Remember when all you had to do to enjoy music was turn on the $9.99 transistor radio and tune in to your favorite station? That joyful simplicity is what a certain local band is trying to reproduce, but live.
WFIL is a kind of a “supergroup,” featuring veteran Trenton/Hamilton-area musicians, dedicated to lovingly recreating the sounds of AM radio, with everything from soul to Swedish garage rock, from the years 1966 through 1974.
The band will perform at the Ivy Tavern in Hamilton on Friday, April 22, just the second time WFIL has presented its one-of-a-kind show, more like a theatrical trip back in time than a typical bar gig.
Taking its name from a beloved 1960s and early 1970s Philadelphia Top 40 radio station — WFIL 560 AM — the band sweetens the sonic experience with vintage jingles, slides, and video, as well as a dedicated “boss jock.” That would be a fast-talking DJ doing the old-school style of AM radio patter, talking up the record, the artist, the weather, and whatever over the musical introduction to the song.
Most big cities had their boss jocks and lively AM station long before a certain generation left AM behind to groove on album and progressive rock on FM radio, and such laid-back hosts as Michael Tearson on WMMR in Philadelphia, and Alison Steele “The Night Bird” on WNEW in New York.
Trenton-native, music maven, and drummer/vocalist Chuck Calcese first had the idea for WFIL about a year ago and shared it with his friend, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Frank Clayton. The two were playing in a band called F2 and the Anchovy Brothers.
“To me those years between 1966 and 1974 were the greatest time for music, and I had the idea to assemble a band to pay tribute to those times, those songs,” Calcese says, adding that he wasn’t sure how it would go over. How many people shared his love for this sound?
As it turned out, almost everyone he spoke to reacted with excitement and nostalgia for those Top 40 radio days.
Clayton remembers nothing but happy feelings associated with WFIL AM and distinctly recalls good times at the old Yardville Swim Club, where the station played all day.
“I was probably about 10, and I remember they always had WFIL on,” Clayton says. “Chuck and I talked about doing a kind of tribute to the music, and he imagined an actual production, with lead-ins, song introductions, and whatnot.”
“I loved the idea, but I was hoping do something more for a ‘sit-down’ audience, not people staring at their phones, talking, etc.,” he says. “We both like Tommy Reock’s shows (The Reock and Roll Revue, playing July 16 and 17 at Mercer County College’s Kelsey Theater) — that’s the kind of thing I was going for.”
“Frank brought it to the next level,” Calcese says. “He’s the one creating all the videos and visuals that go with the show.”
In what might have been called a “happening” back in the 1960s, WFIL utilizes a large video backdrop, and thanks to Clayton’s expertise with visual technology, a variety of images play during the show, mostly between songs, so the multi-talented musicians can switch instruments.
“Every song leads into another, and we also change tempos and styles, etc., going from something that rocks to something slower like Harry Chapin’s ‘Taxi,’ or ‘Operator’ by Jim Croce,” Clayton says. “When we make those changes, we’ll throw on some of those crazy old commercials. You can find this vintage stuff all over the place. I even found a commercial for Winston cigarettes featuring the Flintstones.”
After months of planning and careful rehearsals at Clayton’s home studio, WFIL first played a few months ago at the Ivy Tavern and knocked it out of the park.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go because it was a struggle to pull together,” Calcese says. “I actually thought, ‘this might be the only time we do this.’ But then I saw the reaction of the audience.”
“I saw big guys playing air guitar and singing along, and even singing along to the women singers, like Nancy Sinatra doing ‘These Boots Were Made for Walking,’” he says. “The Ivy is a pretty small place, but people stood and listened for hours, so we knew the show had to be good. The next day, my phone kept ringing, Facebook was blowing up, and I realized that this music really hits people our age, we all ‘get’ it.”
One of the things that distinguishes WFIL is the presence of New Jersey radio pro Danny Coleman, who takes the role of the boss jock and does the high-energy AM-style song intros, right alongside the band. (He also plays percussion.)
Youthful lead vocalist/percussionist Rachel Rocco can handle a variety of song styles and gets an ovation whether she is tenderly singing a quiet ballad a la Anne Murray’s “Danny’s Song,” or laying down a hot soul track like Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good.”
She also surprised the Ivy Tavern crowd with “To Sir With Love,” a 1967 gem by Lulu (and theme to the movie), which many members of the audience had probably forgotten.
“Rachel is younger than us, but she does everything so well,” Calcese says. “I told her, ‘You had them in the palm of your hand when you did To Sir With Love,’ but then she topped that with the Mama Cass/Mamas and the Papas (version of) Dream a Little Dream of Me. Unbelievable.”
Rounding out WFIL are Vince Civali on keyboards, bass, guitar, and vocals (“our voice coach and harmony wizard,” Calcese says); Steve Guarino on guitar, bass, and drums; and Bud Belviso on keyboards and guitar.
Calcese was probably destined to be a drummer. His father balanced his career as a barber with playing drums in a number of bands, particularly the Lamplighters, which Calcese says was one of the top wedding and special event bands in the area.
“There were always drums in the house, and we were all musical,” says Calcese, an employee of the Hamilton Township roads department. “My mom, who was a stay-at-home mom when we were little, played all kinds of records. Drums are the coolest instrument to me, and I wanted to do everything my dad did. He was my first teacher.”
“I also spent a lot of time with my aunts and uncles, including my uncle Chuck Calcese,” he adds. “They were basically hippies in the 1960s, and I got my musical taste from them, especially my uncle. I stole so many of his albums — the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, the Rascals, etc. And I bought at least one 45 a week; I had hundreds of 45s.”
Naming a range of drummers as influences — from Ringo Starr to session geniuses like Steve Gadd and Hal Blaine — Calcese says he started playing drums before starting school and developed a rather sophisticated technique early on. By age 7 or 8 he was coming onstage to play drums with the adults.
A longtime resident of Yardville, Calcese graduated from Steinert High School in 1977. He has been married for 25 years to Lisa, who owns the Cutloose hair salon in Yardville. They have three grown children, Julian, Adrien, and Hope.
Growing up in Yardville and Hamilton, Clayton played keyboards at first, influenced by his mom, a homemaker, who played the organ. (Clayton’s father was a mechanical engineer.) Elementary school-age keyboard lessons got left behind, though, especially after Clayton heard a local battle of the bands and a guitarist rocking out to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
“I was about 14, I heard that, and said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Clayton recalls. “My parents bought me my first guitar, and that was it. I took lessons in the beginning, including from Ernie White, but at the same time, I was playing all over the place, at clubs and various (venues) like the Satellite Lounge.”
He graduated from Hamilton High School West in 1978, played guitar and some keyboards, as well as handling sound/audio for almost a decade, before pursuing a career in law enforcement. He is unmarried and has three adult children, Kristina, Sean, and Christian.
“I was a Trenton cop for about 20 years, (with a special expertise in gangs), and then worked for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, retiring in 2009,” Clayton says.
He found a niche doing Powerpoint and other presentations for the county prosecutor’s office, traveling to conferences all up and down the East Coast, and continues to produce even more sophisticated visual presentations, consulting for CSI Technology Group. He says the visuals for WFIL require a lot of work, but the final outcome is well worth it.
Clayton reflects that WFIL is building the band and its shows, with hopes to play theaters, maybe even the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank.
Calcese agrees that WFIL is “still tweaking, not quite where we want to be,” he says. “We’re always looking for bigger and better opportunities, but for now, we’re concentrating on the Ivy show.”
He admits that he stopped listening to WFIL-AM probably around 1974, preferring WMMR and WYSP.
“We got older and we listened to more complex music, so I broke away,” Calcese says. “But 30 or 40 years later, I came back to this (pop) music that I totally forgot about. I don’t know if it’s because it was playing during a special time in my life, but the songs were so happy, so I am happy to have come full circle.”
WFIL, Ivy Tavern, 3108 South Broad Street, Hamilton. Friday, April 22, 9:30 p.m. No cover charge. 609-888-1435. WFIL on the Web: www.wfilband.com