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THE ARCHIES circa 1970:
RON DANTE as Archie with DONNA MARIE as Veronica
Big Noise From Riverdale!
The Untold History of The Archies
by Donny Jacobs
Image is the most important consideration for some people when it comes to Rock'n'Roll. According to this school of thought, if an artist doesn't put out the right kind of visuals and attitude, he probably isn't worth listening to. Members of a band have to look sufficiently surly! They must sneer convincingly. Their torn T-shirts, tattoos and black leather need to convey the proper air of defiance. Cynical attitudes, acquired from years of performing in cheap dives, are essential.
Don't let them be too cute! Nobody who's too appealing to fourteen-year-old girls is acceptable. A real rocker wouldn't be caught dead with his picture in magazines like Teen Beat, and it goes without saying that a band can't be anything like The Archies. A cartoon studio group with its own Saturday-morning TV show is just about as uncool an image as you could ever want. So it comes as no surprise that Rock critics have been trashing Archies records for 40 years now. Wouldn't they be surprised, though, if they ever took the time to really listen to Archies records?
They'd discover that this "Bubblegum" band cut more than a few great songs. Between September of 1968 and September of 1971, The Archies gave Saturday-morning TV its best Rock'n'Roll since the animated Beatles crashed the kiddie airwaves three years earlier. Adults never realized how good it was . . . or so it seemed, until a song called "Sugar, Sugar" was released, and rocketed into the stratosphere.
In order to understand why "Sugar, Sugar" was so good, you have to know its pedigree. It traces its lineage back to the exceptional talents of three men, all highly respected inside the music industry. During the late '50s and early '60s, song publisher and pop music impresario Don Kirshner nurtured the talents of legendary songwriters such as Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Jack Keller and Carole King. His Aldon Music company gave the world unforgettable tunes like "On Broadway," "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," "Up On The Roof," and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." Credit Kirshner (who died in January 2011) with the vision and dealmaking prowess that brought the Archie comic strip characters to video and vinyl.
Jeff Barry, the man Kirshner put in charge of The Archies' music, crafted their million dollar sound. Barry was also a major mover and shaker in '60s Rock'n'Roll. He'd burst onto the scene the very first year of that decade, penning Ray Peterson's classic tearjerker, "Tell Laura I Love Her." Three years later, he and his then-wife Ellie Greenwich almost single-handedly defined the Girl Group genre. Together, they wrote and/or produced "Chapel Of Love," "Leader Of The Pack," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby," "Iko Iko," and many other enduring hits for the likes of The Crystals, Ronettes, Chiffons, Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las, often in collaboration with eccentric masterminds like Phil Spector and George "Shadow" Morton. Barry and Greenwich even scored a Pop hit of their own ("The Kind Of Boy You Cant Forget") as The Raindrops.
Their success extended into the British Invasion/garage band era, with #1 smashes for Manfred Mann ("Doo Wah Diddy Diddy") and Tommy James and The Shondells("Hanky Panky"). In 1965, the couple discovered Neil Diamond and produced his first nine hit singles. Whenever you hear "Cherry, Cherry," "Kentucky Woman" or "Thank The Lord For The Night Time" on the radio, you're hearing the rudiments of what would later become the Archies Sound.
The paths of Jeff Barry and Don Kirshner intersected when Barry placed some of Diamond's tunes with Kirshner's new publishing house, Screen Gems Music. At the time, Kirshner was executive producer for The Monkees' wildly popular TV show. He subsequently hired Barry to supervise the group's recording of Neil Diamond's "I'm A Believer," and as a single, it became one the biggest-selling Rock platters of all-time. By 1967, creative differences had ended both Kirshner's association with The Monkees and Barry's partnership with Ellie Greenwich. Both men promptly launched their own record labels.
Kirshner founded Calendar Records in July of '67, and in September, he arranged distribution through RCA Victor. Then on May 18, 1968, Billboard Magazine reported the following: "Don Kirshner is readying another TV-berthed group for the record market. Kirshner . . . is now involved with Filmation (Studios) and (comic book) publisher John Goldwater in the formation of a new Rock'n'Roll music group . . . which has been created for Filmation's animated 'Archie' TV series. The series is set to bow on CBS-TV in the fall. Filmation's Norm Prescott, Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland have signed Kirshner as music director of 'Archie,' and to build a singing group to vocalize over an animated quintet called 'The Archies'."
Not entirely true! The title Kirshner chose for himself was "Music Supervisor," and for the actual hands-on music direction, he engaged Jeff Barry's services. Kirshner and Barry shared the belief that Rock'n'Roll created for children could be commercial enough to get on the radio. Together, they set out to prove themselves right. During the summer of 1968, they auditioned dozens of singers at RCA Victor's Webster Hall recording studios in Manhattan. Barry also found himself writing a slew of new songs for the TV series, even while he ran his Steed label and nurtured the recording career of his star artist, Andy Kim.
The Ohio Express's Joey Levine, songwriter Ritchie Adams, and demo singer Kenny Karen were among those Kirshner and Barry considered for the singing voice of Archie. However, there's reason to believe that Jeff Barry was always partial to Ron Dante, the third member of our magic triumvirate. He'd previously used Dante as a backing vocalist on Neil Diamond's recording dates, and had cast him in a Broadway-bound musical he was producing called The Freaking-Out of Stephanie Blake. The blue-eyed, chestnut-haired Staten Island native had also crossed paths with Don Kirshner in the early '60s. Kirshner hired him as a staff songwriter, actually his first job in the music business. Later, Dante joined a novelty trio known as The Detergents, whose solitary Top Forty hit "Leader Of The Laundromat" just happened to be a spoof of Jeff Barry's song "Leader Of The Pack." (A lawsuit ensued, but it was settled so quickly, there wasn't even enough time for hard feelings to develop!)
After leaving the Detergents, Dante became one of New York's most in-demand jingle and demo singers; his vocals graced TV and radio commercials for Lifesavers, Dr. Pepper, Kentucky Fried Chicken(KFC), Coppertone suntan lotion, and many other products, as well as original demo versions of classic rockers like "Five O'Clock World," "It Hurts To Be In Love" and "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place." When the Archies gig rolled around, keyboard player Ron Frangipane urged him to audition for Don Kirshner and Jeff Barry. Dante, who aspired to a career as a Pop singer, reasoned that The Archies could be a vehicle to move him in the direction he ultimately wanted to go. "So I called, and the office set up an appointment, and I walked into RCA," Dante later told journalist Carl Cafarelli. "They auditioned me. They said, 'Well, can you do different types of voices?' So I did, like, two or three different types of voices for Jeff and Donnie, and they finally locked into one sound. They said, 'Oh, you'll be good . . .'"
As skilled at harmony singing as he was at singing lead, Ron Dante performed both duties at most of the studio dates, and eventually started writing songs for The Archies, too. Before long, Jeff Barry had roped Andy Kim into writing for the group. Bobby Bloom, another of Barry's up-and-coming stars, took part in the sessions as a songwriter, musician and background singer. His solo career wouldn't take off until after The Archies had cooled down, but he'd already co-written the Garage Rock classic "Mony Mony" with Tommy James, and his 1970 hit "Montego Bay" would become a Pop standard. Although her voice would not be prominently featured until 1969, Toni Wine (another of Don Kirshner's ex-staff writers) was recruited to provide a distinctive female background voice. "People would come in and out in the background," Dante recalled in 1997. "Some girls came in, a few background singers. Toni Wine, of course, sang on 'Sugar, Sugar.' We did maybe an album's worth of material together (where) the background group was Toni Wine, Jeff Barry and Ron Dante."
Reportedly, Ellie Greenwich, Ritchie Adams, Joey DiBenedetto, Steve Tudanger, Maeretha Stewart, Jamie Carr, Leslie and Merle Miller, Susan Morse and Joey Levine were among those various and sundry background voices. However, since The Archies were promoted via their TV show, and no (legitimate) touring band was ever formed, Ron Dante sang all the voice parts on many dates, with Barry employing the same overdubbing techniques he'd used in 1963/64 on The Raindrops' recordings. The aforementioned Ron Frangipane, guitarists Hugh McCracken, Sal DiTroia, David Spinozza and Dave Appell, bass players Chuck Rainey and Joey Macho, drummers Buddy Saltzman and Gary Chester and other regulars at Steed Records studio dates joined Barry, Bloom and sometime guest percussionist Ray "Gitarzan" Stevens to create The Archies' exceptional musical backing.
Right around the time Japanese dive bombers were blitzing Pearl Harbor, comic book editor John Goldwater, writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana introduced the characters of Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones. While their impact was not quite as explosive, the repercussions of their début would be felt for decades. By the time the 1940s had given way to the '50s, and new characters like Big Moose, Dilton Doily, Reggie Mantle and Archie's rich girlfriend Veronica Lodge were introduced, the strip had come to epitomize middle-class American teen life as much as had its archetype, M-G-M's Andy Hardy movie series starring Mickey Rooney.
Mickey, frequent co-star Judy Garland and their friends got musically inclined early on, but it would take The Archies much longer to break into song. They finally débuted as a Rock group on the CBS television network the morning of 14 September 1968. Programming chief Fred Silverman felt they were just what he needed to counter charges that children's TV had become too violent. There was just no pleasing some critics, though! "'The Archie Show' was not what one would call inspired," writes Hal Erickson in his book Television Cartoon Shows. "Its sledgehammer humor (was) made obvious by the overuse of a canned laugh track, and the potentially endearing traits and catch-phrases of the characters (notably Principal Weatherbee's oft-repeated I DIDN'T SEE THAT! I DIDN'T SEE THAT!) were likewise pummeled into weariness." Be that as it may, "The Archie Show" garnered phenomenal ratings. With 75% of the viewing audience hooked on the madcap adventures of these zany high-schoolers, they were, in fact, the highest ratings in the history of Saturday morning TV at that time.
True, the animation and storylines weren't particularly outstanding, but that wasn't what kids were tuning in for, anyway. The ticket was catching the boss new tunes every week, and checking out the outrageous dance lessons! The 1960s, after all, was the era of dance craze mania, so viewers were instructed on how to do "The Hamburger Hop," "The Surfer," "The Veronica Walk," and a dozen or so other imaginative steps dreamed up by Jeff Barry, Ritchie Adams and Mark Barkan. Barry's Rock'n'Roll songs bristled with Rockabilly, Country, Doo-Wop, Blues and Gospel influences. When "Truck Driver" aired on that first telecast, it was probably the first time a bonafide twelve-bar Blues had been featured in a cartoon.
The TV show may well have been aimed at preteen audiences, but the music was sophisticated enough to appeal to a wider range of people. "The Archies have everything going for them," agreed Billboard in its 21 September 1968 review of the soundtrack album. "They have a smooth vocal blend (and) the material is first-rate." The Archies' full-tilt rocker of a début single on Don Kirshner's Calendar label, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," climbed to #22 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. With "Truck Driver" on the flipside, it was truly a double treat. Predictably, though, Rock purists wanted nothing to do with the record, or the group. Archie? Jughead? Hot Dog? For cryin' out loud . . . weren't The Monkees bad enough???!! "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" was dismissed as nothing more than a fluke, a throwaway. When the follow-up single, another pair of blistering rockers in the form of "Feelin' So Good" (SKOOBY-DOO)" and "Love Light" failed to crack the national Top Forty, critics were sure they'd heard the last of Don Kirshner's prefabricated funny paper band.
However, in January of 1969, Kirshner and company assembled in RCA's Studio B to prove otherwise. Ron Dante and Toni Wine lay their vocals on top of a meaty rhythm track that rocked steady on a pulsating bass groove and a Caribbean-flavored keyboard riff. Jeff Barry and Andy Kim had penned "Sugar, Sugar" as a change-of-pace for The Archies(it was never offered to The Monkees, as has often been reported.) Listening to the playback, Don Kirshner had no doubt as to the record's hit potential. Songwriters Ritchie Adams and Mark Barkan, present to observe the waxing of two of their own tunes, were not as impressed. "I remember Ritchie looking at me and saying, 'Sugar, Sugar' will never even make the Top Sixty," Barkan recalled in 1990.
Initially, that prediction appeared to come true. The single failed to generate much interest upon its release that June; but later that summer, it broke out on San Francisco's Station KYA, becoming a regional #1 smash. When the hippie counterculture adopted it as their anthem(rumor has it they interpreted the famous pour your sugar on me lyric as a drug reference), its future was assured. By fall, "Sugar, Sugar" had sold a staggering five million copies globally, topping charts in England, Japan, Germany, México, and a half-dozen other countries in addition to the United States. It wound up selling nearly twice that number, and being chosen 1969's Record of The Year by the Recording Industry Association of America(RIAA). "Sugar, Sugar" also went Top Forty on Billboard's Adult-Contemporary chart, and Wilson Pickett covered it in May of 1970, making the song a hit all over again and lending it credibility in Soul music circles. The crowning achievement came when the animated Archies plugged their smash on TV's top entertainment showcase, "The Ed Sullivan Show", probably the first and only time such a thing ever happened.
Jeff Barry cranked up the volume on the next single, "Jingle Jangle." Taking his cues from Broadway's hot new Rock musical Hair, he overdubbed Ron Dante and Toni Wine until they sounded like a massive church choir. Handclappings, a growling bass(courtesy of Joey Macho), and an abundance of guitar reverb put the finishing touches on this powerful record. The result was a second million-seller in the closing months of 1969. Rock critics were livid at The Archies' success, but like it or not, five goofy teenagers from a cartoonist's ink bottle had become one of the hottest acts on the pop music scene!
"The Archie Show" grew more popular than ever. It expanded into "The Archie Comedy Hour"(where Sabrina, The Teenage Witch made her debut as a cartoon character), and then was reincarnated as "Archies Funhouse," which mixed animation with live audience sequences. A flood of Archie toys and merchandise hit the retail market(remember those Post cereal box records which played songs from the TV show?). Don Kirshner posed for publicity shots with cardboard Archie stand-up dolls, gleefully raked in publishing royalties, and changed the name of his label from Calendar to Kirshner Records, as if to make sure everyone knew who'd engineered this comic book coup. Yet as 1969 turned into 1970, his miracle band began to self-destruct before his eyes.
Ron Dante was caught off-guard by The Archies' rise to fame. He was pleased enough to have sung lead on an international chart-topper, but he knew the record industry well enough to realize that he could be typecast as a "Bubblegum" singer: "I was thrilled to be asked to be the lead voice of The Archies, (but) I just thought that kind of identification might limit me. Financially, it was great, (but) when those records first hit the charts, I just hid! I kept such a low profile that no one could find me. Don Kirshner couldn't even get me on the phone!"
Singing on Archies records hadn't precluded Dante from taking on other projects. He was simultaneously singing with other studio acts(most notably The Cuff Links, whose biggest hit "Tracy" had been in the Top Ten simultaneously with "Sugar, Sugar"), and producing a group called The Eighth Day for Kapp Records. When Don Kirshner offered him the chance to go on the road with a live Archies revue, he turned it down. Instead, he prevailed upon Kirshner to market him as a solo artist, after which Jeff Barry began working on tracks for what would become Ron Dante Brings You Up, his mostly self-composed début album. "I'm gradually phasing myself out of the Archies scene," Dante declared to Hit Parader in 1970. Things didn't work out that way, though. Despite strong promotion and equally strong songs, the LP and its singles were stone-cold dead in the market within a month of release. Subsequently, Kirshner was able to coax his frustrated solo artist back into the studio to cut more Archies tracks.
Not so Toni Wine. Unhappy with her royalty rate, she quit the group right after "Jingle Jangle" was released. Jeff Barry used a girl group composed of Susan Morse and The Miller Sisters to replace her until a former Columbia Records artist named Donna Marie came to observe an Archies recording session one evening in January of 1970. When the girls had trouble with the song he was cutting, she boldly stepped forward and asked that he give her a try. "I put the headphones on," she remembered twenty years later, "and I sang my heart out! Everyone was happy with my performance, and I was walking on air for days afterward. I guess that old saying is very true about being in the right place at the right time!" The resulting single, a Country/Rock stomper called "Who's Your Baby?" scored a fourth Top Forty hit. Donna's sex kitten voice promised to add a new dimension to future releases.
However, the next single, a Santana-inspired Latin rocker called "Sunshine" featured Bobby Bloom on harmony vocals instead. Almost nine months passed before the public heard Donna Marie sing again, on the Calypso-tinged "Together We Two," and that was sufficient time for them to lose interest in The Archies. The records were still selling reasonably well, but airplay had dropped to almost nothing. The cartoon gimmick that had served the group so well at first was now a liability. The Partridge Family had grabbed the media spotlight, and radio programmers evidently decided that one prefabricated TV band at a time was enough.
Don Kirshner suffered additional headaches when bogus Archies bands started popping up in the Southern United States. He was forced to take several thousand dollars' worth of legal action against their promoters. The proliferation of these groups was an indication of how much demand there was to hear Archies hits performed live. Unfortunately, that demand was never truly satisfied, and this also contributed to the group's demise. The studio Archies, in the persons of Ron Dante and Donna Marie, finally did make a live appearance at a charity benefit in Kenilworth, New Jersey, but this last-minute nod to promotional considerations was too little, too late. The TV series stopped airing original Rock tunes after the 1970/71 season, and its ratings began a slow but steady decline. The group's last big hit appeared not in America, but in South Africa; an atypical anti-war ballad called "A Summer Prayer For Peace" featuring duet vocals by Ron Dante and Jeff Barry, topped the charts there in the summer of 1971.
Long before then, Barry's workload had grown so huge, he was delegating most of his Archies studio chores to Neil Brian Goldberg, one of his Steed staff writers. (Goldberg would replace Ron Dante as lead vocalist on the penultimate Archies single, "Love Is Living In You".) Exhausted from his marathon work with The Archies, The Monkees, Bobby Bloom, Paul Davis, Kirshner's latest signees The Harlem Globetrotters(!!!), his own Steed acts, and various others, Barry decided to accept an office job with Paramount Pictures' music division in Hollywood. He subsequently closed down his Steed label, and gave Don Kirshner notice. Ron Dante and Ritchie Adams succeeded him at the production helm, and introduced an adult-contemporary feel to the music. They cut a highly-regarded Archies album(This Is Love), and kept singles coming until the summer of 1972, but their sweetened version of the group's Caribbean-flavored Blues sound wasn't enough to regain radio support.
As one door closed, others opened. The job at Paramount's Famous Music didn't work out, but Jeff Barry nevertheless found great success in Hollywood. He wrote theme songs for TV shows("Movin' On Up," the Gospel-powered "Jeffersons" theme is his work), and wrote and/or produced hit records for The Persuasions, Nino Tempo and April Stevens, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John(her platinum-selling signature song, "I Honestly Love You"), and numerous Country artists. He got the chance to cut some soundtrack music, too, the best-received being his score for the 1980 cult film The Idolmaker.
Ron Dante and Don Kirshner also pursued successful ventures. Dante discovered Barry Manilow in 1973 and produced eighteen Top Forty hits for him, including five American Gold Records and two #1 pop smashes: "Mandy" and "I Write The Songs." Dante's productions sold over 60 million records worldwide. In 1975, he and Manilow collaborated on a Disco version of "Sugar, Sugar." Later, Dante fulfilled a long-held dream of mounting shows on Broadway by bankrolling a pair of Tony Award-winning plays, Ain't Misbehavin' and Children Of A Lesser God. Don Kirshner acquired publishing rights to some of The Beatles' songs, signed the arena rock band Kansas to his label, and hosted his own TV late-night TV show, "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert".
Toni Wine relocated from New York to Memphis, Tennessee, where she sang background and contributed songs to critically-acclaimed albums by Brenda Lee, Petula Clark, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Royal and others. In 1988, she belatedly scored her first #1 Pop song when Phil Collins revived "Groovy Kind Of Love," a tune she'd written for The Mindbenders over two decades earlier. Donna Marie got married and settled into life as a New Jersey housewife and mother. Andy Kim penned another classic, "Rock Me Tender," which he himself took to the top of the charts in 1974. Sadly, Bobby Bloom was tragically shot and killed under mysterious circumstances that same year.
Fortunately, cartoon characters never die. The Archies are still going strong after 70 years of entertaining fans in print, broadcast and electronic media(that's right, they have their own web site now). Sabrina, the Teenage Witch may be the most popular Archie Comics character these days, thanks to a successful primetime TV series, but don't put the gang from Riverdale down for the count yet. There've been rumors of Archie movies and Broadway plays for several years now, and every so often a TV network attempts to launch a new Archie show using younger or older versions of the characters, live actors, a mystery theme, or some other variation. Somebody somewhere is always thinking about how to create a new sensation around The Archies!
Best of luck to them, because the original group is a hard act to follow. Archies music may have faded from the contemporary scene in the 1970s, but thanks to oldies radio, years of syndicated cartoon repeats and recent DVD reissues of the TV show, it has never disappeared from the memories of millions of baby boom-generation fans. What's more, Archies fandom has never been limited to any particular age group. "Sugar, Sugar" continues to exhibit the same generation-spanning appeal that it had in 1969.
Hopefully, the crazy-making atmosphere of political correctness that permeated the late '60s has cleared enough for Archies music to be appreciated for what it is: Unpretentious, good-time Rock'n'Roll. Yet, as late as the 1990s, writers were still carping about "cynical boardroom creations (like) The Archies" and badmouthing "Sugar, Sugar" as "one of the most reviled records of all-time." For mean-spirited comments like that, Jeff Barry has a matter-of-fact response. "There's a record by The Staple Singers that I wrote called 'Heavy Makes You Happy,'" he said in 1995. "If it don't make you happy, it ain't heavy! The heaviest thing in the world for me is to make people happy, something that's not done enough of! So for people to say 'Sugar, Sugar' isn't cool, my answer is, well, I feel sorry for you."
Hear, hear! When the image of Rock'n'Roll becomes so lugubrious that feel-good music is no longer acceptable, something's definitely rotten in Riverdale. Who cares if a band doesn't look like The Clash, as long as the singer wails, the guitars groove, the bass rumbles, and the beat kicks ass? The bottom line is, good Rock'n'Roll doesn't have to look right to be good. It just has to sound right. Thanks to Don Kirshner, Jeff Barry and Ron Dante, Archies records have the right sound, for kids, adults and everybody in-between.
Special thanks to Mark Barkan, Jeff Barry, Jeff Branch, Ron Dante, Neil Brian Goldberg, Craig Harmon, Donna Marie, Tom Mourgos, Joe Renzetti and Ciro Oliva. Dedicated to the memory of Keith Davideit