Don Barber Interview
(Don Barber And The Dukes)
Don Barber And The Dukes have long been regarded as one of the most popular Syracuse rock ‘n’ roll groups of the 1960’s.
In fact the group is still performing these days.
Don Barber talked with us about the history of his group.
Q – Don, where do you base yourself out of these days?
A – Homer, New York. Homer and Cortland, New York run right in together.
Q – Why did you call the group Don Barber and the Dukes? Why not just The Dukes?
A – Well, that was the vogue in those days. I started trying to put a group together probably back in ’56 or ’57. Bobby Comstock was out of Ithaca (New York) at the time, and it was Bobby and the Counts. Ronnie Dio whose gone on to fame with Heavy Metal was in a group here locally, Ronnie And The Redcaps. So, that was just the way groups were put together, the titles for groups.
Q – Was there any resentment from the other guys in the group for having your name out front?
A – If there was, they never showed it. I think everybody was on the same page. That’s what groups were doing in those days.
Q – What inspired you to form a band?
A – Well, pretty much the new type of music. At that time it was rock ‘n’ roll. It was in it’s infancy and obviously had caught my attention. I was a member of the high school band. I was a drummer. I tried for probably two or three years to put a group together with fellow members from the high school band but, guitarists weren’t available, readily. We tried to do it with brass. We tried to do it with saxophones and various things where people had training and lessons, and it just wasn’t making it. Eventually I did stumble onto some people that did play guitar and had a interest in the same type of music and really were fairly proficient at it too.
Q – According to the “History of Syracuse Music, Volume Five” album, liner notes, you formed the Dukes in late 1961. Is that true?
A – Really I don’t know where they got their information. We were never consulted on what the album notes were gonna say. The group had been working before that for probably 3, maybe 4 years, doing record hops around the area with Dan Leonard (Program Director of WNDR Radio in Syracuse). He would bring in recording artists for guest appearances and that sort of thing. We didn’t back them at that point. They would lip-synch. We’d been in existence before that. It was just in ’61 that Dan (Leonard) and I decided that he would take us into the studio and see if we could come up with something that would be listened to, whether a hit or not.
Q – In a 1992 interview with Jim O’Brian (WNDR disc jockey), he said: “Our bands were Sam and the Twisters and The Monterays. WOLF (Radio) had Don Barber and the Dukes” What does that mean? What exactly did WOLF do for you?
A – I think the primary thing was Danny had switched over to WOLF at that point. He and I had an allegiance to each other. He produced both of my records. He had probably made the switch at that point and I had naturally gravitated with him.
Q – You had a double-sided hit with “I’ll Be Blue” and “Henrietta”?
A – Yeah. They did fairly well. I don’t know they could necessarily be termed a hit. They weren’t nationwide, but, they met with some acceptance in Central New York.
Q – How did the song “The Waddle” do for you?
A – Actually, that did better. Dan said to me at one point he had the best feeling about that record than anything that ever came out of Syracuse. We thought we were going to make national news with that. Dick Clark was on it for a period of time, was my understanding. They started playing it on the west coast for whatever reason. I don’t know if it was Dan’s connections out there or what. It started to work its way across the country and Dick Clark was on it, and for whatever reason…..there’s a lot of things that happen in the music and entertainment industry, same as in politics, and for whatever reason Dick Clark jumped off it. When he did it-----it nose-dived.
Q – Did Dick Clark ever play “The Waddle” on “American Bandstand”?
A – That I’m not certain of. All I’m going by is what the late Dan Leonard told me. Whether it was played on ‘Bandstand’ or one of the syndicated shows I don’t know.
Q – Did Dan Leonard know why the song stopped getting played?
A – I don’t know that Dan was privy to it. He probably could never get a straight answer either. And Dan was quite influential and respected, in the entertainment business not only in Central New York, but he had connections all across the country.
Q – How many sets a night were you playing back in the beginning days?
A – Generally 3 or 4. With the record hop, if he wanted us to come in for a ‘live’ band and a record hop, he would spin discs and we would do a half-hour, 45 minutes, something like that. In the early days, none of us were old enough to play in clubs that served alcohol, not that the rules didn’t get bent on occasion. So, we couldn’t go in for instance and do an evening at that point in time. We eventually became old enough. In those days the legal drinking age was 18. These clubs today are just struggling to stay alive with all of the regulations that have been put upon them by the state and federal government. You know, you don’t see much ‘live’, music around anymore.
Q – No, you don’t.
A – This group that I’ve been working with in recent years-----we don’t really care to do the bar scene anymore, because we’ve all been down that road. I don’t have any ax to grind with the drunk-driving laws, but the dram shop law where they come back on the club-owner if there should be a serious accident; the no-smoking law, this is putting these people out of business. Particularly New York wants to legislate our lives.
Q – Would you play the music of the day, what was on the charts?
A – Right.
Q – Did you guys all wear matching suits? I believe I saw a picture and that was the case.
A – Yes. In those days we did. We used to save up our money and get sweater and slack outfits. In those days it wasn’t suits and ties. It was more of a casual thing. We used to do a lot of fraternities and we had tuxes (tuxedoes). But, they were glitter tuxes. They had maybe a gold lame fleck through ‘em. As a matter of fact, mine was all gold. The other guys wore black with a gold fleck in it.
Q – Where’d you buy those from?
A – Boy oh boy-----you got me!! I’m almost think we had to send to New York to get ‘em. I know we had to go out of town, but, that’s a long, long time ago.
Q – Did you perform at Suburban Park and The Fayetteville Inn?
A – Sure. We did Suburban Park and one job, Dan was promoting that at the time; we did Suburban Park with The Four Seasons. I can’t tell you the year. It had to have been after ’62, ‘cause ‘Sherry’ was already a hit. We did play The Fayetteville Inn. Shortly after that, in ’62, I went to Lake George and played for the summer. We met up with some other musicians and that kind of thing and became interested in going out on the road and ultimately that’s what we did.
Q – You did a national tour?
A – Our agent was in Philadelphia. He would book us in clubs throughout as far west as Ohio. We started out in Ohio, and then all up and down the eastern seaboard.
Q – This was in the early 60’s?
A – Right.
Q – The money must’ve been pretty good.
A – Well, we thought it was at the time. I was maybe 21 years old, maybe even 20 when we first started out. In those days we thought the money was pretty good. As you go back and start to do an audit on the whole thing, by the time you pay for your motel room and eat all your meals out, and pay for your dry cleaning and have your shirts laundered, it really wasn’t all that great-----but, it was a lot of fun. For guys 20, 22 years old it was a real adventure.
Q – Would you have drawn 1,000 people when you played Suburban Park?
A – I wouldn’t think you’d get 1,000. Maybe, you would’ve I’m gonna say possibly in the hundreds. But, I don’t recall a thousand. But, that’s not something I have indelibly printed in my memory either.
Q – What can you tell me about the Fayetteville Inn?
A – The era that we played it; what would happen in those days, the various groups in Syracuse would rotate around the various clubs. For instance, we weren’t locked into The Fayetteville Inn week after week after week. We might go from there to The Brookside, and there was a place out past the Fairmount four corners, called the Coda. It was kind of a cycle of clubs and bands.
Q – What was so special about this place? Did they have a big stage? A lot of room?
A – A lot of room. Basically, that was it. It was a party atmosphere. Young people flocked in there, I’ll tell you. I think they could put in at least 400 people. It was a big place. We did several months at a place past Fayetteville called Bahouth Bowl. Nick Bahouth put us in there, about the time The Beatles broke. We were there for well over a year, probably going on two. That was a ‘hot’ spot too. When we used to play The Brookside, The Dukes were a trio. The drummer with us was Fred Winston, who ended up a big jock. He’s been at WLS in Chicago. I’ve been in contact with him in recent years. He pretty much does voice-overs now. He’s not on the air. But, he started out at WOLF.
Q – Did you ever play this place? The Teen Canteen at Three Rivers Inn?
A – Oh, sure. We were the house band there. That was Dan’s (Dan Leonard) baby. That was a Sunday afternoon deal. We played that along with a lot of other bands.
Q – I meant to ask you, what label was your double-sided record released on?
A – Personality (Records).
Q – I’ve never heard of that label.
A – I hadn’t either and haven’t since. (Laughs).
Q – Are you the only original member in the Dukes?
A – Yeah. There’s been a lot of evolution over the years. There’s been a lot of different Dukes. The guys that did ‘Henrietta’ and ‘I’ll Be Blue’ I’m still in contact with. Most of us went on to have other careers, full-time, but some of ‘em continued to do it part-time. The guy that co-wrote ‘I’ll Be Blue’ with me, Skip Scyerle lives just down the road in a little town called Marathon. He has a recording studio down there that he just tinkers with. No commercial work. But, he and I are in regular contact.
Q – Did the other guys stay in music?
A – No. One lives now in Camden, New York, the bass player. He went with the New York State Police. He retired from there. Now, he’s just playing music on the side since he retired. Another one became a counselor of some sort. Worked in Syracuse. I don’t know exactly what his title was, but, he still lives in Cortland.
Q – You’re playing out mostly in the summer these days?
A – Yeah, pretty much. Special events.
Q – Since music isn’t your full-time occupation what did you end up doing?
A – I owned a funeral home for over 30 years.
Q – A funeral home?
A – Yeah. Most people say that. (Laughs).
Q – Do you still own it?
A – I merged with a larger corporation a few years ago. I’m still on staff, but I don’t have any set schedule.
Q – You never have to worry about going out of business.
A – No, but you do have to wonder if you’re gonna get a good nights sleep sometimes. That was my choice. It was good to me. We were able to graduate our children from college. You know, that’s just the way it went.
Q – Do you have any new product out?
A – No, I don’t. I have a CD that was recorded ‘live’. We opened for Bill Haley’s Comets this past June (2006) in Cortland, New York. The sound co. that did that had the capability of doing a CD recording of our ‘live’ show when we opened for them. The quality of that is as good as we used to get in the studio, when we were doing recordings. At this point in time it’s not available commercially.
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