Confessing That We Love the Chantels -
Over and Over and Over and Over Again
By Kate Karp
What do you do with a record you bought and played, and then went nuts over it?
You play it again, of course. The Doo Wop Society invited The Chantels to be their feature act for Show #46 on July 30, only they spun on a different turntable during the maiden event for the DWS’s new venue at the Norwalk Ramada Inn’s Saddleback Lounge.
“We wanted a big-name group to guarantee a crowd at the new location,” said Peter “Spike” Leinhos, DWS member and editor of The Echo, the DWS newsletter.
The room seats 300, and the room was nearly filled. . Reportedly, there were a number of new attendees and membership sign-ups resulting from people seeing the show announcement in the hotel.
At first glance, the room looked like a garden-variety hotel ballroom, with a view of a pool and the upstairs balcony. There were a couple of glitches, which DWS vice president Manuel Jimenez said that he hopes to resolve before the next show, planned for November. The performing area is 18 inches off the floor, so it was necessary to jockey for position around the table, or to sit on one’s feet, to get a view of the stage. There was a shortage of food and beverage servers, and the room was warm, despite the management’s claim that the air conditioning was on full blast.
As soon as the show began, however, the pros broke the gate and overtook the cons. The area outside the ballroom had room to spare for membership and vendor tables. The room itself had enough space for comfortable seating and dancing - something that was missing at the Petroleum Club. The acoustics were very good - the sound from the stage carried well and muffled out the table chatter. Vinny and Moe were able to go outside for a cigar instead of dealing with people who paid upwards of $35 for a performance and then spent the time talking with one another.
And, as Manuel said, the hotel itself offered an option for people who “got lucky.” Peter was quick to qualify that idea: “What is nice is we don't have to schlep performers back and forth from the Holiday Inn to the Petroleum Club any longer,” he said. “They just walk from the pool to the stage. And then there's the ‘lucky’ thing, which I understand our sound engineer took advantage of - his wife and kids showed up.”
Since the Los Angeles area is just about it for group harmony shows, and the shows themselves number only a handful per year, everyone got lucky with this one. The house band, a deliberately nameless group headed by guitarist Harry Orlove, and accompanied by Dillon O'Brian on piano, James Cruce on drums, Don Hawkins on sax and David Coy on bass, opened the show with a group that has been with the DWS in one form or another since the shows began. Kul Ayd opened both A and B sides of the show with acappella and accompanied versions of mostly doo wop standards and soul songs. The appreciative audience immediately got up to dance, and a couple of the group’s members joined them.
Although Kul Ayd has become good enough to fool anyone from Rhode Island, the group continues to sing overplayed hits. Tony Rogers’ bright lead and stage presence, the solid harmonies of Andy Nimchek and Hiram "Jazz" Johnson, and Tracy Bunn’s bass that sounded as if it came off the best doo wop recording in the world gave new life to such zombies as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (please spare us already, boys - it’s featured in a flea product commercial), “Come Go With Me” and “Runaround Sue.” They redeemed themselves with a version of “Gloria” that was worthy of hanging their portrait in the “Gloria” hall of fame, right after the Cadillacs and the Channels; and a moving tribute to former group member Cary Silva. Cary passed away unexpectedly earlier this year and is sorely missed. His memory was honored with a medley of “In the Still of the Nite,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Life is But a Dream.” Silva’s widow, Linda, was immersed with the audience in the evocative performance as she quietly listened.
The Chantels received a standing ovation even before they hit the stage. Resplendent in sequined gowns, the first ladies of group harmony brought to the show the same touch of class that they had at their previous DWS appearance (Show #34).
The Chantels’ personnel includes original members Sonia Goring Wilson, Rene Minus White and Lois Harris Powell (Jackie Landry died of cancer several years ago), and Ami Ortiz, who has sung lead with the group since 1996. Ortiz neither tries nor needs to be Arlene Smith. Her vocals, blended with the ethereal harmonies of the backup singers, are powerful and inventive, and embody the Chantels over-the-rooftops-of-the-Bronx spirit.
This time around, the Chantels did not sing their entire album but instead included standards such as “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss”) and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” that they had sung onstage several decades ago but did not record. Rene Minus took several of the standards leads, as well as the one on “Well, I Told You,” their 1961 answer to “Hit the Road, Jack. Their music director Mike Murray took on the Richard Barrett vocal on that song.
The highlights, of course, were what the audience came to hear - the Chantels’ own repertoire. They sang a number of their favorites, sending the goose bump meter to the extreme red on “Goodbye to Love” (they recorded it before the Marcels did), “Congratulations,” “Every Night” and “Whoever You Are.” The audience rose as many times as did the hairs on their arms to applaud.
The ladies concluded the show with their beautiful signature hit, “Maybe.”
The band, as always, knew how to accompany harmony groups without intruding upon them. The audio system sounded good, although it was oddly muffled during a few of the Chantels’ numbers. The length of the show - three hours, with an intermission - was perfect in quality and quantity.
“This show reminded me of my childhood,” said Gloria Espinoza, a first-time attendee. “I used to dance to this music with my cousin in the living room. It made me feel young again.”
Espinoza said that she plans to be at the November show - no “Maybe” about it.
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