From People weekly magazine, 20 Nov 1989
Joey Dee, Past Master of the
Twist. Plans a Refuge for Those Caught Between Rock and a Hard Place
by Patricia Freeman
In 1962 Joseph DiNicola, a 25-year-old
ex-choirboy from Passaic, N.J., seemed destined for a golden future. Millions
of fans knew him as Joey Dee, the baby-face singer whose Starliters helped
make the twist an international dance craze. The Beatles opened for him in
Sweden. When he needed a backup guitarist, he hired Jimi Hendrix. His
performances at New York City's Peppermint Lounge attracted such luminaries as
Judy Garland, Greta Garbo and John Wayne.
Then, just two years later, Dee's career took
another sort of twist. The British rock invasion pulled the plug on his
spotlight, and Joey Dee became Joey Who's That? Frugal and cautious, Dee
managed to build a new life selling gold and diamonds in Florida. Then, in the
early '80s, he found himself back onstage singing "Peppermint Twist"
for aging baby boomers eager to relive their glory days listening to Dee and
to fellow vintage rockers like Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry.
Yet even as Dee was enjoying his own modest
revival, he was troubled by tales of old pals who hadn't bounced back.
Florence Ballard of the Supremes had tried to sue Motown for back royalties,
but was living on welfare when she died at age 32 in 1976. Jackie Wilson,
Dee's onetime mentor, suffered an apparent heart attack that put him into a
coma in 1975 and later died penniless. Again and again, Dee heard stories
about rock pioneers who had plummeted from the top of the charts to obscurity,
poverty, alcoholism or an early grave. "I'm a rock-and-roll
survivor," says Dee, now 52. "But a lot of people didn't
Thus began Dee's dream of helping the countless
others in the back -- and the front -- of the bands. In 1987 he created the
Foundation for the Love of Rock 'n' Roll and set out to raise $20 million for
a retirement community, possibly on the west coast of Florida, and for a
health insurance plan for needy musicians. The community Dee envisions will
include a rock-and-roll museum, a performing arts center and individual living
units open to any rocker who ever made the Billboard charts. Dee's foundation
-- now 151 members strong with a board that includes Frankie Avalon, Fabian
and Wolfman Jack -- has raised only $100,000 to date. But he says he expects
big profits from an upcoming oldies album.
If, in fact, Dee's vision ever becomes a
reality, it would represent a measure of justice after decades of neglect for
some old rockers. "Rock and roll was a naive, mom-and-pop operation in
the early days," says Richard Nader, a promoter of rock revival shows.
"Records were often cut in 30 minutes, in somebody's basement, and the
artists knew nothing about royalties." Teenage stars unknowingly signed
away rights to their songs; record executives routinely sold the rights to
groups' names, so original members could no longer use them to perform or
record. Today, though pre-1970s music is a booming industry, original artists
see few of the profits. "We've been in and out of lawsuits," says
former Chords vocalist Jimmy Keyes, who claims he has received only minimal
royalties for the Chords' 1954 hit "Sh-Boom." "But we still
haven't been able to come up with much."
Dee, who is married with six kids and recently
moved from New York to Florida, performs in about 200 shows a year with his
new group -- also called the Starliters. For now, his life seems secure. But
another shift in musical trends could change that, and he, like the seven
onetime stars whose stories appear on the following pages, could find himself
in serious need. Someday, if Dee should succeed in his mission, neither he nor
any other old rocker will ever fall again without a safety net. "We've
been hit hard," says Bo Diddley, who is on the board of Dee's foundation
and recently released his first album in years. "If I ever get down and
out, it's guaranteed I'll be there at Joey's retirement home."
As he proudly displays his Lincoln Town Car,
Dee Clark, 51, still exudes a trace of the charisma that helped make his 1961
single "Raindrops" a No. 2 hit. But his shiny new toy can't hide the
beating he has taken from life. He parks the Lincoln outside the rundown Lone
Oak Motel in Toccoa, Ga., where he survives on the kindness of owner Irene
Roberts. She hasn't demanded the $38.14 weekly rent since 1987, when Clark had
a stroke and two heart attacks, complicated by diabetes. Though he had been
living well enough off $25,000 a year in royalties and fees from a few gigs,
Clark suddenly found himself destitute. Lacking health insurance, he fell
deeply in debt to the hospital and rehabilitation center that helped him
recover from partial paralysis.
Eventually two deejays held a benefit to help
pay Clark's bills, the hospital forgave the remaining debt, and the onetime
Vee Jay Records recording star saw his life improve, temporarily. He began
working out at a local gym, regained some of his mobility and joined in a
couple of benefit performances for Joey Dee's foundation. Convinced that he
was on the comeback trail, he bought his new car in February 1988, only to
find that his confidence was a bit premature. "Agencies are scared to
book me," he explains, "for fear that I'll pass away."
Lately, Clark has at least been managing to
keep out of hock. Bill Pinkney of the Drifters paid him $1,000 a week to tour
with the group for five weeks, and royalty payments for his old songs go
directly to the automobile credit agency. He hopes to make "the big
splash" one more time, but if it doesn't work out, he wouldn't mind a
piece of Joey Dee's dream. "A retirement home for old rockers," he
says, mulling it over. "If I had to go, I'd love it. I'd run into
friends. We could tell old stories, play checkers and show off."
"The industry is full of people who were
famous for 15 minutes, like me," says Tommy Sands, 51. "All this
happened to us at an early age, and then it was, `What do you do with the rest
of your life?' "
Not many started earlier than Sands. Only 14
years old when he first toured the South with an unknown young singer named
Elvis Presley, Sands became a star at 19 after appearing in an NBC movie, The
Singin' Idol, in which he played a rock and roller. After that, his concerts
sold out, and his next six albums produced 11 hit singles. He made 10 more
movies -- including Babes in Toyland and Ensign Pulver -- and received up to
30,000 fan letters a week. Then, in 1962, his career began to slip; three
years later, his five-year marriage to Nancy Sinatra ended. "I got
divorced, and nobody wanted me," he says. "My record sales dropped,
and my career was over."
Sands moved to Hawaii, where he anesthetized
himself with LSD, uppers, downers -- virtually any mind-blowing drug he could
buy. By the mid-'70s he finally went straight, got a degree in music and
cinema at the University of Hawaii and remarried. Though he sometimes played
free concerts, he couldn't find paid engagements. His frustration and
depression took their toll on the second marriage, which produced one
daughter, Jessica, now 11. Sands divorced again and recently, still hoping to
revive his career, moved to Florida.
Now settled in Kissimmee, 20 miles from
Orlando, Sands is living off investments, wants to publish his autobiography
and hopes to cut his first record in more than 25 years. Meanwhile, he picks
up a little change singing his old hits on Mondays -- "the worst night of
the week" -- at Little Darlin's, a local nostalgia club. "Nobody in
Hollywood even knows my name," says Sands, who has tinted his gray hair
black. "I want to work so bad I can't stand it. I want to work till I
Most mornings at 7, a nearly toothless man in
greasy, torn clothes leaves a Pomona, Calif., A-frame to search for empty
bottles in garbage cans. "I pick 'em up and sell 'em," says Thurston
Harris, 58, who no longer has the energy to hold down jobs as a mechanic and
construction worker. "Sometimes you make enough to get by," he says.
"Sometimes you don't. I manage. Just some days I don't eat."
Downing his third can of malt liquor in six
hours, Harris reminisces about a time when his life held more promise. A
childhood star on the Indianapolis gospel circuit, he later recorded a string
of rhythm-and-blues hits with the Five Royales and the Lamplighters. After
singing his 1957 solo hit, "Little Bitty Pretty One," on The Ed
Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, he toured with Buddy Holly, Fats Domino
and the Everly Brothers. Then his luck changed. "I didn't get nothin',"
he says bitterly about a deal with now-defunct Aladdin Records, which provided
no royalties. "Nothin', you hear? Still not. They caught me when I was
young and dumb and took advantage of me."
When his discouragement turned to depression,
Harris went homeless and for 20 years refused even the sporadic recording
offers he received. He drifted among friends and family until his sister
finally took him in. "I'm lucky, I guess," says Harris, who shares a
house with his sister's children and grandchildren. "I could be sleeping
in cars and eating air like I used to when I quit music." He is not
impressed by contemporary musical styles. "I can't stand the
hollering," he says. "I mean, if I'm gonna ask a woman do she love
me, I ain't gonna scream it at the top of my lungs! I'm gonna sing it
Harris's dream is to do just that. "I can
still sing, and I never stopped writing," he says. "All I need is a
small break." Then, in a voice seasoned by malt liquor and Lucky Strikes,
he launches into "Head of Lettuce," a wry new number he has composed
about how drink turns a man's head into that popular leafy vegetable. Smiling,
he says proudly, "I think it's gonna be a hit."
James "Pookie" Hudson knows about
hard work. For the past two years he has labored up to 16 hours a day packing
milk at a Springfield, Va., dairy. In years gone by he has built boxcars,
counted beads at Macy's, driven a bus, parked cars, cleaned clothes. All this
was after Hudson, 55, started off by writing 200 pop tunes, among them such
R&B classics as "Baby, It's You" and "Goodnight,
Sweetheart, Goodnight," sung with his doo-wop group, the Spaniels.
By Hudson's reckoning, the same people who
first found him in a Gary, Ind., housing project and made him an Apollo
Theater headliner share credit for his humble employment today. Black
record-store owner and deejay Vivian Carter was starting her own label, Vee
Jay Records, and was so impressed by Hudson and the singing group he formed
with four high school classmates that she gave them a contract before they
graduated. Named the Spaniels because a friend thought they sounded like dogs,
the group had a Top 5 R&B hit in 1954 with their third single,
"Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." Money proved harder to come by.
Hudson says Carter gave him one $800 check for writing "Goodnight."
After that, he says, the Spaniels were paid almost nothing, except when they
were touring and earned up to $150 apiece per week -- while paying their
traveling expenses themselves. "They treated us like sons," says
Hudson, "so we thought they were going to take care of us. But they
didn't. They always told us we owed them for the recording, and for cars and
things. They kept us in debt."
Too poor at 20 to pay $80 a week child support
when he and his teenage bride separated, Hudson tried to sell one of his songs
and says he was tricked into selling all his songwriting rights for $50. Other
royalties became unobtainable in 1967, when Vee Jay went bankrupt and sold the
master tapes of the old Spaniels' records. In 1978 Hudson finally was awarded
rights to the songs he wrote, which have so far brought in $60,000. But the
Spaniels still earn no performance fees when, for example, their version of
"Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight " was used in the 1987 movie Three
Men and a Baby.
Hudson admits he brought some of his financial
problems on himself. Married three times, with six legitimate children and two
out of wedlock, he spent years switching jobs and cities as he drank his cares
away. "We can't blame everything on everybody else," he says of
himself and fellow rockers. "A lot of these troubles we could have
avoided if we'd left the whiskey and the women alone."
Hudson now lives by himself in a two-bedroom
apartment in Bailey's Crossroads, Va. He quit hard liquor two years ago,
shortly before he started at the dairy, and hopes to stay in his $13-an-hour
job for eight more years so he can qualify for retirement benefits. As for the
possibility of growing old in Joey Dee's retirement community, he says,
"I've got nothing against it. But I'm doing my best not to need it."
Twenty-six years ago, Richard Fifield's
sky-blue eyes used to scan the Colorado horizon from a white Volvo P1800 with
a sporty red interior. In those days Fifield lived well. His band, the
Astronauts, was prospering, thanks to an instrumental called "Baja"
that was a top international hit. Hugely popular in Japan, the Astronauts
started a 1965 tour at the Tokyo airport amid a swarm of media and 8,000
Today Fifield, 48, looks back at the world in
the mirror of a battered brown 1977 Dodge van, his full-time home during
nonwinter months. (When the cold comes, he rents an apartment.) Doing odd jobs
around Boulder and hoping to make it big with his new band, the Clams, he is
philosophical about his past fame. "Hell, it's a crap shoot," he
says. "I fell into it."
In 1963, two years after Fifield became the
Astronauts' lead singer, RCA persuaded the band to play surfer music, he says,
because "we fit the part: blond and clean-cut." The Astronauts
released eight U.S. albums; then in 1968 two band members were drafted, and
the group fell apart. With little success, Fifield tried to form his own band,
then hung up his guitar for 10 years. He's been collecting small royalty
checks ever since. "RCA treats you square," he says. "I assumed
that when the contract was up, I was up. I didn't know you get paid for the
rest of your life."
Though Fifield's former bandmate Dennis Lindsey
has struggled for years with alcohol and drug addiction, other group members
have led productive post-Astronaut lives. Jim Gallagher runs a printing
business; until recently, Stormy Patterson installed kitchen tiles, and Bob
Demmon teaches high school history. As he tries for a musical comeback,
Fifield faces a rocky future. He has no retirement fund, savings or insurance.
But, he says, "the whole idea of retirement is something I don't think
about -- maybe I'll change my mind when I'm 65." As for Dee's project,
"I think it's a great thing -- I'm sure there would be some good jamming
-- a live band every weekend."
Sitting still as a statue in a blue polyester
three-piece suit, Ernie K-Doe shows the ravages of a 17-year affair with the
bottle. His half-closed, bloodshot eyes stare aimlessly; his slurred sentences
trail off, to be completed by his manager, Milton Batiste.
Three years ago, Batiste found K-Doe wandering
drunk in New Orleans and decided to help. It hasn't been easy. When Batiste
got him bookings in jazz and soul festivals, K-Doe sometimes stood up and
rambled incoherently. "I told him," says Batiste, " `you are
not Jesse Jackson. The people don't want to hear you preach. They want to hear
you sing.' "
That's what K-Doe, 53, did so well in the early
'60s with exuberant rhythm-and-blues hits like "Mother-in-Law" and
"T'ain't It the Truth." Though he had perfected his voice as a
teenager with the Flamingoes, he was hindered by his eighth-grade education.
He changed his last name from Kador to K-Doe -- because he liked the way it
looked -- and went solo in 1955. "There was a whole lot of people who did
me wrong and rubbed me wrong," he says. "Everybody else was ridin'
around in a Mercedes-Benz and a Rolls-Royce, and Ernie K-Doe was ridin' around
in nothin.' "
K-Doe never learned to do anything but sing.
Earning no royalties, he has scraped by for the last 15 years on just a few
hundred dollars a month in performance fees. Still, he hasn't given up hope.
Divorced many years ago and living with a female friend in downtown New
Orleans, he has cut back a bit on his drinking, with Batiste's help. Until
recently he had a weekly music show on a local public radio station.
"They loved me," he says. "Even the little children would call
me up. I had fans." As for his singing, he says, "I don't want to
sound like I'm braggin', but right now I'm at my peak. Just turn me loose and
let me go."
"You bet I was the typical rock
star," says Ronnie Lane, who in the '70s caroused with Rod Stewart, Ron
Wood and other fellow members of the British band the Faces. These days,
resting his guitar on the arm of his wheelchair, Lane, 43, looks anything but
typical. In 1985, after nine years of illness, he lost the use of his legs to
multiple sclerosis. He weighs 110 lbs. and looks pale and fragile. But no
disease could destroy his high spirits. "Right now," he says,
smiling, "I'm happy as a pig in s---."
Lane ascribes his good cheer to two things:
money and the love of a woman. He has always received regular royalties --
enough to sustain him if not make him rich -- and he was married last year to
his third wife, Susan Gallegos, an electrologist. She helps him maneuver
around their rented Austin, Texas, home and assists him with treatments that
include Oriental herbal teas and acupuncture.
Lane underplays his often-harrowing battle with
disease. After quitting the Faces in 1973, he formed another band, which
failed, then retired to a farm in Wales, where he began experiencing double
vision and extreme fatigue. Returning to his native London, he was diagnosed
with multiple sclerosis and took up a frantic search for a cure, trying even
snake-venom injections. Some friends backed away; others proved their mettle.
In 1984 Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck took part in a benefit concert
in Ronnie's honor for Action and Research for Multiple Sclerosis, a support
group for MS victims. Soon afterward Lane moved to Houston to serve on the
board of an American branch of ARMS. When the Houston office fell under
investigation for misuse of funds in 1986, a disillusioned Lane severed his
ties with the group and moved to Austin.
Lane's future may hold dark days when he will
need a refuge of the kind Joey Dee has in mind. For now, though, he is writing
poetry and songs, performing periodically at clubs and making it on his own.
"I've got my whole life to look forward to," he says. "Tell the
people I'm doing okay."