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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."
Alaimo joined Clark in Los Angeles for the show's two-year run (1965-67) but was lost in the Hollywood shuffle. "I got so into the business end -- picking the music, working with Paul Revere and the Raiders, staging these animated antics that they would perform -- versus just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I ended up not being as popular as them. They became the stars of the show." Alaimo says the supporting role suited him at the time.
In retrospect, he concedes, taking a back seat may have been a mistake. This proved especially true when Clark's dance show was suddenly pulled off the air. "Nobody knows the real story," Alaimo says. "But supposedly ABC wanted to air reruns of the show, and Dick felt it wouldn't be cost-effective for him to do so." Clark offered Alaimo a chance to work in the executive offices at Dick Clark Productions.
But Alaimo wanted another shot at the limelight. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he recalls. "I said to him, 'I want to go out and be a star. I'm interested in singing now.'"
Alaimo resumed his career, but he never regained his momentum. In his years away from performing, after all, the face of rock music had changed radically. The tamer pop that dominated the first half of the Sixties had given way to the rowdy electrified sounds of the Stones, Dylan, the Doors, and Hendrix.
For a few years, Alaimo toured as a tuxedoed lounge singer, playing and schmoozing everywhere from the Copa and Caesar's Palace to the Fontainebleau. (He now refers to this period as his "nightclub stage.") In 1971 he essentially retired from performing and returned to work behind the scenes with Henry Stone. The two founded TK Records five years later.
Sometimes referred to as the "Motown of the South," TK became one of the country's premier music factories, founding a dozen labels, selling 50 million records, and recording stars such as Ray Charles and James Brown. The Hialeah-based operation is probably best-known, however, as the label that stoked the Seventies disco boom, churning out hits such as "That's the Way (I Like It)" and "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band, "Clean Up Woman" by Betty Wright, and "Rock You Baby" by George McCrae.
Left to manage this hit-making stable, Alaimo no longer had time to consider what might have come of his own recording career.
Stone was first excited, then dismayed at the path that Alaimo followed. "Steve was like a son to me," Stone says from his Hot Productions office. "And I thought at the time that he was a young Tom Jones. He was a great performer. To me, he had everything to be a superstar." Stone pauses for a minute. "I hate to tell you how mad I am sometimes that he didn't become a superstar. He wanted to be a record executive! Schmuck! He was white soul before anyone else was doing it. Even John Fogerty has said that's where he got his sound."
In the early days, Stone says, he would take young Alaimo to see James Brown and B.B. King. "He would hang out with me in these black clubs. He loved that music and had a feel for it." Stone recalls one time when he put Alaimo on the bill opening for James Brown.
The Godfather of Soul was not pleased.
"James said to me, 'Henry, don't you ever put that white boy on in front of me again!'" Stone roars. "James couldn't follow him! I may be blowing steam here, but Steve was a great performer doing what nobody else was doing."
Although TK thrived during the disco era, the company folded in 1980. Stone eventually went on to create Hot Productions, while Alaimo joined forces with brothers Ron and Howard Albert to start Vision Records in 1987.
The man who was once a TV teen idol, who opened for James Brown and dreamed of superstardom for himself, now oversees a company dedicated to breaking other young artists.
After forty years in the music business, does Alaimo long for the days of crooning into a microphone instead of barking into a phone receiver? "Sometimes I do," he says. "It's mostly when I see an act on-stage that's not doing well. Or I see an act on-stage not doing well and people are still enjoying that act. I say to myself 'Why do they enjoy this?' I guess I'm old now."
Alaimo says once in a while he'll sit in a club and sing, just to whet his chops. "It's fun." He smiles. "You can never say that ego isn't fun.