Category Archives: Richie

The Star Blazers, the Stairways and the Wilmington scene

Vic Livingston wrote to me about two bands he played with in Wilmington, the Star Blazers and the Stairways. What follows is a snapshot of the Wilmington teen scene from 1965 to 1967 in Vic’s own words:

I learned guitar from Frank Baldo of Wilmington, whose son of the same name is a guitarist and band leader now. Baldo played like Django Reinhardt, lots of chord melody and rippin’ solos, and sang pop songs like a young Tony Bennett. He taught many of the town’s up and coming rock ‘n’ rollers, including Chuck Aarons, whom I replaced when I joined the Stairways in 1966. But first, let’s go back a year or so earlier:

The Star Blazers

“You Better Change” was a song I authored at the tender age of 15 while a student at Mt. Pleasant Junior High. It was recorded it at the old Ken-Del Studios in Wilmington. (Anyone know what happened to their masters?). I convinced our eighth grade class to make the record a class project, and we sold copies in school to raise money for the class. The lyrics went like this:

“I thought you loved me / But you put me down / Because you thought I was the kind to be led around / But I told you / that wouldn’t do / You better change / your mind / about me.”

Instead of singing the vocal myself, I recruited Dickie Roseman, who was the BMOC in those days, to sing the lead, which he did in a “bosso profundo” voice that sounded, well, pseudo-operatic and out-of-this-worldly at the same time. I figured Roseman had the “star power” to move more records. I wonder what would have happened if I had sung it myself. Maybe if it was just blandly mediocre and not really, really strange, maybe no one would have taken a second listen…

The Star Blazers featured a guy named Tim Isaacs on sax; Charlie Topkis on drums; myself on guitar; a keyboardist named Rusty (forget his last name, but he had red hair, of course – I think he went on to play with Johnny Neal and the Shapes of Soul) and an upright bass player whose father was a bone doctor in town (show me a list of osteopaths of that era and I’ll tell you).

The flip side, “Starchant,” was a weird instrumental that was half voodoo-rock and half Klezmer rock (we didn’t realize at the time we were inventing a “genre”!).

A few hundred copies were sold, but not in stores. It was strictly “private label” – a bake sale with grooves. The label’s name, “Galaxie,” was my invention… there was no such record label, no such company. It was just a name printed on the records to sound “cool.” I did copyright the song in my name, however.

The record was NEVER played on the radio. In fact, DJ Roger Holmes of WAMS-AM personally rejected it, to my face! I couldn’t blame him, because vocally, it sounded like bad opera set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

We were so disappointed at the poor sales and the rejection by the radio station that we went upstairs in a two-story house and hurled some of the 45s out the window like Frisbees.

Another more famous group to record at Ken-Del was “Alex, Ola Belle and the New River Boys and Girls,” an old-timey group that used to hold court in Campbell’s Corner, Kennett Square, PA and at Sunset Park near Kennett Square. I loved that old-timey music, too – even played in a bluegrass band.

But soul-tinged rock ‘n’ roll was my first musical love. My first band, the Nouvelles, played songs like “Chains” by the Cookies and the requisite “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry. This was in, like, 1962-63, pre-Beatles. Then the Beatles’ first albums come out and what’s on them, but “Chains” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” It didn’t take long before the Nouvelles and later, the Star Blazers, were doing American versions of the British Beatles doing American versions of the originals. But let the record show that even before the Beatles, we were turning American rhythm ‘n’ soul into American pop; not really our fault that they were just a little bit better than we were!

After I originally put up this post, Vic remixed the two Star Blazers songs, speeding them up and adding echo to Starchant. Vic said, “I wondered how ‘You Better Change’ would have sounded without the opera-like vocal. I used Sound Studio to speed up the pitch by about 3-4 percent. I think it sounds much better speeded up … a ‘what might have been’ audio alternative.” Hear them below:

The Stairways, fall 1967, l-r: Nino Puglisi; Rick Nardo on bass (replaced George Curtin); Paul Stratton drums (replaced Martel Day); Vic Livingston on vocals & lead guitar (replaced Chuck Aarons); and Rick Puglisi on vocals, sax.

The Stairways

The Stairways were begun by Eddie Stair in 1965 with George Curtin on bass, Martel Day on drums, Bob Bowersox & Chuck Aarons on lead guitar. They were joined by Anthony “Nino” Puglisi on lead vocals and saxophone, and his younger brother, Rick on vocals and sax. The original lineup changed as members went off to college, or fell victim to band politics. Their 45 “Don’t You Care” is a garage classic, while the instrumental flipside is making waves on the UK northern soul scene. They also recorded another song, “All Souled Out,” that may or may not have survived on acetate.

I was lead guitarist of “Nino (Puglisi) and the Stairways” from around 1966-68. I was Chuck Aaron’s replacement in the band. I bought his cherry-red Gibson Les Paul SG and then sold it to a guy named Norm Lewis and I’ve been trying to find him for years and buy it back! I then bought a Fender Jaguar, the hot “axe” back then, which is featured in the 1968 Mt. Pleasant H.S. yearbook in a picture of the Stairways. (Never did care for how it played — very buzzy and the strings would pop out of those bridge “grubs.” Now in my middle age I learn that all I had to do was replace it with a Mustang bridge. Who knew.)

The Stairways cut “Don’t You Care” early in ’66, before I was with the band. The song was written by Eddie Stair. The Stairways record was sold in stores and did get radio play on Willmington’s WAMS-AM.

The flip side of “Don’t You Care” was an instrumental version, tenor and alto saxes. A pretty screamin’ side, too. It was Chuck who taught me the lead lick he used on the record. George Curtin was our bass player, and I haven’t seen him for years. Martel Day was on drums, and Bob Bowersox, now a star presenter on the QVC shopping network, was second rhythm guitar after Eddie. A bit of over-staffing on the guitars, but that would soon end and the original six-man lineup would become five. More on that in a moment.Eddie Stair’s original band also had an instrumental called “Castaway.” Eddie, a trusting soul, sent it to a record company, unsolicited and uncopyrighted. The tape was returned some time later. Then after that, a group called “The Castaways” came out with the song, “Liar, Liar,” a garage band classic. Eddie always claims it was his song, with words added. Martel and George vouched for him, and I believe the story is true. So there you are, another alleged ’60s rock band ripoff story.

Then one day I got a call from Nino, telling me that Eddie was out of the group. I remember saying something like, “But the band’s named after him.” And Nino says, “Not anymore. It’s Nino and the Stairways now.” Very heavy.

After Eddie was fired, Vince Rago of Richie Records took us back into the studio to cut two more sides. It was at Frank Virtue’s studio on North Broad St. in Philly. Virtue had a big hit in the late ’50s with “Guitar Boogie Shuffle.” We went into his studios and cut a new song called “All Souled Out,” which was a pretty good record. But it never came out. Vince Rago wanted upfront money, I forget how much, for “promotion” of the record. I remember Nino saying that such expenses should be borne by the record company, and he refused to pay.

Rago held firm: No promo money and the record sits in the vault. Nino called his bluff on behalf of the band; no dinero. Guess what? The record never did hit the stores, or the radio. Rago meant business. As I remember it, the original tape did sit in Frank Virtue’s vault. Some years later, I called Virtue studios to inquire about the tape’s fate. I remember being told, perhaps by Frank Virtue himself, “Oh, we just got rid of a lot of old stuff that was sitting around.” So here’s the upshot: If Nino had agreed to pay the “promo” money, maybe our second record would be a cult classic, too… and if I had called Virtue sooner, perhaps I could have salvaged the tape and brought the record out as a “from the crypt” special! Ah, what could have been!

Rago’s son, Vinnie Jr., just recently told me that the masters from his father’s company were either lost or tossed by family members who didn’t recognize their potential value. As for the fate of “All Souled Out (backed with an instrumental version, as was our custom), I never saw any vinyl on it, or even an acetate. But Chris of told me that some collector in the UK thought he saw an acetate of “Souled” for sale over there. I’m trying to run that down; if it’s found, it’s another garage band fairy tale come true!

I’m pretty sure the Stairways played on the same bill as the Enfields and, of course, George Thorogood and Wayne Watson; they were “The Turfs” back then. The Stairways beat them at a Battle of the Bands, I think it was at the Elsmere Fire Hall. What a night that was! I remember that we all went back to the Charcoal Pit, a popular local eatery, and announced that there would be an “after-party” at my house in Green Acres (since my parents were away visiting my sister at college). About a hundred kids jammed our house, broke a window or two, and then the folks came home early and the party was over.

I think there’s a chance we once played on the same bill as the Castiles, Bruce Springsteen’s band, maybe at that same Battle of the Bands. But it could be that popular mythology is merging with my teenage band memories! If anyone reading this is close to the Boss, ask him if he remembers the Stairways when he was playing the Wilmington circuit (which history shows that he most definitely did).

Nino, our lead singer and alto sax player, was tragically murdered in 1998, almost exactly ten years ago this spring. When Nino died, I was so upset that I couldn’t bring myself to go to the funeral. The Wilmington News-Journal ran huge news stories about his murder, and accompanying one piece was a photo of the Stairways with Nino, Ricky, and me in the middle (listed by the paper as “unidentified”).

In a real sense, Rago was/is an unsung hero of Wilmington’s cultural history. He was a tough, no-nonsense guy who sometimes demanded that his groups cede control to him (he owned the publishing company as well as the record label). And we didn’t like that side of him. But he also professed a real love for the music; many of his biggest acts, such as Teddy and the Continentals back in the late ’50s, were blacks, and Rago was a tireless promoter of black music as well as garage band rock ranging from soul and avant garde / psychedelic to proto-punk. His legacy deserves to be memorialized.

Vic Livingston

Special thanks to MopTop Mike for the scan of the Stairways 45. If anyone has a copy, scan or transfer of the Richie version of All Souled Out, please get in touch!