Sam Amato Interview
Sam and the Twisters

Sam and The Twisters were probably the most popular rock 'n' roll band to ever come out of Syracuse.

They packed local bars with hundreds of fans and backed rock 'n' roll stars such as Freddie Cannon, Bobby Vee, Leslie Gore, the Shirelles, Link Wray, and Gary U.S. Bonds. They recorded a song "Fooba Wooba John", which became a local hit. The group also backed Baron Daemon (Mike Price) on his big record "The Transylvania Twist."

In 1965, Sam and The Twisters appeared on the same bill as Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, and headliners Freddie and The Dreamers, at the Syracuse War Memorial.

Sam and The Twisters became “The Livin' Ennd” in 1968, when Sam Amato left the group.

Sam and The Twisters will reunite once again at the Landmark Theatre on December 30th.

Sam Amato talked with us about the glory years of Sam and The Twisters and Syracuse rock ‘n’ roll.

Q. When Sam and The Twisters formed back in 1959, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the music world. Elvis was in the Army. Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in February of that year. So, who inspired you enough to put the band together?
A. Well, as a matter of fact, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry was about all there really was. Chuck Barry of course, influenced everybody. I think probably, if I think back to where I really got the idea to say, 'Hey, this sounds good. Let me see if I can do it', was probably some of the early Chuck Barry guitar licks. Forming a group was just an incidental thing. I happened to be at a pizza place I used to hang out in North Syracuse called Joe's Pizza House. I ran into one of the guys that worked there. He was kind of a pseudo guitar player. We just one day got together and started jamming. We did that two or three times. I said this is pretty good. Of course neither one of us knew how to play the guitar. We did not take lessons. You just kind of emulate the sounds, you know. You didn’t t know if the guitar was tuned properly. You bought a Silvertone or Harmony guitar, whatever it was in those days. As that progressed I ran into a friend of mine from Liverpool named Chuck Mellone. Chuck was an accordion player. We proceeded with an accordion and two guitars, which was kind of trying to play rock ‘n’ roll music...and we did it. We didn't have a drummer or think of one in those days. I talked Chuck Mellone into investing money into a unit called an accorgan which was an accordion, but when you played it, it sounded like an organ. It was kind of like an electric genius designed it in those days. Shortly thereafter, maybe the beginning of ’59, I met Jan Fetterly through a mutual friend. Jan was much more into sports. He was a drummer, but that was really a hobby more than anything else. In his senior year in school he had some interest shown in him from the New York Yankees. He was quite a pitcher in high school. I had a constant problem trying to talk him into coming to practice. He probably did have a future in baseball, but I convinced him music was the answer. That's really where it all started. People came and went after that. Chuck Mellone and I had a falling out over what the name of the band was gonna be and who was gonna be the band leader.

Q. Why was the group called Sam and The Twisters? Why wasn't it Chuck and The Twisters, or Jan and The Twisters?
A. We had this big argument. At this point there was Chuck Mellone, myself and Jan. Just the three of us. We didn't have the fella I practiced guitar with, Joe Martino. He had a wife and family and was much older than we were. So, he had gone by the wayside at that point. Chuck was kind of headstrong. He said, "What are we gonna call the band?" The first name of the band was The Tornadoes. We had business cards back then with a twister on them, only we called it a tornado.

Q. Wasn't there already a group named The Tornadoes then that did "Telstar"?
A. That's it. Of course, we didn't know that. That was a medley of their hits. I don't think they did anything bigger than that. At this point we hadn't played out, other than a garage where our friends came over. It was probably pretty terrible. But as it progressed, we practiced and pretty much did instrumentals. That was pretty much the big thing, other than the Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley stuff. We emulated The Ventures. We actually got better and tighter. Chuck Mellone in the meantime, had run down to the County of Onondaga and registered the name as a DBA or an assumed name certificate, as The Twisters. He said if you want to play in the band, it's called The Twisters. Jan didn't like him. At practice I always told Chuck an accordion didn't fit in rock 'n' roll, and he should stick to this accorgan. At that time I had already bought a Fender guitar from Stagnitta Music Co. which is still open to this day I believe. At that time I had the best amplifier in the City of Syracuse, an Excelsior Citation, which was an accordion amplifier. It had humongous power. Back in those days I think it was 75 watts. Many groups asked if they could borrow it, or come practice through it. By then, we had this large sound for those days. I told Chuck if he didn't get an organ, Jan and I didn't want to play. We wanted to get another guitar player or maybe a bass player. So we had this big falling out. Jan said the people who do know us, knew us by the name The Twisters, and that's Chuck's name. I said so I'll just go down and register Sam and The Twisters. I went down and they did a search to find no one else had that name and that's how it happened. That very day I called up Chuck Mellone and told him we were no longer associated with him, and I went out and found another guitar player, who I believe, was Blair Priest, who's still around today I guess.

Q. You played rhythm guitar in the group?
A. Just lead.

Q. Back in the early 60’s Syracuse really had a thriving music scene didn't it?
A. Oh yeah.

Q. And musicians were supportive of each other. There was no back stabbing, was there?
A. No. There were like 8 or 9 good clubs to play, and there was maybe only 3 or 4 good bands. I'm talking about good bands that could play 40 to 50 songs a night, and they had some kind of style. There were a few bands still in the garage band status, that were up and coming, but, it's so hard to make something last. The amazing part to me was that once the band formed, Jan and I were the nucleus of it, and then along come Mickey Palumbo, and before Al came along, it solidified itself. Probably the best thing was that we did stick together, and we developed a style of our own and we did manage to get the big sound by having the good equipment. I think the equipment today has kind of overshadowed some of the creativity of guitar players especially.

Q. Not to mention the light shows.
A. Oh yeah, P.A. systems. We got pretty heavy into equipment. We got to the point where we needed a milk truck to carry it all around. I remember we bought our first big PA. system, the Sunn Coliseum PA. system. It was the same thing The Beatles used at Shea Stadium, in their first concert there. I guess that was mid 60’s. We bought it from Clark Music Co. I recall it cost $3,000. That was a staggering amount of money. I believe we financed it through one of the local finance companies. The very day we got it, I believe we played out at Hewitt's. We used to play there regularly. That was probably at the time the club in town. There was the Favetteville Inn and Hewitt's. The Favetteville Inn would draw 200-300 people. We’d put as many as 1,000 in Hewitt's on a Friday night. Of course it was a dollar to get in. It was just basically an open hall, no seats. Ed Hewitt, who owned it, was a mailman. We worked there for a lot of years. Once we did that record, we started doing a lot of out of town college work. We played out in Buffalo for Tommy Shannon who was a big disc jockey at WKBW, which was like the East coast top radio station. Of course we had a big tie in with WNDR.

Q. What exactly did Dandy Dan Leonard and WNDR do for Sam and The Twisters?
A. It was a combination. There were a few key people involved. Dan Leonard was a program director and he ran the Teen Canteen out at Three Rivers Inn. Of course, Dan was a businessman first and an enthusiast second. He was a good guy as long as you played by his rules. Dandy Dan had the connections with the record companies. He was hooked up with two guys out of Philadelphia on Swan Records. They had Freddy Cannon, Bobby Comstock. They had the first Beatles song, "She Loves You". I think they canned it. They didn't release it. Of course once they hit, they did. It was right during that time period or shortly thereafter that we recorded "Fooba Wooba John".

Q. Did Dan Leonard write that song?
A. No. He had the idea that it would be good to do a fairy tale and turn it into a rock 'n' roll song. Basically Jan and I wrote the song, although on the record it says Leonard, Amato, Fetterly. There was one version sold that had Dandy Dan do in a deep voice, at the end, "Fooba Wooba John".

Q. But, he did produce it?
A. Yes.

Q. What did he know about record production?
A. Well, the way it came down was, we did a lot of record hops. Basically, with record hops you got gas money. So when you could be out earning $200-$300 playing 4 hours, you go play a record hop for an hour, and you got $10 for gas. Which was good, because I knew all along that eventually we'd have a record out. To get a record played, in the days of payola, you had to pay serious money to the disc jockey. That was well known. It happened all over. New York City...that big thing with Alan Freed…and not a lot in Philadelphia. Sure there was some good stuff, like The Orlons. There was a guy called Mark Valention, who did a song called "The Push and Kick", which was absolutely terrible, but, he was on the Dick Clark Show. He got the big Philadelphia push. There was a lot of money changing hands back then. We're from a little town, Syracuse, competing with these other guys. Talent really wasn't where it was at. It was connections. There was no formal agreement on this record. Mickey, me, and Jan drove down in my old Cadillac to Philadelphia and recorded the song. We did part of it here in Syracuse at Riposo Studios. But, he couldn't get the mix. He didn't have the proper equipment. He was more into commercial work. We did the basic music tracks up here. We ended up not liking the product. So Al, our bass player was in school, and had a real stringent schedule, so he flew down to Philly, and we drove down. We got together at Swan Studios. They had a real good sound. The music track on "Fooba Wooba John", regardless if anybody liked the song or not, I never was crazy about the song, but the music track was really good, and it was all because of where it was recorded. It probably was way ahead of it's time. Although we worked real hard at Riposo's, we couldn't get the job done. But, Dan Leonard had the connection with Swan, and it was because of him, that we were able to get on a label. Dan Leonard basically got the thing put together, and didn't cost me a penny. It sold a lot of records. The actual count...I have no idea.

Q. How did the Transylvania Twist come about?
A. The way the Transylvania Twist came down, it was never supposed to be a record as such. It was a year or two after we did "Fooba Wooba John". Mike Price (Baron Daemon) who had a kid's show on Channel 9, hi the afternoons, needed a song. It was around Halloween. They wanted to do a promotion, and they needed a record. You know just to sell to kids or give it away on the t.v. show. I don't think it was ever done for profit. We walked into the studio, Sam and The Twisters and Baron Daemon. We didn't want to be associated with it. We got paid to do the session. I think they paid us a couple hundred dollars. So, we called ourselves The Vampires. It was Baron Daemon and The Vampires. We needed two songs. We were good musicians with our ears, but to sit down and read a sheet like an orchestra, that wasn't our cup of tea. He said we want to do something eerie sounding and something mentioning Transylvania. We came up with the song on the spot. The words were a conglomeration of Mike Riposo who was the engineer and owner of the studio and myself and Jan. Dan Leonard wasn't involved in it. We came up with "The Transylvania Twist", and it kind of pleased me, because it was something you made from nothing. Then they needed a flip side and it was an instrumental of sorts called "Ghost Guitars." Shortly after the record came out, it caught on fire. I think it still holds the record for Central New York.

Q. Were you surprised that it did so well?
A. I was proud of the sound that came out of it, but I was amazed that it caught on. It was kind of my first taste of what it really takes to sell records. What it takes is to do something commercial. It doesn't matter how exotic or involved or technical the sound is, what kids buy is a cute little thing. An - it caught on. They played that thing on t.v. and all the radio stations. I probably heard it 10 times a day. That was a big kick for me, more so than "Fooba Wooba John" to be honest with you.

Q. Did the Syracuse rock groups of the Sixties have "groupies"?
A. Oh boy, did we. Did we ever!

Q. You played on the roof of the North Drive-In for the Syracuse premiere of "A Hard Day's Night"...
A. You've done your homework haven't you?

Q. I sure have. But, if memory serves me correct "A Hard Day's Night" opened at the Dewitt Drive-in. Did it also open at the North Drive-In?
A. I think it did. To be honest with you, I think you could be right. The way I remember it, they had hired us, and flew in Diane Renee, She had a song out called "Kiss Me Sailor", "Blue Navy Blue". She was big time. A good singer. They enticed me into doing this thing for next to nothing. Jolly Roily Fowler was the disc jockey. I think there were other jocks too, including Jim O'Brien. So, I ended up picking up Diane Renee at the airport. That was early afternoon. She spent the whole day with me. That was probably the main reason I did it. (laughs). She was a knockout. She was on a major label. She had 4 or 5 bubblegum songs. We did that thing on top of the North Drive-In and it was a disaster. You couldn't believe the mosquitoes. But, it was a unique thing. WNDR used to make an effort to do things like that. I drove by the North Drive-In last week, and it was all weeds. The sign is still there.

Q. In April of 1965, you were on the same bill as Freddie and the Dreamers and Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders at the War Memorial.
A. That was a lot of fun. That really was fun.

Q. Did you get to meet those groups after your performance?
A. Oh yeah. I met 'em all. It was pretty fast and furious, because they were in and out before you could say hello or good-bye. It was promoted by WNDR. That was my in. There was some kind of national promotion going on, and I think they were pushing "Do the Freddie". They paid us a lot of money for that as I recall. I think we made $500. That was a lot of money then, especially being on the card with two nationals, especially British. The reason we got it primarily was because we had the best British sound in town. We did the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, and we did do "The Freddy". It was kind of a gimmick song, but it was melodic and pretty, and people liked it. But we got it through the radio stations.

Q. What do you remember about the people Sam and The Twisters backed up? Did they treat you well?
A. Generally speaking, they were all really good. The only real bummer was Leslie Gore. It wasn't her personally. We backed her up at Three Rivers Inn. She was pushing a record. Her father would drive her around. I think she was out of New York City or Jersey at that time. Her father was overly protective of her. She was not the type of girl you would be immediately attracted to. She had a cutesy voice. But anyway, we had backed up a lot of acts, and we were really good at it. I know some of her music. So we go into this room to rehearse the song, and after about 40 minutes, it sounded really good. I just wasn't pleased with it. I said to her, "Listen, this is an impromptu thing. You come into town, you don't have your own band, so either you lip-synch the record", which she didn't want to do, "or this is the best it's gonna get." She moaned about it for so long that finally we did it the way she wanted to do it. It came out what I thought was kind of crappie. But Dan Leonard came in and said, "Listen, just do what she wants you to do." I said even though we're backing her up, we're up there, and if we sound like dogs, people remember that. Of course, you gotta swallow your ego. You're there to back 'em up, not to be a star. So, we did it. She was the only bummer. Freddy Cannon was great. Gary U.S.. Bonds, we did a whole week with him at the Three Twenty Club in Liverpool. Bobby Vee was a prince. His stuff was easy to do. He wasn't very demanding.

Q. Why did Sam and The Twisters end in 1968? Were you not able to make the musical adjustment with the popular songs of the day?
A. I don't think so much that. We actually changed the name of Sam and The Twisters towards the end of '68 to The Livin's Ennd. We did that with a promotion on WNDR. We played at a place called the Red Dog Saloon and gave away a Savings Bond. It was a legitimate contest. I always wanted to travel more. We had a lot of opportunity to play different places. Pete Cavanaugh (Sam and The Twisters Manager) was a disc jockey at WNDR. He moved to Flint, Michigan with Bob Dell who was from WOLF. They got a hold of me and said there's this club out here called the Stardust, and he also owns the Stardust in Vegas, why don't you come out here, and talk to this guy. I had a bunch of tapes I used to make up at Riposo's. The guy was really impressed with the Beatle sound we had. So I went up there, and kept it a secret from the guys. I was gonna surprise 'em. I signed a contract, we were in the union at the time, to play the Stardust Lounge six nights in a row, Monday through Saturday for $800 a night, which is a lot of money, plus rooms, plus board, plus travel. So, I came home that day, practiced, and said, "You guys aren't gonna believe this, and I pulled out the contract and showed 'em. You're talking almost $5,000 clear, after expenses. They sat there with their mouths open. One guy said, “Well I can't go!” Why? “Because I have a job during the daytime.” The other guy said, "Well, my girlfriend doesn't want me to go."

So, I got pretty disgusted. I know the only way we could get bigger was to do things like that. They didn't want to go, so at that point, I was ready to quit. The transition from the music, the Big English music, and even the American rock 'n' roll to the Hendrix stuff, we could do. We got into Cream and Vanilla Fudge. I called it messy music, 'cause it wasn't as defined. We could have made that transition. The only problem was I was so disgusted at that point that I wanted out of it. That's when I ended up working for American Honda and went to California. It was just that fast. Of course I had a bad marriage back then. Once I got divorced I was ready to leave town anyway.

Q. Are you in Syracuse to stay?
A. Yeah. I'm back here permanently. When I left Syracuse I went all over the country. I was in California, Jersey, Texas, Chicago, Florida, Washington, D.C. and now I'm back up here.

Q. What were you doing in all those places?
A. In California I worked for the American Honda co. I was a district representative then a regional manager. I played a little music out there, and quite a bit down in Florida, with a group called The Hit Men. Mostly oldies, all classic rock at that time. Then the same thing in Washington. I was always associated with the car business. I was always in the car business.

Q. Isn't that quite an adjustment to go from a musician to a job in the car business?
A. Well, no. When I was playing music back in the mid 60's, it was always difficult to buy a car. As a musician they treated you like a hobo. So, I got associated with a fellow in town, Jack Revelle. He had a place called Revelle Motors. Jack now has Honda City. He had an AC Cobra which was a spectacular automobile. They only built like 60 of them. He had one on his lot. I just had to have it. So, I went down to talk to him. He said, "I'd like to sell it to you, but the only way you're gonna get financed on it, is you're gonna have to have a very large down payment", which I didn't have. This was '66. The car was like $6,000. Think about what you could buy for $6,000 almost 30 years ago. So I said, "Listen, I really want that car. He said, "maybe if you come to work here (he knew me and he knew that I knew a lot of people)...I'll put the deal through the bank and sign what they call a dealer repurchase," so they'd give me the loan. So I did that. And I did sell a lot of cars. Because of that I was always associated with it. He let me work my hours. In those days we were playing four, five, six nights a week. It progressed from there. I always found it to be a very lucrative business. When I did leave Syracuse at the end of '69, 1 applied and went to work for the American Honda Motor Co. as a sales rep and covered the mid-Atlantic. I had from Virginia up to New York. Then eventually, I had the whole northeast...setting up car and motorcycle dealers. I worked several years for Jack Revelle's Rochester Acura franchise.

Q. Will you be involved in the auto business or music business in Syracuse?
A. I probably am gonna pursue music on a smaller scale, mostly a weekend thing. What I'm gonna try and do is bring back some old stuff and maybe even get into some recording. I'm kind of toying with the idea of trying to produce a t.v. show, try to sell it to one of the channels; you know how they do the Acoustic Cafe with the acoustic acts? I'm gonna try to do the same thing only with rock bands. Right now, I'm looking for a sponsor for it. I think it probably would be a good thing if it was put together right. The only advertiser who could support something like that would have to be a large company like a brewery or a mega-car dealer. I think it would be well received in this town.

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