Original Members to Join Greaseband for Benefit Gig at The Princeton
The band's publicity photo circa 1976 distributed by their agent, Jimmy Lamare: (top, left to right) Doug Stackhouse, Steve Jackson (middle) Craig Parson, Harry Pasquito, Barry Rotash (bottom) Larry DiTullo, Chuck Broadbrent, Gary Francione.
Like most charitable fund raisers, the road to the May 19 benefit for the grassroots Friend In Need organization was paved with good, but not overly ambitious, intentions.
Greg “The Mayor” Meredith, a onetime bartender at The Princeton who rose through the ranks to become general manager of the property, was simply looking to capitalize on the successful event he organized in 2010. That was when he created a reunion of the crowd that once hung out in The Princeton’s fabled Rock Room and helped talk the popular 1970s bar band Egdon Heath – a Rock Room summer fixture – into its first real reunion in 30 years.“Ever since we did that, people have been asking me, ‘When’s the next one, when’s the next one?’ ”Meredith says. “I was going to do it last year, but it never worked out.”
Determined to do something this year to raise funds for his favorite charity, which provides medical assistance for local families in need, Meredith figured he didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Since the Rock Room/Egdon Heath reunion proved so popular, he thought it was time for another trip down the Seven Mile Beach’s musical Memory Lane.
Only this time, the benefit would reunite the folks who came of age in the fabled but long-gone Bongo Room at the equally long-gone Avalon Hotel. And there was never a doubt what band would headline the show.
Except that it really wouldn’t require a reunion. The act that was synonymous with the Bongo Room, the Fabulous Greaseband, is still together and celebrating its 40th year as one of the most popular Jersey Shore cover bands of all time. The band quickly agreed to play the gig in the Rock Room at The Princeton, just around the corner from the ramshackle bar where it first performed in 1975.
But Phil Matalucci Jr., whose family once owned the Avalon Hotel and who was one of the managers of the Bongo Room, decided to complicate things. Matalucci loved Meredith’s reunion plan, and he agreed there’d be no better act to play the party than the Greaseband, which played the room every summer Sunday night through 1986.
However, Matalucci realized that to make the evening more special, they needed to come up with an even bigger hook.
While the Greaseband is still performing with five of its original eight members, Matalucci wanted to organize a reunion of the eight guys who formed the group when they graduated from Steinert High School n Mercer County in 1973.
Meredith already had contacted Greaseband leader and founding member Harry Pasquito to book the band for the May 19 gig. Matalucci took it from there.
“Phil called Harry, and the next thing we knew, the original members of the Greaseband agreed to do the show,” Meredith says.
The Fabulous Greaseband will play several sets at the Friend In Need fund raiser. But one of those sets will be very special for the band and for the fans who have followed it for years.
That’s because one set will feature all eight original Greaseband members on stage for the first time in 29 years.
Pasquito remembers the day – March 5, 1973 – like it was yesterday. The chorale director of his high school asked Pasquito, a keyboardist and singer, to pull together a group to perform some hits from the 1950s during the annual high school festival. Pasquito posted a note on the wall of the school’s music room, rounded up a bunch of guys and they quickly learned some golden oldies like “Get a Job” and “Yakety Yak.”
“That was the first time we performed together,” Pasquito says. He had no way of knowing that from that most innocent and humble of beginnings, a career and a legend was beginning to germinate.
After graduation, the group – already known as the Greaseband – took on several identities. There was one unit consisting of guys who were 18 and could legally perform in bars. And there was a second unit that featured a few musicians as young as 15, which was too young to legally work where booze was sold.
As the band gained its chops, Pasquito saw the potential for the Greaseband to move beyond the local-bar and volunteer fire-hall scene. He and the seven musicians and singers who would eventually become the Fabulous Greaseband borrowed a page out of a Broadway playbook.
They took their act out of town – to the Midwest, actually – where they spent several months learning more songs, polishing their material, developing solid musical chops and gaining more experience playing bars where nobody knew them.
It was no different than a play being performed everywhere but New York until the producers felt it was ready to take to Broadway.
When the Fabulous Greaseband returned to New Jersey in early 1975, it had mastered a bunch of songs from the ’50s and early ’60s – those were the oldies back then – and even had a “greaser” wardrobe featuring gold jackets to wear on stage. The band got itself booked into the Sunset View Inn in Browns Mills, where – in its first time out – it sold out the joint.
Then the Greaseband found out that country acts like Hank Snow and Tammy Wynette, who had preceded it into the room, didn’t do the business the Greaseband did.
That led to a regular gig at the Windsor Manor nightclub in Hightstown, where the Greaseband played five sets on Fridays and earned $125, and six sets on Saturdays, which paid $150. By the time they paid their expenses, each member of the band would pocket around 30 bucks for two long nights of work.
“But we were young,” Pasquito says with a laugh. “We didn’t care. It was a labor of love for us, and we saw the effect our music had on people. We were doing doo-wop songs from the ’50s and ’60s, and people loved it.”
Right around the time the Fabulous Greaseband was catching on with the central New Jersey crowd, Phil Judyski, who was part of the family that owned the Avalon Hotel, was looking for a band to book into a new club it had created on the second floor of the building and named the Bongo Room.
The owners already had entertainment in a ground-floor bar aptly named the Catacomb, and the second-floor space that would become the Bongo Room was still a dining room that wasn’t doing much business.
So they closed the restaurant, painted the walls black, brought it some fake palm trees and created a faux tropical feel to the old room. They brought the guitar player from the Catacomb upstairs to appeal to the older crowd, and put go-go girls downstairs for the younger guests.
"The one thing we wanted to make sure of was that we weren’t competing against ourselves,” Judyski says during a recent conversation from his winter home near Palm Beach, Fla.
Judyski called Jimmy Lamare, an agent in central New Jersey with whom he had been dealing for several years, and told him he was looking to book “an oldies band.” Lamare recommended a bunch of kids in their early 20s known as the Fabulous Greaseband who covered the hits of the 1950s and ’60s.
“To me, it didn’t seem right,” Judyski remembers. “Young kids playing oldies? It didn’t add up.”
But Judyski trusted Lamare, and so – sight unseen and unheard – he booked the band to play a Sunday night in the Bongo Room.
Judyski was stunned by the band’s performance and the crowd’s reaction.
“Some of the songs they played were better than the original artists who recorded them,” he says.
Judyski quickly signed the band for Sunday gigs all summer, and occasionally had it play Saturday nights on busy or holiday weekends.
“We did better with the Greaseband than we did when we had groups like the Shirelles or the Drifters or Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge,” he says. “On Sunday nights, we had a line that went down the stairs and around the block. The bouncers had to keep count: If five people left, they’d let five people in. That’s how crowded it was.”
Owing to the band’s popularity, the owners of the Bongo Room expanded the club several times and created two stages: one for the Greaseband and a smaller one for the house band that would play while the Greaseband was on a break so there would be no interruptions in the music.
“They actually built the stage to our specs,” Pasquito says. “No one had ever done that.”
By the time the last expansion was completed, the Bongo Room was fire-rated for around 800 people, making it the largest nightclub in Cape May County. But Judyski acknowledges there were times when there were probably close to 1,000 people in the room when the Greaseband was performing.
“One night, I remember finishing up [bartending at The Princeton] and I went with a friend to the Bongo Room, and she fell asleep standing up because it was so packed in there,” Meredith recalls with a laugh. “That place was so crowded you couldn’t breathe. But we were young. We didn’t care.”
The owners of the Bongo Room weren’t the only ones who made a nice financial score from the success of the Greaseband. Bartenders on the Seven Mile Beach all wanted to work there, especiallyon Sunday nights.
By the time the room had reached its full size, as many as 15 bartenders would be pouring drinks from the time the club opened at 9 p.m. to last call at 1:40 a.m., as the Greaseband was playing the Isley Brothers hit “Shout” and wrapping up its fourth and final set of the night.
One bartender said he often made $400 in tips on Sunday night alone in the late 1970s.
“Our bartenders did very well,” Judyski says, citing a combination of factors: the popularity of the Greaseband; the fact that a lot of bartenders, waiters and waitresses went there on their night off and knew how to tip; and the fact that the room also attracted young people with money from Philadelphia’s Main Line and the suburbs.
Of all the bands that rotated in and out of the Bongo Room, the Greaseband held a special place with Judyski and the Matalucci family.
It was the only band that was actually allowed to stay in the Avalon Hotel for the summer. Pasquito said he and his bandmates were even permitted to bring in furniture and air conditioners to make the old rooms more comfortable, even though they only stayed there one or two nights a week.
The rest of the time, the band was gigging everywhere from Asbury Park to Long Island to Dewey Beach, Del., where it has been playing the Bottle & Cork club every summer since 1983.
Pasquito accumulated many happy memories in 11 years of playing the Bongo Room, but two stand out.
“One night, some idiot hit a transformer [in his car] and knocked out the power,” he recalls. “So we cleared a spot on the floor and sang a cappella for two-and-a-half hours, because we wanted to get paid. We just kept singing until the [battery-operated] emergency lights got too dim to see. I guess you could say it was the first ‘unplugged’ show.”
Another funny time came when, during the height of the “Animal House” movie craze, members of the band began stage diving into the crowd, essentially creating a mosh pit long before the term was even created.
“And that wasn’t easy with [bass singer] Doug Stackhouse, because he was a big guy, probably around 240 pounds,” Pasquito says. “But he’d dive off the stage and people would catch him and put him right back on the stage.”
Pasquito thought the Bongo Room gig would last forever. His handshake agreement with the club was that as long as there was a Bongo Room, the Fabulous Greaseband would play there Sunday nights every summer.
But Pasquito remembers that fateful day in 1987 when he was watching “Action News” on Channel 6 in Philadelphia and saw a big wrecking ball laying waste to the Avalon Hotel and the much-loved Bongo Room.
It took a few minutes for the television images to sink in before Pasquito got on the phone and started calling the members of the band.
Their summer Sunday nights had just opened up, and a big and important chapter in the lives of the Greaseband had closed.
“The Bongo Room was very important for us,” he says. “Because of what we did there, we were finally able to [get bookings] in Philadelphia, which we couldn’t get before that. We began to play all the colleges and prep schools. We still do.”
In 1983, three of the original members of the Fabulous Greaseband – Stackhouse, singer Larry Ditullo and bass player John “Q” Quattrocchi – left the band to pursue other interests. But with five original members still committed to the Greaseband, they added new members and continued on.
“When we first formed the band, I thought I would do it for a little while, then go to college, because I figured college would always be there, and who knew how long [the band] would last?” Pasquito says. “I had no idea we’d still be doing it 40 years later.”
When Matalucci called and asked if he could pull together the original members for a one-off gig as a fund raiser, Pasquito reached out to his former partners, and each agreed to do the set.
“I haven’t talked to them yet about what [material] we’ll do,” he says. “But whatever we do, I’m sure it’ll all come back pretty easily.”
All told, the Greaseband has a repertoire of about 400 songs that stretch back to the days when the records spun a little faster and the world spun a little slower.
Many of the songs were added after the three left the band in the early 1980s, so it’s likely the set list will consist of songs it performed up until 1983. But anything’s possible, Pasquito says.
“I know [Stackhouse] still sings, so he’s still got his chops,” Pasquito says. “I’m imagining it’ll be a warm and fuzzy feeling up there. They all left the band for different reasons. I even left the band for a time but came back. We’re now entering our 40th year, and frankly, I’m amazed it’s lasted this long.”
The original members will rehearse, he says, and they’ll work from the original music charts they used years ago. But Pasquito is confident that when the band does get together to run down the songs, the years will melt away and the original sound will still be there.
“We worked six and seven nights a week for 15 years,” he says. “Sometimes we’d do 15 shows in 14 days. So we’ve done those songs quite a few times.”
When he told Quattrocchi about the reunion, the bass player told him he felt like he’d hit the lottery.
“He told me that he always dreamed that one day, he’d hit the lottery and that if he did, the first thing he’d do is a Bongo Room-Greaseband reunion,” Pasquito says.
Looks like “Q” finally hit the lottery, along with the 400 friends and fans of the Bongo Room who will pack the old Rock Room at the Princeton on May 19 for the reunion.
“I’m not selling any more than 400 tickets,” Meredith says with a laugh. “We’re all a little older now. We like our space.”