The Claremont Parkway Sound : The Tonettes and Vince Castro©2008JCMarion


Near the East Tremont section of the Bronx, New York, is a street named Claremont Parkway. It begins at Crotona Park and ends about seven blocks away at Claremont Park. It is a little South of Belmont Avenue (which gave us Dion & The Belmonts) and a little North of Morrisania which gave us The Mellows, Lillia Leach, Dean Barlowe, and others . So - this has been fertile ground for vocal group harmony throughout the years. In 1957 on Claremont Parkway were two sisters, Diana and Sylvia Sanchez, who liked to harmonize and blend their voices on tunes of the day. Their good friend Josephine (Josie) Allen often joined them as the threesome enjoyed making music and copying sounds they heard on the radio.

It was a day like many others that the two sisters were hitting some notes when they were heard by a television repair man named Lou Ezzo who was somewhat impressed and told them that they should pursue their talent further. Offering his services, he soon put them in touch with those at Apollo Records, one of New York's oldest and best known independent labels that for the last few years had built up an impressive roster of R & B performers. The three girls showed their stuff to Apollo and including the song writing ability of Diana Sanchez soon found themselves getting ready to experience their very first recording date. Along with top session musicians such as Sammy Lowe, Sam "The Man" Taylor, Mickey Baker, and David "Panama" Francis, the girls worked out the songs for the very first record for them. The songs were "Keep Me Dreaming" and "Angel Of Romance" on Apollo # 517, which was released in November of 1957. An interesting sidelight is the fact that songwriting credit on the songs is also given to the TV repair man !

The Claremonts were now managed by one Charles Merenstein who just happened to be the son in law of Bess Berman head of Apollo Records. At the beginning of 1958 he launched his own label called Doe Records and readied a new side by The Claremonts whom he now renamed The Tonettes. He reasoned that the new name had a "snappier" sound that teenagers would better relate to. That was also the reason that he recorded the group on his new label thinking that the Apollo Records label was too historically aligned with the basic sound of R & B. And so in February of 1958 came "Oh What A Baby" backed with "Howie" on Doe # 101. "Baby" was an immediate success, and beside the name change, the sound of the record certainly had a "snappy" sound. It took off up and down the East Coast and had that certain something that made it a favorite at record hops and dances everywhere. Soon Doe Records realized the extent of the appeal of the record and leased the master to ABC-Paramount (released on # 9905) which gave the record access to nationwide distribution. "Oh What A Baby" was a good seller and a mainstay on radio playlists throughout the spring.

In the meantime there was another player in the musical history of the group. Across Claremont Parkway from the Sanchez sisters lived another young person with dreams of musical stardom. His name was Vince Castro and he sometimes shared notes with the sisters. And so he was given a shot to add his voice and style to the music of the day and Charles Merenstein set the session for May. The Tonettes backed up Castro (although uncredited on the label for some reason) on the song "Bong Bong (I Love You Madly)" with "You're My Girl" on Doe Records # 102. Once again the 'A' side took off in sales and airplay and Doe leased the side to another ABC-Paramount subsidiary label Apt Records on # 25007. And so in the spring and summer of 1958 the joyous sounds of the neighbors on Claremont Parkway shook the city with two great records, and they both (together and as solo acts) performed at a number of shows and radio dances in the Northeast. Vice Castro followed up his solid hit with another session that produced two songs that he wrote himself - "Cause I Love You" and "Too Proud To Beg" released on Apt # 25025. This time out the record did not crack the charts.

Vince had one further record during this time which was recorded on a small Bronx based label called Orchid Records. The songs "You Never Believe Me" and "I Feel So Grand" was released on Orchid # 660. An interesting fact of this recording is that background vocals were sung by Josie Allen of The Tonettes and Anna the sister of Vince Castro. Remember the TV repair man Lou Ezzo ? He still had his hand in the music business in 1959 as it was reported in the trade press that he formed his own record label called Twin Records and a music publishing firm called Lorma Music both based in Brooklyn. Not much more was heard from The Tonettes or Vince Castro, but in the early sixties to try and make something out of the Twist craze, Apt Records re-released # 25007 as "The Bongo Twist" and coupled with the original flip side released it on # 25047.

That is the short history of the Bronx based "Claremont Parkway Sound" that had its time in the spotlight back in that wonderful year of 1958. I continue to maintain that "Oh What A Baby" and "Bong Bong" are as good a representation of the music of the time as ever has been produced. Even today fifty years later (has it really been that long?) from the very first notes of either song it just screams "summer of '58" in my head. What memories and what moments to behold. These are some of the sounds that can never, ever, be duplicated no matter what steps are taken to attempt that feat. Cherish those memories.

ed note : for a great look at these performers including the record releases in all their many issues, and sound interviews recently with the surviving Sanchez sisters and Vince Castro, go to www.colorradio.com/tonettes and enjoy.

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