This interview is by Mike Ragogna, music reviewer for The Huffington Post, who recently spoke with JT Carter of The Crests, one of the great doo wop groups.
Mike Ragogna: Your group is a very important part of history as the first racially integrated music group of the fifties. Tell me how the group came together.
JT Carter: Well I’ll tell you, it was pretty easy. we’re from the lower east side of Manhattan, there’s a street down there named Orchard Street, everybody knows it. That’s the neighborhood that we come from. That neighborhood was definitely a melting pot for a lot of different races. Predominantly my friends are Jewish and Italian, I spoke a little Yiddish. It wasn’t hard to meet other people and other races, we took that for granted. There was never anything strange about that. We all observed the high holy days and then when it came time for Christmas we did that. It was a great mix and that’s how we all came together. All different, each one of us, but the same nonetheless.
MR: What was creatively getting together like at first?
JT: The first time I heard the other guys that would be The Crests, Johnny Maestro was not there. One guy in the group, Talmoudge Gough, he was related to Marvin Gaye, he could really sing. He sounded like a singer named Clyde McPhatter, high tenor beautiful voice, he used to always try to get me to come sing with the guys, but I wasn’t that interested, I was more interested in sports and lifting weights and hanging out with my Italian friends down by the monkey bars, climbing up on roofs and swinging like Tarzan. That was my interest, I wasn’t really interested in music. But then I heard Nat King Cole, I heard Ella Fitzgerald, and when I saw the guys singing one day they came over to me and said, “Come on, we need a note.” I didn’t like the sound of the music because those guys didn’t know harmony and I’d always taken it for granted.
Harmony was the easiest thing to me. I could harmonize with any note. They finally came over and persuaded me to sing and the group started sounding better. We used to meet in the school bathroom, and the group started sounding a little better, then the girls started chasing so we knew it sounded good. Then at some point Patricia Vandross, Luther Vandross’ sister, Talmoudge Gough, Harold Torres–Puerto Rican, beautiful guy, looked like Sal Mineo–and myself, they heard Johnny Maestro singing with a group of all Italian guys and they said, “You should really pair up with this guy.” This one older gentleman who had more knowledge about music, he brought Johnny down to meet us. We met in the hallway and from the beginning the harmony sounded good, Johnny liked it, and we got together. MR: How did you choose your material?
JT: There wasn’t a whole lot of material to sing, because during the time we started there was harmony, but there wasn’t a group on every corner. The songs that you sang harmony with, especially if you couldn’t hear harmony that well, were a little limited. That’s why these guys made up their own songs, they made up the simple progressions, we mostly chose it from the stuff we wrote.
MR: How did you get discovered?
JT: We were singing on the subway. We used to jump the turnstile because we had no money and we’d go from station to station singing and people would throw money at us and underwear and stuff. The people got to like us and when they saw this group of different people–to us we were all the same, but to them we were different races and everything, it was like the rainbow. A woman walked up to us and said, “My husband’s a bandleader,” his name was Al Brown, he was a well-known bandleader in Brooklyn, out there ahead of that Eastern Parkway area. He played weddings, he played all that stuff. He heard us and he said, “Man, I like you guys.” He took us and brought us into his studio to start recording.
MR: Do you remember the very first song you recorded?
JT: Oh God. The first song that we ever did that I can remember–and I don’t know why I remember this song–was “Red Sails In The Sunset.”
MR: I think Nat King Cole recorded it pre-Doo-Wop.
JT: Yeah, and the Platters did it, too. I think I heard Louis Armstrong and a few others do it, too. That song to us was beautiful. We liked the sound of it, Johnny’s voice sounded well and I could put all the harmonies together. It was a difficult song to do, but I fought with the guys and the harmony came together.
MR: “Sweetest One” was your first charting single. Do you remember making that record and what it was like?
JT: We didn’t even believe we were going into a recording session. During that time a recording session was not a recording session like we know it now. This guy owned a comic book store and it was in the back room of his thing. All the studios we’d ever seen were like down in studios in the basement or back in the back and there’d be cobwebs hanging all around. That was how we got with him. After we recorded “Sweetest One” and the other side, which is “My Juanita,” which was the side we really wanted to go because it had a nice feeling to it. [hums bass line]
MR: And eventually came “Sixteen Candles.”
JT: Yeah We also did a thing called “Pretty Little Angel.” It’s a song where everybody is singing the whole thing all the way through. Our writers could only think of angels. They liked them.
MR: How did “Sixteen Candles” come about?
JT: It was really a nightmare. At the time, as you were recording everything was done straight away. That meant you didn’t get a chance to go back and overdub, you didn’t get a chance to go back and fix nothing, it was a straightaway session. That meant that every musician on board had to play the song all the way through from beginning to end. It was a nightmare because we had twenty eight takes. The musicians hated us. But the other side of sixteen candles was “Beside You.” That was supposed to be the big hit. Then some smart alek disc jockey turned it over and said, “Oh, ‘Sixteen Candles,’ I like that better.” We were trapped. The B-side turned out to be the A-side.
MR: That happened to a lot of groups at the time.
JT: Yeah, especially because disk jockeys wanted to be unique, they wanted to have their own style. They figured if they flipped things over it worked. They would flip things over and gain their popularity because they would play a lot of the B-sides.
MR: Thank God for B-sides!
JT: Yeah, that was where the best stuff was hiding! Outta sight.
MR: So “Sixteen Candles” becomes the hit. How did the group react? How did you celebrate?
JT: I’ll tell you, we were shocked out of our minds, of course. Our group would go up against other groups, we’d go to other neighborhoods and they wouldn’t beat us up because we sounded good. Things would happen very well for us. Plus we were very unique in our look and our sound. Wherever we went the gangs wouldn’t attack us, the girls were after us, we were almost popular before we were popular. The hit was a followup to the notoriety we had gained. We didn’t know what we were doing, we were just doing what we thought everybody else was doing. We didn’t recognize it as being anything special. People liked us very much from the very beginning.
MR: And you guys were like heroes of your neighborhood?
JT: Yes we were! We carried the banner for the neighborhood. If you were anybody else beside us and came out and they said, “Where are they from? Oh, they’re from DeLancey street,” you’d get beaten up right away.
MR: What was the scene like growing up in New York in those days?
JT: It was like being raised by the yentas. You know what they are, right? My mother was the head of the yentas. She’d sit on the soda crates in the summer time almost all night long listening to us playing stickball and singing, we were all friends, we didn’t know there was a difference between us at all, we loved each other, we sang together, we played together, we looked out for each other, it was a heaven sent childhood.
MR: What are some of the band’s performance highlights?
JT: Oh yeah, we did all of that. We were there the day Hawaii became a state, we were there with the presidents, we were there with kings, we did Vegas, we did all of the large Dick Clark tours where he’d have twenty one groups on one show, all that stuff, Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Connie Francis, Ritchie Valens, Sam Cook, Johnny Mathis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, all these people became my friends. The Coasters, The Cadillacs, The Drifters… I was in The Drifters at one point, too. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers were the most important. If you weren’t there, you probably didn’t know this: The Teenagers were what every group wanted to be. We listened to them and we took their lead because they came on earlier. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and The Flamingos were the most important thing that ever happened to rock ‘n’ roll because they’re the ones we all copied. All of us.
MR: And I imagine more cues were taken from The Inkspots and later vocal groups?
JT: Oh yeah, The Inkspots, The Clovers, The Harptones, we all got that harmony from the barbershop quartets and they mixed it in with a little bit of rockabilly, a little bit of soul music, gospel music, it all came together.
MR: Then John Hughes comes along in 1984 and makes Sixteen Candles, one of his many coming-of age movies. The Stray Cats re-recorded “Sixteen Candles” for it, what did you think of their rendition?
JT: I thought it was terrible! [laughs] This is what I’m trying to say: They didn’t know the goal that they really had. I really don’t believe that the people on top knew how good what they had was. Being Americans, like Americans can be, first, they love it and then they hate it. The money was the most important thing to them, but they could’ve made so much more money keeping us intact. Instead of that they played us down and let the British Invasion start. The Beatles were backed by a country, we were back by nobody. We had to look out to get a hit.
MR: There are so many hits and classics from that era, but nobody remembers they were all on small labels. When they hit it was like wildfire.
JT: Yes it was. It came out of nowhere. No one knew it and no one recognized that it would still be there. In some places it is as popular right now as it ever was.
MR: Kids now are learning how to harmonize from acts who learned from acts who learned from you guys.
JT: And I’ll tell you, some of them are quite good at it, too. Their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were singing that music. It’s just like “In The Still Of The Night.” When that came back, I understand that [writer] Fred Parris picked up like five or six-millions dollars. What I wanted to say is that music is coming back around. It may not be quite as simple as it was, but they’ve done everything else they can do. The only smart thing to do is go back and take some of this music and do it again. Bring back that flavor. That’s the only way they can go at this point.
MR: You guys lived for the music. It was bigger for you than the money, right?
JT: Yes it was, it was a lot bigger than the money. The money will never amount up to what that is.
MR: You’ve gotten so many great awards, too. You got the award in Pennsylvania, you got an award for being the first African-American to form an inter-racial group.
JT: I had them all singing “My Girl.”
MR: What a great moment.
JT: When people look at somebody like me, they see somebody who’s been there. I started singing in 1947 and I’m still doing splits and turns and things like that, they look at me like either I’m crazy or I’m going to die before the show is over. It’s really entertaining to me, I get more of a kick out of it than they do.
MR: JT, what’s going on with your American Classics: Stars, Music & Cars project?
JT: When I was a little kid my father used to get in the old Cadillac on the weekends and we’d go and see Grandma out in the country and take road trips to visit other relatives in Connecticut. Families were families at that time, and the thing that brought them together as far as I’m concerned, was the automobile. If you were climbing on a horse or jumping in a wagon that would be a different thing, but you’re getting into this big Cadillac, the whole family, and you take this trip out. That was very important in the American style of life. As the cars changed the music changed and you could look at the car and identify how things were. The clothes changed and the music changed and the artists changed and the cars changed, if you just look at history you can see the changes in everything. It all goes together.
MR: It’s true. Are you having a good time still?
JT: I’ll tell you like this: I have never not had a good time. When I had the wherewithal, I gave a lot to kids, I stood in at The Metropolitan Opera, I’ve done things that other people have it, and I’m not finished yet. I still have some good times to come.
MR: What advice do you have for new or emerging artists?
JT: Well, to be emerging you have to be pretty smart. I would say study a little law. If they intend to do anything about it, take a short course in business law and learn what the rules are. At this time we were not fortunate enough, all the rules hadn’t been written pertaining to show business, so the reason why we didn’t get a lot was because we didn’t know anything. All the laws hadn’t been written. Show business had always been emerging, but show business was a small little nothing business at that time. It got to be where people could have a billion dollars, but that didn’t happen when we were around. A billion dollars could’ve probably paid everybody from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Now one person can have that. I would say the best thing to do is be wise enough, stay in school, get a lawyer, if you can’t afford it, study some law. Know what you’re stepping into.
MR: Nicely said, JT. You must be very proud of having one of the greatest hits of the fifties.
JT: And we also had the greatest lead singer, I want you to know that. I can sing, but there’s nobody I’ve ever met in my life that could ousting Johnny Maestro. He’s the best there ever was, I know there are people out there who want to portray him, but you will never see a person who could stand up to Johnny Maestro.
MR: Now since “Sixteen Candles” was one of the biggest hits of the era, that should have opened the door for you in a huge way. But that’s not how it went. What happened after that?
JT: Let me tell you, it comes down to the ripoff. We had a lot of really good records, and had the record company pushed them they would’ve gone all the way. The people who were managing us didn’t really expect this thing to last. They didn’t expect it to go on and on forever, so what they did was they disbanded us. They didn’t want to pay us, so they caused dissent in the group and tried to act like we weren’t who we were just to part us.
MR: When Johnny went off to do his own thing, how did you feel about that period?
JT: I hated it. I hated it worse than anything else. I had chosen my place, this was it with me. I’m not saying I was a better lead singer than Johnny but there was some things I used to sing that gave Johnny goosebumps. When it came down to it they wanted to rob us so they parted us. Johnny didn’t get almost anything. I wound up getting some money, they buttered me up a little bit just to keep my quiet. I thought it was silly that he left because we already had a head start. Johnny chose The Brooklyn Bridge and they took him away from us so that they didn’t have to pay up any royalties. I just thought it was ugly, I thought it was evil. I want you to know that Johnny did come back and get me, I re-recorded “The Worst That Could Happen” with them and I did some stuff with The Brooklyn Bridge, too. They used to call me to do sessions, they used to call me to do shows, but Johnny already had his course set.
Inside, Johnny always wanted to be a soloist. He just didn’t have enough pop to really, really be out there on his own. He probably should’ve sacrificed everything and made sure that they recognized him, but they never recognized him as a solo artist. He was disheartened by that. We had enough hits that if we’d kept going with The Crests we would’ve been the most popular thing around ever. We had seven or eight hits. If he’d taken what he did with The Brooklyn Bridge and put that together with what we did with The Crests we probably would’ve been one of the most sought after groups of that era.
MR: What do think The Crests contributed to music and pop culture?
JT: As far as I’m concerned we were the rainbow. We were the door openers. They saw us as being different, but we never were different. We were always more the same than anything. People didn’t understand it, they thought we’d be arguing and fighting over this and that, but we were the best of friends. We loved each other. We showed the world that things that appear to be different aren’t necessarily that way at all and what looks to be different could be the same internally. That’s what we were. When Johnny left the group I got a deal with Decca Records. Did you know that?
MR: Yes, I was over there. I saw your master recordings.
JT: Jerry Moss was with us, you know. He was our guy. He got with Herb Alpert and they did their thing, but he was our road manager at first. He was almost our valet. He used to take us on the road and drive the car and bring us ham sandwiches and all that stuff.
MR: Are you still in touch with him?
JT: No, I talk more to Larry Klein from Dick Clark productions. They’re going to be part of this thing we’re going to do with …Cars, Music & Stars.
MR: You also will be getting a little gift from The Lee High Valley Music Awards.
JT: Yep! I was awarded the lifetime achievement award and I’m going to be there with them this year. It’s their sixteenth year, so I’m singing “Sixteen Candles” for the awards. It’s going to be great, I hope we can get Chubby there and a couple of other people.
MR: I hope the crowds are as big for you there as they were at Cousin Bruce’s First Annual Pallisades Park Reunion!
JT: There won’t quite be the space for that! [laughs] Geography has a lot to do with it. We’re in Pennsylvania, if we were closer to New York, we could pull in more people like Cousin Brucie.
MR: What’s next?
JT: We wrote a play, there’s a bunch of things I want to do. They talk about the Jersey Boys, I love The Jersey Boys, they got it all beautiful, no problem, but the guy to be admired, really, as I saw it in the very beginning was “The Boy From New York City.”
MR: Ah, The Ad Libs!
JT: The guys from New York always had it a little over the guys from New Jersey. You lived in New York, you were on the subway, the clothes were better, the girls would come from New Jersey to see us. That’s what my play’s going to be about. The New York guys.
MR: So there was a big rivalry there?
JT: Oh, definitely. There was a borderline. You had to come across the border. The good thing about New York was the clubs stayed open until four o’clock in the morning. They shut down at one in New Jersey! The girls from New Jersey married guys from New York. It wasn’t a rivalry, they just wanted to be us. You could stand on Broadway and watch John Wayne walk down the street, or Muhammad Ali. You can still do it!
MR: I don’t want to keep you much longer, but I want to end with a completely ridiculous question: Any words of wisdom?
JT: I can’t even spell that word. [laughs] I would really, really highly advise people to keep their kids in tune with some of our music. The reason I say that, the way the culture is now, you’re singing about making love. In our culture it was about being in love. That’s a completely different thing. You’re thinking about doing it, we’re thinking about being in love and having a family. It’s about people being together. If people can let their kids know that, they’ll research it and Google it and find that the world wasn’t made just for them, it started a long time ago and people used to not fight and hate and kill each other like they’re doing now.
MR: That’s beautiful.
JT: So you remember that. It’s being in love, not making love.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne