When it comes to songwriting, Ernie Maresca would be the first to admit he's no George Gershwin and he'll readily concede that he's no Frank Sinatra in the singing stakes either. Part outsider and part record industry hustler, Maresca was essentially a backroom boy whose skewed vision of teenage America enabled him to tap into the commercial lodestone as a songwriter and occasional vocalist in his own right for almost a decade.
Born in the Bronx in 1939, Maresca started out as the baritone vocalist in a neighbourhood group, The Regents, and got his first break in 1958 when Dion & The Belmonts, another Bronx group he knew, recorded his song No One Knows, a Top 20 hit on the Laurie label. Maresca quit The Regents and took up songwriting, penning another Dion & The Belmonts hit, A Lover's Prayer.
Dion & The Belmonts had come to the fore earlier in the year with I Wonder Why, a Top 30 hit which defined the white doo wop sound and led the way for many more similar (though not as distinctive) groups such as The Elegants, The Chimes, The Passions and The Mystics.
The Regents, meanwhile, had broken up only to reform in 1961 (without Maresca) after their three year-old demo of Barbara Ann became a surprise hit. Maresca penned their follow-up, Runaround, which also charted and extended his winning streak with Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, both major hits for the now solo Dion. The Regents later became The Runarounds whose Unbelievable, a Maresca song, (heard here) came out on Nat King Cole's KC label in 1963.
There are three different versions of The Wanderer on this CD: (1) Maresca's original demo dating from the late 50s-.-(2) the legendary 'first take' by Dion where having cast a jaundiced eye over the words for probably the first time, he mutters the immortal aside, "Dese lyrics get me." (Fearful of offending radio stations, Laurie implemented a minor lyrical change. On Maresca's original demo, he sings the line, "with my two fists of iron and my bottle of beer" - a macho exultation which makes perfect sense. Whereas Dion sings the altogether less effective, "with my two fists of iron and I'm going nowhere".) And (3), a spoof version by Foreign Intrigue - actually Maresca himself goofing off over the original backing track.
Another Bronx group, Nino & The Ebb-Tides had turned down the chance to record The Wanderer before Dion, in favour of another equally strong, though not as successful Maresca song, Happy Guy, also heard here.
These successes turned Maresca into a neighbourhood hero, everyone's best buddy and a guy to look up to, literally - he stands over six feet tall. Figuring Ernie had the clout to make things happen, vocal groups he only vaguely knew would assail him at every turn hoping he'd put them in touch with one of his music biz contacts uptown. Or he'd be told that someone's cousin down at the deli had written a song they swore was a hit. If anyone had anything on the ball, big-hearted Ernie was always there to help and in doing so, he got to dip his fingers in a lot of different pies. Mostly, he'd write one side of someone's first single or help arrange their harmonies or even stand in as an extra voice. Occasionally, he lucked into a hit. Either way, he was never far from the centre of New York's white vocal group scene.
In 1961 Maresca landed a recording contract with Seville, a small New York label. Maresca had warned them he wasn't much of a singer but his protestations were brushed aside. It was hit songs they were after and, sure enough, Maresca and a friend named Tom Bogdany sat in a Manhattan bar called George's Nut House and wrote Shout Shout, a dance tune with a built-in feelgood factor. Maresca played a home-made demo to Seville's A&R man Marvin Holtzman and a week later they were in the studio. Not too long after that, Shout Shout was nestling in the Top 10 alongside Elvis and Chubby Checker. Having got his foot in the door at Seville, Maresca introduced his friends, The Desires, to the label where they cut a couple of his songs, which came out shortly after Shout Shout.
Like the late Sonny Bono, Maresca found a way of interpolating key elements of then recent hits into new songs - his Whenever A Teenager Cries (a minor hit for Reparata & The Delrons in 1964), was redolent of Chapel Of Love while Party Girl by Bernadette Caroll (another Maresca song to hit the charts that year) was reminiscent of Little Peggy March's I Will Follow Him and Runaround Sue was melodically similar to Gary US Bonds' classic Quarter to Three.
Maresca's all-round savvy landed him a job with Laurie Records where he worked throughout the 60s while continuing to write and record for Seville until 1965. His last major song-writing success came in 1967 when Jimmie Rodgers took Child Of Clay to #31 on the A&M label though it is the rare original version by The 1929 Depression (on Laurie's Providence subsidiary) that is heard here.
Trevor Churchill is something of an expert in all matters relating to Dion and Laurie Records, and this CD came about through his working with Ernie Maresca on Laurie's publishing subsidiary 3 Seas Music Corp, which Ace sub-publishes. Stefan Wriedt, a European authority on white vocal groups, compiled it and wrote the detailed liner notes. So there you have it. Great music with an unusual and fascinating slant, personally endorsed by one of our directors. Please buy it. Trevor's joy is our joy to behold and happiness makes for a better work place.
By Rob Finnis