Remembering Johnny Maestro and the Crests
By Todd Baptista As published in Goldmine magazine, 2011
The death of Johnny Maestro on March 24, 2010 robbed the vocal group harmony world of one its finest lead voices, a pure-toned tenor who never lost his ability to captivate and inspire. For the final 42 years of his life, Johnny had thrilled audiences as the dynamic leader of the Brooklyn Bridge. His roots, however, were in rhythm and blues, Alan Freed’s radio and stage shows, and his first group, the Crests.
During the height of the vocal group era, few acts could lay claim to the degree of national success enjoyed by the Crests. In just over four years, they placed 13 records on Billboard's pop chart, six inside the Top 20 including "16 Candles", "Step By Step", and "The Angels Listened In", defining examples of the rock'n'roll vocal group genre.
“I was born in Manhattan on the Lower East Side, May 7, 1939,” Maestro related. “I was raised there until I was 17.” Initially, he was influenced by Johnnie Ray. “When I was a youngster, I would listen to him. He was one of the first white soul singers. He put a lot of feeling into his songs and let it all hang out. I would also listen to Alan Freed, and the groups that really impressed me were Willie Winfield and the Harptones, the Flamingos and the Moonglows. It was such a great sound. I really got into harmonies.”
Brooklyn native J.T. Carter formed the original quartet in 1955. First tenor Talmadge "Tommy" Gough, second tenor Harold Torres, and tenor Patricia Vandross, all residents of the Alfred E. Smith housing project in Chinatown on the Lower East Side, joined the bass-singing Carter while students at P.S. 160 Junior High. The unnamed group performed in their school auditorium, at neighborhood dances, and on street corners, emulating the sounds of the Harptones, Cadillacs, and Penguins.
In 1956, Mastrangelo, who lived on nearby Mulberry Street, met them at the Henry Street Settlement House. “The three background singers had originally formed the group themselves. When I met them, they were learning harmonies from a gospel singer. They were looking for a lead singer and they lived in the same neighborhood as I did. They had heard I was singing with a couple of friends in the neighborhood, approached me, and asked if I would sing with them. I was very impressed with the sound they were getting, and joined them. We’d sing in the park and at dances and on the trains.”
One of a small number of mixed race and gender groups, the original Crests consisted of three African-Americans, one Italian-American and one Puerto Rican. Although the association was unusual, it was never an issue for them. "We were all very interested in the music and harmonies at the time," Maestro explains. "All of us were looking to form a group and it wasn't even a thought. We just worked well together, sang well together, and that was the main concern."
The quintet practiced regularly for over a year, eventually adopting the Crests name at Carter's suggestion. On one occasion in the early months of 1957, the Crests boarded the Lexington IRT and began singing. "I don’t recall if it was Al Browne’s wife, or someone who worked for him who initially saw us and heard us. We were singing on the subway, going from the Brooklyn Bridge uptown. When we were traveling from point to point, we would sing. She heard us and approached us and gave us Al Browne’s card. She said ‘You should contact Al. He may be able to help you.’”
A freelance producer, musician and bandleader who had worked with the Heartbeats, Browne landed the group a contract with the tiny Joyce label, operated out of the back of a record shop at 1928 Fulton Street on the edge of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. With Browne arranging and producing, the Crests' first release, "My Juanita"/"Sweetest One", was issued in the spring of 1957. Both sides received heavy airplay in the New York area and "Sweetest One" climbed to #86 on Billboard's pop chart, a lofty accomplishment for a small firm like Joyce. Maestro's royalty check for the disc totaled $17.50. “We lasted with them for about a year, just two sessions, two releases, and then they went out of business. The studio where we recorded was in the back of a record store somewhere in Brooklyn,” Maestro recalled.
Soon, the Crests were introduced to Browne's friend, songwriter, arranger, and singer Billy Dawn Smith who brought them to George Paxton, a music publisher who signed the group and formed Coed Records. At this point, Vandross was forced to drop out. "Coed wanted us to travel and promote the records and the group," Maestro explains. "I think she was 16, and her mom wasn't too happy about her traveling with us so she pulled her out. And (her brother) Luther (Vandross) was the annoying little kid who used to sit in the living room with us while we were rehearsing and we’d have to throw him out of the room. He had to be 10 or 12. But maybe he got some tips from us!”
Working with songwriters Luther Dixon and Billy Dawn Smith and arranger Bert Keyes, the Crests turned out polished, well-crafted music which Coed's distributors promoted nationally. Their initial offering, the uptempo "Pretty Little Angel", backed with "I Thank The Moon" did well locally in the summer of 1958.
Issued in November of 1958, the Dixon and Allyson Kent-penned follow-up, "16 Candles", with additional harmonies provided by the Miller Sisters, was a Bandstand favorite that climbed to #2 on the Hot 100 and #4 R&B during a 21-week chart run into early 1959. "That was unexpected to me and the group," Maestro confesses. "We were rooting for the other side, 'Beside You'. That's the side that we wanted released. But, Alan Freed decided to play '16 Candles'. I guess we didn't know what a hit record was! Freed was also the first one to play ‘Sweetest One’ on WINS. What a thrill that was. We played the Lowe’s State Theater in Manhattan with him when ‘16 Candles’ was released.”
Maestro's powerful lead helped carry four more Smith offerings onto the pop chart in 1959- "Six Nights A Week" (#28), "Flower Of Love" (#79), "The Angels Listened In" (#22) and "A Year Ago Tonight" (#42). Regular appearances on American Bandstand, national tours, and a pair of albums kept the group in the spotlight well into the new decade. Touring in the South proved problematic for the mixed-race Crests, an experience Maestro never forgot. “It was difficult on the road. We were not accepted in white areas (in the South). I had to stay in black areas if I wanted to be with the other Crests. In some places we played, I would have to stand on the other side of the stage. The audiences were also separate. We didn’t see that kind of thing in New York.”
In late winter 1960, the string-backed "Step By Step" climbed to #14 pop. With Smith remaining the Crests' principal songwriter, they returned to the top 20 during the summer with the upbeat "Trouble In Paradise". Their final two releases of 1960, "Journey Of Love" and "Isn't It Amazing" both reached the lower third of the Hot 100, bringing the Crests an incredible nine consecutive national chart hits.
By 1961, Paxton had begun to envision Maestro as a soloist, having first tried with an unsuccessful 45 credited to Johnny Masters the previous year. Although the next two releases featured the entire group, they were billed as by "Johnny Mastro- The Voice Of The Crests". "Model Girl" and "What A Surprise" continued the string, but by the time "Mr. Happiness" brought the list of hits to 13 in the summer, the R&B sound of the Crests had been eliminated, replaced with a female chorus Paxton dubbed the Coeds.
Maestro and the Crests went their separate ways in 1961. The group added James Ancrum to lead their next Coed release, "Little Miracles". It peaked at #102. A lawsuit over the name ensued between the group and Coed. Eventually, the group won and Ancrum, Torres, Carter, and Gary Lewis continued on as the Crests, waxing four singles for producer Morty Craft, including "Guilty", a regional hit in 1962.
Maestro's final solo discs for Coed, "I.O.U.", and "It Must Be Love", failed to chart. Leaving the firm in 1962, he recorded for Apt, Cameo, Scepter, Parkway, and United Artists into the mid-1960s, occasionally backed by a studio group billed as the Crests. Despite some strong material, things never clicked for him as a solo artist.
“About 1965 or 1966, I went with the Del Satins,” Maestro explained. “We performed for a year or so as the Del Satins featuring Johnny Maestro. These were the guys who did the backgrounds on Dion’s solo hits ("Runaround Sue", "The Wanderer", "Donna The Prima Donna") but never got any recognition for it. We’d carry a guitarist and a drummer, but we wanted to enlarge the group and have a bigger sound. It was the beginning of the big sound, Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears were just coming to the surface.”
“We decided to look for a group to back us and came up with the Rhythm Method. They were seven pieces. We decided to merge the two groups. We had a meeting at my manager’s office, and someone got to talking about merging the group. He said not to do it because it would be too hard to sell the group because there were so many members. We had 11 people. He said it would be easier to sell the Brooklyn Bridge than to sell this act, and that’s where the name came from.”
Signing with Buddah, the Brooklyn Bridge earned a gold record for "The Worst That Could Happen" in 1969. “That was a beautiful song written by Jimmy Webb,” Maestro recalled. “When we first signed with Buddah, they were promoting Bubble Gum music. I found ‘The Worst That Could Happen’, we put our arrangement on it, went into the studio, and they (the company) were floored.”
A number of contemporary rock efforts including "Welcome Me Love", "Blessed Is The Rain", and "Your Husband, My Wife" earned them chart success into the early 1970s. With minimal personnel changes, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge continued to tour the country steadily for the next 40 years, occasionally releasing new material.
Vandross left singing altogether in 1958 but watched her younger brother, Luther, become one of R&B's biggest stars in the 1980s. She died of complications from diabetes in 1993. After leaving the Crests in 1961, Gough moved to Detroit and went to work for General Motors. Torres remained in New York and found employment in the jewelry industry. Carter continued touring with a Crests group until selling the group name to his lead singer, Tommy Mara, in the late 1990s. Today, Carter performs as part of a trio called Starz. In June of 1987, Maestro, Carter, Torres, and Gough reunited as the Crests for a concert in Peekskill, New York.
Johnny Maestro eventually relocated to Cape Coral, Florida, where he spent the final seven years of his life. He never tired of singing and entertaining. “I have exercises, vocal exercises that I perform before each show,” he explained. “You always get a little bit nervous before you go on stage, but once you’re out there you see and hear the audience, you do what comes naturally. The only thing I can remember doing to help sustain the voice was quitting smoking. That definitely did have an effect on the voice. But just continually singing means a lot. It’s just like the muscles in the body, if you lay off them, they get weak. I haven’t stopped singing since the Crests.”
Diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2009, Maestro made his final appearance at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena in January of 2010, nine weeks before his death, as part of Bowzer’s Rock’N’Roll Party. "He was frail and a little jaundiced, and he had torn the ligaments in his shoulder, so he had his arm in a sling underneath his jacket," bass player Jim Rosica later told a Newsday reporter. "We hadn't disclosed to anyone that he had cancer, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out something was seriously wrong. But when Johnny went onstage, he just nailed it."
Series host and producer Jon “Bowzer” Bauman recalled that although they were scheduled to close with "The Worst That Could Happen”, Maestro was compelled to perform one more song. "Johnny turned to me with a look in his eyes I will never forget. Johnny was always quiet, but his eyes said something deep, profound, and unmistakable. ‘One more,' he said. 'I need to do one more' ", before returning to the stage for a powerful and emotional version of "You'll Never Walk Alone."
“It’s a very, very good feeling to know that younger people do appreciate our music,” Maestro summed. “But, obviously, it is part of today’s music. What is today stems from the ’50s and original rock’n’roll. It’s all rock’n’roll. It does make us very good to have these people coming and listening and enjoying our music and hopefully enjoying some of the new things that we do. I have been fortunate to be able to perform before the best audiences, our loyal fans, for seven decades. There have been no better times for myself and the Brooklyn Bridge then when we are performing, singing the music that brings back memories of times that we all cherish and hold dear to our hearts. I am very grateful for the opportunity that has allowed me to do something that I love and to be able to share our music with so many people.”