I started to open this article with one of those clichés along the lines of, “He’s the most famous person you’ve never heard of” or something like that, but really, what REBEAT reader has absolutely no idea who Ron Dante is?
He was a member of the Detergents, whose “Leader of the Laundromat” made the Top 40 when he was just 20 years old. He was working with Don Kirshner and singing and songwriting with the Brill Building group of artists such as Carole King, Tony Orlando, and Neil Sedaka before most of them became household names.
He’s produced several Broadway musicals, including the Tony Award-winning Ain’t Misbehavin’. He produced Barry Manilow’s hit albums, sang backup on “Mandy,” basically discovered Pat Benatar, and then, of course, there’s work as the voice of the Archies and the Cuff Links.
The question shouldn’t be who was he — it should be who wasn’t he. He’s done everything, and he’s still doing it. He’s the one and only Ron Dante.
REBEAT: I read that you were from a musical family and your dad sang around the house a lot and that’s where your love of music came from.
RON DANTE: Yes, my dad wasn’t a professional singer but he loved to sing as did his six brothers. When we’d go to a wedding, everybody would get up and sing, everybody was a ham.
I heard music very early in my life. My dad loved his records and had a big stack of 78s on the record player. He’d run a string to the couch so he could change the records and listen to six or seven records in a row.
I listened to the Platters, Patti Page, and then I discovered Elvis when I was 10, and that changed my life completely. A few years later, I fell from a tree and injured my arm, and the doctor said I needed to exercise it, to do something to work the arm. I decided I’d play the guitar, so Dad bought me one.
Then when I was about 14, I put my first band together, the Persuaders. One New Year’s Eve, I made $75 playing, so I said, “Well, this is the profession I want to be in!” I mean, I’m 14 and made $75 for one gig, and my dad worked all week for $50. I said, “This is something I can do.”
You made the Detergents record, “Leader of the Laundromat,” in 1965. But before that had you already started working with Don Kirshner? How did all of that play out?
Even before the Detergents record, I got a job as a staff singer and demo-maker with Don Kirshner when I was 17 years old. I was signed to a publishing contract and told to write songs.
I was in the New York office with artists like Carole King and Tony Orlando and Neil Sedaka. It was amazing. This publishing company was one of the hottest in the world. Don Kirshner gave me my start in the business. I’ll forever be grateful to him for that opportunity.
I got to see all these writers, the way they produced their demos, I got to see the singers, I actually got to sing background on some of Neil Sedaka’s early hits. As a teenager out of Staten Island, I had the opportunity of a lifetime.
The Detergents song did well, but tell me about the years between that song and your time as the voice of the Archies.
As the Detergents song peaked, we went on the road with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars and toured for about a year then came back home and set up an office where I was going to be a songwriter and producer.
I started doing commercials and any odd job I could just to stay in the music business. I actually ended up writing a Broadway show. I had done backgrounds for a friend of mine named Jeff Barry, who was writing the score for a Broadway production. He said, “You should be the voice of this rock band that’s in the show.”
I did it but the show closed after a couple of weeks, but I had the chance to meet a variety of people, and some of them said, “You’re a songwriter. We have this property we want to do, a version of Billy Budd by Herman Melville. We want to make it a rock opera.”
So at 20 years old, I wrote a rock opera that was on Broadway. It was unbelievable and a great opportunity. We raised about half a million dollars to put that show on. We didn’t get good reviews, but it was a learning experience.
But I must say that everything that happens to me either I’m a winner, or I learn. I met a lot of great people who were important to know along the way. Ten years after Billy Budd, my Ain’t Misbehavin show came along. Everything happens for a reason.
So you’re working with Broadway shows, but we’re moving into that period where “Sugar, Sugar” comes along. I read somewhere that because of your connections to Don Kirshner, you heard they were looking for a voice for the lead on the Archies and asked for an audition. Is that basically what happened?
Actually, a friend of mine was playing keyboard in the band doing the tracks for the new Archies show that Jeff Barry and Don Kirshner were putting together. They didn’t have any singers, but they had musicians, and one of the musicians was the best man at my wedding.
He said, “You know Don Kirshner. You should call him and come over and be the voice.” So I told him I would, and I called and went in for an audition, sang one of the songs, and got the job of being the voice of Archie on the songs. It was great working with people I knew; it was like a homecoming.
Jeff Barry and Andy Kim wrote “Sugar, Sugar,” but did they write it for the program or was the song already written and just used for the program?
The word I got from Andy was that Jeff called him and said, ”We need a single for the show, we need a hit. What do you think we should do?” and over the phone, Andy said, “Why don’t you do something like this? [Sings] ‘Sugar, dah da dah dah da dah, aww honey, honey…’” and that was the beginning of that song.
Have you ever asked Andy Kim how he felt about not doing that great song himself? He was still a year away from his first big hit with “Baby, I Love You.”
I think Andy — and we’re close friends — I think he appreciates and knows I was the right voice for that song. That was the right platform, the television show, to deliver the song. He’s done well financially from the show and does it in his own show when he performs.
I think his songs were more elevated and for a more mature market than ours. We were shooting for teenagers and preteenagers, kids who chewed bubblegum. That’s how the term “bubblegum music” came about. The songs were aimed at a very young audience. He’s fine with it.
Why do you think that song has become such a classic, such an enduring hit? If I walked into a college classroom with 20 students, and I asked who knows “Sugar, Sugar,” I bet even today there will be 18 or 19 who know the song. Why?
I think it’s due to the simplicity of it. It went to #1 in 60 or 70 countries around the world. I think it’s the accessibility of that song in any language. You don’t have to understand English to know it’s a fun sound and a happy song. It’s also very danceable, and it just has a certain kind of magic.
Also, it’s never gone away. It’s been in movies and TV shows. Jeopardy seems to ask a question about it every year, and I get calls every year from people asking if they can use it in a movie or on a TV show. Netflix just called about it and wants to use it in a new series.
It always brings back memories when you hear it, but it also sounds very current. It’s a kind of danceable, fresh music that never goes out of style. It brings smiles to people’s faces.
How did Toni Wine become the voice on the middle section of the song (“I’m gonna make your life so sweet…”)?
Toni was signed to Don Kirshner as a teenager. We were the two teenagers in the office, and she was singing and writing and doing demos. So we were there all those years. Don loved her voice, and she was a very successful songwriter. She wrote a big hit with Carole Bayer Sager, “Groovy Kind of Love,” and later another one for Tony Orlando, “Candida.”
She was a good friend and also a big-time studio singer, and so it was a natural thing for Toni to come in and do the song. We needed a high voice to sing the middle section of “Sugar Sugar.” She sang it low first, and then sang the answer high.
People come up to me and say, “Oh yeah, you had those two girls singing with you.” And they’ve said they wanted to know who the black girl was singing on the record. It’s interesting because Toni’s a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn! But she’s got a great street voice, the kind of voice that can do any song.
Some sources say Andy Kim and Ellie Greenwich were on backing vocals, and I read somewhere that Ray Stevens was in the studio and actually did the handclapping. Can you set me straight on who was and wasn’t there and who did what — besides you and Toni of course.
Ellie and Andy never sang on any Archies sessions, but yes, Andy did play his guitar on the song. The band couldn’t get the right feel on the track Andy came out and decided to show them what he wanted on guitar.
He didn’t have a guitar pick, so he used a matchbook — several as it turned out — to play his guitar. They recorded it and that made it onto the track. It was the perfect sound for the record though.
As for Ray Stevens, that is true. He was a friend of Toni Wine’s and he did clap on “Sugar, Sugar” the night we did vocals.
Tomorrow, in part two, we’ll pick up with Ron’s next Top 10 hit, “Tracy,” credited to the Cuff Links. We’ll also talk about his successful production work, on Broadway and with Barry Manilow and Pat Benatar!