Their mechanical but once highly-marketable instrumentals may sound quaint and unimaginative to post-Hendrix ears, but nothing evokes the sound of late-Fifties British youth clubs so well as a corrosive blast of Red River Rock, Sheba or Sandstorm.
Led by saxophonist Johnny Paris and organist Paul Tesluck, this five-piece group enjoyed nine chart singles, of which Red River Rock was the biggest.
Born in Walbridge near Toledo, Ohio in 1940, Paris was of Polish and Czechoslovakian descent (his real name was Pocisk). In 1957, he put his first band together at Rossford Catholic High School.
Toledo had no blues or hillbilly traditions to speak of and so Johnny at first imitated jazz saxophonists such as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. From the mid-Fifties, however, new vistas opened up: Rudy Pompilli, saxophonist with Bill Haley’s Comets, and Sil Austin helped create the type of Top Forty hits that Johnny was better able to identify with.
The nucleus of Johnny’s high-school band became The Orbits, and they first recorded with Mack Vickery, an Alabama-born rockabilly singer whose work appeared on the Princeton and Gone labels.
In 1959, The Orbits travelled to Detroit to accompany Fred Kelley and The Parliaments, a local group who had secured an audition with Talent Artists Inc, a management agency owned by Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk. The Detroit entrepreneurs were impressed with the group and signed them up.
At Talent Artists, The Orbits joined a roster that included The Royaltones (whose Poor Boy hit the US Top Twenty in 1958), Jamie Coe and The Gigolos, the Italian singer Mickey Denton and Johnny Gibson (who scored with Beachcomber and Midnight). Don and Juan joined the agency later, as did Del Shannon, whose career took off as The Hurricanes began to fade.
In February 1959, The Orbits recorded Crossfire, their first disc for Micahnik and Balk’s Twirl label. The line-up was Paris (tenor saxophone), Paul Tesluk (Hammond organ), Dave Yorko (guitar), Butch Mattice (bass) and Tony Kaye (drums), and the record was cut at Detroit’s Carmen Towers, an old movie theatre.
Crossfire, by the newly-christened Johnny and the Hurricanes, was leased to Warwick and reached the US Top Thirty in 1959. Other big hits followed and were recorded at Bellsound Studios in New York with Don Staczek or Bo Savich (from The Royaltones) on drums.
They included Red River Rock (which reached #5 on Billboard‘s Hot Hundred) and Reveille Rock (#25), both in 1959, and Beatnik Fly(#15) and Down Yonder (#48) the following year. Red River Rock went to #2 in the UK and became a million-seller; the other three also proved popular enough to reach the British Top Ten.
The flipsides – including Buckeye, Time Bomb and Sheba (which was written by Mack Vickery’s guitarist, Wild Bill Emerson) – were often more inventive than the hits. Indeed, almost without exception, the group’s biggest sellers were antiquated ‘pre-rock’ tunes that had been enlivened by a piping organ, rasping sax and supercharged rock’n’roll beat.
Micahnik and Balk – the Ira Mack and Tom King of the composer credits – deliberately chose material that was in the public domain; because the copyrights had long expired anyone could rearrange these ‘traditional’ melodies and claim composer royalties.
Micahnik and Balk had signed the group to Twirl at a one-and-a-half percent royalty rate. Then they leased the records to the Warwick, Big Top and Mala labels at a royalty rate of 8%.
Since they took credit for composing most of the tunes, their own Vicki Music collected publishing royalties as well. In addition, Micahnik and Balk creamed off 20% of the group’s earnings.
Towards the end of 1961, the original Hurricanes left the band for a variety of reasons.
Gruelling tours played a part in their disenchantment but a tight-fisted management did not help. Faced with recording and booking commitments, Paris recruited new musicians and toured Germany where the group shared a Hamburg stage with The Beatles in 1962.
Johnny with the Hurricanes toured Britain in February 1963, topping a bill that included DJ Jimmy Savile and a host of ‘jukebox doubles’, British performers who impersonated American stars such as Elvis, Brenda Lee and so on.
The group’s line-up then was Paris (saxophone), Eddie Waganfeald (organ), Billy Marsh (guitar and vocals), Bobby Cantrall (bass) and Jay Drake (drums).
It has often been said that the Mark II Hurricanes who visited Britain were simply a touring outfit and that a group of black session men, led by T. J. Fowler, made the Hurricanes’ record in New York. Paris has refuted these allegations.
“Nobody could be hired to play that sax with that drive on those records and come up with that kind of feel. T.J.Fowler was a big, black 40-year-old pianist who wrote Crossfire, Rocking Goose and a lot of songs for Harry and Irv, but he never played the saxophone in his life. Sure there were tympani drums by guys from the New York Philharmonic on Down Yonder, Kai Winding’s trombone section and Billy Butler from Bill Doggett’s band on the Big Sound album, but the meaty stuff — bass guitar, lead guitar, organ, drums and sax — that was me and my band every time. Nobody else could have played that, and nobody else did.”
When Twirl dropped the Hurricanes in 1965, Paris formed his own label. Atila, and for the next five years he grew his hair and performed a variety of lifeless material, including The Saga Of The Beatles.
In the 70s he played around Toledo and ran his own booking agency, Glass City Talent, in nearby South Maumee.
Lionel ‘Butch’ Mattice
Little Bo Savitch