Rock 'n' roll never forgets
After nearly 40 years later, a legendary N.J. garage band stages
an unlikely comeback
Sunday, August 08, 2004
BY JAY LUSTIG
In 1966, a songwriter and producer named Larry Brown walked
into the Indian Pizzeria on Lyons Avenue in Newark.
Some teenagers were
leaning against the jukebox, singing along, and Brown spotted a
"I don't know what song -- it might have been a Rolling Stones
song," says Brown, a Newark native who now lives in Nashville,
and is known as L. Russell Brown. "But I went, 'Wow, what an
interesting voice this kid had.' There was a rasp to it, and a power,
and a fury."
singer's name was Howard Tepp, but he would soon change it to Richard
and front the band, Richard & the Young Lions.
The band released a howling debut single, "Open Up Your Door," that
was a regional smash in markets across the country, including Detroit,
Cleveland and Seattle.
But further success was elusive, and by the end of 1967, the band
had broken up. Garage-rock aficionados never forgot about them, though.
"They defined garage-rock," says Steven Van Zandt, the
Bruce Springsteen collaborator and "Sopranos" actor who
hosts the nationally syndicated "Underground Garage" radio
show and is presenting a garage-rock festival at Randall's Island
in New York on Saturday (see accompanying story).
had a great attitude in his voice, and they had a fuzztone bass,
which is a garage-rock move. It was just sort of that basic,
simple music that we used to call rock 'n' roll dance music. It was
the kind of music that made people get on the dance floor and go
In 1998, "Open Up Your Door" achieved the ultimate garage-rock
honor, being selected for an expanded CD reissue of the seminal 1972
garage-rock compilation, "Nuggets."
song "was everything I liked about that particular era
of music," says "Nuggets" producer Lenny Kaye, who
is best known as a member of Patti Smith's backing band. "It
was driving, rocking, elemental, and full of the things that all
the 'Nuggets' bands have, which is desire. You can feel these people
seeing the gold ring, and grasping for it, and actually snagging
Tepp, who died on June 17 of leukemia, at the age of 57, had other
bands after the Young Lions broke up. But he never made as big a
splash as he did the first time around.
"What he wanted out of life was to play again," says Lynne
Taylor, who lived with Tepp in the upstate New York town of Tannersville
for the last 24 years of his life. "He always felt like he came
Tepp supported himself primarily with bartending and, later in his
life, disability checks. He suffered from a number of ailments, including
psoriatic arthritis, Parkinson's Disease, and the blood disorder,
"He never quit, no matter how many things they socked him with," says
Taylor. "That's why it was so hard to see that he finally went."
Tepp's wish to reunite with the Young Lions was granted, improbably,
in 2000. Band members got back in touch with each other, and decided
to come out of musical retirement.
The reunited band performed at clubs like Maxwell's in Hoboken and
the Village Underground in New York. Shortly before Tepp died, the
group, which released three singles but no album in the '60s, finished
its first full-length album, with Van Zandt handling much of the
album is dominated by new originals, but also includes remakes
of "Open Up Your Door" and "You Can Make It" (the
third of the band's '60s singles), and covers of some obscure garage-rock
songs. It is not yet released and has no title, but Van Zandt plans
to put it out on his own Renegade Nation label, with distribution
by a larger record company.
"We took the attitude that we had unfinished business: the
unfinished business was to do this album," says guitarist Lou
Vhalakes of North Plainfield, one of the three musicians who backed
Tepp in the '60s and are keeping the band going after his death.
The others are bassist Fred Randall of Montclair and drummer Mark "Twig" Greenberg
of New York; all are in their mid-50s.
album will follow the recent release of a DVD documentary, "Out
of Our Dens: The Richard and the Young Lions Story." James Hannon
of Scotch Plains, who designed the band's Web site (www.richardandtheyounglions.com),
co-directed the low-budget film. Disk jockey Pat St. John (Q104.3
FM, Sirius Satellite Radio), a Richard & the Young Lions enthusiast,
"Richard and the Young Lions were absolutely essential to my
youth," says St. John, who lives in Montclair, but heard "Open
Up Your Door" as a teenager in Detroit. "It was one of
my favorite records of all time.
was a happy record, and it was a record that was relatable. Everybody
has that feeling when you're knocked out by somebody. 'Open
up your door!' -- you want to get to her."
The band will perform at Saturday's festival, after a short video
tribute to Tepp. Mike Fornatale, who has previously played with Moby
Grape and the Monks, has been recruited to handle most of the vocals.
"Nobody can replace Richard," says keyboardist Rick Robinson,
who has been in the band since it reformed in 2000. "We're going
to try to do something that sounds like the band, but not in any
way try to pretend he's been replaced."
Richard & the
Young Lions story began almost 40 years ago, when Tepp was a student
at Newark's Weequahic High School. He joined
a band called the Emeralds, which soon changed its name to the Original
was still in this band -- also featuring guitarists Bob Freedman
Lees, drummer Norm Cohen, bassist Ricky Rackin and keyboardist
Jerry Raff -- when Brown discovered him. Brown worked for Bob Crewe's
SCC Productions; Crewe was an music-industry powerhouse who managed
Frankie Valli & the Four Season and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit
Wheels, among other.
whose future successes would include co-writing "Tie
a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," thought "Richard" was
more rocking than "Howard," and asked him to change his
name. Remembering that he had met Tepp on Lyons Avenue, he came up
with the idea of renaming the band the Young Lions.
He also insisted on using his own studio musicians to back Tepp
on the band's recordings.
"Open Up Your Door," the band's debut single, came out
in July of 1966. "It was inspired by another song, (the Rolling
Stones') 'Satisfaction,' just the spirit of that piece," says
Brown, who cowrote it with then-partner Ray Bloodworth and another
songwriter, Neville Nader.
"I also liked the Spencer Davis Group," says Brown, referring
to the band that launched Steve Winwood's career. "I was looking
for a voice that had the power of a (Mick) Jagger or a Winwood, and
I had it with Richard."
Soon after the single came out, the band was in chaos. Rackin and
Raff had gone back to high school. Lees had mononucleosis, and he
and Cohen -- who were both unhappy with Brown's decision to use studio
musicians -- quit.
band had been booked to lip-sync "Open Up Your Door" on
television's "Clay Cole Show," and Tepp found himself without
a backing cast. He met Vlahakes and Greenberg -- teens from Livingston
who had played together in local bands the Mark IV and the Orphans
-- at the South Orange ice cream parlor Gruning's, and enlisted them.
They made the appearance as a trio, with Greenberg pretending to
soon switched back to drums, and Randall, of South Orange, took
on bass. Freedman, who had never quit the band, and never
even knew about the "Clay Cole" gig, was ready to go, too.
The band was stable once again, and its glory days were just beginning: "Open
Up Your Door" was taking off in the markets where it had been
Out-of-town gigs became more frequent. Up to Maine. Down to Virginia
and Florida. Out to Cleveland and Detroit.
peak came in October 1966, when the band played for thousands of
fans at Detroit's Cobo Hall arena. There were 19 other
acts on the bill, including Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels,
Question Mark & the Mysterians and future Rock and Roll Hall
of Famers the Temptations, Bob Seger and Del Shannon.
Richard & the
Young Lions were billed second, after the Temptations.
"I recall going out on-stage, and just the roar," says
Randall. "For that moment in time we got to feel what a big
rock star gets to feel when he goes out on-stage. It was overwhelming,
the amount of raw energy that was coming at you."
On another trip to Detroit, the band heard that the Yardbirds were
playing in nearby Ann Arbor, and didn't have an opening act. They
called the promoter, and were booked.
"We went down there, and there was Jimmy Page on-stage," says
Vlahakes. "Jeff Beck had just left (the band), and Jimmy Page
had come in. It was an incredible night -- the Yardbirds were our
"I'm a 17-year-old kid, and obviously, I loved the Yardbirds," says
Greenberg. "And there's Jimmy Page. So I go over and introduce
myself: 'Hey, Jimmy, how ya doin'? I think you guys are really great.'
I'll never forget his immortal words to me. 'Do me a favor, get me
Young Lions didn't stick around for long. The band could never
get "Open Up Your Door" released
outside of isolated markets -- it peaked at No. 99 on Billboard
magazine's national chart --
and the two subsequent singles did not fare well.
Randall, who had just entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in
Troy, N.Y., was finding it hard to be both a college student and
an aspiring rock star, and stopped making road trips. Larry Smith,
a friend of Greenberg and Vlahakes, replaced him. Greenberg quit
later, and original drummer Cohen rejoined.
band had no definitive final moment. "We kept practicing
for a while, and then practices became less often and less often,
and then we just dispersed," said Tepp in "Out Of Our Dens."
Tepp's later groups included a California progressive-rock band
called TIME (Trust in Men Everywhere). One night, arriving at a TIME
gig, he was mugged, shot, and left for dead. He survived, and eventually
ended up in Tannersville, where he bartended and played low-profile
Some band members kept playing music with local bands. Others didn't.
And they all eventually adjusted to their new lives as non-stars.
Greenberg, for instance, has worked on Wall Street, and sold Jaguars.
Vlahakes has sold sporting goods and life insurance, and is now in
the wholesale seafood business.
Greenberg and Smith stayed in touch, but most of the band members
contact with their old friends. They heard about the
inclusion of "Open Up Your Door" on "Nuggets," though,
and some tried to track each other down. The Internet was invaluable,
but fate played a part, too. Smith, for instance, spotted Randall
at a softball game at Livingston High School.
Band members began getting together socially, then decided to try
playing. One day in 2000, they all brought their instruments to Randall's
basement. Greenberg, who hadn't played drums since 1968, used Randall's
band sounded "terrible," Greenberg
says. But concert promoter Jon Weiss, who was presenting a series
of New York garage-rock
festivals called Cavestomp, heard the Young Lions were active again,
and offered them a gig at the next one. It was four weeks away.
"There was no way we could do it," says Greenberg. "But
we decided to say, 'Give us till next year, and we'd be happy to.'
And we came (to Randall's basement) just about every Sunday."
the band finally played Cavestomp, Van Zandt saw them in action,
his support. He had been Greenberg's friend since the
early '70s and knew he had once been in a band, but wasn't aware
it was Richard & the Young Lions.
"One day," says Van Zandt, "he
came to me and says, 'That band I used to play in, in the '60s,
one of our records turned
up on the 'Nuggets' collection.' I was like, 'What? Excuse me?' So
I went down to see them, and they were fantastic."
As always, there were lineup convulsions, and some new faces, including
guitarist Eric Rackin (Ricky Rackin's cousin) and keyboardists Robinson
and Shelly Riff, were brought in.
Tepp "was such a cool guy," says Riff. "I
did a gig with them at the Village Underground and ended up heading
hospital, the Tuesday after, to have my appendix removed. He calls
me up in hospital and says, 'Hey, one weekend with us, and there
goes your appendix'."
The band is now a six-piece, featuring Vlahakes, Greenberg, Randall,
Robinson, Riff and Fornatale.
they were making the album, Brown flew in from Nashville for one
of the band's
rehearsals. "It was one of the most amazing
moments of my life, to be with all the guys again," he says.
that back in the '60s, the band never got the support it deserved
SCC Productions, which was preoccupied by Valli
and Ryder, and didn't consider Richard & the Young Lions -- whose
raw sound was unlikely to generate huge sales -- a priority. Brown
was also distracted by his work as half of the duo the Distant Cousins,
and his songwriting for other groups, including the Four Seasons.
"Richard Tepp got lost in the shuffle of other people's careers," Brown
"We were the black sheep of the family, times a hundred," says
Greenberg. "The fact that 'Open Up Your Door' was a regional
hit ... that was great, but they didn't want to put money into that.
The last thing they or we ever expected was that in the year 2004,
Richard and the Young Lions, the original band, would be putting
out this album. It's like impossible."
information on the band or the "Out of Our Dens" DVD,
NJ Star Ledger, Aug 8th 2004