As usual, it was past midnight when Tommy Falcone pulled into New York City with a car full of teenagers. The yellow glow and tile walls of the Lincoln Tunnel fell away and a sparkling metropolis reared up before them like a dream. The kids in the backseat jockeyed wide-eyed to see the bright lights and big buildings, to take in the concrete and steel lit up like midday.
Though they lived just on the other side of Raritan Bay at the north end of the Jersey Shore, it was a rare occurrence for these kids to make a trip into Manhattan, then just beginning its slide into disrepute and decrepitude. It was even more rare to be there at a time when they’d normally be asleep, when the scandalous side of the city emerged in full streetwalking glory. But Falcone, a straight-laced sharp-dressed family man with a deeply unfashionable crew cut, had been doing this for years—working days at a corporate gig and living nights as a rock ‘n’ roll impresario, shuttling kids to and from the big city.
They pulled up the studio on West 48th Street, only a five minute walk from the seedy explosion of Times Square. Despite the late hour, Falcone was a whirlwind of activity in the studio, setting up microphones, helping the band tune, tweaking their arrangements, testing out strange echo effects, generating unusual sounds, throwing out a million ideas a minute, lighting cigarette after cigarette and leaving one burning on the edge of every amplifier. These late hours in the studio were discounted, and the teenagers would attempt takes until the sun was nearly up. And then, with minimal sleep, another day at the office for Falcone, another evening with the family, another late night in the studio with another group of teenagers making more magic.
The kids knew Falcone as an unstoppable fountain of human energy—a DIY pioneer and indie label mogul before such things were celebrated, a songwriter, a performer, a trained accordionist, an arranger, a talent scout, a producer, a promoter, a mentor, a manager, and a salesman all rolled into one. From 1960 to 1970, Falcone produced an unending stream of wild visionary music and released it on a half-dozen different labels, including his own. He founded Cleopatra Records from his home in Hazlet, New Jersey, ran the label from his basement, and recruited bands that practiced in garages.
The story of Cleopatra is first a romance, then a tragedy—a tale of obsession, invention, and mortality that spirals out to include rapping cops, karate-chopping robots, and suicide-inspired religious conversions. With an interest in everything, Falcone tried anything, chasing the popular trends of the era and anticipating a dozen more: surf, soul, doo wop, girl groups, garage rock, novelties, exotica, pop, crooned balladry, teen idols, protopunk, psychedelia, and more. Songs ranged over topics as wide as lovestruck ducks, sexual predators, and meta-commentary on the music industry itself. But the officially released material was only a small fraction of his relentless output, and many of Cleopatra’s best tunes remained unheard and unreleased, scattered for decades on dusty reels and lost acetates.
And there in the studio in the middle of the night, amid the cigarette smoke and the instruments, the snaking patch cords and the wild teenagers, was Falcone’s wife, Charlotte—Cleopatra herself—laughing and shaking a tambourine with all the joy in her heart.
Ballad of a Recording Company
Before she became queen of the Nile, Charlotte Sims was a shy girl in Newark who loved music and hated new people. A prominent stutter had left her extremely self-conscious, alienated from her peers, and distrustful of strangers. The only reason she made Tommy Falcone’s acquaintance in 1948 was because of a lie.
When she was seventeen, Charlotte’s best friend, Jeannie, tricked her into a blind date. They’d been taking music lessons—Charlotte piano and Jeannie accordion. When Charlotte arrived at Jeannie’s house, she heard music through the front door, an accordion being played with unexpected precision and skill. “I thought, ‘Wow, is she good already. She really sounds great,’” Charlotte said. “And I knock on the door and she answers the door and the music is still playing. I said, ‘Who’s playing the accordion?’ stuttering, and she knew I would turn around and walk away . . . so she just pushed me right in.”
Inside, she found her future husband, Tommy Falcone, then twenty years old, wowing the family with his musicianship. Charlotte sat silent, teetering between delight at the music and embarrassment at the deception. Jeannie was dating his best friend, and the four of them took a ride in Tommy’s car to a downtown Newark music shop that rented practice rooms by the hour. Charlotte immediately decided to quit her piano lessons. “After I met him and I heard him play, I said, ‘I’m not going to bother.’ I’ll never ever sound as good as he does,” she said. They played music, hung out, and went for burgers at White Castle. Charlotte didn’t say a word the entire night. Within two years they’d be married.
But her silence persisted through a second date, until finally Tommy had enough. “You are the quietest girl I’ve ever met. Don’t you ever have anything to say?” Charlotte recalled him saying.
“I, I, I, s-s-stutter,” she replied, mortified.
But even hearing her broken, halting speech and seeing the color rising in her cheeks, Tommy was unflappable: “Well, we’re going to have to work on that.”
Her secret revealed, Charlotte worried that his attraction now came from a savior complex: “He was interested in this dumb woman who couldn’t talk, and he was determined that he could help me.” For all his skills as a musician and producer, Tommy may have missed his calling as a speech pathologist—he seemed intuitively to understand the problem. Decades before self-affirmation became common, Tommy instructed Charlotte to make positive statements to herself in the mirror: “You’re going to say, ‘Charlotte, you are the best person in this world, there is no one better than you.’”
They took long drives together until she was comfortable and confident enough to open up, and as they fell in love, the daily affirmations began to work—Charlotte slowly shed her timidity and her stutter. “I remember saying to him, ‘You know Tom, you’re right. I am the greatest person in this world, and there is no one better than me.’”
Unfortunately, Tommy’s proposal was prompted by the looming shadow of war in Korea. Over a shared ice cream soda, he told Charlotte he’d been drafted. They should be married before he left for basic training. It struck her as an unusual proposal: He didn’t say, “Will you marry me?” or even “I want you to marry me,” Charlotte said. “Just ‘I think we should get married. And I just looked at him and I said, ‘Okay.’ He was a very, very confident man.” They were wed December 16, 1950.
His plans to make a life in music were on hold: by March 1951, he was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training; six weeks later, he was sent to Camp Pickett, Virginia. Tommy was eager for the company of his new wife, and expected her to follow. “He had this idea that wherever he went, I had to go,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well I’m not going to go to Korea.’”
He arranged a room for her on a farm not far from the base. When word came that Tommy would be shipping out for Munich, West Germany, and not the Korean peninsula, Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief. Her young husband was safe.
“He was only there a month when I received the news from him that he said, ‘Sell the car, get the plane ticket, and get over here,’” she said. It was not a plan endorsed by Uncle Sam. “I would have absolutely no support whatsoever from my country. My status would be ‘visitor.’” She arrived in time for their one year wedding anniversary.
In Germany, she found a ruined world still scarred with evidence of the last war—bombed out buildings, shattered windows, walls riddled with bullet holes, soldiers in the smashed streets. She spent the winter sleeping on a cot in an unheated basement with a shared bathroom. Things got better as the weather warmed up and she moved in with a German doctor and his family.
No longer the shy stutterer of her youth, Charlotte’s illegal “visitor” life in Germany began to feel like a great adventure. Without a work visa, she spent her days taking raft rides down the Rhine and hanging out at the American service club—befriending the soldiers, becoming a skilled ping-pong player, and picking up a nicotine habit. She even found her place on the stage.
Tommy had put together a small combo that performed “all-American songs” for the GIs and were broadcast on the American radio station. Charlotte, of course, was always involved. “Whether it was acting, playacting, or just hitting a tambourine while the guys were playing their instruments, he would always find something for me to be there for,” she said.
They returned to New Jersey in 1953 after a year and three months. Back in Newark, Tommy used his army pay to buy a Cadillac and took a job at Gulf Oil, working his way up to district manager for the area’s gas stations and eventually writing them a jingle for radio advertisements. Despite the corporate life, he kept his musical dreams alive, playing out every weekend, performing standards on the accordion. Charlotte, of course, had to attend every gig.
“He would say, ‘You’re my inspiration, if you’re not there, I don’t feel like playing.’ Okay, sounded good to me,” she said. The shows were an opportunity for the formerly shy girl to show off her glamorous side, dressing up in different styles with jewelry, makeup, and a whole range of cigarette holders. “I would have different ones for different outfits because I wanted to look really good,” she said.
After a day on the shore, they checked out a model home in Hazlet on a whim and wound up buying it, giving the salesman $10 to hold the lot. The Falcones didn’t know during their tour of the property, but two things were about to change their lives: Charlotte was pregnant after years of trying, and rock ‘n’ roll was about break. The house, the baby, and the music were all delivered within a month of each other—in February 1956 they moved into their new home just as Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” began it’s remarkable run up the charts; in March, their first daughter, Melody, was born. Two years later, Tammy arrived and six years after that, Kimberly. It wasn’t enough for the Falcones: they adopted two more kids and cared for a total of eighteen foster children over the years.
Charlotte’s love of fostering children was later immortalized by Tommy in “Our Mommy Bought a Baby,” a silly song he wrote in 1963 for Melody and Tammy. The girls were just seven and five years old, respectively, and he dubbed them the Lollipop Sisters, treating them just like any of his other acts, complete with rehearsals, promotional photos in matching dresses and oversized suckers, and a trip to the recording studio. “My parents were very cool,” Melody said. “They were not traditional in any sense of the word.”
The Falcone home was a site of growth and creation not just for the kids—it also birthed Cleopatra Records. Tommy’s first official release came in April 1960. It was a time of smash hit novelty records, and he loved them all—the Cleopatra master tapes are littered with oddball tracks, many never officially released, and it’s fitting his career began with the strangest novelty of all.
Credited to the Ducklings, “Wacky and Quacky” featured Tommy and Charlotte as crazy-voiced ducks in a take on the then-popular craze for high-pitched sped-up vocals that had brought Alvin & the Chipmunks such huge success in 1958. The single came in a picture sleeve that misspelled the title, with a cartoon male duck in a top hat looking through swirling hearts at a dancing female duck in a bonnette. The flip was an instrumental credited to Tom Falcone and the Starlighters. The track was an early success for Tommy, garnering enough interest to see release on 20th Century Fox and earn a mention in Billboard, which compared it to Donald Duck and rated it “★★ – Moderate Sales Potential.”
Preparing for the future, Tommy soundproofed the basement to use as a practice space and began looking for local rock bands.
The most resonant room in the Newark Public Library in 1958 was the locker room where Gary Swangin practiced his singing. Swangin, a high school student who worked part time at the checkout desk, would often sneak away during breaks to hone his technique and work on an original song, “The Promise of Love”—until he got caught.
When coworker Salvatore Girgenti heard it echoing off the tile and steel, he was so taken that he suggested they play together. With Girgenti on rhythm guitar, they recruited the D’Amato brothers, Charles, who played drums standing up, and Peter on lead guitar. “Peter was older than we were, I know that, and he was more serious than we were,” Swangin said, “very quiet, soft-spoken guy.”
Johnny Silvio, who later worked with D’Amato, agrees: “He was very blase and didn’t smile a lot. He just didn’t fit the picture for a lead guitar player at the time.”
The library would prove crucial in another way. Swangin checked people’s books and bags as they exited the building, bringing him into contact with a wide range of folks—including Tommy Falcone. “Tommy was an interesting guy, he was very hyper,” Swangin remembered.
D’Amato’s neighbor Francis Corragio brought virtuosity to their nascent band, at first playing an amplified upright bass. Corragio had started playing at eleven years old, and by the time of the Centuries he was taking lessons from members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. “I was really interested mostly in playing classical but I ended up playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said.
“He was strange,” Corragio said. “His wife was absolutely gorgeous at that time and Tommy Falcone was kind of nerdy. He was out of style compared to his wife. . . . I remember thinking, ‘What did she ever see in him?’”
As always with Falcone, the topic of music came up and Swangin saw his opportunity. “I said to him, ‘You know I can sing’ . . . but I’d never sung publicly or in front of people at all.” Still, Falcone took the teens to Hertz Recording Studio in Newark to get “The Promise of Love” on tape—a dreamy doo-wop fantasia. “It was like an orchestra studio,” Corragio said. “We were really impressed as young kids. We felt we were big time.”
Swangin recording "Promise of Love."
Swangin, choosing to record under the name Gary Marlow, saw an instant change in Falcone as they stepped into the studio—his normally hyperactive demeanor seemed to settle and focus as his life’s purpose lay directly before him. “I always found him calm except for the time when he was out of the studio,” Swangin said. “You could see that he struggled. I don’t know how he did it, but it seemed like he ate, slept, did everything around producing music.” Swangin believes this recording was issued on Lionel Hampton’s Glad Records, and even received royalty payment, but information is scant.
It was only after the recording session that Gary Marlow & the Centuries played their first show, at the Garden State Shopping Plaza in Paramus. Falcone soon had the group paired with Joseph Null Jr., an African American singer from Newark about a decade older than the band. Falcone had given him the stage name Joe Templeton and had previously used him uncredited as the nonduck vocals on “Wacky and Quacky.” He now had them pursue a similarly off-the-wall song, “Little Miss Mousey,” based on the seventeenth century ballad “Froggie Went A’Courting.”
“They took the melody and kind of rock ‘n’ rolled it up,” Carragio said. The song wouldn’t see release until August 1962 when the Amy label paired it with “Lover Be Fair” as the b-side. It earned a review in the October 13, 1962 issue of Cash Box: “Templeton is the pro vocalist, while a combo-chorus go a-rockin’ with finesse.”
By 1960, Swangin’s education at Rutgers University was taking priority and his musical ambitions were expanding. “I thought I had to evolve faster than the Centuries musically,” he said. He went on to Columbia University and performed in the Greenwich Village folk scene with a far-ahead-of-its-time fusion of modern lyricism with African rhythms. His astronomical impulses eventually took over and he began writing a suite of “songs from time and space,” with which he still tinkers. Today, he lives a life among the stars as a professor of astronomy and the director of a planetarium—and even has a planetarium in Afghanistan named after him.
Gary Swangin (3rd from right) visiting physicist Robert Wilson at Bell Labs just prior to Wilson receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics for detecting cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang.
With Swangin gone, the band took a sharp turn into new waters rough with surf—losing lyrics but compensating with invention and melody. The Centuries transformed into an instrumental rock group inspired by the space race and Polynesia, becoming Falcone’s very own version of the Ventures with whom to explore the then-burgeoning sounds of surf rock and exotica. “I think Peter was wishing he could do like that. That’s also one of the reasons I left the Centuries,” said Swangin. The releases came fast, eventually making the band the most prolific of all the Cleopatra artists—six more singles on five different labels.
Though nearly all of their material was written by Falcone or D’Amato or both, 1961’s “Ship-To-Shore” b/w “Like Weird,” on the Design label, is the only release credited to Tommy Falcone & the Centuries, likely because Falcone himself played the wild bouncing organ riffs on the tracks. It would be the second and last release to feature his name as an artist. The group was also used as the Cleopatra house band for a time, backing up other singers and releasing material under different names.
Falcone was successful in licensing more Centuries material for releases on other labels: in 1962 Flamingo released “Chihuahua Cha Cha” b/w “You’re A Dirty Robber” and a vocal 45, “She Wobbles (All Night Long)” b/w “Do It,” credited to Four Hits & A Miss (acc. by The Centuries). In 1963 the Carlton label released the Dick Dale–worshipping “Anniversary Hop” b/w “Theme of the Centuries.” Their releases on Cleopatra Records include 1963’s spacey “The Outer Limits" b/w "Polynesian Paradise” and 1964’s “Jack 23” b/w “4th Dimension,” their final release. “Beach Umbrella World,” with an unknown vocalist, went unreleased.
“Like Weird” is a perfect title for Falcone and his genius for sound. These early sides demonstrate his talent for inventing mutant sonics and throwing them into otherwise ordinary tunes, demonstrated by Carragio’s tuba on “Chihuahua Cha Cha” and the faux-exotic vocals on “Polynesian Paradise”—provided by Harriet Rogers, the stage name of opera singer Harriet Wagenheim. Falcone’s instinct toward novelty occasionally found him inventing the future: the spacey noises of “The Outer Limits” and the theremin on “4th Dimension” are among the earliest known uses of electronic sound in rock ‘n’ roll.
Harriet Rogers recording "Polynesian Paradise."
Although Swangin had been out of the group for years, a rerecording of “Promise of Love” was finally released on Amy in May 1963 with a different vocalist, credited to the Montgomery’s. The flip was occupied by “Gotta Get a Hit (Ballad of a Recording Company),” written by Tom De Cillis, a local deejay, label owner, and songwriter. A rewrite of “Kissin Krazy” by Richie Dennis—orchestrated by Nick Massi of the Four Seasons—the song is a wonderful and bizarre piano romp with hysterical vocals all about the recording industry and it served as a theme song of sorts for Cleopatra, complete with shout-outs to a number of Falcone’s artists, including the Centuries, Bernadette Carroll, and Johnny Silvio.
When and why the Centuries ended is unknown; the fate of Salvatore Girgenti and the D’Amato brothers is a mystery. “I don’t know that we actually broke up,” Carragio said, “I may have just left the group because I was getting drafted.” He entered the Navy in 1964, joining the service band on tuba and upright and electric bass. While in the military, Carragio studied early computers, room-sized behemoths programmed not with code but with wires, and later went to work on Wall Street developing software for NASDAQ. Much like Swangin, he never stopped playing music, performing with the George Lang Orchestra for eighteen years and, after a move to Florida, the Jacksonville Symphony, the St. Augustine Orchestra, and the Fascinating Rhythm Orchestra.
The D'Amato brothers.
The story of the Centuries gets murky from here. Much of the Cleopatra story does at times. The act of documenting Tommy Falcone’s work is complicated by the fact that nothing was ever singular in his world—the same band used different names, different bands used the same name, variations of the same songs were done by multiple singers, the same backing tracks were used in different songs years apart, and some groups appear not to have existed at all outside a recording studio. For instance, the Centuries themselves were credited under no fewer than three pseudonyms and their “4th Dimension” was the exact same track as “The Outer Limits,” but with different effects; “Jack 23” was later recycled as the Shoestring’s “Shoop-de-Hoop Twine” and overdubbed with vocals as both the Killer Joe Piros’ “Let’s Kangaroo!” and the Shandillons’ “Shoop De Hoop Twine.” Some of the master tapes have no credits at all, leaving the musicians and groups completely unidentified. Others who did have releases, like Russ Raymond and Jimmie Davis, have left behind little besides names so generic as to be unfindable and a few songs sliced into vinyl.
The fate of Joe Null, however, is known: He continued to appear uncredited as a session vocalist on Falcone productions for years before ditching his dreams of fame. Unlike Swangin, who found a different route to the stars, Null entered a more earthbound profession, serving for decades with the Newark Police Department before retiring and passing away in 2015 at the age of 85. Swangin, whose father was a policemen, had a final encounter with him on the department’s annual fishing trip. He attempted to reminisce but Null, surrounded by his colleagues, felt a surge of embarrassment over his old life, his old dreams. “Whatever you do,” he told Swangin, “don’t ever tell anybody that I recorded that song called ‘Miss Mousey.’”
Joe Null (left).
Bernadette Carroll lived a reckless teen life, sneaking out of the house at night with friends at only 14 years old. But the illicit destination wasn’t one of the usual hang-outs for young delinquents—it was the local recording studio, a spot so hot with the young girls of Linden, New Jersey, that Carroll ended up meeting the other members of the Angels there in 1959.
Though not a household name, Bernadette Carroll became one of the most successful vocalists of the girl group era. She charted as a member of the Angels, as a solo act, and as a for-hire backup singer, and performed on at least two number 1 hits that sold over a million copies each. You’ve heard her voice, whether you know it or not.
Tom De Cillis, a local disc jockey who had branched out into songwriting and producing, found enough kids hanging around the Linden studio to put together a girl group, the Ifics, who would become the Starlets, in 1959. The original line-up consisted of sisters Barbara “Bibs” and Phyllis “Jiggs” Allbut, Lynda Malzone, and Bernadette Carroll.
De Cillis landed them a deal with Astro, a jazz label looking to make inroads in the new rock ‘n’ roll market, and the Starlets released the haunting, spectral “P.S. I Love You,” b/w “Where Is My Love Tonight?” It charted at number 102 in the US in 1960 and featured Carroll’s first released lead vocal on the flip. The record’s popularity sent the underage girls on the road playing local record hops, radio stations, and amusement parks, with De Cillis as their driver.
“I was still in school and our appearances and rehearsals were limited,” said Carroll. “They could only be on weekends and holidays.” Their follow-up single, “Romeo and Juliet” b/w “Listen for a Lonely Tambourine,” didn’t earn the same kind of notice and it wasn’t long before a starstruck De Cillis began to focus on Carroll as a solo act, ditching the Starlets entirely.
In 1962, he released her debut singles on his own Julia Records, named after his mother: “My Heart Stood Still” b/w “Sweet Sugar Sweet” charted in a number of regional markets, and “Laughing on the Outside” b/w “The Humpty Dump,” a Falcone-penned set of instructions for a dance craze imagined as a competitor to the Twist.
The Falcone connection was fortuitous, as he would produce and released Carroll’s third single. Originally written by De Cillis for the Four Seasons and produced by Falcone in 1963, “Heavenly” was a maximalist marimba-laden Wall of Soundalike b/w “Pretty Bernadette,” an instrumental credited to the Rhythm Ramblers. Like much of Falcone’s best output, the sessions also produced a number of heretofore unreleased songs, including the lovely “Care a Little, Care a Lot” and the pleading “When We’re Older,” both featuring spoken word segments that contrasted Carroll’s feather-light singing voice with her rough-edged Jersey-chompin’ speaking voice. The year before, “When We’re Older” had been the b-side of the Falcone-affiliated Citétions’ single “That Is You” on Just Records, a group about whom we know nothing beyond a name.
Carroll’s fourth single, for Laurie Records, didn’t chart, but Laurie saw potential—with her next single, they’d have a hit. “Party Girl” stomped and clapped its way up the charts in 1964, plateauing at number 47 but staying for so long it overshadowed even her follow-up. The similarly party-themed “Happy Birthday” b/w “Homecoming Party” charted but didn’t have the same stamina. Two more Laurie singles met with declining interest, the death ballad “The Hero” and ultra-campy “Circus Girl.”
After Carroll’s departure, the Starlets reconstituted with a new lineup and a new name that would lead them to stardom. In 1961, Peggy Santiglia, formerly of the Delicates, replaced Jansen, and the trio christened themselves the Angels. Despite her work as a solo artist, “I was still connected to the Angels as friends, we were like sisters,” Carroll said. They often traded harmony vocals on each other’s tracks—in fact, it’s the Angels who appear as Bernadette’s “friends” on “Party Girl.” Which is how, despite not officially being in the group, Caroll wound up singing harmony on the Angels’ career-making, genre-defining number 1 hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
“No one knew what was about to become of that record,” she said. “The rest is history. Our sound was unique and I knew that I contributed to making that record a hit.” It remains one of a small handful of songs that immediately spring to mind when discussing the girl group sound—and the entire era.
Carroll found herself as an in-demand session vocalist backing up Connie Francis, Patty Duke, Frankie Lymon, and others. After her final solo single, “He’s Just a Playboy,” flopped in 1965, Carroll threw herself into session work and soon found herself in a new group. Lou Christie had replaced his previous backup singers, the wild, shrieking Tammys, with Jessica James and the Outlaws, a “bad girl” group featuring Carroll, Santiglia, and Denise Ferri. They provided the ecstatic, trembling harmony parts on Christie’s “Lightnin’ Striking” in 1966, another million-selling #1. Jessica James and the Outlaws put out two singles of their own on the Dyno Voice and Bronco labels in ’65 and ’66, and appeared on a number of early Frankie Valli solo cuts.
Lou Christie in the studio with Bernadette and The Angels
Though she’d never strayed far, Carroll eventually found her way back to the Angels. After “Boyfriend,” the group had a string of minor hits, but never again made the Top 20. Hoping for a hit with a new sound and a new identity, they’d taken to performing under a multitude of aliases, including the Powder Puffs, the Beach Nuts, and the Halos, but when Carroll officially rejoined the group, they resurrected the Angels name. Featuring the Allbut sisters and Carroll as official lead vocalist for the first time, the Angels released the Neil Diamond–penned “The Boy With the Green Eyes” b/w “But For Love” and “Merry-Go-Round” b/w “So Nice (Sambia De Verao)” for RCA in 1968. Despite an update in the group’s sound that positioned them as an adult-contemporary supper club act, the Angels’ fortunes were declining—the classic girl group era was fading, hopelessly wholesome and out-of-date compared to the emerging subversive sounds of psychedelic soul, funk, and long-haired acid rock. They broke up by the end of the year. After a short stint with the Serendipity Singers, the former party girl settled down. Bernadette Carroll left the music business in 1972 to marry and raise a family.
How Would You Feel
Freehold Borough in Monmouth County, New Jersey, would soon give rise to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring performers—but in the mid ’60s, the Freehold band tearing up the Jersey Shore, inspiring screaming fans and wild partisans, was the Rusty Chain. Forming in 1962, the group consisted Roy A. Smith on guitar, Charles Mongano on bass, and brothers Jack Alt on guitar, and Doug Alt on drums.
But when Falcone heard the Rusty Chain, it wasn’t the band that caught his attention, it was their striking friend Johnny Silvio, a pompadoured nineteen-year-old from Morganville who sometimes performed with them. “He was gorgeous in an Elvis Presley sort of way,” Melody Falcone remembered, “and he sang beautifully and he was quite charming.”
Falcone, sensing opportunity, invited the Silvio and Smith to audition their original material at his home in Hazlet—without the band. Silvio remembered singing “How Would You Feel” for him with the house full of children. Falcone was impressed with the song, scheduling it for a future a-side, and Silvio was impressed with Charlotte’s glamour and confidence—she had been utterly transformed by marriage, motherhood, music. “I don’t remember her ever stuttering,” Silvio said.
At this point, Tommy Falcone was growing disillusioned with his corporate day job, yearning for the day one of his records hit it big enough that he could exchange the office for the freedom of music all day everyday. But his clout at Gulf Oil still came in handy: he set up Smith and Silvio in an empty garage at a service station to rehearse before their recording date. “It was all kind of just trying to get me to be more relaxed and better at singing because I didn’t have any formal lessons. Everything I did I did on my own,” Silvio said.
Falcone’s imagination and ambition were growing along with his skills. He was no longer satisfied with the sound quality available in New Jersey—at Hertz or anywhere else. He found new favorites, first at Mastertone and then at A&R Recording on West 48th Street in Midtown Manhattan, and found a new partner in young engineer Fred Weinberg, then just beginning a monumental studio career. Weinberg would end up working for everyone from Paul McCartney to Barbra Streisand, earning a lifetime achievement Grammy, and even analyzing the Nixon Watergate tapes for the Defense Department. But Tommy Falcone was one of his very first clients, walking in off the street to book a session.
"It was really great working with him…. He had a great attitude for what he did,” Weinberg recalled. Charlotte, as always, attended the sessions. “They were very close as far as I remember, even as far as production. I think she even had some ideas that she gave Tommy.”
“He added his own crying voice at the end,” Silvio said, laughing. “Roy and I hated it.”
With Smith on bass and members of the Centuries as a backing group, Silvio cut “How Would You Feel” with Weinberg, and one of Falcone’s originals for the b-side, “Dance Baby Dance.” During the sessions, Falcone played organ and, strangely, his tears. “He added his own crying voice at the end,” Silvio said, laughing. “Roy and I hated it.”
The single saw release on Flamingo in August 1962 with a promotional strategy centered around a series of Bandstand-like sock hops. Silvio went as far as Washington, D.C. to lip sync along with the record until he finally heard it played in the wild—at a gas station on the New Jersey Turnpike. “At that time, to hear your song on the radio was a real treat,” he said. “It just didn’t sell a lot.”
A follow up session at A&R a few months later produced “Julieanne,” with Smith’s wife Sue singing the haunting falsetto background vocals. The song was a strange fusion—from the mournful exotica-tinged mystery of the verses to the then-unusual tempo changes of the chorus to an unexpectedly upbeat Elvis-shaking outro. Familiar in its parts but unconventional as a whole, there was little else like it on the radio in 1962, which is perhaps why it was never officially released.
By 1964, Silvio was disillusioned, married, and leaving music behind for a place in the clouds, becoming a commercial airline pilot. “I came to the realization at that point that I was just another singer with a limited ability and it was just not going to work out for me,” he said.
For Your Love
In 1961, Newark’s hottest hang-out was the Cadillac Car Hop, where waitresses in roller skates delivered burgers and malts direct to customer vehicles. The Reminiscents formed amid the fumes and fryer grease, a semi-delinquent gang of eighteen year olds singing to impress the girls who clustered there—Edward “Jukebox” Pasterczyk, Rocco Galante, Danny Buckley, and later Paul Whistler.
“Jukebox started the whole thing,” Galante recalled. “Everybody always called him Jukebox, never called him Eddie.” Pasterczyk had earned this nickname in a very literal way—by harmonizing with the jukeboxes at the car hop before the group formed. “I would sing anywhere he wanted me to sing, I didn’t care,” Galante said.
The car hop wasn’t the only bit of auto culture that shaped their fate: caught in a fateful traffic jam, a frustrated Tommy Falcone rolled down his window only hear Jukebox harmonizing with friends on a Newark street corner. He was so impressed with the doo-wopping sound that he signed Jukebox on the spot—and the Reminiscents became the very first single released on Cleopatra Records.
Taking a cue from his friend Tom De Cillis’s Julia Records, Falcone had been planning his own label for months to release the material he couldn’t or wouldn’t sell to bigger enterprises—not just writing and producing the songs, but now taking the responsibility for pressing the 45s, for distributing and promoting them. The name of his publishing company, Top Ten Music, was aspirational, but the name of his record label would be a tribute.
“Tom used to like to take pin-up pictures,” Charlotte said. “I have a whole spool of pictures he used to take of me.” In all the costumes, in all the poses, Tom’s favorite photo was Charlotte dressed up as the Egyptian queen, lounging with smokey eyes, a stack of hair, and a flash of leg. He printed up business cards, letterheads, 45 labels all emblazoned with his wife looking alluring and defiant as Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was also smash-hit in theaters across the world that year, then the most expensive film ever made. It nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and the producers were not amused. “I had gotten a letter that we were not allowed to use Elizabeth Taylor’s photo in any way, shape, or form,” Charlotte remembered, laughing. “And my husband went back and said, ‘That’s not Elizabeth Taylor, that’s my wife and I can prove it!”
Cleopatra Records was a far more homespun affair than the big budget movie. Falcone incorporating on November 5, 1963, with himself as president and Charlotte as secretary-treasurer. To help finance the label, he sold stock to friends, family, and coworkers at Gulf Oil. Within a year, he’d sold 2000 shares at $10 a pop. Cleopatra not only paid dividends, but issued regular operating reports to its shareholders that detailed losses and profits. “If you are at all interested in ‘swinging’ with Cleopatra, you may do so by purchasing any amount of stock,” the December 1964 report proclaimed. “If you do not wish to swing with Cleo, we thank you anyway for your time and consideration.”
“I think Tom was basically in a money bind,” Johnny Silvio said, “he was running up to New York all the time and I remember his wife, one time we went over there, she had tears in her eyes because I think they were afraid she they were going to lose their house.”
With the business established, Falcone took the Reminiscents into the studio in 1963 to cut the exuberantly bouncing “For Your Love” with Paul Whistler on lead b/w “Please Lie to Me.” It charted locally, bringing the group no small amount of Jersey fame and sent them out on the road.
Most accounts have them lasting only two to three years, but Galante said the Reminiscents persisted until at least 1969 and appeared on several other Cleopatra productions singing backup harmony. Jukebox, for certain, remained involved with Falcone for the rest of the decade as a member of Vickie & the Van Dykes and the Shandillons. If the lifespan of the Reminicents remains a mystery, so does their end—though Jukebox’s wife, Debra Pasterczyk, hints that it involved a possibly Mafia-related stabbing he suffered. “I think there was some funny business there. That’s all I’m saying,” she said.
After the stabbing, Galante joined the Pageants, another local vocal harmony group, touring until 1975. By the ’80s, he was a DJ and karaoke master for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs, continuing to this day. Jukebox and Buckley, meanwhile, released a comedy album on local Gladd Records, Buck and Box: Live! at the Men’s Room, with a cover claiming it is “Rated X.” Jukebox, always restless, took off for California in the early ’70s, spending a month hitchhiking crosscountry to appear on the Steve Allen Show—a story that actually earned him an interview on the program.
Returning to New Jersey, Jukebox found himself facing reality—he’d been stabbed, his band was over, and his music career had brought neither fame nor fortune. He’d need a real job, one with benefits and a pension. He took the civil service exam in 1972 and joined the Irvington Police Department, becoming Cleopatra’s second singing policeman. “It was kind of like, wild bad boy becomes a cop,” Debra Pasterczyk said.
Despite the danger of the streets, his policing career brought him local fame as a hip-hop pioneer. Irvington was a city in decay, overwhelmed by violence, but it was also one bubbling with new forms of art. Hip to the streets, Jukebox used rapping as a way to communicate with the kids on his beat in their own language. “Irvington was majority African American,” Debra Pasterczyk said. “And it just fit that he would become a rapper. That’s why he was called the Cracker Rapper.” Among the earliest white rappers, he released “Chill Out Girl” in 1983 under the name Raheem Jukebox & Splice, Inc., on Golly Records—the same year that the Beastie Boys began their transition from punk to hip-hop. As the Cracker Rapper, he released “It’s a Bust” as a 12" single on Broccoli Rabe Records in 1984 and an electro version of the same song on Fresh Records in 1985, complete with 808 handclaps and synth-whistles. The hip-hop cop was popular enough to become a hit with school principals, rapping community service messages at student assemblies across Irvington.
Physical Fitness Blues
Then the Tabbys came on like a storm, straight out of a Hackensack. Despite the wild electricity of their recordings, most of what is known about them is shrouded in myth and mist. With lead vocalist Kenny Clay, first tenor Timmy Scudder, second tenor Butch Henry, and bass vocalist Melvin Edwards, the group provided Falcone with a dose of screaming lunatic soul. Ironically, they were sometimes also known as the Tranquils, a name appropriate only for the delicate doo-wop sound of their first single, “My Darling” b/w “Yes I Do,” released by Time Records in 1959.
Their second release was anything but tranquil—it was a down and dirty soul stomper, with indecipherable orientalist lyrics, two ripping sax solos, and a big resonant gong. One of Falcone’s most unhinged compositions, “Hong Kong Baby” saw release twice in one year, with “Physical Fitness Blues” as the flip—first on Metro International Productions in July 1963 and again three months later as the second single on Cleopatra.
Rumor also has them known under a third name, as one of the many groups referred to as Hi-Lites. When the Danbury, Connecticut, Hi-Lites broke up, their manager was still under contract with Julia Records. A year before “Hong Kong Baby,” he supposedly recruited the Tabbys to record as the Hi-Lites, cutting “Gloria My Darling,” released on Julia, and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” released on Record Fair.
Kiss Me Bye Bye
“I got started in this business in a minstrel show,” Tommy Manno said. “The whole group in blackface, and then it was a variety show.”
This wasn’t in the south, it was Fords, New Jersey, in the late 1950s—after Brown v. Board, after the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and it’s shocking, mind-boggling even, to realize that the tradition of race-baiting minstrel shows, a relic from before the Civil War, had survived so late in a state so far north.
But Tommy Manno didn’t know any of that. He was a twelve-year-old with a good voice and a taste for performing, and it was a way in to the entertainment industry. “I would sing. I would dance. I would tell jokes. I was the kid in the house entertaining for any family party,” he said, chagrined. “I’m assuming that somewhere along the line my mom and dad saw this and thought it was a good idea for me to audition.”
Amazingly, the minstrel show actually did launch him on a career toward a hit record, eventually earning him an audition in Atlantic City. At the time, the Steel Pier was the height of glitz and glamor, one of the most popular entertainment venues in the entire country. Billed as “An Amusement City at Sea” and “A Vacation in Itself,” the pier booked the era’s most popular performers, had its own magazine and radio station, and featured a diving horse and a water-skiing dog. Manno spent three summers in a row performing there seven days a week in Tony Grant Stars of Tomorrow, an extremely popular variety show of kids ages three to fifteen. “That was a big deal, I was on TV there, I had a fan club,” he said. “I was a kid signing autographs after the show.”
Today, the Brill Building is known as the unstoppable bubblegum hit factory of early rock ‘n’ roll, but many of the biggest songs of the era were actually written a block away at the less celebrated 1650 Broadway. His popularity on the pier often brought Manno to New York, and on one trip to 1650, he was stopped in the bustling lobby by Sid Prosen—a striving promoter, songwriter, and the owner of Flippin’ Records—who saw a star in Manno’s fresh good looks and confident bearing. Prosen had done this approach with teen singers before: after randomly overhearing them in the studio, he released Tom & Jerry’s “Hey Schoolgirl,” the very first single from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
“That’s For Me To Know” b/w “Too Good To Be True,” released on Flippin’ in April 1962, became a double-sided hit for Manno, quickly snapped up and re-released by Atlantic two months later. The surging popularity of the songs sent Manno to TV appearances with regional Bandstand clones, and out on bus tours of the midwest playing skating rinks, fairs, and auditoriums with the just emerging young stars from independent Motown. “You had thousands of kids screaming at all of these venues with all of these stars,” he remembered.
For Manno, it must have seemed like he’d been launched to a permanent place in the firmament, a burgeoning teen idol with an unlimited future—but Prosen, overmatched and unprepared by success, fumbled for a follow-up. “We went through dozens of songs with him but nothing that he could sell to the record label,” said Manno. Still searching for the ever-elusive hit, Tommy Falcone filled the void, jumping at the opportunity to work with an artist who’d already proven their hitmaking potential. “He was just kinetic,” Manno said of Falcone. They recorded four songs in a single night—including the soaring Bobby Darin–soundalike “Conceited,” something like a negative “Dream Lover.”
Old friend Joe Templeton was brought in to do the intro on “Gloria.” And Manno recalled Falcone’s genius for sonic invention: using a drumstick on a metal record rack for percussion; using a plunger on the bass drum to conjure up a bouncing sound effect. On “My Son the Doctor,” a novelty inspired by the hit shows Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Falcone put a clothespin on Manno’s nose to simulate the pinched voice of a hospital intercom. “He tried everything to come up with crazy ideas to make the sound a little bit different for the record,” Manno said.
There are at least two other known versions of “I’m Gonna Kiss Her Bye Bye,” the unknown Ovations made a double attempt with an upbeat “Kiss Me Bye Bye” and a slower “Won’t You Kiss Me Bye Bye.” Manno also recalls taking a pass at “Let’s Kangaroo!” though the only surviving version on Falcone’s tapes is credited to the Killer Joe Piro’s, a studio creation of Falcone’s named after the famed dance instructor who would release his own album the following year. This version appears to have Kenny Clay of the Tabbys on lead vocal. It’s one of Falcone’s weirdest productions, pitched halfway between novelty and insanity. “It felt to me like he had other people try to record these and he wasn’t happy with them and he wanted me to record them,” Manno said. “It sounded like he didn’t clean out some of the vocal track from other artists.”
The lightning fast sessions resulted in 1964’s dark rockabilly groover “Gloria (Is Her Name)” b/w “I’m Gonna Kiss Her Bye Bye” on Cleopatra, but the single stalled, unable to replicate the surprise double success of his earlier hit. “I don’t recall doing any record hops with it. I don’t recall promoting the record. I don’t recall anything like I did with my hit record,” he said.
Despite this, the end of 1964 was a good one for Falcone. He listed liabilities of $3971.00 in his end-of-year report to Cleopatra shareholders, and sales in the final quarter that had increased exponentially: September saw 1,227 singles sold, while December saw 4,411.
Tommy Manno, feeling limited as a frontman and burned by his dependence on other songwriters, reinvented himself as a singing drummer in local rock bands, eventually joining Panix, who became the Last Word. They toured the eastern corridor from Florida and Canada, and recorded with Ron Dante of the Archies, releasing “Thursday Morning (I’ll Be Coming ’Round)” b/w “A Good Thing Goin’” on Laurie Records in 1971, though the single did no better than Manno’s Cleopatra release.
When the Last Word saw their final stage, Manno started two new careers: becoming a disc jockey at WNNJ in Newton, New Jersey, and heading the entertainment division of the Great Gorge Playboy Club Hotel in Vernon. He booked acts at the club, toured as MC of the Bunnies ’76 bicentennial show, and formed Playboy house band AT&T, featuring vocals by Alyson Michaels, Great Gorge’s Bunny of the Year.
By the 1980s, the Playboy Clubs were in full collapse and the entire recording industry was changing. Manno, after twenty-five years of effort, prepared to escape. He gave up on entertainment entirely, leaving behind the lights and applause for life as a Florida hotelier. “Quite frankly, I never told anybody that I was in the entertainment business,” he said. “I thought I would never get a job if they thought I was in entertainment.” Today, he dons the old mantle, mounts the stage, and handles the microphone only at business functions, and only for employees.
Gee, But I'm Lonesome
David Clark’s first stage was a barn in Vermont and his first audience was filled with dairy cows.
“Two hours in the morning and two hours at night,” he said, “so while we were doing chores and emptying milk pails and cleaning up cow shit, I’d sing along to the radio. So four hours a day of practice, you’re bound to get pretty good at it.”
Despite the mooed applause of his bovine audience, Clark took the first opportunity to leave the barn for good—joining the military twenty days after his seventeenth birthday. By the time he was 24, he was discharged and living in Union Beach, New Jersey—right next to Hazlet—with a wife and four children. Times were tight, life was hard, and Clark ran himself ragged between work and home and the stage, trying to provide for the burgeoning family. “One year I had eleven jobs I had to put on my income tax return,” he said.
Clark had an overabundance of hustle and an under-abundance of rest, working six days a week as an auto mechanic and playing five nights as a singing drummer in country and western bands, averaging only two hours of sleep. “I did that for a lot of years,” he said. “It was very traumatic.”
Swirling through his hurricane of a life, Clark met another man of equal energy and drive in 1965 when he heard music coming from a local bar in Union Beach. Inside, he found Tommy Falcone pounding out hits on the accordion for a rowdy and participatory crowd who came on stage to sing along in a kind of protokaraoke. “Sounded like a three- or four-piece band, that’s how enthralling and interesting it was. I mean, fantastic musician,” said Clark. When Clark took his turn at the microphone, Falcone was so impressed that he not only took him into the studio, but invited him to join the act. “I wound up going over there and actually doing a gig with him at that same establishment for a couple years,” he said.
At this point, Tommy Falcone had quit his job at Gulf Oil and was making a living in music, but barely. Charlotte feared catastrophe: “I said, ‘But we have three children, we have a mortgage!’” she recalled. “I think it was like two years where he didn’t have a real paycheck.”
The money came in drips and drops from multiple gigs—from performing, from selling recordings to other labels, and from rack jobbing, which involved personally distributing records on consignment to local establishments comprised of drug stores, markets, sweet shops, and service stations that kept small stands of vinyl alongside comics and magazines. His stockholder report indicated 1,000 sales a week.
Looking for a job at other labels, Falcone also cut an audio resume to acetate with short sample clips of many of the songs he’d produced: “As of right now, I have independently produced seventeen records, thirty-four sides…. If I’ve made a dent on you at all, it would be a great pleasure for me to talk to you personally and play for you anything that I’ve done that might interest you. Thank you.”
He also made money teaching accordion at the Red Bank School of Music. Always scouting talent, Falcone eventually recruited several of his fellow faculty members to join him in the studio, including John Cubbage, a fifteen-year-old studying music theory and teaching bass at the school, and his brother guitarist Richard “Buzzy” Cubbage. Also involved was Jimmy Scott, a lead guitar player from local sensations the Clique.
“Things were hoppin’ around New Jersey and New York back then,” said Cubbage. “Everybody was trying to get a record out…. Every other garage had a group playing in it.” The problem for David Clark was that his name was already one of the most famous in rock ‘n’ roll. When his group Dave Clark and the Steelmen booked a show at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, the booker had expected an English pop group, not a New Jersey country band with a pedal steel guitar. “When I got to the club the guy said, ‘Well, you’re not the Dave Clark Five!’ And I said, ‘No, I never said I was.’”
This was the perfect opportunity for Tommy, of course, who liked to change and invent stage names, sometimes at whim. He’d already been mulling the Electric Storm as a band name, so the frontman of this imaginary group would have to be Thunder—Dick Thunder. Oil-stained and aching, Dick Thunder hit the studio to record vocals on a small batch of material including “Gee, But I’m Lonesome” and “I’m to Blame,” as well as “My Shadow Do,” on which the Cubbage brothers play. “Trying to get a record deal going, of course, was the optimum thing,” he said, “but I also had to make sure I went to work at the gas station, doing the mechanic work and pumping gas, washing windshields and airing up tires."
Falcone’s wizardry in the studio and appetite for bizarro sonics found him pioneering psychedelic sounds before LSD and acid rock were popular. “Gee, But I’m Lonesome” is a breezy pop number but for the vocals, which sound underwater—Falcone had run Clark’s voice through a rotating Leslie organ speaker, giving it a startling wah-wah effect.
None of the Dick Thunder material was ever released, though a version of the garage stomping “My Shadow Do” eventually hit turntables. The Inn Crowd, a possibly non-existent group with an unknown singer, released their version in December 1965 on 20th Century Fox with “We Gotta Runaway,” written by Eugene Viscione, on the flip. The entire year of 1965 is a curious blank spot in the Falcone story, as almost nothing is known about any of the groups who released singles. The 5 Coachmen, Kar Simone, and The Inn Crowd have collectively left no trace except the grooves in vinyl.
The ragged exhaustion of life in New Jersey eventually wore on Clark. In later decades, he escaped to Georgia and then to the Florida panhandle where he opened his own auto repair shop, became a correctional officer, and finally retired. “I had an interesting life,” he said, “and what I wanted bad enough was to make sure that my kids really knew who their dad was and that they could depend on him and he was gonna be there for them no matter what…. I kind of think on my gravestone that somebody will say ‘A Hell of Dad’ and I’ll be happy with that.”
Mad Charles Love Theme
Mad Charles was an eight-foot-tall karate-training robot, with four arms and two legs operated by air pressure. During a television special he financed, Eugene Viscione demonstrated his machine by having it face off against both a karate master and a boxer. When asked if even the world heavyweight champion could defeat a rampaging Mad Charles, Viscione replied, “There’s no way in the world he could take the robot. The air pressure on this robot goes to 240 pounds.” Then he covered the machine with “three daggers, an axe, nunchucks, and a mace” and battled it himself, dressed as a Roman gladiator.
If the scene around Falcone was overflowing with odd characters living creatively, then Eugene Viscione was the oddest by far. The man was a supernova of strange ideas and he pursued them all simultaneously, the mad genius of New Jersey: he was a singing barber, a songwriter, a music producer, a record hop host, and a label owner in his own right; but also an author, a movie producer, a presence on local access TV, the founder of a dozen publishing companies, the owner of an extraordinary range of copyrights, and an inventor who created things like Extension Lips, Tickle Fingers, and Mad Charles. He was also one of Tommy Falcone’s best friends.
Viscione's Tickle Finger Gloves
Viscione’s first career was as a barber, landing an afterschool job at a shop in Somerville, New Jersey, at the age of 13. His debuted his performance career shortly afterward on the stage of Somerville High School. “I started out with a smash my first big appearance,” he said. “I fell flat on the stage from a bicycle. I was supposed to come out singing ‘Daisy.’ But the girl with me must have weighed 200 pounds and we lost our balance and fell on the stage.”
Nothing so small as teenage embarrassment could deter him from all the ideas spilling out of his brain with increasing frequency. After graduating, he opened Geno’s Barber Shop in Finderne, New Jersey, and became known for serranading customers between snips. Inspired by a friend who gave him a Spanish guitar, he started writing songs in 1957, and organized a seven-piece band, the Encores, to perform his material in ’59. Only two months after “Wacky and Quacky” hit turntables, the Encores released the dreamy ballad “Love’s Encore” b/w “Fading Winds,” on Viscione’s own WGW label, followed in 1962 by the lovely “Rita My Teenage Bride,” which became a local hit. “He had a voice like Dean Martin,” said his daughter Lorraine Zdeb. “And when he went to get his record out there, it was like, well, I’m sorry, we already have a Dean Martin.”
Viscione’s oddball interests collided at the Manville Rustic Mall, where he opened a new barber shop—with a recording studio in the back. “I wasn’t thrilled with how he cut our hair,” said Zdeb. “It looked like we had a bowl on our head.”
Working days as a barber and pursuing music at night, Viscione’s unusual gravity attracted a truly stupendous number of bands. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I produced over 500 groups and artists…. garage bands, doo-wop, folk, pop, Western, etc.” An extremely abridged list of groups includes the Contessas, the Werp’s, the Reminiscents, the Inn Crowd, the Apostles, the Time Masheen, Kar Simone, the Jagged Edge, and many more.
By the time the Encores broke up, Viscione had become fast friends with Falcone. United by their mutual love of gonzo novelties and outre ideas, the two entered a long songwriting and production partnership and formed a business, Falcone-Viscione Productions, to collaborate on both Cleopatra and WGW releases. One of their earliest endeavors, “Parting Kiss,” was a crooner’s dream, a surging ballad of melancholy and melodrama. Originally recorded by Harriet Rogers, Viscione took a pass at the song himself, releasing it as Gino in 1965 on WGW, under Cleopatra Publishing.
The b-side was an instrumental version of the tune featuring a trumpet solo by Tony Camillo, one of Viscione’s other frequent collaborators. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I’ve known TC for many a moon. He was an artist on my label. We produced some things together when he was first trying to break into the pop field. I used to bring him with me over to Tommy Falcone’s Cleopatra Records…. Tony was kind of amazed at the time.” Camillo later found fame in 1973 as producer of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” His ongoing association with Falcone and Viscione demonstrates just how tantalizingly close the two were to a commercial breakthrough—these weren’t just the delusions and fantasies of mad dreamers. It was happening for their friends, it could happen for them.
“Dad also became interested in filming and in producing movies,” said Zdeb. Copyrights exist for a film called Maggot Man and a 1980s holiday special featuring his songs “Christmas Feelings” and “Hubert, the Fat Elf,” among many others. “He always used family [in the films], because it was only family and close friends that would do this stuff for him,” said Zdeb.
Everything around Viscione seemed to multiply into unnavigable labyrinths, hundred of bands, many different labels—including E.V., Viscione Records, and others—and a half-dozen companies. “Each project that he had, he started a new publishing company for,” said Zdeb. Unfortunately, this tangled multitude of projects meant that no single endeavor earned his undivided focus. The only thing that came close was patent 3,804,406—the robot.
Mad Charles was strange and newsworthy enough to catch the attention of the New York Times in 1974: “His karate man has a box shaped torso and head,” it reported. “The limbs are aluminum tubing covered with sponge rubber to protect human adversaries…. The inventor may license a manufacturer if he does not go into production himself.” It never met full production, but the robot became a whiz-bang local sensation, a wacky attraction that appeared at events and on television, even selling t-shirts. Charlotte Falcone was less impressed: “I never really saw it in person. He wanted me to. I had no interest in seeing his robot.”
But that was just the start of the Charles madness: Viscione eventually wrote a book about the robot and released a truly demented novelty song. Over a psychedelic garage ripper, “Mad Charles” explains that he is bulletproof and indestructible before he “crunches” such evil adversaries as Wing Dong, an Asian orientalist caricature, and Fats Pinto, boss of the “underground syndicate.” The song, actually a reworked version of the Inmates’ “I’m Watching You,” was released on WGW under the artist name UGE, first with “Sophie the Polish Chicken Hen” as the flip in 1974, and again the following year with a new, on-topic b-side, “Mad Charles Love Theme,” a ballad to the robot’s mechanical lover, Charlene.
Viscione continued this unique life, bouncing from one bonkers project to the next well into the twenty-first century. Copyrights registered to him go all the way to 2005 and include a 1989 party game called To the Top and a 1991 treatment for Peyronie’s disease, “The V Penile Exercise Method,” among hundreds of others.
“He didn’t stop with his music until his dying breath,” said Zdeb. “And right before he did pass, he said, ‘Lorraine, please take care of my music. Make sure my music gets out there.’” Eugene Viscione passed away in 2009 at the age of seventy-five. “It’s kind of neat when you listen back, and you can still hear him,” said Zdeb. “It’s like he’s still alive. And that is the magic of music.”
I Wanna Be A Winner
Bright lights beaming down, surrounded by teen dancers, her face beamed out to thousands, Phyllis Siano had her first encounter with fame in 1962. She was resplendent on television, in winged mascara and a bobbing beehive that added six or more inches to her diminutive height. The other teens at the televised dance-off were good, some even great, but nothing could beat her rendition of the Mashed Potato, as the ferocity and joy of her movements caused her hair to start unraveling. The judges and audience agreed, at sixteen years old, she was the winner of the dance-off that day on WNEW-TV’s Big Beat with Richard Hayes. There was no turning back.
She’d been waiting for the moment for as long as she could remember, having taken to performing at an age most people were still learning to speak: “My father put me on the bar when I was three years old, and I started singing then, and I haven’t stopped,” she said.
She grew up in Linden, New Jersey, but unlike her more-successful cousin, Bernadette Carroll, she said, “I came from the other side of that town. I wasn’t the classy girl; I was more of a tomboy.” After trouble at home, she hit the road at thirteen—an attempted runaway that turned into a tour and back again. All that time at the bar had paid off for the underage singer: “There wasn’t a week that I wasn’t performing somewhere,” she said.
A woman of many monikers, she ditched her birth name at the first opportunity: “I don’t look like a Phyllis, you know what I’m saying?” she said. By 14, she was performing under her first stagename Vickie Lane, an identity she claims was given to her by a young Freddy Cannon. By sixteen, she was touring to Connecticut with a pre-fame Tony Orlando while still enrolled as a sometime student at Rahway High School, her frequent absences overlooked by school administrators: “The great part of it was the principal was an entertainer too. That was the only reason I could work six months out of the year and go to school the other six months.”
Fresh out of school, dazzled by her turn on TV, and 18 years old, Vickie met Tommy Falcone, who was impressed with her vim, her vigour, her voice, and her hair. “When Tommy found me, it seemed like he found heaven. He loved me, I loved him,” she said. If Carroll was the sound of the sound of the girl group era, Vickie was the sound of the coming youth revolt—she had rock ‘n’ roll in her bones and rawhide in her voice.
““When I sang, it was like I was the biggest star in the world, because that’s the way he made me feel,” she said of Falcone. “It’s like somebody that just knows you’re gonna make it.””
Falcone placed her with a group of vocalists lead by “Jukebox” Pasterczyk after his time with Reminiscents but before his rapping days. According to surviving contracts, the line-up also consisted of Louis J. Francz Jr. and Augusto Ottobre, about whom little is known. “Her producer had heard us singing and decided they were going to combine us,” Jukebox told a radio interviewer in the 1960s. “We had no name, so we sat down in the studio and in three minutes they said, ‘You are now the Shandillons,’ and I said, ‘Great, now we’re the Shandillons.’” Falcone brought in songs and finished backing tracks and the group practiced them relentlessly in his basement. “Baby, I’m Crying” was an early Reminiscents song, likely re-recorded for Jukebox’s new group and then done again with Vickie’s lead vocal.
“I was over at his house almost every night. Ask his wife. I was like a part of his family.” As part of Falcone’s family, she was rechristened Vickie Sabrit. And Big Beat wasn’t the only influence television had on Vickie’s career—inspired by the popularity of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Falcone then renamed the group Vickie & the Van Dykes. “He had more names for me; I never knew my real name.”
Vickie followed her father into the bar—working as a bartender six days a week, performing at night, and staying in the studio with Falcone until three or four in the morning. The songs were tailored to her personality—”I Wanna To Be a Winner,” “True Love,” “Outcast.” The one song they didn’t practice was “Shoop De Hoop Twine.” Most of the lyrics were improvised on the spot by Vickie, drunk on a bottle of Thunderbird wine. Appropriately, it is a raucous wild shoutaloud party track, with callouts to Jukebox and even the wine. Despite her time behind the bar, she said, “I never drank after that.”
Like many of his other projects, Falcone attempted to sell the recordings to larger labels—far more profitable than releasing them on tiny Cleopatra. But Vickie had mixed feelings: “I was really wild, and I didn’t wanna be a star.... They didn’t have a life, it seemed. It was always in the studio.” None of the Vickie & the Van Dykes or Shandillons material was ever officially released.
Today, she is still entertaining, still performing, still under the bright lights, still surrounded by singers and dancers, still rocking the winged mascara, rhinestones, and towering beehive—now known as Vickie Diamond, consummate karaoke master. “I raised four kids, three husbands, and a mother,” she said of her days post-Falcone. “I had a good life. I had a happy life.”
It's So Very Hard
Despite their name, the Inmates evinced the wild careless freedom of a breakout—ripping through teen clubs and boardwalks in beach towns up and down the shore, the most raucous live act in the Falcone orbit. Ron Flannery trailing red-white-and-blue streamers as he danced, twelve-year-old Al Aschettino playing bass behind his head, Bobby Nolan shredding solos with his back turned to an audience of screaming girls who were out to steal guitar picks and harmonicas. “I would be exhausted when I would go home,” said drummer Sam Falvo.
The Inmates began their spree in 1964 when Flannery bought an $8 pawn shop guitar and replaced the rhythm guitarist in the Renditions. At first called the New Renditions, the mostly Catholic band found inspiration in the dirty looks of a priest who’d overheard them chatting in church. “Somebody leaned over to somebody else and said, ‘We’re all inmates in this institution,’” said Flannery. “That’s how we got our name and that’s how it stuck.”
Falcone had a different take, telling the Evening News in 1967, “The idea behind the name was that the younger generation today always seems to have a feeling of wanting to ‘bust out,’ and this group hoped to develop a sound that would seem like it wants to ‘bust out,’ so they could be in tune with this deep-seated feeling of the entire young generation.”
Featuring Flannery on harmonica, flute, rhythm guitar, and vocals, Bobby Nolan on lead guitar and vocals, and Falvo on drums, the group was virtuosic compared to their peers, despite their fresh-faced youth. “We all played music before the Beatles even happened,” said Falvo.
A chance encounter brought the prepuberty Aschettino into the fold as a second rhythm guitarist. “I was in a music store looking for the sheet music of ‘As Tears Go By’ when I started talking to Ron,” he said. “I found out we liked the same kind of music. Before I knew it, I was the fourth Inmate.” Despite his fresh-faced youth, Ashcettino become the wildest one in a group already known for hijinks. Gordon Rhodes on bass completed the line up as the fifth Inmate.
A pure product of the Jersey Shore, the band was centered mainly around Falvo’s family candy shop and Long Branch High School, only a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. “One good thing about having parents who owned a candy store and an ice cream parlor, they were out working a lot,” he said, allowing the band to relentlessly practice in their basement multiple nights a week.
Their grinding work ethic turned the Inmates into a local smash with a dedicated following, and found them besting a hundred other groups in the Teenage Band Competition of New Jersey at St. Joseph’s in Keyport. Their Chuck Berry, Barry McGuire, and Solomon Burke covers netted them second place and a cool $50, losing out to the Clique—whose guitar player, Jimmy Scott, had also recorded with Falcone—but, according to legend, beating out the Castiles, featuring a young Springsteen.
With the British Invasion landing in full force, the sound of American rock ‘n’ roll grew rowdier, rawer, louder, and the Inmates were just the kind of group Tommy Falcone needed to capture the revolutionary mood. He held open auditions, placing ads in newspapers seeking bands that could write their own songs. Though they’d only been together a year, the Inmates showed up to a warehouse with dozens of other groups coming in and out, setting up and breaking down, one after the other, all trying to impress the Hazlet impresario.
“Tommy was listening very carefully to what was going on and his comment was that we were really tight. We were the tightest band he heard,” said Flannery. “We were really impressed with him as a musician too because he could sit there and write out sheet music without an instrument…. He had a crew cut, but other than that we thought he was really cool.”
The kids weren’t the only ones that Falcone impressed. “I come from Italian descent, with parents that came over on the boat,” said Falvo. “The fact that they let him take me to New York at night time… they had to really like him.” The feeling was mutual, and Falcone soon installed a record rack in the Falvo family candy shop.
Falcone started working with the band on their original material, helping them with arrangements and technique. Though he never dictated the direction of their songs, his studio experimentation found a ripe home in the rowdy teens: he brought in a celeste, an instrument they’d never heard of, for use on “Perfect Prayer”; he had Falvo rattle a chain on a stick to the beat of another project; and he played with then state-of-the-art phasing sounds that swooped through “Crystal Ball.”
“One of Tommy's favorite questions was: ‘Can you reproduce that in the studio?’” said Flannery. “If anybody made a noise of any kind, he always said, ‘Can you reproduce that in the studio?’”
Falcone’s penchant for renaming and reusing also came through, as an acetate of the sinister and psychedelic “More Than I Have” b/w “Fakirs and Thieves” was cut under the name the Electric Carnival. And “I’m Watching You” later became the basis for Eugene Viscione’s demented “Mad Charles” single in 1975, long after the group had broken up.
Even with racks all over New Jersey, money was increasingly tight for Falcone, sending him to new studios in makeshift locations at graveyard hours, trying to save a buck. “We went into studios that were in people’s basement, we went in studios in New York City, we went in studios that were in Newark,” said Flannery. “To make a record, you might spend 3,000 dollars, which back then you could buy a car.”
Columbia Records saw potential in the recordings, leasing the Kinks-loving “Local Town Drunk” b/w the country-tinged garage rocker “You Tell Lies” in April 1967. “We were trying to sound like we were English,” said Flannery, laughing. “If you listen to Bobby, he was even trying to fake an English accent.”
Billboard predicted the single would reach the Hot 100, and Cash Box proclaimed, “The Inmates should get loads of attention with this funky, pounding knee-slapper. Watch it move.” They were soon back at St. Joseph’s opening for another gang of Jersey boys, the Four Seasons, then nearing the end of their remarkable first run of Top 10 hits. Tickets were $2.50. “It was a quick bunch of years that was a whirlwind because on top of doing the stuff with Tommy and running back and forth to New York and practicing our stuff we were playing almost every weekend,” said Falvo.
The song charted way out in California and earned the Inmates a spot performing it in a television commercial for John F. Kennedy’s VISTA service program, a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps. After that, the single stalled out. “We didn’t get much promotion,” said Flannery. “I never made any money on it. I might have made 40 bucks or something like that on the whole thing."
Falcone began acting as the Inmates’ personal manager, printing business cards with the logos of both Cleopatra and the band. But in studio photos from this time, he looks increasingly weary, with visible bags under his eyes—the years of late nights, the endless cups of coffee, and packs of cigarettes catching up with him. They ultimately recorded twelve songs, an entire album worth of material, though Rhodes was out after the Columbia single, and Aschettino moved over to bass.
Despite the wealth of material and Falcone’s best efforts, he never managed to sell another Inmates single, and money troubles nixed any further releases on Cleopatra proper. “He wanted to make it big. He knew the time was right to do it,” said Flannery. “I remember one time we went up to see a record company and Tommy had one of our records. I don’t remember what the conversation was but Tommy was really excited but the guy was pushing back on him. And Tommy took one of the records that he had with him and he broke it over his knee.”
The remainder of the band’s recordings remained unreleased. The Inmates later self-produced demos and made studio recordings with Angela Valentino and Arnie Capitanelli, though this material is believed to be mostly lost. Without Falcone to serve as their engine, the Inmates quickly lost direction, energy, and ambition, felled by a creeping disillusionment. “I was afraid it was just going to be a bar band and I didn’t want to be a bar guy the rest of my life,” Falvo said.
By 1971, with Falvo graduating college and Flannery drafted, their teen dreams gave way to adult realities. Though he never left New Jersey, Flannery said, “It’s hard to be in the army and the rock ‘n’ roll band at the same time.”
Baby, We Can Make It Together
When the Hallmarks auditioned, Tommy Falcone turned his back. Twenty bands arranged around the perimeter of the warehouse in Keansburg, New Jersey, in 1966, with Falcone seated in the center, pointing to each one in turn. The Hallmarks were easily the most ragtag gang in the room—with a microphone taped to a birdcage stand, a low end provided by a guitar strung with bass strings, and a mismatched collection of borrowed drum hardware—but Falcone couldn’t see it with his back turned, which was the point. “He didn’t want what he saw to interfere with what he was hearing,” said rhythm guitarist Tony Scalzo. When he finally turned around, Falcone signed them on the spot.
“It was kind of cool because Tommy was looking for originality,” said band leader Russ Scalzo. “He wasn’t looking for everything that was really buffed up and slick because he knew what he could do.”
The Hallmarks had only been a band for a year at that point, forming around songwriter, guitarist, and singer Russ Scalzo, his brother Joe Scalzo on drums, cousin Tony Scalzo on rhythm guitar, neighbor Jim Bova on bass, and friend Rick Gager on lead guitar. “I wasn’t good enough to figure out anybody else’s songs so I’m gonna make my own,” said Russ. “I really appreciated the fact that we got a major record deal after playing our instruments for only two years.” Their first performance came in their own basement in Oceanport, for friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles at Joe’s fourteenth birthday party—it would be exactly a year before he got a full drum kit. The band played so loud that the vibrations knocked screws out of Scalzo’s furnace, until it eventually broke.
With a cigarette burning on every amplifier, Falcone worked to polish the motley group into a diamond-hard professional unit. “When he had us rehearsing down in the basement, he was a ball of fire,” said Tony Scalzo. “He was on each instrument making changes to us. What he did with us was pretty amazing.”
Falcone knew the times were changing, clothes more colorful, even music stores switched from brass to mostly guitars and amps. Beatle bowl cuts and matching outfits gave way to long hair, mustaches, and bell bottoms, which was a problem for the Scalzos at Shore Regional High School. “They threatened me with not going to the prom,” Russ said. “They threatened me with not graduating. It was crazy.”
Harassment from the school authorities over the Hallmarks’ hair got bad enough that Falcone drafted a flattering letter to the principal on official Cleopatra letterhead: “We have just put under contract the group known as the Hallmarks. I understand four of the five members attend your school, and would again like to ask your permission to allow these members to keep their hair as they presently do, for professional reasons. It seems that Shore Regional H.S. has a lot of talent to offer.” A similar letter was sent to Long Branch High about the Inmates’ hairstyles.
But the hair helped when he met his future wife, the daughter of a telephone company party planner who booked the band on February 10, 1967, for a corporate gig. “They were so good and so cute, so my girlfriend and I started dancing like everybody there was dancing,” said Gail Scalzo. “He asked me out I think a week later, we went to the boat show in Asbury Park together.” Russ and Gail had a rare connection, lovestruck in both an instant and five decades later. She wanted him in her life, he wanted her in his band. “Back then, I was shy…. I was thinking there’s no way I’m going to stand up and start singing in front of people,” she said.
But Russ wanted to do for her what Falcone had done for him, working with his new girlfriend to build up her technique and her confidence, giving her the training to unlock her natural talents. Soon Gail was delivering a powerful vocal performance—the band’s showstopper. “We were doing a frat party one night at Monmouth College,” Tony recalled, “and those frat boys were down on their knees in front of her.”
With the band blossoming under his tutelage, Falcone took them to A&R Recording in the city to lay down protopunk rager “I Know Why,” the very song that had won their audition. “It was just on the brink of the psychedelic stuff going more commercial,” said Joe, and Falcone took notice. When he couldn’t sell “I Know Why,” Fred Weinberg suggested an experiment he couldn’t resist. They dipped the track in acid using state-of-the-art studio effects, drenching it in thick reverb, deep echo, and wild flange until it sounded like nothing they’d heard. Retitling it “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Sally,” the band “took the original music tracks and we just redid the vocals,” said Joe. “It was more or less pretty cutting edge.”
Unfortunately, the cutting edge was double sided—believing it was pushing a sinister drug message to America’s youth, “a lot of stations wouldn’t play it because it had the word psychedelic in it,” Russ said. Even so, “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Sally” b/w “Girl Of My Dreams” leased to Mercury subsidiary Smash in September 1967, made it to number 10 in California and earned a positive review in Cash Box: “Wild echo-filled foot-stomper here. Could be a big one for the Hallmarks.”
Despite the moral panic, “Sally” got enough traction to land the band spots on television—on Philadelphia’s The Hy Lit Show and Washington, D.C.’s WingDing. The song was also played for the dancing teens of American Bandstand, who rated it an 85, beating out the Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” then number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Six months after the single, Nick Masi joined on organ when he randomly met Gager and Joe Scalzo hanging out on North Long Branch Beach.
Falcone’s taste for novelty was undiminished: hoping to sell a holiday follow-up, he had the band redo the vocals yet again to make “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Santa,” a lysergic trip to the North Pole. Labels didn’t bite, but the band continued hitting the studio, eventually amassing an entire album of recordings—including the Gail-led Jefferson Airplane intensity of “Distant Rain,” the Animals-influenced “Paper Sky,” the organ-driven dark biography “Miss Judith Finch,” and the prophetic lovestruck duet “Baby We Can Make It Together.” Falcone encouraged the band to experiment in the studio with twelve-string guitars and glockenspiels, at one point even bringing in a gong. “When we were in studio for that short time, I could have spent my whole life there with those guys,” Tony reflected.
“I was the youngest, so I’m thinking like, ‘We’re gonna be stars!’ It wasn’t great for me,” said Bova. “None of those guys really got into drugs, but I did. So unfortunately, by the time I was eighteen or nineteen I was shooting heroin and cocaine. I was pretty messed up.”
Losses mounted. Tony Scalzo was drafted in 1967 right out of high school, shipping out to California to join the Navy Reserve. Losing Falcone hit the band even harder—but he’d taught Russ Scalzo well. Scalzo continued to record and tried to sell a single himself to Columbia, “Cellar Walls” b/w “Just Me and the Blue Jay,” but the labels passed and he grew increasingly frustrated. “Everything for us was backwards,” he said. “We started out with a record deal. I really thought we were going to be the ones that broke into the top.”
A particularly bad drug trip—involving satanic chanting and a levitating woman—sent Bova to the brink of suicide, ready to throw himself off a bridge, and then brought him to Christ. In the 1970s, the Hallmarks changed their name first to Friends and then released three albums as Saved by Grace, transformed by Bova's salvation and sobriety into one of the earliest Christian rock groups in America.
It was a cold night in February but the bar was hopping. Tommy Falcone was on stage alone, holding the boozy crowd rapt with his virtuosity on the accordion, with his willingness to lead them in song. The sixties were barely over, the ashes still warm from its many revolutions in music, society, and personal grooming; the 1970s were not yet even two months old.
There was life in the air: Falcone full of energy, spinning nonstop at full capacity, just as he’d been doing for years. It was the very bar in Union Beach where he’d once made the acquaintance of David Clark, aka Dick Thunder, who was in the audience again that chilly night, watching the show, enjoying the tunes. So was Charlotte Falcone, dressed to the nines with a cigarette holder to match, as ever by her husband’s side.
“If it looks like a crowd that would like to sing along,” said Charlotte, “then he would play something where he’d go, ‘Okay everybody!’ and start singing the song and everybody would ‘la-la-la’ along, and I’m out there singing too, of course. And that would get things really happy.”
Falcone ended every set the same way and that night was no different, the closer was always “It Had to Be You” a tribute to his partner, his love. But something was different—despite the raucous crowd, hungry for entertainment, he cut the performance short by fifteen minutes that night, something he’d never done before. It was the last song he would ever play. He was helped off stage and struggled to take off his accordion. “This man could play some music in any key, any style, any rhythm that you wanted to hear and do an excellent job of it,” said Clark. “But he had to take it off.”
Falcone told Clark that something was wrong. He told Charlotte he wasn’t feeling well. He lost color and broke out in a profuse dripping sweat. “He looked like somebody hit him with a garden hose,” said Clark. They helped Tommy over to a chair on the other side of the bar, gave him water, and called an ambulance. By the time he was wheeled into the hospital, less than an hour later, he had died from a massive heart attack. He was 40 years old.
The loss was catastrophic for the people in his life, and sent many of his artists into a yearslong tailspin. The death pushed Viscione into overdrive, pumping out songs and schemes at a pace that was shocking, even for him. “After Daddy died a lot of people faded away but some of them kept coming around and helping Mommy and doing all that they could,” said Melody Falcone. “Geno was one of them.”
His death also ended Vickie Sabrit’s recording career before it even began, sent the Inmates to oblivion, and pushed the Hallmarks towards the chaos of addiction and the redemption of religion. “It devastated us, really,” said Joe Scalzo of the Hallmarks. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals with my brother, but I never saw him cry like that.”
Tommy with country singer and newly signed Cleopatra artist, Wayne Fauross
Clark, looking back on that night in the bar turns somber. “It was ironic that we met there and we parted there,” he said. “These are all parts and parcels and pieces of a total life, and I was privileged to share a brief section of that life with Tommy Falcone.”
Unfortunately, we know little about Falcone’s final two releases, though they’re as strange as anything else in his catalogue. The Shoestring’s “Candy Andy,” perhaps the world’s only bubblegum pop song about a candy-wielding sex predator, was released by 20th Century Fox in 1968, b/w “Shoop-De-Hoop-Twine.” He closed the decade with the aptly named New Jersey Turnpike, who released the poppy organ-driven bounce of “Like A Boomerang” on Old Town in 1969.
After attending Ron and Gail Scalzo’s wedding later in 1970, Charlotte was left with large debts to multiple recording studios in three states. She got by on social security, life insurance payments, and the monthly stipends provided for her foster kids. The children—biological, adopted, fostered—turned to each other for support. “There was always a house full of kids to play with,” said Melody, “so if there was a lack I didn’t feel it.”
Charlotte still lives in the house in Hazlet today. All of the paperwork and ephemera from the brief life of Cleopatra have spent the decades sleeping in that old soundproof room in the basement, where so many songs were practiced over the years—the entire empire of song, the vast genre-spanning expanse, boxed up and waiting for future listeners. “I just couldn’t let it go,” she said. “He did a lot in that period of time. Oh my god, what he did.”
Among the contracts and sheet music, the business cards and copyrights, was hidden a final set of lyrics that Tommy left in a moment of prophecy, a time capsule Charlotte discovered forty-six years later. “He obviously knew he was on limited time,” she said, “because he wrote the lyric as a farewell to me.” In part, it reads:
I’ll fly so far away
Up on the wings of your love and the beats of your heart
Char, don’t ask me to stay,
I can’t say no to the one up above, we must part
Don’t kiss tomorrow goodbye
Don’t let the love that we had yesterday die
All we have left is today
Live and be happy, my darling, don’t fade it away
My honey, if you should feel lonely
Think of the times that we spent on the Isle of Capri
Remember, I loved you only,
I’ll always be near you, whenever you need me
Handwritten on Cleopatra letterhead, it hangs today in her kitchen—a last tribute scrawled under that old photo of her lounging as the mythic queen of the Nile in all her youth and her power, in all her songs and glory.
–Ryan Alan Boyle, April 2018