Buckinghams’ Big E concert promises not to be a drag

Date: 9/20/2011

By Craig Harris

Special to Reminder Publications

During an eighteen-month span, from 1967 until 1968, there were few bands as successful as the Buckinghams. Driven by a driving, R&B-rooted, horn section, the Chicago-based group was one of the few American bands to succeed during the British Invasion of the mid-1960s. Kicking off with a chart-topping debut single, “Kind Of A Drag,” they quickly followed it up with a string of top 10 hits that included “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Hey Baby, They’re Playing Our Song),” and “Susan.”

Temporarily disbanding in 1970, the Buckinghams have, since reuniting for ChicagoFest in 1980, proven to be resilient. They’ll be bringing their dance-inspiring mix of hits and new material to the Big E from Sept. 23 to 27.

Original lead singer Dennis Tufano has elected to focus on a film career that he began in the early-80s. But, founding guitarist-turned-lead vocalist Carl Giammarese and bassist Nick Fortuna provide a link to the Buckingham’s earliest days.

“I was 16 when Nick and I met,” Giammarese said. “He was in the Centurions, a band that my cousin formed when the Beatles and the British Invasion were starting to take off. It wasn’t much of a band, just the three of us playing through one amplifier.”

With the Centurions disbanding, after a year and a half, Giammarese went on to join another local group, the Pulsations. Fortuna soon followed, switching from guitar to the bass. Through the efforts and connections of their manager, the group secured a 13-week slot on a variety show, “All Time Hits,” aired by Chicago TV station, WGN.

“We were the token rock band,” Giammarese said. “Whatever was on the top-40 that week, we’d play.”

Encouraged to change their name, the Pulsations became the Buckinghams.

“A security guard, who became a friend of ours, came up with the name,” Giammarese remembered. “We couldn’t believe that nobody was using it.”

Signed by a local record label, USA Records, the Buckinghams released a dozen singles before scoring their first hit, “Kind Of A Drag.”

“None of us were songwriters,” Giammarese said, “so we mainly did cover material. We did the Beatles’ ‘I Call Your Name’ and had a top-40 hit in the Midwest. We tried a Hollies song [‘I’ve Been Wronged’] and James Brown’s ‘I’ll Go Crazy.’”

The quest for an original song extended beyond the band. “There was a guy [Jimmy Soul] who played in a Vegas-y R&B group,” Giammarese said. “He had written some songs that weren’t right for his band but he thought that maybe we could use them. The first song that he gave to our manager was ‘Kind Of A Drag.’ He threw it on a tape player with just him strumming a guitar and singing.”

At the suggestion of co-producer Dan Belloc, a horn section arranged by trombone player, Frank Tesinsky, augmented the band’s sound on the single. “It was heavy on the ‘bone sound,” Giammarese said, “and it sounded like magic.”

Released in late December 1966, “Kind Of A Drag” was an immediate smash, reaching the top rung of the best selling charts within a month. The band, though, was in turmoil.

“We had fired our keyboard player,” Giammarese explained, “and we didn’t have it all together. We had to reorganize quickly.”

The Buckinghams were not the only ones unprepared for the single’s success. “Our contract with USA Records was up,” Giammarese said, “and they hadn’t had the sense to re-sign us. We realized that we had gotten really lucky with ‘Kind Of A Drag’ and, if we were going to keep that kind of success going, we’d better find a manager who knew what he was doing, a record producer and a record label.”

Signing with the much-larger Columbia Records, the Buckinghams continued to flourish under the guidance of producer James William Guercio. “He was quite instrumental in getting us to be recorded right,” Giammarese recalled, “choosing the songs and getting the arrangers to arrange them the way the he heard them.”

Though they enjoyed their most successful period with Guercio, the Buckinghams’ involvement with the future producer of similarly pop-rock horn driven bands, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, was brief. “Guercio was a very talented man,” Giammarese said, “but I don’t know if he was really looking out for our interests. He promised that he would share the publishing with us and pretty much reneged on that promise.”

The split with Guercio, though, was only one factor contributing to the band’s demise. “It’s never one thing,” Giammarese said. “We were having problems with Columbia and we wanted to do different things.”

Giammarese remained active following the group’s breakup. In addition to recording three duo albums, with Dennis Tufano, in the 1970s, he launched a highly successful second career as a singer of advertising jingles and released a solo album, “Trying Not To Fade” in 2002.

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