THE BUCKINGHAMS

Chicago, Illinois, for decades the stomping ground of jazz acts, blues wailers and later the smooth, soulful ladies and gents of the '60s, was finally rocking with a vengeance as local bands offered an alternative to the many British groups overshadowing them on their home turf. The New Colony Six, Shadows of Knight, Ides of March, Cryan' Shames and American Breed were among the mostly-teenage guitar-based rockers that emerged around 1965. One such group gained a bit of an edge over the others after landing a regular spot on The All Time Hits, a variety series on Chicago's channel 9, WGN-TV. Hosted by former big band singer Bob Carroll, the show also featured '50s hitmaker Billy Williams and was similar in approach to Your Hit Parade except that it focused primarily on older classics, occasionally throwing in current hits. As soon as The Buckinghams began appearing on the show, the group's members couldn't walk Windy City streets without being recognized.

They came together from two separate bands; guitarist Carl Giammarese and bassist Nick Fortuna of The Centuries teamed with drummer "Jon Jon" Poulos and singer Dennis Tufano of The Pulsations. As the Centuries they performed at local dances and landed a regular gig at the Holiday Ballroom in Jefferson Park. Pulsations organist Dennis Miccoli joined and vocalist George Lagroe became a sixth member around the time they were hired for the WGN show. The producers suggested a name change to something more timely (i.e. British-sounding), so they came up with the Buckinghams, despite the existence of two earlier groups (with records on the Seg-Way and Laurie labels) that had used it. Local media played up a different angle, citing Chicago's famous Buckingham Fountain as the source of the otherwise royal-sounding moniker.

The television exposure led to a debut single that echoed the group's rhythm and blues preference; the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman tune "Sweets For My Sweet" (a hit for The Drifters in 1961) was released near the end of 1965 on the Spectra-Sound label. Lagroe's departure soon afterwards was perhaps premature; band manager Carl Bonafede got them in the door at U.S.A. Records, a company that had been around for several years. Early recordings were made at South Michigan Avenue's Chess studio, where they utilized a horn section in an attempt to establish a signature sound. Standing pat with the R&B obsession, their first U.S.A. disc was a remake of James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy" (JB had just hit the charts with an updated version of his 1960 hit), which made some noise in Chicago and a few other upper midwest cities, appearing briefly on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" charts in the spring of '66.

Two follow-up singles (The Beatles' "I Call Your Name" and "I've Been Wrong," originally by The Hollies) received a fair amount of regional airplay. The breakthrough national hit came from the pen of Jimmy Holvay, a guitarist from Brookfield who'd been in The Chicagoans and enjoyed a local hit in '64, "Beatle Time," an instrumental ditty that was curiously credited to The Livers (The Chicagoans). By '67 he was in The Mob, an R&B combo that scored a couple of minor early-'70s hits, but his real breakthrough came from a less obvious place. "Kind of a Drag," a song he'd written using a '60s slang term as the title, was offered to Bonafede, who had the Buckinghams record it. The single appeared on the national charts in December '66 and reached number one in February (knocking off The Monkees' long-running "I'm a Believer"). The U.S.A. label's biggest-selling record by far, it kicked off an extraordinary year for the former Pulsations and suddenly-hot songwriter Holvay.

Miccoli was replaced on keyboards by Marty Grebb, who'd previously played with The Exceptions, an area band that counted Peter Cetera among its ranks. Chicago native James William Guercio, a producer for Columbia Records in Los Angeles, helped obtain a contract for the the Buckinghams with the major label, negotiating a satisfactory split from U.S.A., though the smaller label continued to release singles including "Laudy Miss Claudy" (a respelled remake of Lloyd Price's career-making 1952 smash). The first Columbia single, "Don't You Care," penned by Holvay with fellow Mob musician Gary Biesbier, benefited from a slicker, more elaborate brass arrangement and hit the charts in March, successfully battling "Laudy," leapfrogging it early and cruising straight into the top ten in May.

The final U.S.A. 45, an intriguing, rocking guitar take on the George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward classic "Summertime," was largely ignored. Columbia answered with a B'hams cover of jazz saxophonist "Cannonball" Adderley's early-'67 smash "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," written by Adderley's keyboard player Josef Zawinul, who ended up making a lot of money from the instrumental tune. Lyrics were added by Larry Williams and Johnny Watson, who charted a version on Okeh in February; Chess songstress Marlena Shaw followed with a sexier set of lyrics supplied by Vincent Levy and his stepmother Gail Fisher (a songwriter and actress who later won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for her role as Peggy Fair on the long-running CBS detective series Mannix). The Buckinghams ad-libbed some slight adjustments to Williams and Watson's male-point-of-view version, landing their third top ten hit that summer.

The Buckinghams

"Hey baby, we're playing your song!" was one of the many catchphrases WLS deejay Art Roberts used on his show, causing a light bulb to go off over the heads of Mob members Holvay and Biesbier. "Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song)" ('...the one they used to play when we used to get along!') kept the Buckinghams' hit streak rolling in the fall of '67. But the situation started going haywire as the corporate shot-callers exercised more control. Newly-signed group Gary Puckett and the Union Gap arrived sporting Union Army Civil War uniforms (Paul Revere and the Raiders, another label act, had been wearing Revolutionary War gear for some time) and suddenly the Buckinghams were outfitted for Confederate uniforms (despite their being from the former Union state of Illinois), seen on the cover of Portraits, their third LP, and the sleeve for their next single.

Guercio took it upon himself to insert a sound effect bridge into that latest track, "Susan," inspired, no doubt, by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper closer "A Day in the Life" (he also gave himself writer credit alongside Holvay and Biesbier). Though a promo single was sent to radio with the psychedelic segment edited out, the band was none too pleased and their relationship with Guercio deteriorated rapidly. "Susan" was a hit, falling just shy of the top ten, after which the label placed them with workhorse producer (and proven hitmaker) Jimmy Wisner. The result, "Back in Love Again," held steady with the horn-based arrangements the band was known for, but the single stalled mid-chart. Guercio moved on to a new project, employing the rocking brass concept to great success with two other Chi-Town groups, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago Transit Authority, the latter (with former Exceptions singer Cetera) enjoying more than two decades of chart-topping success after abbreviating its name to the ultra-specific Chicago.

The Buckinghams, meanwhile, were falling apart. The group's image took a hit (pun intended!) when the guys were busted in Iowa for marijuana possession. There were no further albums, but they had a couple of hit singles in southern and midwest cities: "Where Did You Come From" (featured in The Guru starring a young Michael York, who also sings in the 1968 film) and, in early '69, "It's a Beautiful Day (For Lovin')." "I Got a Feelin'" was their final Columbia release in 1970. The band broke up soon afterwards, but the five remained friends and occasionally worked together. Marty Grebb founded The Fabulous Rhinestones and hit the charts in 1972 with "What a Wonderful Thing We Have." Dennis and Carl were signed by A&M Records, recording and performing for the next few years as the obviously-named Tufano and Giammarese; "Music Everywhere" was a minor hit in 1973. Jon Poulos, who managed the duo, struggled with drugs and died in 1980 at age 32. Nick Fortuna supported himself as a session bassist and hair stylist.

Demand in the Great Lakes region made a reunion seem logical, and it worked out very well for Dennis, Carl and Nick, who performed together as the Buckinghams for several years starting in 1980. In '82, Tufano and Mindy Sterling sang "Without Us," the original theme for the sitcom Family Ties (though shortly afterwards it was redone by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, whose version become more recognizable, heard weekly for the remainder of the series' seven-year run). The group finally recorded a new album, A Matter of Time, for Red Label Records in 1985. At some point Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna were the only remaining original members, so they put a touring band together and The Buckinghams hit the oldies circuit. Carl even does a decent imitation of original lead singer Dennis Tufano.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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Kind of a Drag Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song) Susan