The Neons ©2000JCMarion

The Neons are a vocal group that is in reality, not held in high esteem by a majority of long time fans and fanatics of the sound of doowop music. However, that said, what makes them noteworthy is within the context of the music and its time line. In other words, the Neons were there, performing in the style that we have come to know and hold in such high regard. White groups performing in the Black doowop style just weren't around in 1956, except for the Mello-Kings and to a lesser extent, The Neons. (One other example I can recall are The Bell Hops on Tin Pan Alley who are mostly unknown, and The Three Chuckles were earlier but certainly not considered a doowop group).

The Four Neons developed their style and "ear" via the street corner route which was the genesis of the majority of the R & B vocal groups of the early and mid fifties. The biggest influence on the group were The Harptones and Cadillacs, two of New York's finest. It was in fact, a connection with The Harptones which led to the group getting a break into the recording studio. A chance meting with the incomparable Raoul J. Cita, musical director and keyboard accompanist of The Harptones, led to a meeting with record company entrepreneur Monte Bruce, on whose label the Harptones were with. Bruce was looking to expand his fledgling empire with a Brooklyn outpost, and so he formed a new label called Tetra Records and prepared to record The Neons. The group consisted of Frank Vignari - lead singer; Jeff Pearl - tenor; Ron Derin - baritone; and Norm Isacoff - bass.

The Neons got together with Bruce, and George Goldner (who reportedly financed part or all of the session), and the usual house band used by Goldner which included Buddy Lucas on sax, Ken Burrell on guitar, and Bobby Gregg on drums among others. The result was the up tempo tune "Angel Face" on Tetra #4444, which legend has it, took more than one hundred takes to get a "keeper". For the flip side, another Neons original was recorded. It was a song called "Kiss Me Quickly". The record was released in the summer of 1956, the single most vocal group intensive period in the history of American music. That the record did not get lost in the proliferation of records that were issued at this time is a miracle of talent, luck, heavy handed promotion, or a combination of all three. Whatever the reason, "Angel Face" broke out in the New York City area that summer and was a solid seller.

The knowledge that The Neons were a White group (whether from the sound of the record or public appearances the group might have made early in their career, unlike the story of The Mello-Kings), had to have an impact on the dreams of stardom in the minds of many would-be vocal group singers around the city. This certainly would play a part in the rise of the vocal group sound of the later fifties and early sixties. Good sales and airplay in those two bastions of doowop popularity, New York and Philadelphia, helped give the record a good run during that summer and into the fall. The Neons seemed to have everything in order to become the "next big thing" in November of 1956.

In early 1957, The Neons were back in the recording studio, and soon Tetra #4449 was released. The ballad side was the one that Bruce was pushing. It was called "Road To Romance". The flip side was the forgettable "My Chickadee", and soon the ballad side was getting airplay. It featured all the vocal group characteristics of the time - the fractured syllables, the song's "grind" tempo, and the up front harmony, rather than the understated background that was popular in the early part of the decade. The record seemed to take off, and then it suddenly disappeared from sight. Supposedly the reason for this was the abrupt decision of Monte Bruce to leave the record business, and resign from all factors of the promotion and financial end. Contracts? What contracts. And so The Neons were left to twist slowly in the wind. Just as abrupt, that was in effect the end of The Neons as a recording vocal group. Sure, they were in existence as an entertainment unit, but who knew ?

For whatever reason, George Goldner re-released "Angel Face" on his Gone label, #5090, in late 1959 to almost no one's knowledge. That in essence is the story of the rapid rise and the faster fall from fame of The Neons. They are somewhat more than just a footnote to the history of this music because of the important social ramifications of its rise to popularity. That they were there at that point in time is one of the reasons that helped in no small part, break down the barriers that existed between people and lead to the multi-cultural phenomenon that has become the U.S.A. in the year 2000.

[some of the information contained in this article is taken from Art Turco's interview with Jeff Pearl and Ron Derin in Record Exchanger #12]

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