Concerts were different back then. Rarely did you spend your money to go see a specific band, unless it was, you know, the Beatles. More likely, you would attend a package show, or a revue, featuring multiple acts. Each would saunter out onto the stage, perform two or three of their biggest hits—usually backed by the same band—and then make way for the next performer. What a thrill to see so many of your favorites, one after the other!
Alan Freed, the pioneering rock ’n’ roll disc jockey, had popularized the format in the ’50s, and other DJs and hosts, notably American Bandstand honcho Dick Clark and New York radio jock Murray the K, had run with it, to great success. As many as a dozen top rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues artists might perform in succession, starting in the early morning, and then do it all over again, several times per day.
During Easter week in 1965, it was Soupy Sales’ turn to try out the emcee role. Sales was at the peak of his popularity as the wisecracking, pie-in-the-face-receiving host of the WNEW-TV show that bore his name. He had just released his own record, a perky little dance single on the ABC-Paramount label called “The Mouse.” What better way to promote it than to sing it in front of thousands of adoring fans for 10 straight days?
Soupy Sales was huge at the time. Kids never missed a show. But it’s not like most of them would dip into their limited allowance to go see him, no matter how much they loved him. Sure, there was the 15-year-old girl from Queens, who told the New York Times, “He’s a nut on TV. I want to see if he’s the same on stage.” But add a bit of rock ’n’ roll and you could be sure you’d fill the seats. And if the seats weren’t filled, the kids could stay and see the show again. And again. That’s how it worked in those days.
Not that that happened on opening day—at 8 a.m., the Times reported, 3,000 kids were already lined up to see the show.
Related: Soupy Sales dies, 2009
So, beginning April 16, 1965, the Soupy Sales Easter In Person Show took over the Paramount Theater at 43rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. It was a legendary venue—Sinatra had made the bobby-soxer girls swoon in the ’40s right in that same room, and the Beatles hit that stage in September 1964, playing a Cerebral Palsy benefit concert.
None of the dozen acts—that is, if you include the Hullabaloo Dancers and saxophone great King Curtis and his 16-piece band, who backed the singers—were major stars of that caliber, not even close. There was the Detergents, who’d recently had their 15 minutes of fame with “Leader of the Laundromat,” a satirical “answer song” poking fun at the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” Ron Dante, their lead voice, would do much better in 1969 fronting the make-believe Archies and taking “Sugar, Sugar” to #1. He would also record as the Cuff-Links, overdubbing his own voice and scoring another top 10 that same year with “Tracy.”
There was the Hullabaloos, a rather odd British quartet with dyed blond hair and an affection for Buddy Holly—their version of his “I’m Gonna Love You Too” would be their biggest hit. Everyone who walked in the door at the Paramount for one of the morning shows got a copy of their album for free. It didn’t help make them famous.
Dee Dee Warwick was the talented but less successful sister of Dionne. Then there was Shirley Ellis, whose hit “The Name Game” is still often sung today, sometimes with a bit of naughtiness (“Chuck-chuck-bo-buck-banana-fanna-fo-****”). And the Exciters were on the bill too—they’d already seen their peak when they climbed the chart to #4 in early 1963 with “Tell Him.” A year later they’d cut a song called “Do-Wah-Diddy” and take it to #78, but sadly for them the British Invasion arrived, and in late ’64 Manfred Mann, adding an extra “Diddy” to the title, went to #1 with the song, eradicating any association between the Exciters and that silly but catchy number. (I mean, really, if you saw someone walking down the street singing “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo,” wouldn’t you cross to the other side?)
The Vibrations had an interesting story. They had begun life as the Jayhawks (not to be confused with the present-day alt-country band) and cut a classic novelty doo-wop, “Stranded in the Jungle,” back in 1956 (the New York Dolls would later cover it). They changed their name to the Marathons and had another hit, “Peanut Butter,” in 1961. In ’64, now the Vibrations, they made it to #26 with their “My Girl Sloopy.” In the summer of ’65, the Indiana group the McCoys would change it to “Hang on Sloopy,” give it a harder rock edge and take it to #1. The Vibrations never came close to the top 40 again.
A couple of the performers—Roddy Joy and the Uniques—were minor players then and footnotes today. Not so the last two acts that rounded out the show. First, there was the Hollies. Every concert of this sort at this time needed at least one solid British act on the bill to be taken seriously, and although the Hullabaloos filled the quota, this other new group seemed more promising. Although they had yet to score a sizable hit in the United States, or even crack the top 100, they were from England and that was good enough. These Soupy Sales dates were to be their first in America. They would go on to much bigger things. So too would one of their members, a chap named Graham Nash.
(As a side note: Another British artist, songstress Sandie Shaw, whose hits included “[There’s] Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Girl Don’t Come,” is advertised in the program but not in the final ads. Presumably she was dropped from the final bill.)
Finally, there was Little Richard. By any measure this founding father of rock ’n’ roll was yesterday’s news by 1965. No matter that he was idolized by the Beatles or that he’d revolutionized the music with hits like “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti-Frutti” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Those were all in the ’50s, and as far as the fans of 1965 were concerned, that might as well have been the 1850s. Little Richard had even left rock ’n’ roll behind for a while to dedicate himself to the Lord! Why was he even here?
Well, because he was Little Richard! The boy couldn’t help it and had begun his comeback a few years earlier. He no longer made hit records but as the Soupy crowd soon found out, he still had it, and those songs still brought down the house when he delivered them.
Richard had help doing so, too. Behind him, just another member of his band, the Upsetters, was a guitarist who was quite the dazzler. He had big hair and fancy moves and flashy clothes. He called himself Maurice James and he would only last a few more months in the band, anyway—it turned out he was too much of a showman, and no one in Little Richard’s band was allowed to upstage the boss. In a couple of years we’d all find out that his real name was Jimi Hendrix. No one cared in April 1965.
A further word should be given to bandleader King Curtis, who’d had a top 20 instrumental hit in 1962 with “Soul Twist” and would ultimately place 25 singles on the Billboard chart (the last one a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” with Delaney and Bonnie plus Eric Clapton). A masterful musician, he would serve as a sideman for everyone from Nat King Cole to Bobby Darin to Aretha Franklin. Unfortunately, his career was all-too-brief career—Curtis Ousley was stabbed to death in 1971.
It really was quite the bargain, and a fine way to pass the holiday hours away, this package show, one of the last of its kind in New York. If you stuck around you’d get to see a movie—in this case Jack Lemmon’s The Wackiest Ship in the Army, which also starred Rick Nelson—and everyone received a free pass to Palisades Amusement Park!
All for a few bucks—less than you’ll pay today to buy a Coke at any concert you’ll attend.
Watch Soupy Sales perform “The Mouse” on Hullabaloo in 1965
And give a listen to Little Richard’s version of “Hound Dog,” with Hendrix on guitar
Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.