The summer of ’66 was special. The Beatles and The Stones were on top, but there were also many other great groups delivering amazing music, like The Rascals, The Hollies, The Byrds, The Animals, and of course, there was Motown. Big hits that summer included “Paint It Black,” Lonely Too Long” “We Can Work It Out” and “Kicks.” The world was changing, you could feel it. But for a bunch of blue-collar kids from Newark, New Jersey, the world was about to open up in an unexpected and exciting way, through the explosive combination of hopes, dreams, attitude, hard work, and Rock n Roll. It was a long time ago, yet the memories remain vivid and reborn. Like so many things in life, serendipity played a big part. This is the story of four guys from Newark that made their own music, lived the dream, and reunited forty-six years later to keep the music alive. This is the story of “The Group.”
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”
It all started in the Ironbound enclave of Newark, an industrial blue-collar neighborhood populated mostly by second-generation Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrant families and a new wave of immigrants from Portugal. People worked hard to get ahead. For two cousins Donnie Baptista and Brian Lippey, life was built around their three-family house on Polk Street where their parents, grandparents, brothers, aunts, uncles all lived under one roof, a chaotic existence. Donnie and Brian grew up in that house, attended the local Catholic School, Saint James, had fun, but we're pretty much like most other kids in the neighborhood: bored, repressed, and looking for a way to be special. They sensed there was a much bigger world out there, and they wanted to grab it and shake it to its foundation. But how?
The Long and Winding Road
The answer came unexpectedly, in 1963, when their Uncle Mike brought the boys a guitar—an old Gibson L-50 Archtop– that he had uncovered while serving in Korea. He thought it would be a good outlet and a way for them to “stay out of trouble.” They were immediately taken by the idea that they too could actually make music (like Elvis or Ricky Nelson) and they spent many, many hours every day after school practicing guitar with their teacher, Roosevelt Spann, listening to vinyl 45s and albums, and rehearsing songs until their fingers bled. They listened to everything including Elvis, Ricky Nelson, The Stones, BB King, Wes Montgomery, Chuck Berry, The Yardbirds, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, The Hollies, and especially The Beatles. They loved the two guitar-bass-drums lined up and marveled at the range of styles and songs it accommodated. It was like a dream.
While the other kids were playing basketball and making zip guns, the boys lived an intense subterranean existence in their basement, investing years of time practicing, arguing over guitar riffs, and learning how to play. Donnie discovered his true passion for the electric bass, while Brian stuck to guitar. Both boys developed their voices. Finally, they thought, there were ready. They saved up and bought their first electric guitars and amps (they dreamed of an owning a Rickenbacker twelve-string and a Fender Precision Bass with Vox Amps, but had to settle for the much cheaper Radio Shack Japanese Specials of the Week: a Kimberly Bass, and a Zim-Gar special four pickup guitar, with Silvertone Amps by Sears, Roebuck.) Then the big step: they decided that they were ready. At age 13, they decided to form a band. This decision would shape their entire lives. It would define them.
Good Clean Fun or “A Nice Hobby Gone Horribly Wrong?”
Meanwhile, about eight blocks away, on Chestnut Street, Joey and Vinny LaFragola were pursuing a similar dream. The LaFragola Brothers were a bit older and every bit as committed to their music as Donnie and Brian. Joey had been at it a while longer and was developing into a truly exceptional lead guitarist, capable of executing impressive electric guitar solos- He was hot! Vinny was already an impressive drummer and getting better and better with each passing month. The boys had tried to recruit a few other really good players and form a band but without much luck. But they were determined. Then Fate intervened in the form of one Gloria Trowbridge, a grade school classmate who knew all the boys and introduced Joey and Vinny to Donnie and Brian. After an awkward couple of minutes, the boys realized that they had all been listening to the same songs for years, loved the same music, and most importantly, they had all paid their dues and could play. Then magic happened: they started playing together as a band. They sounded good. They practiced together. A lot. They got really good. They were tight. Then magic happened: this was the opportunity they had dreamed about. “The Group” was born. They were ready: cards were printed. Donnie decided to use the stage name John Niles for some inexplicable reason. Joe “Troby” Trowbridge, Gloria’s brother, often joined in on tambourine.
Fame, Not Fortune
The boys developed a set list and started getting gigs at High School CYO Dances, Grand Openings of local businesses (like “Ting a Ling’s”, a combination Car Wash and Lemon-Ice Stand), and of course, the seemingly endless parade of Italian weddings. They were a big hit, and word traveled all around Newark, at least the areas that cared about rock n’ roll. Then came their Big Break: a chance to compete for the local TV show “Zacherly’s Disc-O-Teen Show” on Chanel 47 in Newark. The boys were excited, but also nervous and anxious to make a big impression. While preparing for the gig, they tried on a number of distinctive new stage outfits, including bizarre facemask costumes that they thought might be cool, but then decided to get back to basics and showed up at the TV studio dressed in black jeans, Beatle boots, and white button-down shirts. They performed a few iconic songs on the flickering black and white screen: “Hang On Sloopy,” “Time Won’t Let Me,” “Wipeout” (featuring Vinny’s unforgettable drum solo), and “Gloria.” The Group rocked, and they were on their way to local fame, rising up the ranks and even challenging their arch-rivals “The Kids Incorporated” as the most popular band in the neighborhood. “The Group” had arrived!
Flower Power, Clapton, Hendrix & The Allman Brothers
As the Sixties powered on, The Group’s musical range and capabilities grew dramatically. The boys were evolving as musicians and taking on more challenging, complex, and exciting material. They were deeply affected by the brilliant blues-rock guitarists coming out of England, especially Eric Clapton of Cream, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, and of course, Jimi Hendrix. In particular, Joey’s guitar work was rapidly evolving. He developed an impressive ability to absorb and reproduce solos such as Clapton’s “Crossroads” Hendrix’s “Red House” and Alvin Lee’s “I’m Goin’ Home” with remarkable accuracy. The Group was in demand, playing local “Happenings,” impressing audiences and developing a big following. Guitarist and fellow St Benedict’s classmate Gerry Egatz began sitting and later joined the band
Upgrading the Backline and Provoking the Frontline
The boys were particularly impressed by The Allman Brothers Band, an exciting new group from Macon, Georgia, whose LP “Live at The Fillmore East” had a profound musical impact. The Group worked hard and reproduced covers such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “One Way Out” and “Whippin’ Post” with incredible accuracy and fidelity to the original performances. They also upgraded their gear and traded in the cheap Japanese guitars and amps for professional grade tools of the trade such as Gibson Guitars, Marshall Amps, a Hammond Organ, and Ludwig Drums. Long hair, psychedelic clothes, bigger gigs, late nights, eighteen-foot U-Haul rental trucks, Roadies, groupies, hangers-on, were now all regular fixtures.
Lots of incredible gigs, great music, and enormous fun ensued, including many hilarious practical jokes such as when the boys put up a mock Soviet propaganda poster on the dressing room doors at a gig at the local Ukrainian Social Club. While the poster wasn’t fully appreciated by the Club’s founders, it was a source of great amusement and mirth among the band members. (Unfortunately, the mirth abruptly ended in tears when a “Cease & Desist” Injunction arrived from the Ukrainian Anti-Defamation League, but that’s another story for another day!)
For The Group, the Sixties came to a grinding halt with Altamont, The Beatles’ break-up, and above all the arrival of Disco Music, in all its throbbing uncoolness. Guitar bands were suddenly out: dopey white suits, Gloria Gaynor, and mirrored balls were the new big thing. While the band carried on for a couple more years, the gigs became less plentiful and the crowds thinned out. The Group hadn’t abandoned rock n roll, but the world was definitely into disco. Brian decided to go to college, Donnie and Vinny got day jobs and Joey got married. While the boys got together to jam and do the occasional gig, it just wasn’t the same as the Glory Days of the Sixties. The Group gradually went their separate ways, but with fond memories of the special bond, they had forged with their music. They were special. They were contenders. They moved people through the music that they created together. They were friends and brothers, all from the same walk of life, that rose above the crowd. Above all, they were cool. You can’t buy cool.
A Second Life
Scroll forward about forty-two years. Lots of history has taken place, events, marriages, kids, travels, jobs, happiness, sorrows, good times, and bad times. But a few important things stay the same: a life-long passion for rock n roll, friendship, and the magic of making great music together. Through the magic of technology and social media, the boys reconnect and reminisce about the Glory Days. and decide that it would be great to plan a reunion and “put the band back together again.”But would it really ever happen? Would it ever be the same? As the philosopher once said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” But evidently, that dude had never been the Newark and never stepped into the Passaic River because these four dudes were crazy enough to try. And in the summer of 2012, magic happened. The boys reunited at The Sundown Saloon in Greenwich CT, a world away from Newark…but the music that originally brought them together was a potent and unifying as ever…A new chapter began, full circle…It was something really special, a gift, a deep happiness that comes from within, joining together to make great music as great friends, united in common roots and a love for rock n’ roll….What could be better?
LONG LIVE ROCK n ROLL!
LONG LIVE “THE GROUP!”