Even if Ron Dante’s name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably already a fan. As the lead singer of the late-Sixties cartoon bubblegum band the Archies, Dante had a #1 hit with the Andy Kim and Jeff Barry-penned “Sugar, Sugar” in 1969.
But because the Archies only appeared as a cartoon band on their ubiquitous Saturday morning TV show, you would never know it was Dante’s vocals behind Riverdale’s favorite redheaded teen crooner unless you did your due diligence.
That same year, Dante had another hit as the anonymous singer behind the Cufflinks’ “Tracy,” which hit the 1969 charts at #9 just as “Sugar, Sugar’s” popularity was quickly fading. The only problem was that the Cufflinks didn’t exist outside the studio and were merely a creation of songwriters Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss.
Ron Dante’s vocal chops always seem to be appreciated by music insiders, but to casual fans, he’s been shoved behind the veneer of a lot of faceless studio outfits.
Dante also recorded under the goofy names the California Gold Rush, the Pearly Gate, Ronnie and the Dirt Riders, and Noah’s Arc, prompting confusion for fans as to what Dante actually sang on and the chronological course of his career.
Hopefully, this trend will change with the release of Anthology, a two-disc CD set featuring a collection of Dante’s music under his own name and as part of many producer-driven pseudonym projects. Included is the ubiquitous “Sugar, Sugar,” (in two different versions!), but “Tracy” is conspicuously absent.
Dante, who curated this collection himself, seems to be gunning for a lot of rare material here which results in there being a few previously hard-to-find gems and some tracks that are definitely for completists only.
One of the strongest aspects of this set is the well-written liner notes by roots-music expert Bill Dahl. Dahl, through what appears to be a series of interviews with Dante, creates an excellent linear summation of his musical path from a kid with dreams of emulating Elvis to diligent music-biz workhorse.
Stories about Dante’s encounters with music legends like Barry Manilow, Bobby Darin, and Clive Davis are all highly engaging. In fact, my biggest complaint about the set is that the sequencing of tracks doesn’t follow enough of a chronological order to accurately track Dante’s progression as a vocalist or songwriter.
This disconnect between the tracks and liner notes makes it difficult to remember which story goes with each song. I found myself referring back to the liner notes often while listening through Anthology, and having to leaf through them to locate the paragraph associated with each song was slightly frustrating.
Dante’s eternally youthful is one of the key aspects that made him such a good choice to anchor the Archies’ project. Where Dante really shines on this compilation is on tracks where he’s singing material that has the Archies-esque snap and drive.
The Toni Wine-penned ballad “That’s What Life is All About,” with its lush and soaring chorus, definitely does. As do all of the excellent cuts presented here from Dante’s RCA/Kirshner “solo” record Let Me Bring You Up. “Solo” is in quotes because this was a group effort from the same team behind the Archies just after the bubblegum-music fad had passed.
Released under Dante’s own name in an attempt to jumpstart his solo career, the title track written by Andy Kim and Jeff Barry is particularly transcendent and should have been a hit on par with “Sugar, Sugar.” It seems like Kim and Barry’s aesthetic always brought out the best in Dante’s vocals. Dante also has some great turns as a songwriter in this section, with his self-penned tracks, “Jo-Anna” and “A Million Voices.”
Also of note are the Barry Manilow-produced songs: the Elton John-influenced “Charmer,” which won an American Songwriter’s Festival award in 1974 and the string-infused rocker “Midnight Show.” If Dante released more material like this under his own name in the Seventies, more people may know him by name today.
Manilow and Dante also collaborated on a discofied version of “Sugar, Sugar” around the same time. Unfortunately, this track doesn’t fare quite as well. The tedious arrangement feels like a blatant cash in on the disco craze, which is a shame. With the right treatment under a producer like Nile Rogers, this saccharine sensation would have had real potential to become a disco hit.
In fact, Ron Dante’s career had its share of musical missteps. A bunch of songs represented are treacly to a fault, even for the bubblegum aficionados that love their pop extra sugary. The backend of both discs are pretty rough, with disc one including Dante’s forgettable cover of the novelty hit “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” That track is followed by the lyrically inane “Free,” which features the chorus, “And he wants to be free, free, free/so let him be, be, be/he wants to be free, free, free/Is that so hard to see?” Perhaps this song was a gentle nod to civil rights, but it’s hard to get through.
Dante then takes us to Beach Boys rip-off territory with “Yellow Van,” which wouldn’t have had a place in uneven, latter period Beach Boys albums.
On the tail end of disc two are some selections from the Paul Schaffer-arranged album Street Angel from 1981. Sadly, Dante just couldn’t seem to keep up with the modern musical trends of the time, although he definitely tried. There’s also a weird disco cover of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” on here, inspired by the titular musical, which counted Dante as a producer when it debuted on Broadway in 1978. It’s a shame that these forgettable tracks leave the compilation ending on a bit of a whimper when there is a lot of stronger material early on.
For those interested in Dante’s career as a whole, this set gives a partial taste. Many tracks here are worthy of rediscovery, especially the Manilow-, Barry-, and Kim-produced material. Perhaps Dante should have left some weaker tracks in the vaults.
For the finest examples of Ron Dante as a vocalist, I’d recommend any best-of Archies compilation. Those singles were the absolute best of what the bubblegum-music movement had to offer. It’s not a surprise that “Sugar, Sugar” was such a massive hit; it’s genuinely great and has stood the test of time.
As for Anthology, hopefully, it will attract Dante some new fans and help people who love a real Sixties or Seventies pop gem gain a stronger appreciation for his work. After all, he was a powerful songwriter and iconic singer when backed by creative teams who best brought out his talents. It would be great for more fans to know who he is beyond the anonymity of the Cufflinks or the Archies, and that’s why Anthology, for all its faults, is still worth a listen.
To get your copy of Ron Dante’s Anthology, head over to Amazon.