The Vagrants: A Hot '60s Band, For Exactly Four Years The Vagrants, one of New York City's most popular bands in the 1960s, recorded only 30 minutes' worth of music. Rock historian Ed Ward explains what happened to the band and why its music is worth hearing today.
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The Vagrants: A Hot '60s Band, For Exactly Four Years

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The Vagrants: A Hot '60s Band, For Exactly Four Years

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The Vagrants: A Hot '60s Band, For Exactly Four Years

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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

It's always been a fact in popular music that bands come and go, but they usually leave something behind in the way of a few albums. The Vagrants were one of the most popular bands in New York City during the '60s. But when Light in the Attic Records compiled their complete recorded work for the album "I Can't Make a Friend," it came to a mere 30 minutes worth of music.

Here's rock historian Ed Ward to tell us about the band.

(Soundbite of song, "I Can't Make A Friend")

Mr. PETER SABATINO (Singer, The Vagrants): (Singing) Every day's the same, alone and feeling shame. I'm a man with no-one close. Im tired of the game.

Cause I can't make a friend. I can't make a friend. Is it love beating down, in my room and making sounds? Say it last. There's no one around.

ED WARD: The Vagrants between 1964 and 1968, rose from a bunch of high-schoolers rehearsing in a basement in the Forest Hills section of Queens in New York, to playing for thousands of kids in clubs. But the chances are that if you weren't in the audience, you've never heard them.

The Vagrants started when Peter Sabatino and his buddy Larry Weinstein saw the Beatles at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August 1964 - literally next door to Peter's apartment building - and he and Larry decided that this was what they wanted to do. Larry's older brother Leslie was a good guitarist, so he joined up. Jerry Storch, whom they knew as a champion bowler at the local lanes, revealed one day that he played piano and had some songs, so they invited him to join.

Good thing, too: The Weinsteins were thrown out of their basement for making too much noise, and Storch got the manager of the bowling alley to let them set up in its lounge. The last element was a drummer. Roger Mansour met the others one day when the principal called them in to lay down the law about their long hair. Roger had already been drumming for another band, but The Vagrants sounded more interesting, and anyway, the principal had suspended them all.

A girl at the bowling alley got them a gig playing a Sweet 16 party, and they got paid $100 for it. More gigs followed, and by early 1965 they were playing one of New York City's coolest clubs, Steve Paul's Scene. Peter, Larry and Roger enrolled at Quintano's School for Young Professionals, a high school for performers, and by the summer of 1965 they were approached by two guys with a label, Southern Sound, who asked them if they wanted to make a single. Of course, they did.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh Those Eyes")

Mr. SABATINO: (Singing) That girl keeps staring. My mind is tearing.

Oh those eyes. Oh those eyes.

That girl annoys me. She's gonna to destroy me.

Oh those eyes. Oh those eyes. You don't know what...

WARD: "Oh Those Eyes" is a bratty, paranoid garage rocker, with snappy guitar work by Leslie, but it went nowhere. They got a summer-long gig in Hamptons Bay, on Long Island, and became friendly with a band working one of the other clubs, the Young Rascals. One thing the Rascals had that the Vagrants didn't was a Hammond B-3 organ, an expensive instrument Jerry coveted. Returning to Manhattan at the end of the summer, the band wound up at another hot spot, the Rolling Stone - a club run by popular disc jockey Scott Muni - where they played for 18 weeks. A wealthy fan learned that Jerry wanted the B-3 and took him to a music store, whipped out $2,500 cash and asked that it be delivered to The Rolling Stone.

The Vagrants were hot. They got residencies in all of Manhattan's best clubs and visiting rock stars sat in with them. One of their gimmicks was to take a hit, like The Beatles' "No Reply," and slow it way, way down and turn it into a white soul showcase - a trick Vanilla Fudge later built a career on. A tall, skinny, troubled songwriter, Bert Sommer, began writing material for them, and they made some singles for Vanguard Records, but again, nothing.

(Soundbite of song "The Final Hour")

THE VAGRANTS: (Singing) This is the final hour. Love faded like a flower. I'm hurting. Do you see the way that you hurt me? Yeah. This is the final moment. Can't stand the pain and torment. You're seeing other guys. I will not even cry. Yeah. What you going to do?

WARD: They became the house band at the Action House in Long Beach, a place with reputed mob connections, getting $1,500 a show and working 28 days a month. They added pyrotechnics to the show: Bombs would go off at the climax of one of their songs. One night, one of the bomb-boxes under Jerry's organ wasn't completely out at the end of the night, and the entire stage - with the B3 -burned, taking The Vagrants' equipment with it. Their booking agency didn't flinch: They re-outfitted the band the next day, so The Vagrants could keep making them money.

They still didn't have a hit, so Atco Records, with whom they had a deal, thanks to The Rascals, called in Felix Pappalardi, fresh from producing Cream. He, his girlfriend Gail Collins, and Bert Sommer collaborated on a single for The Vagrants to record.

(Soundbite of song "Beside the Sea")

Mr. SABATINO: (Singing) Beside the sea, you and me, breaking waves on silver sand. Deep in love, star above, we walk together hand-in-hand.

We take a walk beside the sea, dreaming dreams for you and me.

WARD: Again, nothing. By this time, the band had gotten out of control. Larry and Leslie fought all the time, most of them were taking drugs, and the lack of success was getting to them. In the summer of 1968, Jerry Storch quit, and although the band staggered on for a while longer, it was over.

Today, Roger Mansour is a missionary in Haiti, Larry's got a restaurant, Jerry Storch is a rabbi and Peter Sabatino has a catering business and fronts the The New Vagrants. Leslie? He changed his name to Leslie West and joined Pappalardi to form a band called Mountain. But that's another story.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed The Vagrants' "I Can't Make A Friend, 1965 to '68" on Light in the Attic Records.

Coming up, a novel by a writer our book critic says does justice to the ordinary. Maureen Corrigan reviews Stewart O'Nan's new book "Emily, Alone" after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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