TJ with JDB in concert at West Chester University circa 1975-1976.
Sure...the motorcycle jacket LOOKED very cool, but it was hot, and
not in a good way. So it would come off after the third or fourth tune.
www.TonyJulianoMusic.com Photo: Frank Jacobs
Once upon a time, these college kids bored with college, started a band. First, they just played old style rock 'n roll: Little Richard, Jerry Lee lewis, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry ~ the good stuff, mostly 3 chords, nothing too complex. They had no idea what a major project it would become, or how ~ over the next decade and beyond ~ the band would change their lives.
This is Tony Juliano, and this is THE JOHNNY'S DANCE BAND STORY ... from my point of view, and in my own words. From 1969 through the better part of 1977, I was a card-carrying member of this "life force". If you know me, you've heard me say this, but for the record: "Johnny's Dance Band was the single greatest artistic achievement of my life". Nothing else I've ever been a part of was as memorable, as important to folks, had such mass appeal, or made such lasting impact on vast numbers of people.
From 1969 to 1971, the basic 4-man band laid the groundwork. It was three Philadelphia College of Art students: Johnny Jackson ~ bass, vocals, guitar; Chris Darway ~ keyboards, vocals; Paul Messing ~ drums ... and from Temple University, Tony Juliano ~ vocals, guitar, harmonica, bass. Chris had drafted me to be the dynamic frontman (replacing a previous John). We did the usual college band gigs, including some great ones with: "Whole Oats" (later, Hall & Oates); Woody's Truck Stop (with Todd Rundgren); and The Youngbloods (with Jesse Colin Young). Johnny's Dance Band was a favorite at Germantown's legendary underground club, Hecate's Circle (owned by Danny Starobin, of Sweet Stavin' Chain ~ We were from a similarly strange corner of the universe).
This period spawned the first great original tunes, from whence evolved the band's irreverent satirical identity. Classic examples were: 'Mary & Joseph' (written by Tony Juliano); and 'Dog Song' (written by Chris Darway). Chris' high school pal, Courtney Colletti hung out at rehearsals . His great band, BEANS, signed to United Artists . But, Courtney wanted to be in our band.
JDB's Nannette Mancini was not just a
terrific singer. She was an actress.
She portrayed every song.
In any given show, the band's vaudevillian
approach gave her many surreal and unique
characters to become, if only for a moment. Whether sexy or silly, Nan's strong stage
presence appealed equally to both male and female fans.
Photo: Windsor Rowe
In 1971, we graduated and needed to get real, so Johnny's Dance Band stopped performing ... sort of. I taught school, but I didn't really want to get real. I was on a songwriting roll, and thought the project should continue. Paul and I, as JDB, produced a single at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, on the Jamie record label: I'm Walkin' (a "pick hit" in the trades) and Porcelain Convenience (Ode To A Commode - banned in many markets). Included in the Porcelain session were Johnny and superb folk guitarist, Benji Aronoff.
In 1972, Regent Sound engineer, Joel Fein offered to record 10 of my tunes ~ for free ~ after hours. Friends, this was a gift from the rock 'n roll gods. Remember, this was long before do-it-yourself-digital. The 16-track master tape was 2 inches wide. Editing was done with a razor blade. These were "The Regent Sessions". The original JDB performed; plus, I brought in: Winnie Winston, Bob Tanner, Benji Aronoff, and two female vocalists, including Nannette Mancini. I "discovered" her when we were both hired to sing on the same commercial. Nan had never been in a band before.
The '72 sessions were a gas ~ fun, eclectic, great sound, playing and singing, with an off-the-wall choice of material. Copies were circulated. WMMR 93.3 FM was becoming a national model of "progressive" radio format. They'd play anything. They played us. Clubs wanted to book us. There was no band. So I set about convincing everyone to do this crazy thing that made no sense. In 1973, I succeeded in reviving the group. Johnny's Dance Band hit the road again.
JDB lead guitarist, Bobby Lenti live onstage somewhere circa 1976-1977.
This Gibson Firebird was his favorite guitar for a while. He was known for
spectacular playing, strong emotional singing, and his " wrestler's body ".
www.BobbyLenti.com Photo: Malcolm Berman
The show with rock beatnik, Patti Smith, was one of four hugely successful appearances by Johnny's Dance Band at The Tower Theater, in Upper Darby, PA (where Tony grew up). At set-up, the quasi-diva-prima-donna star ordered everyone (including JDB & crew) to leave the building ... so she wouldn't be distracted while perfecting her "sound". Of course, we all graciously complied. Photo: Frank Jacobs 1976
Nothin' serious. Not exactly what you'd call "commercial potential". I described it as "rock 'n roll vaudeville". There were now 6 of us: Johnny, Chris, Nannette, Courtney (guitar, bass, banjo, flute), Jack Decker on drums (another of Chris' high school buddies) ... and me. My concept was a constant round-robin of singers, songwriters and genres, with the same over-riding irreverent satire as always. For all the talent in the re-born band, we were every music industry executive's nightmare. But then, we were not in it for the big-time. We were an art band. We were in it for the art.
Things took us off-guard in 1973. WE enjoyed our little wacky sideshow, but would anybody else ? A new club had opened in New Hope, PA called John's Place (later John & Peter's). An artsy town, a hippie club ... perfect. So, I next approached owners John Larsen and Peter Price. They liked our tape, and booked us, but we had to play for the door. We were unknown. We needed a gig. We charged 50 cents. Johnny's Dance Band made a total of $3.50...for the group.
The few who saw those first gigs spread the word about this bizarre new band. Within weeks, we were turning people away from the 125-seat club. Owner, John Larsen figured they had lucked into a gold mine, and booked us for 3-day weekends ... 4 weeks in a row ! Johnny's Dance Band was a hit ~ and we helped put the club on the map ! People lined up around the block to see us ! The people who were most surprised ? Us.
The JDB most people remember ( phase 6 ), typically crazy in a back room of Grendel's Lair, 5th and South
Streets, Philadelphia. In 1975-1976, they played "the Lair" every Wednesday night for 18 months, always to
sold out houses. Due to the unmatched success of that run, Grendel's became the hottest club in Philly, at
that time. Dave Mohn, Courtney Colletti, Nannette Mancini, Johnny Jackson (in back tall and bearded),
Tony Juliano, Bobby Lenti, Chris Darway ( holding the box fan for a "special effect" ). Photo: Phil Ceccola
Johnny's Dance Band's namesake.
Singer, songwriter, guitar and bass player,
actor with classic good looks.
His voice was the sweetest of all the JDB guys.
On Fender Telecaster bass,
at one of those 80-or-so Grendel's Lair gigs,
Photo: Mark Jenkins
Alex Matter walked into John's Place in New Hope one night, for reasons he couldn't explain. He later told us he was drawn there, by forces beyond his control. Johnny's Dance Band was on stage. He'd never heard of us, but after a few songs, Alex knew why he was there. A Cannes Film Festival Award winning director, he found our band to be magical. He soon became our manager and friend. Over the next few years, there was nothing he wouldn't do for us. I'll never forget how he sold his beloved motorcycle to pay the rent on our band house. Even more important than his subsidizing us, for which he never took a penny, was his unwavering belief in our "concept". We will forever be indebted to this great and wonderful man.
Variety actually reviewed Johnny's Dance Band at John & Peter's.
Alex set up live studio auditions with major record labels. None of them had a clue what to do with us. They couldn't figure out how to market this act, where from one song to the next, the style changed from rock 'n roll-to-jugband-to-funk-to-folk-to-chacha-to-lovesong-to-country-to-waltz-to-blues-to-broadway... and always with this satirical attitude. After all, in the decade of disco, how could their corporate minds, wrap around songs like: Lonely Guru, Love Mugger, (Now She Sleeps In The) Cold Cold Ground, (You're Just A) Pick Up, The Worm song ... and the many other classics. And of course, JDB's lead singers just kept changing with the songs ... and the songs ... were about sex and religion and death and other taboo subjects.
We were so far from mainstream ...
and what the record execs couldn't handle ...
was exactly what our fans loved !
Being born at the former Philadelphia
College Of Art, Johnny's Dance Band was
blessed with artists. In-house print and radio
promos were, to say the least, unique.
In 1971, Tony wrote an incredible Neil Young
parody called, "Henry Avenue Bridge".
It had satirical, historical relevance for
Germantown's Wissahickon Valley.
Chris Darway thought the saga should be
immortalized as a U.S Postage stamp.
So, he designed one.
Founding member, Chris Darway was one of the most talented songwriters anywhere in the music business. The inventive writing team of Tony and Chris set the tone for JDB's musical satire and rock 'n roll vaudeville. His funny introductions, and spoken stories within his pieces, were as entertaining as the tunes themselves. Here he is, crooning and playing his funky old Wurlitzer electric piano, at their beloved homebase club, John & Peter's, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1975.
We held auditions in New York City for a killer lead guitarist, in 1974. Dozens responded, but one guy from Brooklyn pulled out a slide and beat the competition. His name was Bobby Lenti. He also brought great vocals, songwriting and stage presence to the band. So now we were seven. Not long after, we held drummer auditions in New Hope. Local guy, Dave Mohn blew 'em all away. This completed the line-up most people remember ~ the team we took to Philly: Dave, Bobby, Courtney, Nannette, Chris, Johnny, and Tony.
Philadelphia then became our primary focus. JDB locked into Grendel's Lair at 5th and South Streets, and played every Wednesday ... for 18 months. Other notable shows were: Philadelphia Folk Festival; Valley Forge Music Fair; The Main Point; four concerts at The Tower Theater; The Spectrum (the only unrecorded act to ever play the 19,000-seat venue); and the first concert ever held at Penn's Landing waterfront on the Delaware (then undeveloped). WMMR 93.3 FM had us play there on flatbed trucks. Their Listener Poll had just voted Johnny's Dance Band the "Best Local Band". For that show - in the dirt - 20,000 people showed up.
For 5 years, from 1975 until 1979, JDB was the biggest local draw in the Philadelphia tri-state area !
One of the first known
JDB promo illustrations, created
by Philadelphia College of Art graduate, Chris Darway.
Note how he captures the
essence of each personality.
However, spelling wasn't his strong suit
( Johny's ).
Chris is a blind four-eyes and thin.
Tony screams & strangles the guitar.
Johnny is a longhaired spacey hippie.
Original JDB drummer, Paul Messing
is pictured under a storm cloud.
Paul was great drummer,
approaching the music
in a most theatrical way.
Paul was the first of three drummers,
followed by Jack Decker,
and finally Dave Mohn.
Portrayed: Chris, Tony, Johnny, Paul.
This 4-man band
is generally regarded as
the original line-up.
But there was an additional John
at the outset, in mid-1969.
Should we have named the group
Johnnies' Dance Band?
Shot in a Phila. College Of Art studio
where the unusual student body
and faculty usually encouraged
the unusual ideas of our boys.
Johnny, Chris, Tony, Paul.
Photo: Chris Darway
Our band had a sweetheart relationship with radio station WMMR 93.3 FM. Our first drummer, Paul Messing became their Production Manager. He and I created the landmark Station I.D.s (which you still hear sometimes), for which I wrote and sang rock star parodies, promoting the station. We did many live broadcasts with Gene Shay, and Ed Sciaky, who made us their special project. (See photo caption with JDB, Ed, and his famous friend). The station did live simul-casts of a few JDB shows. One such show, from the Tower Theater, yielded a hot version of "Pushed Around Too Long" . WMMR put it into regular rotation on the air for a year or two, making it a major hit in the region, long before it was recorded. Written by TJ, with help from Johnny, and Nan's vocal, I consider it one of my strongest rock tunes.
Courtney Colletti most definitely could shake it (and still can). He had chops for days ... on guitar, bass, flute, percussion and vocals. Being classically trained, he taught the band a lot about music, such as chord and harmony theory. CC's insane onstage characters had people screaming with laughter. His most famous invention was the parody interpretation of bluesman, "Blind Jelly Lead Dick". Here he is on bass and dancing at one of the 1976 Tower Theater concerts. www.courtneycolletti.com Photo: Frank Jacobs
David Mohn wasn't looking for a gig, that day in 1974. He simply saw a sign for Drummer Auditions, and out of curiousity, turned in the driveway. Little did he know that fateful turn would alter his life ... but you'd have to ask Dave about that. The try-outs had ended, and the band was choosing. Then Mohnie played, and blew everybody else out of the water. He could rock with the best of them, but his semi-jazz background brought killer new grooves that helped take JDB to its highest highs. Doesn't he look like a jazzer in this shot? West Chester University concert circa 1975.
www.jdmdrums.com Photo: Phil Ceccola
The Johnny's Dance Band Extended Family
Our road crew worked very hard for us, and we could never thank them or pay them enough. Lee Tener worked for free until we could afford to pay him. He was the all-around best and most devoted Roadie we ever had. I felt like he'd throw himself in front of a bullet for me. Lee passed away some time ago, and I spoke at his funeral. I will never forget him. Our Lighting Director, Elen Gross (later, Elen Lenti) was truly dedicated to her craft and her band. Other important members of the inner circle were: Jay Bender and Andy Strauber ~ Soundmen; Carl Josel ~ Road Manager; and Ace Roadie, Dennis Steele. A few others came and went, but only these devoted human beings received the coveted Johnny's Dance Band jackets.
Our Philadelphia tri-state area fans ~ many tens of thousands, based on concert attendance and record sales ~ were unbelievably devoted. Eventually, one super woman came forth from the crowd, and became President of The JDB Fan Club. This gentle lady, and cool cartoonist, was Mary Lynn Bernardo. Anita Wise was a close family member, who helped in countless ways and sold our t-shirts. The great JDB logo was designed by Beck & Raphael (Phila). Dick Whiteford handled booking & manager duties for a while. All the great photographers were phenomenal ~ capturing the spirit, some of which is reflected here ~ and they were all doing it for free! To all the wonderful people who gave in so many ways, without compensation, I will always remember the beauty and love behind your contributions and support. More than just a great band ... Johnny's Dance Band had a strange, wonderful, magical effect on people.
At the Philadelphia Folk Festival ~ main stage evening concert ~ a rare acoustic performance. We were invited by the Master Of Ceremonies, Gene Shay, Godfather of Philly Folk Music. JDB treated the audience to "Mary & Joseph" - Tony's satirical saga of the immaculate conception. The crowd of 10,000+ sang along with the high-kicking chorus, and the band received a standing ovation. They had never before played to more than a few hundred people. (Phase 5 group) Bobby, Courtney, Nan, Tony, Jack Decker, Johnny & Chris (on piano, in the back). August, 1974. Photo: Phil Ceccola
The Dance in Johnny's Dance Band was not so much because it was the greatest music for dancing. It was way more theatrical than that. Instead, it was more about the insane-satirical-quasi-choreography, invented by Tony, and performed by the band members onstage. This was pure entertainment, mixing moves of many genres like: Motown R&B ~ The Radio City Rockettes ~ Folk Dancing ~ Doo Wop ~ Can Can ~ Jitterbug ... always something new and totally nuts. Precision uniformity is apparent here in the dance from Colletti's timeless classic funk piece, 'Get On Up'. Outdoor concert, Pastorius Park, Chestnut Hill, PA, 1975. Photo: Frank Jacobs
New York City
We did many gigs in New York through Alex, showcasing us to the industry.
We opened for The Ramones at CBGB's and the punk crowd hated us.
We proudly played for the bible of the music biz, Billboard Magazine & their Annual Convention.
It was at New York City's state-of-the-art rock club, The Bottom Line.
The audience ~ including Bill Graham ~ loved us.
Peter Frampton loved my vintage 1957 Les Paul, Jr, and offered me $1000 (in 1975 dollars), which I declined.
In later years, broke and desparate, I sold that guitar for $450, to pay the rent.
In NY, we opened for Richie Havens at The Little Hippodrome.
We replaced his broken strings after each song.
On the upper east side, we played Home Restaurant ~ so small that Dave had to sit in the window.
That audience included three wild and crazy guys ~ John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Elton John.
The management ejected them for drunken disorderly behavior.
Some other great gigs
We were the opening act for these artists: Bonnie Raitt, Astor Theater, Reading, PA;
Martin Mull, at both Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, PA...and The Main Point, Bryn Mawr, PA;
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Trenton War Memorial, Trenton, NJ;
Sha-Na-Na, Valley Forge Music Fair, Devon, PA; Cheech & Chong, also Valley Forge;
Bryan Ferry, Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA; Procul Harem, Tower Theater; Leo Sayer, Tower Theater;
Patti smith, Tower Theater; Orleans, West chester University;
and playing for Aussies all week in Newport, Rhode Island, at The America Cup Races !
Nannette, Tony and Courtney howled the Canine Chorus. Johnny looked on and laid down a blues dirge on bass.
Meanwhile, Chris would be lamenting, kinda singing,
freaking out really,
"Ya' know my doggy's got a hole in his head.
I think he's dead.
And he don't bark ... no more !"
The Dog Song (Canus Arfus Poochis Erectus)
was an hysterical "song of love and death"
(a JDB trademark)
that Chris wrote in the first year of the band.
This photo is circa 1974,
at the original legendary Bryn Mawr club, The Main Point.
The Johnnies played many sold-out shows there,
sharing the bill with other strange artists,
such as Father Guido Sarducci, and Martin Mull.
In an attempt to keep the bankrupt venue from going under,
Johnny's Dance Band did some Main Point benefit shows
... as did many other artists.
It helped for several years,
but the Main Point finally folded in 1981.
The members of Johnny's Dance Band owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the late, great Ed Sciaky, one of the country's most influencial disc jockeys, then still at WMMR 93.3 FM. Ed loved the group, and did everything in his power to support them, and promote their success. One night, he brought a friend to their club gig at the intimate Grendel's Lair, at 5th and South Streets, in Philadelphia. Ed had a feeling his friend would dig the band too.
That friend was Bruce Springsteen. He dug the band for sure, and hung out all night. It was the summer of '75. Just before Labor Day, "Born To Run" was released. In October, he was on the covers of Time & Newsweek. Bruce told the band, "I hear a lot of hits here. Just don't let the music business bosses change you, because that's what they try to do. Stay true to your dream." Great advice ...
Pictured: Bobby, Ed Sciaky, Nannette, Dave, JDB booking agent Dick Whiteford, Bruce Springsteen,
Courtney (behind Bruce's big hair), Chris, Tony, Johnny. Photo: Janet Melaragni 1975
During Johnny's Dance Band's peak years, the mid-seventies, we were treated like royalty, especially in our homebase, New Hope, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Being a "frontman" , people recognized me wherever I went. A large part of our fan base was made up of restaurant and bar employees. They came to our late-night shows when they got off. At dozens of restaurants downtown, anytime I patronized them, the house wouldn't let me pay ~ they'd "comp" my bill. Almost every periodical in the area ran in-depth feature photo articles about JDB, and they were all rave reviews. In our little corner of the world, we were ... rock stars.
Johnny's Dance Band at 'The Swamp' in 1974.
This North Jersey farmhouse was provided by
their manager and benefactor, Alex Matter
and his partners. In total isolation (surrounded
by The Great Swamp), JDB had a great place
to rehearse & try out their most unusual ideas.
Clockwise from left: Courtney, Chris, Nannette,
Tony, Jack, Bobby, Johnny. Photo: Alex Matter
We finally signed a record deal with Windsong Records (an RCA subsidiary). After being rejected by more companies than I can remember, we were thrilled. Our new bosses were John Denver and Jerry Weintraub. We would frequent the New York offices of our mother company, RCA, and started "rubbin' elbows with the elite". JDB was in the same RCA 'stable' as Kenny Rogers, David Bowie, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Don McLean, Harry Nilsson, The Guess Who, and hundreds more. We thought we were impressed.
Unfortunately, the RCA machine didn't understand us any more than the other record labels. We all tried to find common ground, but the relationship was doomed from the start. Within the band, there was growing disagreement over what to do. We worked very hard to make an album we could be proud of, but there were so many compromises that the end result was watered down. It wasn't us at all. The whole thing that we were known for ~ rock 'n roll vaudeville & irreverent satire ~ was gone. Not allowed. When the record came out in early 1977, most fans were disappointed, and who could blame them? We did the usual promotional appearances, but in the end, our debut album "JOHNNY'S DANCE BAND" was at best only a regional success. (See Discography)
Nan and Tony danced, just like Fred & Ginger, live at Grendel's Lair
( 5th and South Streets ) in Philadelphia. TJ's right hand is in a cast,
having sustained a fishing injury the night before, plus surgery the
day this was shot. The bandleader was heard to boast,
"I never missed a gig ! " Photo: Anne Jackson 1976
Relaxing poolside at the cover photo shoot for the first album on RCA / Windsong.
You'd think they were mainliners, until you look closely at Bobby's shoes (his faves).
Chris, Nan, Mohn, Tone, Johnny, Bobby, Courtney. Photo: Frank Jacobs 1976.
Johnny and I quit the band in late 1977. We had a great run, but things evolved out of our hands. The powers that be were going to keep changing the formula, in an effort to get those hit records. Well this, after all, was not why our "art band" came into existence. JDB did a second LP in '78. Bobby and Courtney left around that time, and were replaced. For the final LP in '79, the group was called "Nan Mancini and JDB". They did a fine job, but this was not Johnny's Dance Band.
I'm intensely proud to have spent the best, most prolific years of my creative life with Johnny's Dance Band. I repeat: We had a great run. The magic that existed among us yielded a creative flow from all the members that was nothing short of astonishing. It was an unmatched thrill to be in the middle of it. Too bad we ended just before videos began, because we were the ultimate visual and theatrical band. I have no films to share of those totally entertaining and very funny performances. But to those of you who were there...perhaps one day, you might tell your kids about it.
Peace, Love, Rock 'n Roll,