Wasn’t Meant To Be:
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
In the mid-to-late ‘60s, Joe Wright was one of the hottest guitarists in Chicago. Although his skills on the six-string were well known locally, he was virtually unknown outside of the Windy City. That all changed when a certain British rock quartet by the name of Led Zeppelin came rolling through town in February, 1969. At the time, Zeppelin was still a struggling new act on the scene and they were the opening act for Vanilla Fudge on the night they met Joe Wright. Shortly after meeting them, Joe became a roadie for the up-and-coming rockers – initially John Bonham’s drum roadie but soon promoted to guitar tech for Jimmy Page. When the band would tour, Page and Wright would jam in Jimmy’s dressing room before each gig. Because of these informal little jams, both Page and vocalist Robert Plant would refer to Wright as ‘Joe The Jammer.’ It wasn’t long before he became simply known as Joe Jammer.
Led Zeppelin was impressed by Joe’s musical abilities and eventually brought him to the attention of their notorious manager Peter Grant. Once Grant had agreed to take him on, Joe moved from Chicago to London, signed with Regal Zonophone and released his debut Joe Jammer album, Bad News, in 1973. Though the album wasn’t a huge commercial hit, everyone involved was encouraged by the album’s critical success and sent Joe back into the studio to record his second album. Joe assembled a new band for the album in hopes of taking his music to the next level. For these sessions, which were held at Olympic Studios in 1974, Joe assembled an all-star cast of players including drummer Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience), bassist John Gustafson (The Merseybeats/Roxy Music/The Ian Gillan Band), and vocalist Johnny Contardo (Sha Na Na). Laying down 11 tracks in less than a month, this new musical project brought together several musicians from different backgrounds to create a sound that took Joe’s groove into a new direction. Once the album – titled Headway – was finished, all the musicians parted ways with high hopes for a bright future ahead. But then the cruel hand of fate stepped in (as it always seems to do in the music business)…
Stuck back in Chicago thanks to immigration issues, Joe’s label contract with Regal Zonophone expired, Headway’s release was cancelled, and the tapes were shelved. With each of the members already involved with other projects, the Headway album soon became a distant memory to Joe and his motley gang of musicians. On separate and totally unrelated occasions over the years, both Contardo – who had eventually become a TV star with Sha Na Na – and Joe would stumble across tapes of these rare and nearly-forgotten recordings. Contardo’s copy was a poor quality cassette but the tapes Joe found were in great condition and were prepared for release. In February 2015, 41 years after it was recorded, Angel Air Records finally released the Headway album. The album’s mixture of Blues, Jazz and Rock was a progression for the guitarist and a new venture for vocalist Contardo. Headway’s relaxed and smooth vibe would have certainly cast a different light on all the band members, as it provided a glimpse at how versatile they were. But alas, one of the album’s song titles proved to be prophetic: “It Wasn’t Meant To Be.” Thankfully, Joe himself is alive and well in London and is still slinging the six-string. He’s played live with Supertramp, Donna Summer and Stealers Wheel as well as worked in the studio with top notch musicians like Mike Jagger, Joe Cocker and Ringo Starr.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with the Headway album’s vocalist Johnny Contardo and discover how the Sha Na Na singer became involved with some of rock’s finest musicians…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Now, after 41 years, Headway has finally been released. How are you feeling about this project after all these years?
JOHNNY CONTARDO: Well, it just brings back so many memories. It’s kind of emotional. I immediately go back to the days when I was very young and having a ball. You know, it’s just amazing.
SPAZ: How did you get involved with this project to begin with?
JOHNNY: What happened basically was I was in Europe and a tour with Sha Na Na was about to come to an end. This girl that I went to high school with, Elyssa Jerret, knew I was there and she basically asked me if I wanted to hook up with her and her boyfriend at the time, being Joe Jammer, and I said sure. I was gonna hang out in London for a little while after the tour anyway. So we hung out and then he had these songs that he was thinking about recording, and he basically asked me if I wanted to sing some of the songs. And that’s how it came about. Elyssa ended up marrying one of the fellows from Aerosmith – Joe Perry, the guitar player. All of us are from Boston, and I knew Aerosmith in the very beginning when they were just starting out playing local clubs.
SPAZ: Is this a project that you had almost forgotten about over the years?
JOHNNY: About 20 years down the road, I happened to find a cassette tape of Headway – just like Joe found in the cellar of his mom’s house when she passed away. I had found this cassette of the songs 20 years ago, and I put the tape on. I listened to it but the tape quality wasn’t very good. I kind of forgot about it after that.
SPAZ: How much input did you and the other band members have? Because it sounds like everyone’s really connected and on the same wavelength. I thought maybe all four of you would’ve written the songs, but I see they’re only credited to Joe.
JOHNNY: When a singer gets together with studio musicians, you get what you put in. The reason why I’m mentioning studio musicians is because we were not a band, so for lack of a better word, you’d want to assume that all these guys are going into the studio and they’re professional and they’re just gonna do something similar to what studio musicians would do. And that was not the case here. I think what happened was that the fact that we didn’t really do a lot of studio work – everybody was from other bands –we kind of knew how to get along and gel together. That’s what was remarkable about this. I think the fact that all of us had that experience with other bands made it sound like we were together. Joe did produce everything and he did write everything and he did put us all together. He definitely was the glue. We were just going in and doing what he wanted us to do. An interesting thing about that was, you know, I said to Joe, “Are you familiar with Sha Na Na?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You know, my voice is a pretty voice. I’m not like a typical hard rocker type singer. That’s maybe the kind of guy that you want. I won’t be offended in any way if that’s the guy you’re looking for.” He kept insisting that I sing the songs. So I said to him, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll do two or three songs for you. I’ll go in and do one session with you and I’ll learn the songs. And if you feel after those sessions that I’m not the guy and you really need that rocker type singer, I will not be offended at all.” And I really threw that out at him, and he just kept saying he was happy with what I was doing and you know, we kept doing it and we ended up with 11 songs. The amazing thing about the album for me is that I think that’s one of the only times in my life when somebody really kind of stretched my voice in another direction.
SPAZ: So you were definitely finding more freedom to experiment as a vocalist?
JOHNNY: Absolutely. I didn’t know it at the time. At the time, it was a real challenge for me so I wasn’t really thinking about this was like a breakthrough for me voice-wise. At the time, I was thinking about the challenge ahead of me because some of the songs were really high to sing. I kept wanting him to bring the keys down, and he wouldn’t. So I said, “Okay – I’ll just do my best.” Most of the songs, I was very, very happy with, and very happy that he did push me.
SPAZ: Was it easy to go in this different direction? Both Joe Jammer and Sha Na Na, at the core, are definitely Blues-based. However, I feel the Joe Jammer record is more of a Jazz-Blues record.
JOHNNY: Joe says that, if you try to describe the record to somebody, it’s like Curtis Mayfield meets Smokey Robinson and they knock on Jimi Hendrix’s door and they made an album.
SPAZ: Was it comfortable once you got into the groove?
JOHNNY: Once he accepted my voice, I said, “Let’s go.” And for three weeks or a month, we did it. I just took direction from him. He gave me the songs. I learned the melodies. I learned the lyrics. And we went ahead and did it.
SPAZ: What was it like to work with these guys? Was it a whole different experience than Sha Na Na?
JOHNNY: It was a different experience but I’m not sure I appreciated it as much as I should have, because my focus at that point was being in Sha Na Na. We were touring and that was my main focus. Of course, once I was off the road, I was able to dismiss it temporarily because I had this project at hand to do. I know I’m gonna get myself in a little bit of trouble here, but all the people that I was working with were really, really professional people, and I couldn’t say that about some of the members of Sha Na Na….(laughs).
SPAZ: Are there any particular songs that you’re fond of on the record? I think “Afraid To Make A Friend” is definitely one of the standouts on the record.
JOHNNY: Nice that you said that. “Afraid To Make A Friend” really lends itself to my voice – the pretty, ballad-y type voice – and I really challenged myself on “Not Tonight.” I love “Broken Little Pieces” – it’s a great little subtle jazzy type of song.
SPAZ: Now, looking back at yourself in 1974 – were you closer to the funky Jazz-Blues guy in Joe Jammer’s band or were you closer to the sort of angelic-voiced Sha Na Na guy?
JOHNNY: That’s a really good question because maybe some of my Jazz roots came out of my singing without even knowing it. I started singing in a church when I was 6, 7-years-old, in the Italian neighborhood that I lived in, and then we moved to a Jewish neighborhood and I had a stepfather and he had all these Jazz albums. He had great albums. I was really influenced by the female Jazz singers. I loved Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I also liked the club stuff because all these Mafioso guys owned these nightclubs in Boston and they used to let me go in as a young teenager and get up on stage, even though it was illegal for me to be there. I would get up and sing all these Frank Sinatra tunes and Sammy Davis tunes, so I had that Jazz upbringing. And then my sister, who is 5, 6 years older than me, she kind of liked the Doo Wop stuff, the Bobby Rydells and the Frankie Avalons, so that was really my foundation in music.
SPAZ: If the album had been released, would it have been difficult to balance both careers? What if the album had taken off?
JOHNNY: I can’t imagine if I had left Sha Na Na and taken a chance and gone with Joe, and then we ended up in the toilet…or if I went with Joe and we became a huge band. We just can’t answer that question, can we? Sha Na Na got their television show 5, 6 years later. We were on TV in the states for 7 years.
SPAZ: Wasn’t your TV show one of the first real popular syndicated TV shows?
JOHNNY: It was. I think it was the very last variety show too, if you wanted to put it in a variety category. I don’t think there was a show after ours that had that kind of flavor to it.
SPAZ: Didn’t you have The Ramones on the show?
JOHNNY: God yeah. We did 4 years of shows plus the pilot, which was a total of 97 shows, which means we had 97 guest stars on the show!
SPAZ: Were you more surprised when the Headway album was shelved or when you were told it was going to come out?
JOHNNY: Oh, when I was told it was going to come out. When I left London and Joe was trying to do what he was trying to do – even though we had an association with EMI at the time – I said to myself, “What are the chances that this is all gonna happen?” I was on my way to something else. I was too busy with Sha Na Na going off on another tour or whatever it was I was doing. I just kept moving on and that was that. After I left London, I don’t think I’ve seen Joe for 40 years.
SPAZ: What’s next for Johnny Contardo?
JOHNNY: I’m getting ready to go to the Caribbean – I’m gonna be singing on a Doo Wop cruise and I’m gonna be in the Caribbean for two weeks. I also play small little theaters around the country on my own. I still teach a little bit. I’m in the infant stages of trying to put this school together teaching teachers my technique, and that’s what I’m up to.
SPAZ: What’s spinning on your CD, record, DVD, Blu Ray players?
JOHNNY: Oh, I listen to anything that’s good. I have students that come to me with music. I go to the gym to work out and occasionally I will be humming a song that’s coming through the intercom in the gym and these young girls will look at me like, “How does this old guy know these songs?” I’ll listen to Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga – all that stuff. I’ll throw on a Jazz album. I’ll listen to straight raw Rock ‘n’ Roll. I love it all as long as it’s good. I’m not a Country fan, but some of those Country female singers are great.
to Peter Purnell, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky
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