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 garagehangover.com 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.
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!