Bill Koob

Billy Koob holds an old photograph of the band, The Premiers, at his home in Madison on July 28, 2020. Billy is at left and his brother, Roger, is in front center.

 

Billy Koob recalls that whenever his big brother Roger Koob walked into a room or onto the stage, people were “captivated.”

“He always had the ability to penetrate an audience,” Billy Koob said.

And when Roger Koob opened his mouth and started to sing, the women in the crowd would get tears in their eyes as they heard that powerful, evocative voice.

But despite that raw talent, Roger Koob, a New Haven-area kid whose songs were popular around the region, never broke through on the national scene, never scored that big hit.

“My brother had the dream of having a signature hit record,” Billy Koob said. “But all the stars have to line up for you to have that hit, to be recognized on the national level. You need the right song for the right time, the right production, the right distributor, the promotion, the DJs that decide to play it. All the things have to connect. It has to catch fire.”

Koob and I sat in the sunroom of his home in Madison on a recent afternoon, looking at the photos and other souvenirs from a lifetime of Roger Koob music, representing decades of struggling to make it big.

“You’ll see me tear up,” Koob said at the beginning of our talk. “Because this is very emotional for me.”

His brother died July 19 at 83 after years of becoming progressively more ill. The news reverberated among members of the local music scene whose memories stretch back to the 1950s.

“I am so sad to hear of the passing of my good friend,” emailed Richard Phillips, the oldies DJ “Rockin’ Richard” on WNHU, 88.7 FM.

“He had a wonderful voice and his stage shows were terrific,” Phillips said. “I can still hear the ladies screaming and bringing flowers to him on stage. He recorded on many labels and I believe he was about to ‘take off’ when suddenly his manager Jim Gribble died of a heart attack.”

Koob told me he agreed Gribble’s unexpected death was one of the bad breaks that hampered his brother achieving that dream of a signature hit record.

Koob put on a CD of his brother’s best known songs, including “You’re Daddy’s Little Girl,” “I Pray,” “Pigtails Eyes of Blue” and “She Gives Me Fever.” That rich, strong voice filled the room.

“Three great voices came out of New Haven at that time,” Koob said. “Fred Parris, my brother and Bill Baker. Fred will tell you Roger never got the recognition he deserved. That’s what’s so heartbreaking.”

Parris, the lead singer of the Five Satins, of course did achieve his signature hit, “In the Still of the Night,” which he wrote during U.S. Army duty while he was stationed in Philadelphia. Baker stepped in with the Satins as the temporary replacement lead singer and they had the big national hit “To the Aisle.”

When I called Parris at his home in Hamden last week, he said, “Roger was a great entertainer. He was a real good guy, very talented. He could sing and he could write songs. It’s too bad he didn’t have more success.”

But Parris and his wife, Emma Parris, said Koob never seemed regretful or bitter about his career nor was he jealous of Parris’ stardom. Emma noted “You’re Daddy’s Little Girl” is her favorite song and is “a must” to be played at any wedding.

Koob is modest about his vocal work with his brother but he was an original member of their group, the Premiers.

He showed me a faded clipping and photo from the New Haven Register, dated Dec. 23, 1957. “We were at a teen canteen dance in Bethany (the Koobs’ hometown) with our cousins. We stood in a half-circle and sang along with ‘Chi Wa Wa’ by the Silva-Tones. A New Haven Register reporter snapped a picture and the Premiers were born.”

Over the next 5-10 years, even after Billy left the group to serve in the U.S. Navy, Roger managed to land some recording contracts in New York, but still this didn’t lead to a hit record.

Then in 1964 “the British invasion” hit America (hello, Beatles!) and many American singing groups seemed obsolete.

“That was the end of doo-wop,” Koob noted.

But in the early ’60s the Premiers won acclaim on Connecticut stages. Koob showed me the posters. On Easter Sunday of 1960 the Premiers shared a bill at Hartford’s State Theater with Frankie Lymon, the Cadillacs and other national acts. In December of that year the Premiers performed at the Paramount Theater in New Haven, along with the Five Satins, Dion and Gene Pitney, out of Rockville, Conn.

“The Premiers fan club was there in large numbers,” Koob said. “And they were screaming their heads off.”

Koob said Pitney had written “She’s a Rebel” and mentioned it to his brother. “Gene said, ‘I’m showing it to another group. If they don’t take it, maybe we can do something.’ But then it was recorded by the Crystals. And they got the big hit.”

Koob kept trying to break through but by the mid-1970s, Billy said, “He ended up in that terrible situation. He got burned out, playing six days a week as the house band in clubs. ... The drug thing was going on and his health started to fail.”

Koob added, “It was simply too painful for me to watch. After all, he was not just my brother but also my hero. My savior. We became estranged for several years. Fortunately, he left all that behind him over the past few years and we became brothers once again.”

Koob said his brother, who was divorced twice and has a son and three daughters, spent his final years living alone in an apartment in West Haven.

But in 2015 the Koobs leaned about bi-monthly gatherings of old doo-wop singers and their fans at West Haven’s Off-Shore Restaurant.

“I’d pick him up and we’d go there to sit at a table and sing the old songs,” Koob said.

“Three years ago, on Roger’s 80th birthday, people came from everywhere to pay tribute to him,” Koob said. “Two other members of the Premiers came to town and we were together again. I don’t think I have ever seen him happier. Roger couldn’t really sing anymore but he gave what he had on one song. It was a nice, fitting ending. His life came full circle from 1957.”

Contact Randall Beach at 203-865-8139 or randall.beach@hearstmediact.com.

Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.