From the mid-1970s to the early ‘80s, Long Island had a thriving live music scene. Clubs throughout both Nassau and Suffolk were packed seven days a week featuring bands that would play multiple sets each night until the wee hours of the morning.
“The drinking age was 18 so there were a lot more people going out and vibing,” says former WBAB DJ Keith Fingers. “Beer was cheap. Places had nickel beer nights. It was a totally different time that was off-the-rails fun.”
Three of the biggest acts on LI then were The Good Rats, Rat Race Choir and the Stanton Anderson Band. Although they differed musically, each band had a massive following packing venues like Speaks in Island Park, Hammerheads in Levittown and West Islip, and The Mad Hatter in Stony Brook and East Quogue. Despite their regional popularity, they never reached national success but were an integral part of the fabric that made up this once-thriving local music scene.
THE GOOD RATS
The core of the Good Rats was the brotherly bond of late lead singer Peppi Marchello and his brother, guitarist Mickey Marchello. Surprisingly, their musical union happened by accident. They were in separate bands — the U Men and Mickey & the Huns — but one day Peppi’s guitarist bailed and Mickey filled in.
“We were like water and electricity,” says Mickey, 73, who resides in Sea Cliff. “The other guys in the band would call us Heckle & Jeckle. But the fighting helps the music. It gets that anger in there.”
The band’s eclectic sound ranged from hard rock to jazz fusion to country.
“We weren’t pigeonholed. The songwriting wasn’t always in the same style,” says Good Rats drummer Joe Franco, who lived in Wantagh and Dix Hills. “The focus was on creating quality music.”
The Good Rats developed a strong reputation for their live show which filled venues like My Father’s Place in Roslyn and Back Alley Sally’s in Glen Cove.
“Peppi [who died in 2013] was the most lively guy you’d ever see on stage with a great voice and a friendly demeanor,” says Arnie Price, 69, of Plainview. “He was always upbeat and entertaining.”
Joey Fulco, 62, of North Massapequa adds, “Peppi wasn’t flashy, but his personality was exuberant. He’d beat up a garbage can with a baseball bat on stage and throw rubber rats into the crowd.”
There was also a lot of humor added into the set to keep the party going.
“Peppi and Mickey would play off each other like only brothers could,” says Frank Porfidio, 63, of Massapequa Park. “It would be nearing 3 a.m. and Mickey would turn around and go, ‘C’mon Pep, I’m getting my second wind!’ Peppi would say, ‘Hey, I got your second wind a minute ago and it stunk!’ ”
In 1974, the band signed with Warner Bros. Records and delivered their most popular album, “Tasty” featuring the hit title track. But, company politics got in the way.
“We were an East Coast band that was passed on by the East Coast office of Warner Bros. and signed by the West Coast office. Right off the bat there was some friction,” says Franco, 71. “When they had their cuts, we were one of the first bands to get cut because we weren’t mega big.”
However, the band went on to release multiple albums on a variety of different labels, opening for national acts like Rush and Styx in 1979 at Nassau Coliseum. In 2008, the Rats were inducted into the Long Island Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame.
Mickey says, “We used to call ourselves the Rodney Dangerfields of rock & roll because we never got any respect.” But that didn't stop Rolling Stone from calling the Rats "the world's most famous unknown band."
RAT RACE CHOIR
Rat Race Choir got its first break in the summer of 1970 when future manager Skip Hempil heard the band playing at a park in White Plains and brought them out on Long Island to perform at Mitty’s General Store in Water Mill.
“We were known as the musicians’ band. All the musicians came out to see us. Our vibe was excellence in music,” says bassist-vocalist Dave Chmela, 71, formerly of Southampton. “When you saw us live, you had no idea what you were going to get next. It was like a haunted house roller coaster ride.”
The progressive rock band quickly became a staple on the Long Island club scene at venues like Cheers in Deer Park and Ubie’s in West Islip.
“The lines were out the door. The energy in the room was over the top and the people were invested in what we were playing,” says drummer Steve Luongo, 70. “You couldn’t help but feel the crowd enjoying it and you wanted to help them enjoy it more. It was very special.”
RRC was known for originals like “Skeletron,” “Dancin’ Flame” and “Struck by Lightnin’ ” as well as doing extensive covers of songs by Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, King Crimson and Gentle Giant.
“If you saw the actual band they were covering, you might be disappointed because Rat Race Choir did their music better,” says Brian Banks, 64, of Malverne. “It was almost like hearing a mini orchestra. Each member was a master of their instrument.”
Charlene Halsey, 64, of Wading River, adds, “Rat Race concerts are like being in a time warp because the music transports you to the past. It’s all consuming.”
Late guitarist Mark Hitt inspired a lot of future axmen, including Billy Idol’s partner-in-crime Steve Stevens, who caught Rat Race Choir in concert at Speaks in 1978.
“I stood right in front of Mark Hitt and was absolutely mesmerized. I had never seen a guitar player that good up-close like that. It was mind blowing,” says Stevens, 63, who grew up in Far Rockaway. “Mark was the unsung hero of the club scene. I learned so much just from watching him.”
STANTON ANDERSON BAND
The Stanton Anderson Band stood out among the pack because they were not your typical straightforward rock band.
“It was always exciting to see them all play because they would blend blues with R&B, soul, funk and bluegrass,” says Fingers. “Plus, they had a horn section, which was different.”
When lead singer Mark Fowler came to Long Island from New Orleans he hooked up with drummer Bob Bradley and bassist Larry Luby. Soon after, guitarists Rick Silecchio and Tom Banks plus keyboardist John Krafft joined, the band was off and gigging.
“There was almost a bar on every corner and a band in every bar,” says Fowler, 73. “We sought out gigs and landed a steady Wednesday night spot at Chaucer’s Ale House in Oakdale. From that place, our reputation grew.”
On Thursdays SAB was drawing more than 1,000 people at Rum Bottoms in Hicksville playing a mix of covers from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band and B.B. King.
“We call it ‘Stantonizing’ something when we take a cover tune and make it our own,” says Fowler. “Whatever we play, we’ll make it sound like us.”
The live show grew and they began headlining Tuey’s in Stony Brook and Renaissance in Wantagh.
“When they were on the stage, it was like there was a hurricane going on,” says Mike Guido, 71, of East Northport. “The band had excellent three-part harmony vocals, which is really different. Not many bands can accomplish that.”
By 1980, the band opened for the Marshall Tucker Band at Nassau Coliseum. Their song, “Love on a Shelf” got airplay on local radio stations WBAB and WLIR. However, they never landed a recording contract and ended up parting ways in the early ‘80s.
“Getting a record contract involves a lot of luck and the right timing,” says Luby, 75, of Islip Terrace. “For us, it came down to bad timing and bad luck.”
Nearly two decades later at Fowler’s 50th birthday party, the band began talking about playing again.
“At first we looked at each other crossed-eyed, like, ‘Are you crazy?’ Two weeks later, we were on stage,” says Luby. “It almost felt automatic. After a couple of rehearsals, it all came back."
Today, the Stanton Anderson Band continues to perform on Long Island and the tristate area.
“We decided to keep going,” says Fowler. “There's no pretension about us. We simply plug in and go to work playing good solid music.”
JOHN ENTWISTLE’S LI CONNECTION
Back in the late ‘80s when The Who were temporarily retired, bassist John Entwistle made some friends from Long Island. In 1987 Rat Race Choir was introduced to the Ox at a National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show.
“At the time The Who wasn’t touring and John was just itching to play. When we asked if he wanted to jam, John said, ‘Anytime mate!’,” recalls Rat Race Choir drummer Steve Luongo, 70. “We all knew The Who catalog like the back of our hand. John said, ‘What are we going to play?’ I said, ‘How about some Who songs?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know any.’ I said, ‘We’ll teach them to you!’ ”
Rat Race Choir ended up playing a set at the Kramer Jam at the Vic Theatre in Chicago during June 1987 and then they took their show on the road.
“We went down to South Carolina, upstate NY and everywhere in between,” says Luongo. “That kind of cemented it for John and I as a rhythm section.”
By 1988, Luongo was asked to join Entwistle’s solo band.
“John and I became fast friends because we have a similar sense of humor,” says Luongo. “Working with him was an absolute dream. The guy was such a good player and we had a lot of fun.”
This past fall, Luongo released an album compiling his work with the late Entwistle including unreleased tracks, demos and live recordings called, “Rarities Oxhumed.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ