Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Archies, Ron Dante, and the Perverse Nature of Fame

I was eating lunch today at a local restaurant, and the 60s music loop included "Sugar, Sugar."

I have fond memories of that song from my childhood. It was "The Archies" big hit, and I remember hearing it on their cartoon show. Pure bubblegum pop, and a very catchy song.

I was enjoying the song as a trip down Nostalgia Lane when I had a a rare moment of mental clarity. "Sugar, Sugar" was a huge hit, but the band itself was fictional.  They were cartoon characters.

Someone must have recorded this song, though.  What if this song was the biggest hit of someone's career, and no one even knew it was them?

Clearly, this required some research.

For the proper frame of mind, you should probably go listen to the song (and as a bonus, you get to see the cartoon as well): Sugar, Sugar (Original 1969 Music Video). For its time, the video was pretty damned innovative.

Done? Let's continue.

When I got home, I looked up "The Archies" in Wikipedia. [Sidebar: I love Wikipedia because its random authors can take a semi-ridiculous subject and treat it with the highest degree of academic respect.] Like this:
The Archies are sometimes jokingly compared to The Doors, as they also had no bass player.

However, there is some controversy as to whether Reggie played bass or not. In most drawings, his guitar looks identical to Archie's, making him the band's second (or co-lead) guitarist. However, a number of drawings (including the one above) clearly show Reggie's instrument to have four tuning keys, the most common bass design. Six-string bass guitars do exist, however, and the Archies' recordings regularly featured a bass player. In more than one comic strip, Reggie is described as playing bass (however, this is not necessarily canon, as storylines and hobbies/activities in the Archie world change from story to story). Finally, in the liner notes for 2008's The Archies Christmas Album, Reggie is listed as the bass guitarist.

That is ultra-wonderful, much like a stoned person can argue about the philosophical nature of a pea with complete seriousness.

Back to The Archies. Also from Wikipedia:
The Archies are a garage band founded by Archie Andrews, Reggie Mantle, and Jughead Jones, a group of fictional adolescent characters of the Archie universe, in the context of the animated TV series, The Archie Show. The group is also known for their real world success, through a virtual band.

[Sugar, Sugar] went to #1 on the pop chart in 1969, sold over six million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[2] In Billboard's Hot 100, it was ranked as the number one song of that year, the only time a fictional band has ever claimed Billboard's annual Hot 100 top spot.

That's really quite incredible--a fictional band having the #1 hit of the year.

I quickly decided that I needed to focus on two people: lead singer Ron Dante, and backup singer Tony Wine. I'd never heard of either, but they had both sung on the single biggest hit of 1969. Did anything else in their careers match up to that moment? If not, how would you feel if the biggest moment of your career went by anonymously?

I started with Ron Dante,  and right away, I read something astonishing: in the same year that Sugar, Sugar hit #1, he was also in a real band called The Cuff Links, and he had a top 10 hit with Tracy.

The Cuff Links turned out to be the epitome of the phrase "one hit wonders", far less successful than The Archies.

At this point, I expected Ron Dante's life to plummet. Boy, was I wrong. Again, from Wikipedia:
From 1973 to 1981, Dante was the record producer for singer Barry Manilow, and often sang backup on Manilow's recordings, including the 1974 #1 single "Mandy." Dante also continued to record sporadically during those years; in 1975, with Manilow as the producer, Dante released a dance version of "Sugar, Sugar" under his own name. In 1978, Dante produced the Tony Award-winning musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway. During this same period, Dante, who was a Manhattan neighbor of George Plimpton, was invited to serve as the publisher of the Paris Review (1978–85).

Good grief, the lead singer for The Archies was a total badass.

Next, I looked up Toni Wine, and the story here is more complicated. Again, this is from Wikipedia:
In 1963, Toni Wine had a nationally charted single with "My Boyfriend's Coming Home For Christmas". It reached #22 on Billboard's "Best Bets For Christmas" survey. She cowrote The Shirelles' early 1964 mid-chart hit "Tonight You're Gonna Fall In Love With Me".

Wine was a child prodigy who studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music before going to work at Screen Gems Publishing. There she initially collaborated with songwriters including Gerry Goffin, Howard Greenfield and Steve Venet. The first Wine composition that was recorded was The Cookies' "Only to Other People," but she needed an ensuing three-year association with Carole Bayer Sager to blossom. The earliest fruits of their partnership, "A Groovy Kind of Love," topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966. By this time Wine was also recording as a solo artist, releasing singles for Colpix Records to minimal acclaim.

By 1969, Wine joined with Ron Dante, Ellie Greenwich and Andy Kim to record as The Archies. The following year, Wine wrote "Candida". The first recording did not do well, so she then reunited with fellow Brill Building alum Tony Orlando, who sang lead while Wine and others (such as Linda November) sang backup. The song was a hit, and the trio went on to record "Knock Three Times", which also became a major hit.

After recording a handful of bubblegum-flavoured tracks, in the early 1970s, Wine married the record producer Chips Moman and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. There she released material for Atco Records and Monument Records in addition to a continuing career as a writer and session vocalist. For over 30 years she was one of the voices of Meow Mix Cat Food, sharing with Linda November and the famous "meow, meow, meow, meow."

Okay, it's true that Sugar, Sugar was the most successful song of her singing career (albeit in a backup singer role), but she had a successful songwriting career, to be sure.

Neither one fits the profile of someone whose biggest career moment was anonymous. Which is less of a story, but a happy ending.

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