Jay & the Americans

Though they had a bunch of hits across the 1960s, Jay & the Americans were a throwback to a previous era in their doo wop-influenced vocals, neatly groomed, short-haired appearance, and mix of pop/rock with operatic schmaltz. Built around the neck-bulging upper-register vocals of David Blatt aka Jay Black, their biggest hits -- "She Cried," "Cara Mia" (which you could, in the second half of the 1970s, just imagine Eddie Mekka's Carmine Ragusa, aka "The Big Ragu," singing on Laverne & Shirley), "Come a Little Bit Closer," and "Let's Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)" -- came off as sort of hit parade versions of West Side Story. The group also relied on outside songwriters for its material, drifting into MOR covers of oldies by the end of the '60s, and was generally a sort of textbook of unhipness during a time when self-contained rock bands were becoming the norm. In a sense, Jay & the Americans were the original "oldies" act -- organized at the transition of the 1950s into the 1960s, the group sounded like a throwback to that earlier decade, at a time when harmony vocal groups -- at least those without some guitar wattage accompanying them -- were already becoming old hat. Yet, somehow, they competed with the likes of the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and the Four Seasons, among homegrown rivals, and remained a major presence on radio even during the British Invasion, and lasted long enough to meet up -- like a glider catching a brisk, sustaining wind -- with the oldies boom at the tail end of the decade. They seemed out of place for most of the 1960s with their short hair, neat clothes, and dedication to schmaltzy pop, but by the end of the decade were perfectly positioned for the so-called rock & roll revival. The group actually coalesced out of the Mystics, a Brooklyn-based harmony vocal group (best remembered for "Hushabye"), which had taken on John Traynor (aka Jay Traynor) as lead singer at the very end of the 1950s. Traynor chanced to cross paths with Sandy Yaguda (aka Sandy Deane) and Kenny Rosenberg (aka Kenny Vance), who were part of a vocal trio working behind a female singer on a Clay Cole-sponsored tour at the time. Traynor got together with Vance and another friend, Howie Kerschenbaum (aka Howie Kane), after leaving the Mystics in 1960, and they started singing together, with Sandy Deane joining to make it a quartet. It was on the strength of their demo of an old Five Keys number, "Wisdom of a Fool," that they were signed by producers/songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to a contract -- Leiber & Stoller gave the group a name, the Americans, and got them a recording contract with United Artists, the newest in a wave of record labels spawned by movie companies, and eager to grab a piece of the rock & roll action of the period.