Born Too Late

In 1956, Cleveland, Ohio-based music publisher and agent Tom Illius took a big step forward in his career when he discovered three high school girls who called themselves The Toni Trio. Lead singer Toni Cistone and her friends Patti McCabe and Karen Topinka were singing together at Brush High School in Cleveland suburb Lyndhurst and had written a song together called "Que La Bozena," an odd phrase that doesn't really mean anything in Italian...or any other prominent language. Illius set them up with a small local label, Point Records. Insisting they change their name, the girls decided on The Poni-Tails as a female counterpart to established Mercury Records act The Crew-Cuts. They had to grow their hair longer so they would look the part and have pony tails to flaunt.

Illius became the group's manager and they recorded "Your Wild Heart," written by James Testa and Charles Sana, which was released on Point with "Bozena" (with writer credit to Topinka-Cistone-McCabe, the trio's only attempt at songwriting) on the flip; Al Tercek, a drummer who played for several polka bands in the area, led the orchestra on the session. "Your Wild Heart" did quite well at first, spending a few weeks on Cash Box magazine's national charts, but a cover version on Mercury by teenage Teresa Brewer soundalike Joy Layne stole their glory and ultimately was the bigger hit. "Can I Be Sure," a second Poni-Tails single, followed on the Marc label but didn't catch on. Illius succeeded in getting ABC-Paramount interested and the company offered the trio a three-year contract, but the deal was held up when Karen Topinka's overprotective parents nixed the deal and Karen was forced to quit.

Another teen from Brush High, Bevery Swerline, came on board and the contracts were finalized, but though Beverly had a nice voice that complemented the other two, she had a hard time duplicating the sound on stage and within a few months it became obvous she would have to be replaced. Tom arranged for Toni and Patti to hold auditions in the Cleveland area; LaVerne Novak was chosen and the lineup was permanently set. With seasoned studio pro Don Costa producing, the first ABC single was "It's Just My Luck to Be Fifteen," its essence nearer the girls' actual ages (though they were all a couple of years older than 15). One big mistake, at least my ears: it contained a Dixieland-style banjo and that just wasn't going to go over with late-'50s teenagers. The stars weren't aligned for success just yet, but soon that changed, quite by accident.

The Poni-Tails

"Come On Joey Dance With Me" came next, an uptempo track they all believed gave them their best shot at a hit, yet it still wasn't overly relatable to a target audience made up primarily of teenage girls. In all fairness to Costa and the others involved, young female groups of this type were a scarce commodity (R&B acts The Teen Queens, The Bobbettes and The Chantels and a white quartet from New York, The Shepherd Sisters, were among the few female teen groups at the time with notable track records). Major labels, in particular, were still in the process of zeroing in on a winning formula that would enable them to sell lots of records to this previously neglected younger audience. Disc jockeys in Cleveland had no interest in "Joey" but began playing the flip side, "Born Too Late," which had been hastily thrown together in the studio with little consideration of its potential. Ah, but this was the kind of thing the teenagers of America (and much of the rest of the world, as it turns out) were looking for. The song's arrangement wasn't polka-prone like some of the other Poni-Tails songs, instead it featured a prominent saxophone, and the trio's harmonies were spot-on. The lyrics hit the nail on the head: '...To you I'm just a kid that you won't date...why was I born too late?' verbalized the longings of so many teens, particularly girls, and it fit in well with the type of music making inroads at the time.

Spreading quickly from coast to coast, sparked by the trio's appearances on American Bandstand and other shows, the song reached the top ten in August '58, retreated for a couple of weeks, then bounced back in September. The hit provided a breakthrough in the business for its songwriters, Fred Tobias and Charles Strouse (Tobias later penned the Jimmy Jones hit "Good Timin'" with Clint Ballard, Jr., while Strouse has enjoyed a long career composing music for Broadway musicals, film and television). In December, the Poni-Tails hit the charts with "Seven Minutes in Heaven," which sounded similar to its predecessor. The next single, "Early to Bed," failed to chart in the U.S. but went top 30 in England (where "Born Too Late" had also hit the top ten). One more single, a remake of the popular standard "I'll Be Seeing You" (a number one hit for Bing Crosby and a top ten for Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra, both in 1944) squeaked onto the U.S. charts for a few weeks in the fall of '59 but ended up competing unsuccessfully with a version by Tommy Sands.

On tour in Germany, the girls were invited to spend some time with Elvis Presley (stationed in the Army at the time, he didn't have many chances to socialize with fellow westerners) and took every opportunity to hang out at his living quarters between their shows. After a few more releases they grew tired of the rigors of show business and the frustration of trying, without luck, to repeat the success of their one big hit. ABC-Paramount was interested in renewing the group's contract in 1960, but the girls, barely out of their teens, collectively turned down the offer, returning to life in the real world. Well, in Ohio, at any rate. Tom Illius took better advantage of his big break; after managing Frank Fontaine for a time, he was hired by the William Morris Agency in 1971 and went on to represent many major stars over a 40 year career. His hometown clients, The Poni-Tails, at first possessed a sound beyond their years. The trio's lone top ten smash connected because of its youthful sentiments and timely sound, intended or not. "Born Too Late," the initially underestimated flip side that soared so high, is an engaging representation of teenage emotion, 1950s style.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Born Too Late