Playing What They Loved: Geneva’s Music Scene in the 1960s
By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion
Recently I talked with our friend Chuck Agonito about the rock and roll music scene in Geneva during in the 1960s. Since he was part of Geneva’s music scene, he is a wealth of information on the subject and has often written about it in his “Good Times” column for the Finger Lakes Times.
I don’t mean to repeat what Chuck has already covered, although I can’t resist repeating a few well-known names. Steve Alaimo, who played at Club 86 with his cousin’s band the Redcoats, went on to co-host Dick Clark’s TV show Where the Action Is in 1965. Mr. Alaimo also wrote songs, acted in movies, and became a record producer. Wilmer and the Dukes featured Genevans Wilmer Alexander and Ralph “Duke” Gillotte, plus Ron Albert of Waterloo. They were wildly popular at colleges up and down the East Coast. Bands with more local reputations included Bobbie D and the Trinidads, the Tokens (including Chuck,) Joey and the Clan, the Rhythm Rockers, the Roadrunners, and Donnie D and the Diamonds.
The 1960s was an era of live music. There were a few record hops, but usually kids danced to live bands. Chuck says the Tokens played three days a week through the summer of 1964. The lineup was Dave Mishanec, Nick Gillette, Joey Shahum, and Chuck. They had a saxophone, a Wurlitzer electric piano, drums, and Chuck’s bass guitar, giving them a different sound from the usual rock bands of the time. (The most common pattern was two guitars, a bass guitar, and drums.) Their repertoire included covers of the Beatles and other hits of the day.
The Tokens played at the YMCA, fire departments, the Rollerdrome, church socials, and schools. The primary radio stations in this area (at least for rock and roll) were WGVA in Geneva, and WACK in Newark. WGVA (and DJs Jerry Sherwin and Kenn Dodd) sponsored and promoted dances in the summer, and the Tokens played in Penn Yan, Seneca Falls, and Canandaigua as well as Geneva. Admission was usually from 50 cents to a dollar, and the proceeds were split between the DJ, the band, and the facility that hosted the event. The Tokens drew around 300 people most nights, and the band made $60 to $80 a performance. Music then was both more formal (even rock musicians often wore suits to play) and less formal (musicians carried their own equipment and often played through a modest PA system).
Local bands came and went. The Tokens broke up in fall of 1964 when two of them went off to college. Band lineups were very fluid as musicians came and went and group names changed. You might pick up a musician friend or two for a particular date. Joey Shahum was in a band before the Tokens and he later formed Joey and the Clan. That group was considered Geneva’s answer to the Beatles. A newspaper article (undated, but probably from 1964 or 1965) says that Joey and the Clan grew their hair long before the Beatles did.
Of course, Hobart and William Smith colleges had a music scene, too. Well-known campus bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s included White Trash, T Rocket, Blind Orange Julius, Peter and the Prophets, Room Service, and Lost and Found. Lost and Found included Eric Bloom (’66) who went on to play in Blue Oyster Cult. From off campus, HWS welcomed such performers as Richie Havens, B.B. King, Leon Russell, and Iron Butterfly. Chuck Berry played HWS with a student back-up band. The musicians’ prep for this performance was apparently Mr. Berry telling them to play some Chuck Berry songs. Wilmer and the Dukes came to HWS and Eric Bloom remembers Lost and Found opening for them in spring of 1967.
With all this going on, I was surprised not to find more about rock music in the Geneva Times of the 1960s. There is an occasional ad mentioning a group playing somewhere, but there seem to be no stories about even the most widely known local bands. Steve Alaimo’s name appears a few times in the TV listings for Where the Action Is. I have not run across any letters to the editor or features in which somebody points out Geneva’s connections with rock and roll performers.
I wondered whether popular music did not strike the editor of the Times as serious enough to merit discussion in the paper. There was, however, a fair amount of commentary that disparaged famous musicians, rock and roll, and teenagers. In June 1965, for example, the Times printed this bit:
London (AP) – A Royal Air Force hero mailed his royal decoration – member of the Order of the British Empire – back to Queen Elizabeth II today because he objects to the Beatles getting the same honor. . . . “The award has been cheapened and debased,” he said . . .
And in July 1969, the Times mentioned that Lawrence Welk would be appearing at the Rochester War Memorial, referring to him as “the Pied Piper” of TV, and saying that he ran the gamut of musical taste from “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to “A Medley from the Sound of Music.” So we might suspect that the editor’s own musical taste shaped the coverage in the paper. Geneva had some very fine musicians, though, even among those playing rock and roll. And many of the young rockers of the 1960s continued with music all their lives.