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"I was absolutely ahead of everything everybody did," Steve Alaimo says matter-of-factly. It's not uncommon to hear such boasts from a music industry bigwig. It's rather characteristic, actually. But in Alaimo's case it's hard to argue: As a recording artist in the early Sixties, he was among the unsung pioneers of pop. And he made his name right here in Miami. "Back then," he says, "Miami was my town. I owned it."
Alaimo went on to become a national TV star on Dick Clark's teen dance shindig Where the Action Is, a Vegas nightclub singer, and a protege of Henry Stone, one of the giants of the Miami music business. Now, some 30 years since he played the Copacabana, Alaimo has a new album out. Well, not exactly new. The Steve Alaimo Anthology is a 31-track collection, released by Stone's Hot Production Records, that spans the singer's dynamic albeit short recording career.
The disc is a fascinating survey of the styles that dominated pop's formative years and a testament to Alaimo's versatility with cover material. Nearly 80 minutes long, Anthology shifts from blue-eyed R&B to swinging Bobby Darin-esque showstoppers. "I Don't Know" is a ska-flavored ditty that sounds years ahead of its time. "New Orleans" allows Alaimo to shed his normally suave baritone in favor of a raucous imitation of James Brown. "Everybody Knows but Her" features wailing harmonica and a rockabilly twang, while the playful "Amerikan Music" offers uncanny vocal tributes to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and just about every other major star of the era.
The album has its share of clunkers -- cloying covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" provoke winces -- but overall the set is a nostalgic joy ride from pre-Beatles pop to finger-snapping lounge music.
"I think it's pretty good," Alaimo says of the new CD. "And when you talk about old records, some of the people on the anthology are greats today. I got 'em when they were first starting out." That roster of songwriting and production talent includes Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (who co-wrote many of the Monkees' hits), Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Chips Moman, who produced a number of Elvis Presley hits.
Before arriving in South Florida in 1958, Alaimo charted his musical course from his hometown of Rochester, New York, where he started a band with his cousin and two friends. In an era when Buddy Holly and the Crickets were creating a new rock and roll sound -- consisting simply of drums, guitar, and bass -- Alaimo was inadvertently working the same ground.
"Everybody said we couldn't make it because we didn't have a saxophone or piano in the band. We didn't know any sax or piano players." Alaimo laughs. He is seated in his office at Vision Records in North Miami, taking steady drags off a Merit Ultra Light as smoke wafts past a plaque that reads I smoke: Thank you for not bitching. President of the decade-old company, the former teen idol, now 58, is decked out in jeans and a T-shirt.
Alaimo's first band, the Redcoats, recorded its first single, "Jelly," in 1957, when the guys were right out of high school. After a short stint at the University of Michigan, Alaimo transferred to the University of Miami to join his cousin and reignite his musical career. It was in Miami that Alaimo met Stone, who became his mentor and later his business partner.
Initially Alaimo and his band began playing around South Florida at record hops and dances, which were helmed by Stone and disc jockey Bob Green. Although the Redcoats eventually disbanded, Alaimo was getting hot. Green soon signed on as his manager, and Stone decided the time had come to record. The result was "I Want You to Love Me," cut at the home of Criteria Studio founder Mac Emmerman. "I sang it in his living room," Alaimo recalls. Emmerman had yet to build his now-hallowed studio.
Alaimo began recording at a feverish pace. From 1961 to 1966, he figures, he recorded a thousand songs for several different labels, among them Chess, ABC, and Atlantic. As Alaimo puts it: "I think I recorded a song every three or four minutes in those days."
On March 17, 1962, Alaimo cracked the Top 100 with "Mashed Potatoes, (Part I)," (a cut, oddly, not included on Anthology.) This was followed by a string of hits that lit up the local airwaves. Alaimo's biggest, a feathery rendition of Arthur Alexander's "Every Day I Have to Cry," reached number 46 on the pop charts in 1963.
Alaimo says he got his big break by doing Clark a favor. "He did this show at the Miami Beach Exposition Center with Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Duane Eddy, every act you could think of," Alaimo explains. "And I had a little band. But in those days the unions made you have a 25-piece orchestra to back up the act or the singer."
As luck would have it, most of the acts didn't have arrangements on hand for the orchestra, so Alaimo's band tuned up and stepped in. "Being a little rock and roll group, we were junkies for all this stuff," he says. "Plus, who wants trumpets playing on a Frankie Avalon record?" Alaimo's combo backed up the entire show, except, as he points out, "at the end of the songs, where the orchestra would find the key and go tah-dah. And Clark never forgot the favor."