In 1967, Billboard magazine declared the Buckinghams to be “the most listened to band in America,” and based on their chart success that year, it would be a hard claim to dispute. As 1967 began, their first release, “Kind of a Drag,” was racing up the charts and would reach the #1 position by February where it stayed for two weeks.
That was just the beginning: the group would have one, two, and sometimes three songs in the Top 100 almost every week that year as they passed each other on the way up and down the charts, including “Don’t You Care” (#6), “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (#5), “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” (#12) and “Susan” (#11). Yet, the subsequent year would hold nothing but disappointment: in 1968 they had just one release that charted, and it wouldn’t even break into the Top 40. Then they were done. It was one of the most perplexing falls in rock ‘n’ roll history.
I recently spoke with Dennis Tufano, the man whose golden voice rocketed all those Buckinghams hits to the top of the charts. He discussed his days with the group, what led to their precipitous fall and dissolution, and how his career today has developed in ways he probably wouldn’t have imagined in 1967.
REBEAT: As is the case with many groups, there are different stories about the Buckinghams: how they got started, who sang what, and where the people performing their music now fit in. What’s the story?
DENNIS TUFANO: John Poulos came to me and George LeGros because he’d heard us sing; we were in a an a cappella group called the DarSals. He said he was in a band with some guys who could play well but couldn’t sing and asked if we were interested in joining. That band became the Pulsations, which was a good name considering how often we played at drag strips and car shows and things like that. We got on a “Battle of the Bands” competition on a Chicago television station and won, and so we became the house band on a TV show called All Time Hits.
They asked us to change our name to something more English because the British Invasion was in full swing at the time, and we were fine with that, because other than locally, nobody really knew who the Pulsations were anyway. A security guard at the station heard the request and he gave us a list with eight or 10 names on it, and the Buckinghams stood out not only because it sounded British, but also because there’s a beautiful fountain in Chicago called Buckingham Fountain. This way, we didn’t feel like we were selling out Chicago to take a British-sounding name.
The members of the group had been evolving over time. Carl Giammarese had joined early, Nick Fortuna joined when the bass player quit — he’d played with Carl in another band. Eventually George got drafted, and I became the lead singer by default.
So how’d you go from this revolving membership on a television show to the Buckinghams we all know with those big hits?
We’d noticed over time that when we’d play people would start crowding around the stage instead of just dancing. A DJ also noticed and told us we should think about making a record. We thought about it and agreed maybe it was a good idea. Carl Bonafede was our manager by then, and when we played the Dick Clark concert in Chicago he got Jim Holvay, who had a group called the MOB, to come see us. Carl told him to listen to our band and see if he had any material that might work for us.
After Jim heard us he said he did have a song that he didn’t feel was right for his band but that might be good for us. Bonafede dragged him upstairs to the hotel room and pulled out a little reel-to-reel and told him to play his song with an acoustic guitar so he could hear it. That song was “Kind of a Drag.” When we signed with USA Records we recorded about a dozen sides for them, and although they kept releasing our records, none of them really did anything nationally. The strange thing was that we’d recorded “Kind of a Drag” at the first recording session, and we’d been playing it live and fans liked it, so we kept telling the record company to release it. They wouldn’t though, because they didn’t like it, and they had all these excuses, like they said it was too slow. Finally at the end of 1966, our contract was up and there were no more sides left except “Kind of a Drag,” so they released it, dropped us from the label, and said, “We’re done.”
So the label released you after the single came out? I don’t get it.
They dropped us before they knew how big the record would be. We thought we’d made some decent records and we had had some regional hits. Then our keyboard player left because he thought it was over, and so did our manager. When USA dropped us, Bonafede said, “I don’t know what else I can do for you. I’m just a local guy and I can’t take you any further.” We were very upset, and as we were sitting in Nick Fortuna’s basement, John Poulos comes down and plops Billboard magazine down on the table and says, “Open it up. Open it up!” We open it to the Hot 100 and “Kind of a Drag” is #1. We have no keyboard player, no manager, and no label, but we have the #1 record in the country. So much for the wisdom of record companies.
But that’s when everything changed. We started the search for the missing pieces. We got Marty Grebb for keyboard and sax and he was a huge pickup because he sang well, too. A friend of John’s had a cousin working for Chad and Jeremy, Jim Guercio. We went to California and said, “Look, we have this #1 record and no management.” He seemed to know what he was doing, so we signed with him. Guercio took “Kind of a Drag” to Columbia and said, “I have a band with a #1 record. Do you want them?” Clive Davis did, and so, we were back in business. From then on, we were on the road all the time. We’d record tracks occasionally, then go back on road. Then we might go back in a few months and add vocals. We did it all on the run. It was crazy.
I’ve interviewed Jim Holvay, and he didn’t feel bad about you guys having the hits with the songs he wrote — he said he was just proud to have written them. How’d you get him to write more songs for you?
Guercio knew who Jim was because we were all from Chicago. He got in touch with him and asked if he had anything else we could record because the combination had worked well before. He gave us “Don’t You Care” and “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song).” Gary Beisber, who was also in the MOB, co-wrote those and added the bridge to “Susan.” “Don’t You Care” is still my favorite song. It was a great follow-up to “Kind of a Drag” and a nice, cool song.
Why is that one your favorite out of so many great songs?
It was comfortable to sing and a great opportunity to use my voice in the way the song presents itself. And the song is smooth, low, and so it seems kind of personal. And there’s no screaming. During that period of time a lot of songs were being yelled at you; a lot of songs were over-the-top yelling! That song’s lyrics make it like a conversation, like a personal love letter. It’s interesting to stand there and sing, because you felt like you were really writing a letter to a girl or something. It has something very special. I also like the drum work at the beginning, which was something John Poulos added. We’d been rehearsing the song all day and the next day he came in and said “I started thinking about the opening of the song, and think we should start like this.” He played that drum lick and we thought, “Oh my God.” It’s little things like that that make those songs shine. But we were lucky that Jim and Gary wrote all of our stuff except for “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” because that gave us a continuum, like when you continue a conversation.
You mentioned “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (#5) and “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)”(#12). Then your next big hit was another Holvay and Beisber song, “Susan,” which is my favorite Buckingham’s song — minus that weird interlude that seems out of place.
“Out of place” is right. Jim Holvay had been working on “Susan” for a while and I think he was stuck when Gary added the bridge which tied it all together. The only bad thing about “Susan” was that then Guercio had this crazy idea to insert this backwards tape thing in it, this Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” element. We didn’t hear it until we were out on the road, and we really didn’t like it. Most radio stations cut it out anyway. We’d be doing an interview and they’d say, “We cut that part because when it’s playing, people change the station.” We’d tell them we agreed, and thank you very much. But the original charted high because it’s a great song. It has great changes in it. We now have this Miles Davis-type interlude, written by Marty Grebb, that we put in there and it works so much better. Usually Guercio was a great producer and had a great ear but putting that in there was a mistake. Unfortunately, he was also our manager — that’s the part he was not so good at and that’s where things weren’t so good for us. It’s a typical rock ‘n’ roll story.