Crowning a Musical Knight
Crowning a Musical Knight
A Q&A with Lenie Colacino of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul
By Geoff Gehman
Lenie Colacino grew up in metropolitan and suburban New York in the 1950s and ’60s, a left hander in a right-handed world. An avid New York Yankees fan, he felt a little less odd because his favorite players–Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris—batted left handed. An avid electric guitarist, he felt even less odd when he discovered that the Beatles had a left-handed bass player during their ground-breaking, earth-quaking American debut on the Feb. 9, 1964 edition of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That night Paul McCartney became his musical man; that night being lefty became cool.
Colacino quickly made McCartney his role model. As adolescence shifted into adulthood, as he shifted from playing regular rock to progressive rock, he got deeper under the skin of the musician who got under his skin. In 1977 he became the first lefty Paul in the original Broadway production of “Beatlemania,” the show that launched a new wave of Fab Four frenzy. Three years later he was touring in “Beatlemania” when he started his own band, The Cast of Beatlemania, a spiritual grandparent of tribute groups from A(llmans) to Z(appa).
Colacino and his fellow Beatlemaniacs have raised the rafters several times in the Mauch Chunk Opera House. On Aug. 20 he will introduce the Jim Thorpe venue to his latest venture, The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul, an homage to a cultural icon who has been knighted, officially and unofficially, for his exponential influence. Joined by five colleagues, including Joe Pecorino, the first John Lennon in “Beatlemania,” Colacino will perform tunes that McCartney played before the Beatles (“Twenty Flight Rock,” his 1957 audition number for Lennon), with the Beatles (“Hey Jude”) and with Wings (“Jet”). Solo tributes to Lennon (“Here Today”) and George Harrison (“Friends to Go”) will share the stage with the finale of “Abbey Road,” a highlight of Sir Paul’s own tour.
Colacino, 63, has spent nearly a half century capturing McCartney’s distinctive traits: the crooning-to-screaming singing; the punchy, painterly bass playing; the charming gestures of a 74-year-old Peter Pan. Below, in a conversation from the New Jersey home he shares with his manager wife, Barbara Haywood, he discusses playing with tipsy bagpipers in “Mull of Kintyre,” steering clear of singing “Monkberry Moon Delight” and his fantasy of rapping with McCartney about the Yankees and cheap beer.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: The first song that drove me crazy was Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” I was five or six when I first heard it; maybe I was younger. There’s actual visual evidence in an 8mm film my father took of me dancing like crazy. I saw it recently and although there’s no sound I could remember the sound very clearly. That’s a very succinct memory.
Q: Your dad and your mom emigrated from Italy. What did they think of your American obsession with English rock ‘n’ rollers?
A: I have to tell you, they were not thrilled at all. My father had not only fought in World War II, he was an aeronautical engineer who would work for the aerospace program. He saw the oncoming generation of hippies as a real threat and he didn’t want his son to be any part of that. But I had learned at an early age that I had a singing voice and he was proud of me. My father–may he rest in peace; he just passed away a few months ago–encouraged me to sing in church and school; he even tape recorded me. He encouraged my music, even though his tastes ran more to the accordion than the electric guitar. He was real happy that my ear training started at an early age, in second or third grade. Back then we were also required to play an instrument. I learned clarinet first, which I abandoned very quickly because it wasn’t as cool as the electric guitar [laughs].
Q: How old were you when you began imagining yourself as McCartney? And why did you choose Paul and not another Beatle?
A: I was 10 when I first saw the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.” Their music drove me nuts; I was completely enthralled, absolutely gobsmacked. The attraction was actually more than musical. Those of us old enough and cognitive enough remember the huge impression the Beatles made on young boys who were not only interested in young girls but older people in general. One of the reasons that Paul appealed to me was that he was left handed like I was. Left handedness in those days was the mark of the devil; suddenly, with the popularity of McCartney and the Beatles, being left handed was the coolest thing in the world. I grew up a Yankees fan and all my Yankees heroes were left handed: Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, who was a switch hitter. When my musical hero turned out to be left handed, well, it was as cool as cool could be.
I also identified with Paul because we shared a physical resemblance as well as a vocal resemblance. We were both tenors who had a similar vocal range and tonality. I always admired the fact that he could sound as sweet as anybody but also as raucous as anybody. His voice has been in two worlds for the longest time: I guess it still is. He and John Lennon sort of revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll singing. Before they came along, rock ‘n’ rollers tended to be one-note singers.
Q: An eternal debate rages over whether John or Paul was the better rock ‘n’ roll singer. I don’t think Paul could have improved on John’s shredding of “Twist and Shout”; I don’t think John could have beaten Paul’s blistering vocal on “Oh! Darling” Whose side do you take?
A: That’s a great question about two of the best rock ‘n’ roll singers in history. Paul had more notes at the top of his range but that did not preclude John from being a superior rock ‘n’ roll singer. I give the early edge to John because he had more depth. When he sang rock ‘n’ roll he was 100 percent convincing; he gave all his guts to “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Money.” Paul had this incredible instrument, too, on songs like “Long Tall Sally”; John could never have done that in the same key, although he may have done better if it had been lowered a few steps. Every now and then I put on the UK version of the “Hard Day’s Night” album and I listen to John singing “When I Get Home” and you can just feel the confidence and the power and you think: Wow, he really sold that song. No matter what the song was, you just believed in what he was singing.
Q: Carlo Cantamessa, who plays Lennon in The Cast of Beatlemania, told me about an out-take of John singing “Oh! Darling” and that he pulls it off quite well.
A: Actually, there’s a bootleg of John and Paul singing “Oh! Darling” together; there’s an interruption where John tells Paul that Yoko’s divorce is final. It reminds me of Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke singing “Bring It On Home to Me,” which was basically the inspiration for “Oh! Darling.” I’ve sung “Oh! Darling” and, believe me, you need an oxygen tank at the end. The Cast of Beatlemania once performed all of “Abbey Road” and I was exhausted after getting through “Oh! Darling”; I was glad “Octopus’s Garden” came next so I could have some rest. Unless I have to sing [“Oh! Darling”], I don’t.
Q: Speaking of screamers, one of my favorite tracks on “Ram,” McCartney’s second solo album, is “Monkberry Moon Delight,” which is a real sweaty vocal workout. Have you been brave enough to tackle it?
A: That’s perhaps the only McCartney song I haven’t tried. It’s such a ridiculous tour de force vocal; it’s just insane that anybody could do all that screaming. It’s just another reminder that McCartney is such a great improvisational singer. When I was in the Broadway show of “Beatlemania,” I learned early on to do all the ad libs, all the asides, that he does in “Hey Jude.” I could get that gravelly voice but not the insane scream in “Monkberry.” Maybe I could sustain the vocal for the first two verses but not for the whole five minutes.
Q: What were your goals, your do’s and don’ts, when you launched The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul?
A: The whole concept of this show was to encompass Paul’s entire career and to make it linear. We tell the story of the Beatles in the first act while the second act basically covers Paul’s solo career. We perform “Twenty Flight Rock” and “A World Without Love” [a Lennon-McCartney tune that in 1964 became Peter and Gordon’s first single]. Lennon and McCartney wrote a lot of great songs early on for other artists—Peter and Gordon, Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer–that could have been great Beatles tunes as well.
Although I certainly have an influence over the songs we play, I like taking requests. Joe [Pecorino] has suggested that we should play more songs from “Revolver” since it was released 50 years ago. We can’t ignore the fans who really want to hear “Jet” or “My Love.” I don’t want to make the show so esoteric that people who don’t know about McCartney’s book like you and I do say to themselves: What was that song? Why did they play that one?
So I’ll make sure that I tell them the stories behind less familiar tunes like “Here Today,” which Paul wrote about John, and “Friends to Go,” which he wrote about George.
My wife Barbara is big on “Mull of Kintyre.” I’m not as keen on it but I became keener once we got the bagpipers involved and they brought the house down. What makes “Mull” interesting is that on the recording the bagpipes are in the key of A. When we brought in the bagpipers, they said: We don’t play in A; we only play in B flat. Well, I don’t know if you know this, Geoff, but bagpipers like to drink; maybe they’re ashamed of the kilts [laughs]. Which means, naturally, that when they played the show their key was closer to B natural; their pitch was just a wee bit off [laughs]. It was quite a collision sonically.
At Mauch Chunk we’ll probably play “Mull,” but without the live bagpipes. My keyboard player Mark Templeton [also a member of The Cast of Beatlemania] has a great bagpipe sample, so the key will definitely be in A, the way it should be.
Q: Barbara doubles as your manager. How has she improved your career and life?
A: There was a time when I was convinced that music was not the way to go; I’m talking maybe 30 years ago. When I was working for a cable company my first wife planted this thought in my ear: You’ve been on the road for so long, it’s time to straighten up and get rid of that musical stuff. Well, I followed her advice and shortly after everything fell apart and we got divorced. Barbara helped me tremendously by asking me: What do you really want to do? What’s your passion? Do what you love and the money will follow. So I got into the jingle business, singing national ads for Hershey’s and Tropicana and the U.S. Army, which made me excited about being a singer again. I hooked up with Carlo [Cantamessa in The Cast of Beatlemania] and I got voice-over work for [the animated Nickelodeon series] “The Wonder Pets.” I even got hired to be Paul’s voice in [director] Robert Zemeckis’ remake of “Yellow Submarine.” I was looping when Disney stopped the project. But I enjoyed the work and felt very flattered.
I’m pretty old school when it comes to technology and social media. The Internet and cell phones and tablets—all of that stuff is kind of a drag to me. Barbara was in Web development and she made me realize that it’s important to have a Web page, targeted advertising on Facebook, a cyber face. She’s also been instrumental in getting radio spots and arranging interviews with people like you.
Q: Why did you name the show The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul?
A: When I started The Cast of Beatlemania it was the only tribute band around. Now there are eight million tribute bands for everyone from the Eagles to the Bee Gees. When I was preparing [Most Excellent Order], I wanted to get “Tribute” out of the band’s name. My ultimate aim is to make the show a sit-down theatrical event. We already use multimedia. I know the entire history of Paul’s life and career, including the tales behind the tunes. I tell stories to keep the audience involved. I lead singalongs. I have enough stage presence to deal with just about anything, including somebody talking back to me. Believe me, I’ve heard just about everything, although you still can be surprised.
Q: Are your set lists influenced at all by McCartney’s set lists, present or past?
A: They are, although I think that Paul panders to the crowd more than I do. He gets off on the big event with the big screen, on performing for 30,000, 70,000, 80,000 people, on the fact that he’s probably the most popular live act. God bless him; I don’t have a negative thing to say about him. Mine is a more intimate experience, more personal and theatrical; I try to make listeners think I’m talking to them. When I was in the international cast of “Beatlemania,” in the ’70s and ’80s, I performed for 40,000 to 50,000 people and it was a different mindset; you tried to play to the first couple rows. Not being able to play to the entire audience left me cold.
Q: McCartney has helped extend and solidify your musical career. Has he taught you anything about life other than don’t get busted for pot possession?
Q: His life and my life are very different, aside from the money and the fame and the busts for pot possession. What I respect and admire about him is that of all the Beatles he has tried to have a normal life. I’ve had many dilemmas about being in showbiz. When I was performing in “Beatlemania” at the Winter Garden [Theatre], I couldn’t wait to get to the stage door and meet my adoring fans; those were the thoughts of a young man in his 20s. There were also painful times when I was away for months at a time from my children and my wife. As a young man I wanted to be out on the road; I wanted to see what Wyoming looked like. Then I had a disastrous time of divorce, step parenting and not being around for my kids when they were young. I no longer want to see the world; I already know what Wyoming looks like. I have friends who are still living the life of constant touring. That’s not for me. I’m not looking to do 16 dates a month. I’m basically a homebody. I have grandchildren now and I want to see them grow up.
I’ve had many offers to join Beatles tribute bands. Invariably, I turn them down. I don’t mind being a sideman but I want this [Most Excellent Order] to be my baby. Paul still loves that adoration; we all do. The key is to keep adoration in perspective.
Q: How long can you continue playing Paul? Will you stop if he decides to stop before death stops him?
A: I’d like to do this as long as I’m singing and playing as well as I should be, as long as I can be true to the music. I’m a schooled musician who does a lot of voice-overs in addition to concerts. I do vocaleses at least four or five times a week; I take care of my instrument because it’s my living and my livelihood. Paul is a more natural singer, so he’s never really taken serious care of his voice. Now he’s getting some flak for sounding weaker. My feeling is: Hey, he’s 74, give him a break.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I really don’t have a Bucket List because I’ve lived so many of the dreams I had as a kid. I’ve traveled the world, played for adoring audiences, played for presidents. I’m blessed with talent and I’ve done what I’ve loved for a long time. If there was an item at the top of my Bucket List, it would be to slow down eventually. I’d like to have a week where I would lay on the beach and look at the ocean, a week where I really didn’t have to speak. Then again, I can’t stand to be away too long from my grandchildren. When I didn’t have them, I didn’t realize what a blessing they could be. Now that I have them, I’m addicted to them.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: What would I like to eliminate from the world? Let’s say non-melodic music. I know I’m in the minority but I’m no fan of hip hop or rap. I think popular music is in one of the lowest ebbs ever and one of the reasons is that vocals aren’t as important as they should be. I think the human voice is phenomenal, whether it’s showcased in the Bulgarian women’s choir with their crazy dissonances, which I can’t get enough of, or Bach’s B Minor Mass, which is one of the most amazing choir pieces I’ve ever listened to or sung. I love Brian Wilson’s songs and arrangements; he has this amazing ability for harmonies, vocal stylings and counterpoint. He didn’t burn as long as the Beatles but when he burned, he burned so brightly. In fact, I may be a bigger fan of him than the Beatles. His music makes me crazy–like that little kid dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Q: Is there a question you’re dying to ask McCartney if you ever meet him face to face, one on one?
A: I’ve thought about that a lot. I would ask him: Do you know many lives you’ve influenced? Do you know how many lives you’ve changed? Do you know the joy that your music has brought me over 50 years? I actually feel sorry for him because he’s one of the few people on earth who doesn’t know how much he’s loved.
You know, it’s strange meeting your heroes. When I was in “Beatlemania,” I spoke briefly to John Lennon. He used to walk in front of the Winter Garden; I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for him to see “Beatlemania” on the marquee. I’ve met Brian Wilson several times; the first time was pretty awful. I knew that he’s not the most gregarious fellow, so I cut short what I said about what his music has meant to me, so he wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable. Instead, he made me feel uncomfortable by refusing to answer me; in fact, I felt like crying. He had to be prompted to say “Thank you” by his handlers. He was about to do a show, so he probably didn’t want to talk to me. Other times he was much nicer and more outgoing. But that first meeting with him taught me something: Famous people don’t owe their fans anything; they certainly don’t owe me anything. I don’t want to steal any of their privacy, which they probably cherish more than anything.
In the early ’70s I ran into Paul Simon on the street in Manhattan. I didn’t acknowledge he was Paul Simon, although I did tell him I was going to audition for one of the clubs downtown, probably the Bitter End. He told me: “Good luck: I appreciate what you guys go through.” We ended up sitting on a stoop, talking about the Yankees.
So maybe I’d talk to McCartney about the Yankees. I’ve been at a couple of games at Yankee Stadium where he’s been sitting behind home plate, drinking cheap beer. Maybe I’ll ask him why he drinks such cheap beer.
Lenie Colacino: The Scoop
As a young singer he performed everything from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” to Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
He spent four years as a member of Ralph, a progressive rock band fabled in and around Scranton.
It was in Ralph that he developed a hatred for singing Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs.” Today, he likes the tune enough to make it a staple of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul. “I think the song is Paul’s way of snubbing his nose at critics who think he should be singing real rock ‘n’ roll instead of silly love songs,” says Colacino. “It was a hit, so he got the last laugh.”
He worked on and off for cable companies for 20 years; he’s now a vocal instructor/musical motivational speaker.
He provided the voices of three of four Beetles—Jack, Pete and Wingo—on the animated Nickelodeon series “The Wonder Pets,” whose music director/composer is Larry Hochman, a member of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul.
He relishes the memory of Mauch Chunk Opera House listeners dancing to “Kansas City,” “Twist and Shout” and other encores by the stage. “We riled them up to the point that they were shouting: ‘We want more! We don’t want to stop dancing yet!’”
He owns seven left-handed violin basses made by Hofner, which endorses him as an artist. He’s reduced his collection from more than 30 instruments to a dozen largely to simplify his estate for his three children. “I’ve already told them that some of the Hofners are rare and don’t give them away in a yard sale for $20.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. While he finds “Monkberry Moon Delight” delightful, he finds “Ram On” more so. He can be reached at email@example.com.