differences and personality mismatches. “Our label’s claim to fame was Jim Croce, and we were a pretty heavy rock band,” he explains. “They didn’t know how to market us.”
Their second album, “Animal Notes,” was released in 1976. The band toured nationally and in Canada, opening for Supertramp, Journey and the Atlanta Rhythm Section but getting little or no national airplay. Witkowski says there was no word-of-mouth. Except in Baltimore. (Witkowski proudly notes that they lost only to Jimi Hendrix in a 98Rock “Super Bowl of Rock”
call-in phone survey of the greatest rock ’n’ roll band ever.)
After three studio albums and one live album, the five original members went their separate ways in 1980. But that hardly sounded the death knell for CTS in Baltimore. For the past 33 years, Palumbo, who bought the rights to the band’s name, and other local musicians have performed in Baltimore as Crack The Sky. Witkowski rejoined the group for the 1986 Hammerjacks reunion, and has been playing with them ever since.
By his count, 18 musicians have been members at one time or another excluding the nine horn players in the sometimes horn section. The group has recorded 21 albums over the past three decades, with another album— a concept piece about the Iraq War— sitting on original bass guitarist Joe Macre’s hard drive, awaiting final touches.
Of the original five, only Palumbo, a psychologist who practices in Moorestown, N.J., has been a constant since 1973. Macre works in video post production in Dallas. Drummer Joey D’Amico lives in Gettysburg teaching drums, believes Witkowski. He’s not sure what happened to guitarist Jim Griffiths. “I think he still has a bad taste in his mouth from the band, and last I heard, he was in California,” says Witkowski, who owns Studio L in Weirton and produces local artists. MTV, the Nickelodeon cable network and others occasionally call Witkowski for jingles and theme songs.
Witkowski’s music can be heard on reruns of “GUTS,” “Action League Now” and “Figure It Out,” all Nick staples for the elementary school crowd— not quite the Crack The Sky demographic, but one he knows a lot about. Witkowski has 13 godchildren, and for a few nights each summer, he plays to packed, non-air-conditioned auditoriums at his church’s vacation bible school. “Just like Hammerjacks, but without the smoke,” he says. —S.A.
Carole King may have asked “Will you still love me tomorrow?” but Baltimore’s Peppermint Rainbow was a bit more specific. The band’s sunny pop single “Will You Be Staying After Sunday/ If We Can Make it to Monday” reached No. 32 on the Billboard charts in 1969 amidst the Beatles’ “Get Back” and debut singles by the Chicago Transit Authority and Three Dog Night. The tune, written by Al Kasha and Paul Leka, who had just scored a No. 1 hit in writing “Green Tambourine” for the Lemon Pipers, featured the rich vocal harmonies of Bonnie Lamdin (who sounds like a dead ringer for Spanky McFarlane on this cut) and her sister, Pat, and the backing efforts of a trio of guys— Tony Carey on drums, Doug Lewis on lead guitar and Skip Harris on bass.
Discovered by another Baltimorean— Mama Cass Elliot— in a Georgetown club, the group went from a low point of sharing one loaf of bread and a package of bologna five ways to brief fame touring the country with The 5th Dimension, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Sly and the Family Stone, even the ukulele-playing Tiny Tim. Lead singer Bonnie Lamdin Phipps remembers Peppermint Rainbow’s audition for the “Dinah Shore Show”— in Dinah Shore’s living room— and how Shore’s influence got the band invited to perform on the “Mike Douglas Show.” (“I still have the tape,” she says fondly.)
Peppermint Rainbow released only one album, “Will You Be Staying After Sunday,” which just missed making Billboard’s Top 100 albums chart in 1969. By 1970, Bonnie Lamdin had married and the band members, worn out from touring and feeling a little defeated by the album’s failure to chart, went their separate ways.
Only one of the band members, Doug Lewis, still plays music regularly, handling a variety of instruments and vocals in the local band The New Monopoly. (In the ’90s, he was part of the Delaware-based band the Hubcaps.) Tony Carey, who Lamdin Phipps describes as the band’s “free spirit,” lives in Alaska and paints houses for a living. Skip Harris is deceased. Pat (Lamdin) Brown works for the juvenile court system, and Lamdin Phipps returned to Baltimore from Atlanta last year to become president and CEO of St. Agnes Hospital, the culmination of a 30-year career in the health care industry. Lamdin Phipps is philosophical about her time as part of the Peppermint Rainbow. “Being in the band prepared me for making presentations,” she says with a laugh, “So I don’t get totally paralyzed when I have to do that.” —M.Z.
“Ronnie Dove loves you” is how singer Ronnie Dove has been ending his performances for more than 40 years. For just as long, Baltimore has loved him right back. Today, he performs in venues smaller than the 5,000-seat, packed houses he played during his chart-topping, mid-1960s heyday, but his voice and fans are still there. So are his mega-watt smile and matinee-idol looks. At 72, his face may show the decades, but the same can be said of the baby boomers who grew up listening and dancing to his pop ballads. “I used to call them fans,” says Dove. “But now they’re all friends.”
The crooner from Herndon, Va., got his start covering Elvis Presley tunes in local cafes while stationed in Baltimore with the U.S. Coast Guard. After completing his military service in 1959, Dove returned to Baltimore to form Ronnie Dove and the Belltones. He left the group four years later for a solo career. Popular singles such as “Say You” and “Cry” followed— there were 23 chart-climbing hits in all— and Dove was named Billboard’s “Top Singles Artist” in 1965.
With the advent of disco, he moved to Nashville and went country, but it was oldies radio in the 1980s that breathed new life into Dove’s career. In 1985, he moved back to Baltimore and in 1991 began touring again. Triple-bypass surgery two years ago slowed him down slightly, but he still tours nationwide year-round. Local gigs include area Elk, Moose and VFW lodges, music festivals and a few benefit concerts. There are CD collections of Dove classics, a Christmas album that includes (naturally) a few Elvis classics, and a DVD retrospective (check out http://www.ronniedove.com). Dove stays busy recording new material for himself and producing works for friends, like Orioles broadcaster Rick Dempsey’s upcoming album. And once a year, Dove sails the Caribbean for the “Ronnie Dove Cruise,” a weeklong trip for fans, complete with a concert by the man himself.
“I live to sing,” Dove says. “People ask when I am going to retire, and I tell them I’ll quit on the way down that 6-foot hole.” —S.A.
Baltimore’s The Orioles— the R&B group, not the baseball team— are almost forgotten, but their songs have been covered by icons such as Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald and influenced hundreds of other musicians.
Originally calling themselves the Vibranaires, the group organized in 1947 after meeting at West Baltimore’s Avenue Café where future lead singer Sonny Til frequently performed. Soon members Alexander Sharp, George Nelson, Johnny Reed and Tommy Gaither joined Til in a vocal group that fused pop, gospel, R&B and doo-wop, accompanied by only a guitar.
After cutting their first song, “It’s Too Soon To Know,” in 1948, the band changed their name to The Orioles, in honor of Maryland’s state bird. Besides making a splash on the R&B charts, the song, known as a “race record” at the time for its assumed appeal to African-American audiences, was the first to cross over to the pop charts, climbing to No. 13.
The Orioles garnered tremendous success— girls tore off Til’s clothes and fainted at concerts— until 1950. That year, three Orioles were involved in a car crash in Essex that killed Gaither. Nelson soon quit the group and Til found replacements. The Orioles’ new lineup recorded and released “Crying in the Chapel,” which went gold and became a hit song for Presley 12 years later.
By 1954, the band started to fall apart; members dropped out or joined new groups. Til went through six incarnations of bands— one was called “Sonny Til and his New Orioles”— but none were as successful as the original group. After Til died in 1981 from a heart attack, the Orioles continued to perform. Reed, the last living original member, played with them until he died in 2005.
Although The Orioles are rarely played on oldies stations outside of Baltimore, they can take credit for influencing artists such as Otis Redding and James Brown, as well as the doo-wop genre. The group, including all members since 1946, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “Early Influencers” in 1995. —L.G.
When the members of Greenberry Woods first started playing together in College Park in 1988, recalls bassist Brandt Huseman, “We were terrible. We wrote our own music because we didn’t know our instruments well enough to play covers.” By 1994, however, the power pop quartet had recorded their first album, “Rapple Dapple” on Sire Records, made their first video for the single “Trampoline,” appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, shared the stage with the then little-known Dave Matthews Band and toured with the Scottish duo, The Proclaimers. “It was kind of a head-spinning time,” Huseman says.
Named after an apartment complex on Northern Parkway, Greenberry Woods consisted of Huseman and his twin brother, Matt (on vocals and guitar), Matt’s dorm mate at College Park, Ira Katz (also on vocals and guitar), and high school friend Miles Rosen on drums. After graduating from college, the band moved to Baltimore and played venues like Fletchers, Hammerjacks and Max’s On Broadway, before Max’s owner Ron Furman arranged a meeting with John Lay, who was managing Squeeze at the time. And the rest is brief history. Despite positive critical reviews, the band made only two albums before breaking up. “With three songwriters in the band,” explains Brandt Huseman, “we were very prolific, but there were also a lot of egos, which led to our early demise.” Creative differences with the record company also hastened the band’s end. The Huseman brothers left to further pursue their own band, Splitsville, and Katz formed a band called Wonderfool.
Today, Brandt Huseman plays around Baltimore in a band called The Pale Stars and is the vice president of operations for Agora Press. His brother, Matt, lives in Denver and is in sales for a fleet leasing company. Rosen works in mortgage banking and has just started a mortgage software company and Katz works in bond trading. When logistics allow, the Huseman brothers still play together as Splitsville, and released a greatest hits CD, “Let’s Go!,” in mid-July. —M.Z.
Before MTV, downloading tunes onto cell phones and listening to music through an iPod the size of Melba toast, kids were raised on the radio. And in 1982, The Ravyns— a quartet of local guys big on talent and stylized mullets— sang all about it. Their “Raised on the Radio” was the No. 2 single off the soundtrack for the 1982 Universal film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and a Top 40 hit.
Guitarist Rob Fahey and keyboardist Kyf Brewer had formed the band’s first incarnation in 1979 after meeting and discovering a shared love of British Invasion music and the dream of becoming rock stars. “We were looking for a band name that sounded like The Beatles, so we chose The Rayvns because of Loch Raven and [Edgar Allan] Poe,” Brewer says. The band started playing local gigs and released an album produced by the co-founders of another well-known regional band that flirted with the big-time: Crack The Sky. The Ravyns broke up the day the album was released.
Undaunted, Brewer and Fahey re-formed with bass player Lee Townsend, drummer Tim Steele and guitarist Dave Bell. In 1984, MCA Records released The Ravyns’ album, and though three MTV music videos and a national tour followed, Brewer says the label never really put any boost behind the band. “It was all self-generated. Radio really embraced us because our song was about radio.
It was our golden ticket and we worked it.” By 1986, Brewer was itching to move to New York and try his hand at a solo career. He’s adamant that The Ravyns never really broke up: “We just went away and stopped playing [as The Ravyns].”
Several members of the group have reunited over the past 20 years for packed local gigs and a few recordings. According to The Ravyns’ official Web site (http://www.theravyns.com), Townsend has forsaken rock ’n’ roll for a higher calling to be a monk. Brewer’s not sure if that is entirely correct, but notes that Townsend “has completely dropped out.”
The rest of The Ravyns, though, still rock. Throughout the 1990s, Brewer played in the blues-rock Company of Wolves before discovering the bagpipes and co-founding Barleyjuice, an Irish rock band based out of Philadelphia. In addition to releasing solo albums, Brewer discovered the voice-over world, and today, he may be heard as the voice of Dodge automobiles and on VH1 reruns of “Before They Were Rock Stars.” In 1992, Fahey released a solo album, and later created another band, The Pieces. When The Ravyns disbanded, Bell joined The Klassix, a popular area wedding, bar mitzvah and event band. Steele keeps the beat for the well-known and highly regarded Crawdaddies, an East Coast Cajun/zydeco/ blues/rock band, and recently released his first solo album.
Today, The Ravyns’ hit can occasionally be heard on the radio or in the film, which went on to become a cult classic and cable favorite. And for a band that sang about the wonders of radio, the entire Ravyns’ canon and the past and present musical projects of several former members are ready for download or purchase on— what else?— the Internet. —S.A.
Back in the mid-’90s, sisters and folk duo disappear fear spread their message of peace and love to packed clubs around Baltimore. Their self-titled first release won them the GLAAD Award for Best Album and Mix Magazine’s Top Release of the Year, and their follow-up album was produced by Bruce Springsteen’s piano player. Though sisters SONiA and CiNDY (also known as Sonia and Cindy Rutstein) still sing together, these days you’re more likely to see SONiA as a solo artist. After a decade of making music, CiNDY settled down for motherhood in 1998.
The sisters, who’d sung together their whole lives, teamed up in the late ’80s with SONiA writing songs and playing guitar and CiNDY harmonizing. SONiA was working for a rape crisis center at the time and she noticed, “When you disappear fear between people, what you have is love.” The band had a loyal following in Baltimore and toured the United States.
With CiNDY singing lullabies instead of anti-war songs, SONiA released “Almost Chocolate,” her first solo CD. Since then, she’s made a name for herself, winning a 2004 Grammy nomination for Contemporary Folk Album with “No Bomb is Smart,” and sharing the stage with Sarah McLachlan, Ani Difranco and Peter, Paul and Mary. In 2005, SONiA’s drummer Laura Cerulli and CiNDY joined in on vocals, and SONiA released “DF05” under the name SONiA & disappear fear.
SONiA will soon release her newest album, “t a n g o,” which features songs in Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and English. “A tango is a passionate dance between two people. It’s the only word that’s the same in all four languages,” says SONiA, who lives in Rodgers Forge. After her CD release show at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills on Sept. 29, SONiA will tour the United States and Australia.
As a solo act, SONiA is still committed to disappearing fear and spreading peace. “I want to break barriers in race, religion and other phobias,” she says. She donates a percentage of profits from her music downloads to end world hunger. “I want my music to be a big hug,” she says. —L.G.
Despite the grainy black-and-white YouTube video, the Royalettes still look fresh and elegant. The lamé tunics worn by Anita Ross, Veronica “Roni” Brown and Terry Flippen catch the light as the women sway and sing backup to Sheila Ross’ lead on the classic “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” That song, which was written and produced by Teddy Randazzo, who also produced Little Anthony and the Imperials, was the group’s third single for MGM and their biggest hit, just missing the Top 40. (It was also a Top 10 hit for singer Deniece Williams in 1982.)
The first big break for the Royalettes, who were made up of the Ross sisters, their cousin Brown and neighborhood friend Flippen, was winning a statewide talent contest on “The Buddy Deane Show” when the girls were still teenagers. A contract with Chancellor Records (and later MGM) followed, yielding a single “No Big Thing.” Appearances on “American Bandstand,” “Shindig!” and “Where the Action Is” followed. Throughout their recording life, the Royalettes continued to work at MGM with Randazzo, and later with Righteous Brother Bill Medley, and hit the charts again in 1965 with Sheila Ross’ favorite Royalette song, “I Want to Meet Him.” But by the late ’60s, the group disbanded when their contract was not renewed due to low record sales.
Sheila Ross Burnett continues to perform for organizations in the Baltimore area, and in 2006 she received Woman of the Year in Cultural Arts for the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., Alpha Chapter, for her outstanding contribution to the musical industry and community. Anita Ross Brooks lives in Atlanta and recently retired from CSX Transportation after 31 years. Roni Brown is a legal secretary for a law firm in Baltimore City, and puts her pipes to use in the Women’s Church Choir at St. Bernardine Catholic Church. Terry Flippen Gonzalez is married and “lives a life of leisure in California,” says Burnett jokingly.
In an e-mail, Burnett writes that “the Royalettes are all aging gracefully and are doing well.” In 2003, the group reunited for the first time in 30 years to perform in the All-Star Classic Reunion held at the 5th Regiment Armory. —M.Z.
Catching lightning in a bottle. That’s how Face Dancer drummer Bill Trainor describes the band’s explosion onto the Baltimore music scene in 1976.
“At the time nobody looked like us, sounded like us, or dared to do what we were doing,” he says of Face Dancer, who were founded in 1973. “Most of the bands in Baltimore were playing cover songs, so when a bunch of guys looking like rock stars, with their own songs, truckloads of equipment and fireworks invades your town, what are you gonna do?”
Though the band never really broke nationally, lead guitarist Jeff Adams— now in the insurance business in Florida— says with great pride, “we were the Van Halen of Baltimore.” Trainor, who is an IT executive, recalls drawing 10,000 people to the Timonium Fairgrounds before the band’s recording deal with Capitol Records. “This World” debuted in 1979 and spawned the band’s biggest hit, “Red Shoes,” followed by “About Face” (1980) and two other independent-label albums in 1990 and 2003.
Carey Kress, the band’s original drummer-turned-lead singer and currently an audio industry marketing representative, guesses that close to 15 musicians can claim membership in Face Dancer— just what you’d expect from a band that took its name from the shape shifters in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series.
Other Face Dancer stalwarts include bassist and songwriter F. Scott McGinn and guitarist David Utter, who performs as a solo act around Asheville, N.C., between day jobs as a sound engineer and a furniture restorer. Original member and keyboardist David Long— now president of the Jamestown, R.I., City Council— returned to Baltimore to play some reunion shows in the 1980s. (The band’s last reunion gig was in 2005.)
Lightning still sparks through a popular MySpace.com page with gushing fan entries. “It’s the Face Dancer Nation,” says bassist McGinn, who is writing his Face Dancer memoirs for tentative self-publication in late 2007. Make that the Face Dancer World. “We’re huge in China, Germany and Yugoslavia,” he says with a laugh. —S.A.