When Tony Renzoni arrived at Toad’s Place, the legendary New Haven music club, he was carrying a shopping bag that included two Gene Pitney albums and a transistor radio from his youth on which he had written “Independence.”
“This is what gave teenagers independence,” he quickly says. “They could tune out their parents and teachers and listen to whatever they wanted.”
Renzoni highlights the advent of the transistor radio in his book Connecticut Rock ’n’ Roll: A History, published earlier this year by History Press. He wrote that the tiny radio’s debut in 1954 “brought about a major change in popular-music listening, allowing people to listen to their favorite radio station and disc jockey whenever and wherever they went.”
He noted the earplug was the key.
As a kid growing up in Waterbury, Renzoni listened to the local DJs, jotting down the stations’ weekly surveys of what songs were on the charts. (The WAVZ surveys featured at the bottom of the sheet a local female teenager, dubbed “cutie of the week.”)
But Renzoni had another source of interesting rock ’n’ roll music. “My big brother, Vince, would bring home these great 45s [45-rpm records]. I was 8 years old. He was introducing me to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis. He’d play side A and then flip it over. I got to hear music you didn’t hear on the radio.” (Renzoni can still remember the flip side to Lewis’ hit “Breathless” — it was “Down the Line.”)
Meanwhile, when he turned on WNHC-TV out of New Haven, he got to see his older sister, Marie, dancing on Connecticut Bandstand, the local version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
In his book, Renzoni listed some of the local talent that appeared on Connecticut Bandstand: Debbie and the Darnels, the Academics, Roger Koob and the Premiers, the Pyramids, and Ron and His Rattletones.
In addition to chronicling Connecticut’s significant contribution to rock ’n’ roll, a prime reason for Renzoni writing this book was to shine a light on those often-forgotten regional bands. “There have been so many talented artists in Connecticut but they weren’t given their due. They were neglected by rock historians.”
Renzoni can’t believe that the Wildweeds, out of Windsor, who had a hit, “No Good to Cry” in 1967, never made it big, never again landed on the charts. “I can’t understand it. Lots of people in Connecticut are still shaking their heads about that.”
But Renzoni noted in his book that Al Anderson, an original member of the Wildweeds, did go on to sustained recognition with NRBQ, who scored with the song he wrote, “Ridin’ in My Car.”
Renzoni’s book features a foreword by Ken Evans, who toured with “the Rockville Rocket,” Gene Pitney, in 1967 when Evans was the drummer for the Fifth Estate, out of Stamford. You might remember them for their 1967 smash hit “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”
In his foreword, Evans recalled the opening night of that 1967 tour, at the Bushnell Memorial in Hartford. The other musicians took bets backstage on whether Pitney could hit the incredible high note on “I’m Gonna Be Strong.”
“He hit it!” Renzoni recalls. “Here was this skinny guy but he almost blew the roof off.”
A 214-page paperback listed for $21.99, Renzoni’s book includes many evocative and historic black-and-white photographs, including contributions by Joe Sia, who seemed to be at every important show. The cover of Renzoni’s book features Sia’s iconic shot of Jimi Hendrix at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, taken Nov. 17, 1968.
Renzoni naturally focused on the Five Satins, who in 1956 went into the basement of New Haven’s St. Bernadette’s Church and recorded several songs, including “In the Still of the Night,” one of the biggest songs of all time. Fred Parris, the group’s lead singer, wrote it while on guard duty for the U.S. Army in Philadelphia.
In that same neighborhood close to St. Bernadette’s lived two kids named Karen and Richard Carpenter. While Karen played baseball, Richard worked on his music; their parents moved to California in 1963 to help launch his career. After Karen found her voice, they sold more than 100 million records.
Renzoni’s book is peppered with colorful events at rock ’n’ roll shows, such as the night Jim Morrison of The Doors was busted on-stage at the New Haven Arena (Dec. 9, 1967). Renzoni doesn’t write much about it but his book includes the famous Morrison mug shot.
And did you know that Bob Dylan performed outside the Montowese House in Branford for the Indian Neck Folk Festival in May 1961? The book has a photo of him singing at the event.
During our interview, which began outside Toad’s, we notice the door is open and walk inside. Some roadies agree to let us do our photo shoot in there, so we gravitate over to a wall with a drawing of the Rolling Stones. The Stones did a legendary surprise show there for 700 amazed and lucky people on Aug. 12, 1989. (I show Renzoni where I was standing that night, about 15 feet away from Mick Jagger.)
A funny thing about those Stones: one of the nuggets in Renzoni’s book reveals they were booked to perform at the New Haven Arena on June 18, 1964. Well, the show was canceled because so few people in Connecticut had heard of them at that time.
Renzoni, 68 and now retired, spent his working life as a district manager for the U.S. Social Security Administration. He has collected about 10,000 45s and hundreds of albums, along with three jukeboxes. Alas, it’s all in storage because he and his wife recently down-sized, moving to Branford.
“When I go to a store and see a record I want to buy, my wife says, ‘Take it easy.’ ”