The Buckinghams

Kind Of A Drag

In 1967, no musical group was hotter than The Buckinghams from Chicago, Illinois. During the calendar year, they landed no fewer than six singles in the Hot 100. Nothing sets the pace better than having your first national chart single, Kind Of A Drag, hit # 1 as the U.S.A. 45 did on February 25. It was followed by four more top twenty hits. After one more lower-charting hit early in 1968, The Buckinghams seemed to disappear. How does a group with that kind of impact one year lose that kind of momentum?

Like many bands and groups, there’s a revolving door of members. It was drummer, John Poulos, who personally selected singers Dennis Tufano (vocals) and George LeGros (vocals) for his group, The Pulsations. Poulos and Tufano recruited Carl Giamarese (guitar) and Curtis Bachman (bass) from The Centuries. Playing keyboards was Dennis Miccolis. Six members became five when LeGros was drafted into the military leaving Tufano as the lead singer.

These five members of The Pulsations entered into a Chicago-wide battle of the bands and won the competition. That led to a 14-week gig on a WGN local music show titled All The Hits, where The Pulsations became the house band. However, the people at Channel 9 weren’t excited about their name. “The British invasion was happening at that time and the TV show wanted us to use a more British sounding name. A security guard that worked for the TV station actually came up with the name The Buckinghams”, said Tufano.(1)

After the All The Hits show, Nick Fortuna became the bass player replacing Bachman.

Front and center in venues for the Chicago music scene was the Holiday Ballroom. Used for appearances by big bands for adults and dances for teens, the building was owned by Dan Belloc, a former big band musician who also owned Spectra-Sound Records. Carl Bonafede, another former musician and disc jockey at the ballroom, was also the manager of The Buckinghams. Liking what they heard, the two recorded two songs with the group. Sweets For My Sweet and Beginners Love did receive local airplay but never charted. Belloc and Bonafede took the record to Jim Golden at U.S.A. Records and the three worked out a 12-song contract with Belloc and Bobafede as co-producers for the band.

Buckinghams 

Front Row: Nick Fortuna and Carl Giammarese, Back Row: Dennis Miccolis, John Poulos, Dennis Tufano

Photo courtesy of Willard Alexander Inc.

In a four-day session, the group recorded James Brown’s I’ll Go Crazy, The Beatles’ I Call Your Name and Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Claudy as well as some other covers. Another song, preferably an original, was needed to fill out the album. Bonafede contacted Jim Holvay of The Mob, who had provided a couple of earlier songs for the Buckinghams. Since Bonafede needed the song right away, Holvay grabbed his guitar and sang Kind Of A Drag into a small tape recorder.

When Bonafede returned to the studio, the group listened but didn't particularly like the song. It took some work and changes but eventually the guys liked it enough to consider it as their first single from the album. Carl said, “We loved the song, and I remember the band working up an arrangement in my parents' basement when my mother came down and said she thought that song could be a hit!” (2)

In an Entertainment Tonight interview, Nick Fortuno expressed a different opinion on the song. “I thought it was the worst thing we recorded. When they said they were going to release Kind Of A Drag, I started laughing…it just didn’t make it.” Carl Giammarese hummed a different tune in this piece taped many years ago. “I thought the song was a wimpy tune but it had a certain thing happening…it was a sound.” It was a pop sound with horns, which was unique at a time when the airwaves were filled with acts from the British Invasion. (3)

Carl talked about this unique sound. “What became a defining part of our recorded sound, also, were horn players from Dan Belloc’s big band. The Buckinghams never performed with horns on stage at that time, nor did we travel with them after we cut records in Chicago.” (4)

Regarding the sound on tour, Dennis said, “When we started to tour we had Marty Grebes (now with the group) play keyboards and sax. He did amazing things. With The Buckinghams he was a great B3 organ player and he would play the keys and the sax at the same time. He’d do “voicings” on the organ with the sax that filled out our horn sound. So for the three and a half years we toured we could recreate our sound without having to carry a horn section.” (5)

The U.S.A. management didn't think much of Kind Of A Drag even when it was finished, considering it not fast enough. They put it on the back burner and released I’ll Go Crazy in March, I Call Your Name, the next single, released in May and in August, I’ve Been Wrong was the third single released. All three reached the local Top 20 in Chicago but as with the previous releases, the songs did nothing nationally.

By November, U.S.A., with no options for renewal, decided to release Kind Of A Drag, not expecting much and doing little promotion. To almost everyone's surprise, the song started getting heavy radio play, and shot up to #2 on both WLS and WCFL. On December 31, it had entered the Billboard Hot 100.

Possibly the most surprised was Jimmy Holvay. A friend who had been there when he sang Kind Of A Drag into Carl Bonafede's tape recorder came in that November and said, "Hey! Remember that song you sang last winter for Carl? I just heard it on the radio!" (6)

Since their contract was up with U.S.A., The Buckinghams found themselves in a very unique position. Carl remembered, “By February of 1967, we had the #1 record in the country and no record company! All I can say is when you have a major hit, everyone comes knocking on your door, so our choice was Columbia Records and James William Guercio because we felt they would give us our best opportunity to continue making hit records and not becoming a one hit wonder … we were right!” (2)

Of course, nothing stays permanent within the roster and duties of the band members. After the release of the Kind Of A Drag album, Marty Grebb joined the group. The Buckinghams were: John Poulos - Drums, Nick Fortuna - Bass, Carl Giammarese - guitar, Marty Grebb - guitar / keyboards / sax, Dennis Tufano - lead vocals / harmonica. This was the group that recorded the Columbia singles and albums.

L-R: Marty Grebb, Dennis Tufano, Carl Giammarese, John Poulos, Nick Fortuna

Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

The choice of Columbia as their new record label and Guercio as their manager was a double-edge sword. The upside with Columbia was their national distribution and studios in New York, which featured the latest technology – sixteen track records versus the eight used in Chicago. The downside that the group discovered later the corporate mentality of Columbia that wanted more of the Kind Of A Drag sound while the group wanted to expand and grow into the ever-changing landscape of contemporary sound.

With Guercio, their plight took a more personal direction. At first, the union between the band and Guercio appeared a perfect match. Carl proclaimed, “Guercio took us to the next level, because as good a record as Kind Of A Drag was, Guercio really knew the sound we were looking for. At that time we were proclaimed the first pop band to establish a sound with horns.” (8)

The manager/producer did seem to have a magic touch. Don’t You Care and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, the first two singles released by Columbia, hit the top ten. Two more, Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song and Susan, checked in at numbers 12 and 11 respectively. By the time their second album, Portraits, was released, Billboard magazine called the group “The most listened-to band in America,” while Cashbox Magazine said the band was “The most promising vocal group in America.”

Even U.S.A Records attempted to cash in on the Buckinghams gravy train one more time by releasing Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the original album. The single stalled at # 41 and a short time later, U.S.A. sold the masters to Columbia.

Touring extensively in 1967 and 1968, the band appeared on a number of TV shows including The Ed Sullivan Show, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Joey Bishop Show and American Bandstand. “When we performed on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, we arrived to find the set decorated with the Union Jack flag, because the producers actually thought we were from England,” chuckled Giammarese. “The TV crew even served us fish and chips to eat during our rehearsal break – we would have preferred pizza.” (8)

With songs near the top of the charts and the band in demand at concerts, there was a change happening in pop music. Tommy James explained the phenomenon. “When we left in August (1968, for the Democratic National Convention), all the big acts were singles acts – The Association, Gary Puckett, The Buckinghams, the Rascals and us. In 90 days, when we got back, it was all albums. It was Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Joe Cocker, Neil Young." (9)

There was also a change of taste with the record-buying public. Fans now wanted to hear Jimi Hendrix and the Doors and Buckinghams-style pop was on the way out. At one concert in 1969, The Buckinghams found themselves booed off the stage by fans impatient to hear flower-power icon Donovan, who finally ‘floated in about a foot off the ground,’ as Nick Fortuna, bassist and original band member, put it.” (10)

Even with changes in the direction of pop music, the band had their biggest problem to face with their manager/producer as they saw the flip side to that double-edged sword. According to Dennis Tufano, “We were having a lot of disagreements with Guercio because we finally started to realize that, ‘Hey, this guy’s getting rich, and we’re not. We’re not even close.’ We were drawing a small salary every week, and so we started to realize how important it is to own your publishing. And Guercio was controlling it all. So the last album we did with him, Portraits, we demanded that we get a percentage of the publishing, and verbally he agreed, but then he reneged on it when it came down to actually doing it. And we fought with him to the point where we wound up firing him.” (11)

Carl shared Tufano’s feelings. “We realized late in the 60s how important it was to own your own songs and publishing. He (Guercio) was taking all that from us. We couldn't come to an agreement with him. But, he was also our record producer and he had a close connection with Columbia.

In retrospect, maybe it would've been better to work out our differences with him somehow, but it was very difficult to do. We were trying to change musically by 1970. We wanted to do different things and the label … wasn't giving us much creative freedom. We tried doing some things on our own. I think all the guys in the band were starting to get restless and looking at doing other things musically. Marty Grebb, our keyboard player, went with The Fabulous Rhinestones and they had one hit after that. I think he played with Chicago for a while.

Looking back now, yeah. I think if we had worked out our differences and worked harder at it, trying to take The Buckinghams into the seventies, we could've had a few more hits and kept it going. But, at the time, you feel like you're doing the right thing, so unfortunately, The Buckinghams didn't exist any more after 1970.” (12)

After the group disbanded in 1970, Dennis Tufano and Carl Giammarese formed a duo, Tufano-Giammarese, who had an additional two albums on Ode.

In 1980, after the band (Giammarese, Fortuna, and Tufano with drummer Tom Osfar and keyboardist John Cammelot) reunited for a concert for ChicagoFest, the trio of original members performed at selected concerts in Chicago for the next two years. When Tufano decided to return to California to resume a career in film voice work in early 1983, Giammarese and Fortuna committed to tour full-time as The Buckinghams.

Today, Carl and Nick lead a group of Buckinghams as the band continues to tour around the USA.

This video of the song includes a montage of photos of the group and their history.

 

Leeza Gibbons of Entertainment Tonight provides a glimpse of the group and song in this late-80s Makin’ The Hits series.

1) Ben McLane, 1996, Link

2) Kotal, Kent, February 2, 2017, Link

3) Gibbons, Leeza, Entertainment Tonight, Link

4) Kotal, Kent, June 17, 2014, Link

5) White, Bo, Dennis Tufano - The Voice Of The Buckinghams, January 8, 2012, Link

6) BSN Pubs, David Edwards, Mike Callahan, Patrice Eyries, Randy Watts and Tim Neely, Link

7) Childs, Marti Smiley; March, Jeff (2012-11-16). Where Have All the Pop Stars Gone? - Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 186-200)

8) Childs, Marti Smiley; March, Jeff (2012-11-16). Where Have All the Pop Stars Gone? - Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 201-205)

9) Songfacts, Interview With Tommy James, Link

10) Howes, Joshua, Chicago Tribune, For The Buckinghams, It's Still Kind Of A Drag, August 2, 2002, Link

11) Childs, Marti Smiley; March, Jeff (2012-11-16). Where Have All the Pop Stars Gone? - Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 244-248)

12) James, Gary,  Classicbands.com, Interview With Carl Giammarese Of The Buckinghams, Link

Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna

Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna today

Photo courtesy of Paradise Artists

Copyright  2009