A Conversation with Dennis Tufano
Posted on 03/11/2020
All Access chats with Dennis Tufano, a Golden Oldies Spectacular performer, about his early introduction to playing music as a child, how the R&B of Chicago influenced The Buckingham's style, and more! See Dennis, Jay and The Americans, Lou Christie, BJ Thomas, and 1910 Fruitgum Company this August 29 at the Golden Oldies Spectacular at 7pm !
read the transcribed interview below
with Kelly from All Access and special guest Dennis Tufano
Kelly: And we're back on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey. I'm your host Kelly Blithe and with us today is one of the performers to the upcoming Golden Oldies Spectacular taking place at the State Theatre Saturday, March 21* at 7pm. Of course I am talking about Dennis Tufano. Welcome Dennis!
Dennis: Thank you, Kelly, thank you!
Kelly: This is a great lineup. In addition to you, we have Jay and the Americans, BJ Thomas, Lou Christie, and 1910 Fruitgum Company. You know a couple of these guys, right?
Dennis: Oh, yeah! I've worked with them a lot. It's a really nice and diverse show. It's almost like having a live jukebox because you're getting a little bit out of everything with this lineup. Everybody on the show I've worked with are—I don't know what it is with us older, classic rock guys—but we're still cookin'!
Kelly: You still are! There are still audiences to come and see them every spring at the State Theatre. We look forward to the Golden Oldies Spectacular every spring. It is a great lineup. 1910 Fruitgum Company, I know last time, they backed you, and they're doing it again this time as well, right?
Dennis: Yes, they are. We worked together for many years as separate acts. One time they got an offer from us to play together. We got together, had one rehearsal, and they hit every note. A lot of people think that they're bubblegum, but the fact is that they're very mature bubblegum. They're great musicians, and they really sing and play really well, so it kind of takes the shine off of that bubblegum-ness that there is because they're really proper musicians and talents. When they back me up it gets pretty serious, and it's nice.
Kelly: Sure, sure. So Dennis, you obviously are the former lead singer of The Buckinghams. Hits are "Kind of a Drag," "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," and "Don't You Care." Tell us about your start in music. I think you were born into a musical family, right?
Dennis: Yes, my father was a musician early on. I saw him perform when I was five years old. He played saxophone, sang, and played violin. So, I saw him perform when I was about five or six, and then he kind of had to leave the music behind to raise the family and go to work. He never really pushed any music on me. But, it was like he would come home from work, go into the bedroom, pull out the saxophone and play some standards. I would just sit there listening to the music coming out of the the door and go, "my God, what is that?" My ears started perking up really quick to music. I started getting involved actually with the harmonica, which I play to this day, and that was one of the first instruments I picked up because my father also played harmonica. I did somehow find his harmonica in my hands one day. When he found out that I had used it he came to me and said, "here, this is yours, if you like it, this is yours." That was the only way that he'd plug me into music. In high school, of course there was The Beatles in '63, and I was a junior in high school then. We just started getting Beatled-out with, "hey, let's sing, let's do this, let's do that." So, I started with an a cappella group called The Darcels, which was doo-wop really. We used to sing at dances, at parties, and everything. Nothing came of that business wise, but it taught me what I needed to know about harmony and singing and listening to each other, and knowing where your voice fits in. That became very good for me. I graduated high school and went into an art studio where I was an apprentice graphic artist for two years. In the middle of the second year, the band that we had started putting together, had started to work pretty good. So, I decided that it might be better for me to leave my day job, and just focus on that. I was actually making more money instead of punching a time card. I came to my parent's dinner one night and I said, "look, I know I got this job and you want me to have a foundation that's strong, but I think I'd like to go and pursue the music." They just looked at me and my father said, "as long as you don't come back here and tell us 'why did you let me do this?'"
Kelly: [Laughs] That's fair!
Dennis: I said, "no, I won't do that." And, I didn't have to. My father was quite jazzed, in fact, to see me actually make it when the records came out. Having a record on the radio was gigantic. When they would be listening at home they'd hear me singing, so he was quite pleased with it and my mother was pleased with it. They always supported me, and I'm so happy they were around when I made it because it was a good bolt for them. That is pretty much how we started out. The band just started getting more popular and we had a TV show in Chicago on WGN-TV called, All Time Hits, and we were the rock portion of the show. It was kind of like a weekly song list of what's popular. We were the rock thing. Somebody actually wrote about us saying we were the first Beatles cover band because we were doing Beatles songs that just were released that week. We would do it on live television. It was quite interesting to go up like that in our gold lamé tuxedos and stuff. Slowly you saw the evolution of us from our greaser hair-dos to our Beatles cuts. Then we just started going and it didn't stop. "Kind of a Drag" really, like cemented us a place. So, we just kept going.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned Chicago, you were born in Chicago right?
Kelly: So, what would you say were the musical differences in the Chicago scene at that time versus other areas?
Dennis: For us, in Chicago, we danced to a lot of R&B. Chicago was very big on blues. That was the music that we heard a lot in high school—R&B and Motown—it stuck to us pretty well. Matter of fact, when we first recorded "Kind of a Drag" in our first album, we did it at Chess Records, which was a gigantic blues recording office. The Chess Record's studio was very magical and that's where we recorded "Kind of a Drag." There was something about the blues and the jazz—that's why we wanted to have horns in the band, we grew up with horn bands. We grew up with a band called The Mob in Chicago. Jim Holvay, the guitar player then, wrote "Kind of a Drag," "Hey Baby," "Don't You Care," and "Susan." He gave us those songs one by one as we started to be successful with them. That, I think, changed a little bit of our sound in the pop world too because he had an R&B influence, and his musical changes were just a little bit more complicated and sounded a little bit more in the vein of Motown even though we weren't doing R&B. But, we had a taste of it so I think that set us apart early on in that we were able to—to this day, they say that our music has soul back then. So, that was a nice compliment.
Kelly: You have all these hits, you're in Chicago, and then years later you move to Los Angeles, and you're an actor doing voice-over work, all this kind of stuff. This sounds like a completely different lifestyle. How did that come about?
Dennis: Well, The Buckinghams broke up in 1970. I always kid that we had to break up in 1970 because we were a '60s band. The fact was that we had management problems, court dates, and all kinds of stuff, pretty typical of most '60s bands. We were being railroaded by the people who were supposed to be helping us. So, it just turned out that it became so demolished that we decided to cut the cord and just disband because it was not going anywhere. We were so, kind of, depressed about the rip-offs. But then Carl and I, the guy who played guitar in the band who now is out there with The Buckinghams—him and Nick Fortuna started the band in the '80s again—Carl and I got a recording deal with Lou Adler on Old Records. Lou Adler produced Jan and Dean, Mamas and Papas, Carole King, and had a private kind of label. He heard a demo that we did, called us out there to audition live, and he said, "not only do I want you on the label, but I want to produce your first album." So, I immediately thought that I wanted to go and be as close to the record label as I could be. So, I moved, only about three blocks away, rented a little house in Hollywood, about three blocks from A&M Records where Old was and stayed right in there. That's what kind of got me through it. We did three albums there, but we weren't charting a lot. We had top 40, top 50, and we weren't doing Buckingham type stuff and pop music. We were kind of in that '70s mode—the James Taylor and those kinds of people, and Neil Young. We were an acoustic act, and it just seemed to run out of air really. I decided to just stop because I wasn't really making a good living anymore and I wanted to make sure—I was getting older—so I wanted to make sure I was safe. My other destiny kind of thing was acting. I always enjoyed the process and I knew some actors, I talked to them, and I came out to L.A. and did the record deal thing. At the end of '76 we broke up and stopped that record deal and I went to study acting. Two years into studying I started to get some work, especially voice-over work—gosh, I must have done 800 movies with a group of actors where you improvise the background noise that you hear in movie scenes. It's like if you're in a restaurant, in a movie, the principal actors have to be heard clean, so they record them. The people in the background are just moving their mouths. We have to go in, look at their mouths and try to see what they were saying and get as close as we can so it made life happen in the scene. It was fun, it was great, it was very creative work and I felt really good. Also, I had to take care of my voice because of that work, so I was always careful not to lose my voice in any way. That continued for 18 years really. But, in between that while I was doing that I got a job to tour with Olivia Newton-John.
Kelly: Right, right.
Dennis: That was just an amazing event. I had to audition with her. I went in and sang "Suddenly" with her from Xanadu. Her choreographer/director at the time, Kenny Rodriguez—he actually grew up to be a big director then—he came to me after the audition and said, "I don't care what anyone else auditioning does, what I just saw you two do made me sweat." He said, "the chemistry was pretty hot." I got that gig and we toured for three months and got to do those two duets with her from Grease, "You're the One That I Want," and "Suddenly" from Xanadu. To this day, they're on YouTube directly off the DVD that we did on that. People come up to everyday, even though I look like a much younger version of myself, they say, "you sang with Olivia." And I go, "how do you know that, that's years ago." They say, "because my daughter's a big Olivia fan and we watched that DVD concert thing every weekend. I see you singing with her, and I'm standing here and said, 'this is the guy, this is the guy.'" It's very interesting to have that stuff live for a long time. That was a great thing in-between my musical career, to have that because she was great to work with, she's an amazing person, very creative, very non-diva at all and we really got to be good friends on the tour. We had a great band and it all worked out really well. I really had a good time singing. So then I started to get that bug again, and thought, "I want to sing again." Years later, I decided I was going to sing again and started doing a Bobby Darin tribute show. Well, I remember Darin. I did that for a couple years with a big band and a got a live album out of it. It really was good, I got the blessing from the Bobby Darin Foundation. They invited me to come to Vegas to sing with the Bobby Darin Foundation Heart Association concert. I got to sing with his guitar player, T. K. Kellman, and his bass player, Billy Mack. It was just amazing for me to have his players working with me and smiling along with me. That a good feeling because I've always been a big fan of Bobby Darin. When I discovered that there were hundreds of songs that were great to sing, I went for it. I mixed the classic rock with the Bobby Darin stuff. I mix it up nicely since it comes from the same period of time.
Kelly: You can see Dennis Tufano in Golden Oldies Spectacular Saturday, March 21* in the 7pm show. Featuring Jay and the Americans, BJ Thomas, Lou Christie, 1910 Fruitgum Company, of course Dennis Tufano. Dennis, you've done it all. I'm excited to see you again, return to the State Theatre. We look forward to seeing you on Saturday, March 21!
Dennis: I look forward to seeing you and all the acts because I just have a good time looking at all of us and seeing that we're still out there doing the right thing and making it work. It's a joy.
Kelly: Great, see you then!
Dennis: Okay Kelly, thank you!
* = this show has since been rescheduled to Saturday, August 29, 2020 at 7pm