The Illusion, the five-man psychedelic rock band from West Hempstead broke up more than 50 years ago. But now, the band, which was together from 1965-71, is getting long overdue recognition: The quintet will be inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame on Oct. 7.
“We are so excited because it’s been so long and finally we are going to get recognized,” says drummer and co-founder Mike Ricciardella, 75, of Lindenhurst. “To be honest, I was flabbergasted. Immediately, I called up all the guys excited to tell them. This will be our first time playing together as The Illusion in over 50 years.”
Unfortunately, guitarist Mike Maniscalco died last year and lead singer John Vinci is currently recuperating from surgery, so the remaining original members — bassist Chuck Alder, 80, of West Hempstead, guitarist Rich Cerniglia, 75, originally from Franklin Square, and Ricciardella — will carry on at the event.
In the mid-1960s, Ricciardella and Vinci originally had a band called the 5 Illusions but were disappointed in the other members’ contributions and let them go.
THE ILLUSION LIMEHOF INDUCTION & CONCERT
WHEN/WHERE 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 7; The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame Museum; 97 Main Street, Stony Brook
INFO 631-689-5888, limusichalloffame.org
ADMISSION Sold out, but check for last minute availability.
“The other three weren’t so committed,” says Ricciardella. “We needed to get a group that was going to eat, sleep and drink music every day. When we found Chuck, Mike and Rich, it really completed the band.”
Once the duo met Cerniglia, Maniscalco and Alder, they dropped the “5” and went from plural to singular in the band's name.
“We all knew our union was special,” says Cerniglia. “It takes different personalities to make a band work. We were quite a combination but together we were a force.”
BUILDING A FOLLOWING
The band’s sound was heavy but also had commercial appeal because of its blend of genres.
“Our music was hard with harmonies,” says Cerniglia. “It was psychedelic but also on the bluesy side.”
In order to enhance their presence, The Illusion adopted its own look with poofed-up hairstyles plus custom stage clothes designed by Vinci and handmade by a seamstress in Jamaica, Queens, utilizing material typically used for curtains.
“We wanted to look beautiful on stage. It worked for us because we had a large female following,” says Ricciardella. “We’d go to shoe stores and buy old lady shoes with the wide heels. Johnny would go in the store saying, ‘I want to buy a pair of shoes for my grandmother. She wears a size 10 1/2. By the way, can I try them on?’ ”
Alder adds, “We dressed like Prince while he was still in diapers. Our suit sleeves had a 45 degree angle where the cuff meets the wrist so you could see the fancy cuff links.”
LIVE SHOW BUZZ
Once the sound and look were in place, The Illusion needed to put those tools to use on stage. The band was determined to establish a memorable live show.
“It was a trip. Every performance was big, loud and colorful,” says Cerniglia. “The stage was always fully decorated and we’d change it up all the time so it was never stale. We were always looking for something new.”
Ricciardella adds, “Everyone in the band was very visual. We didn’t just stand up there and play our instruments, we put on a show that would leave people mesmerized. Once we went into the woods and cut down all these branches. We then used them to turn the stage into a forest. Everybody thought we were nuts!”
The band began drawing big crowds packing Long Island venues like The Action House in Island Park and Leone's in Long Beach (click below to watch a performance at that club).
Ricciardella remembers his experience opening for the Vagrants, featuring guitarist Leslie West, one night at My Father’s Place in Roslyn.
“The curtain opened and this mob of people ran up to the stage to get close to us,” says Ricciardella. “It gave me a chill that ran through my body.”
In Manhattan, they played clubs like Ungano’s and Steve Paul’s The Scene.
“It was very exciting,” says Alder. “The people in the crowd were James Brown, Rick Derringer, Andy Warhol, Tiny Tim, Lou Reed and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.”
Mitch Ryder took the band on tour as his opening act in 1967 and produced their first single, “My Party.” Then songwriter-producer Jeff Barry, who has penned hits like “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies and “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals, signed the band to his label, Steed Records. Their 1969 self-titled debut spawned a Top 40 hit on the Billboard chart with "Did You See Her Eyes," which Barry wrote.
“It wasn’t the type of music we wanted to present and that’s where a big problem arose,” says Alder.
Cerniglia adds, “Jeff was into bubble gum music. It wasn’t the perfect match but the song became a hit.”
The next album, “Together (As a Way of Life),” which was recorded at Ultrasonic Studios in Hempstead, came out later in 1969 but was rushed.
“They gave us three days to write and record the second album, which was frustrating,” says Cerniglia. “It was too quick.”
Alder adds, “The record company executives were so greedy. They just wanted more product. That’s not artistry, but it was the nature of the business.”
However, the band was scoring on stage opening for big acts like the Allman Brothers Band, Chicago, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After and Jimi Hendrix.
“We got two encores playing in front of Hendrix at the Boston Garden in 1970. It was insane!” says Alder. “That was the highlight of my life.”
Unfortunately, the third album, “If It’s So” (1970), didn’t catch on. A year earlier, a big misstep was made by manager Mark Alan, who passed on the opportunity for the band to play the Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969.
“Management put us in The Action House that weekend instead because we made great money there,” says Alder. “Not playing Woodstock was a major mistake. That would have made the band. It was very disappointing to say the least.”
The band ultimately broke up in 1971. Cerniglia and Alder wanted to move in a jazz direction and Ricciardella started playing with the Alessi brothers in Barnaby Bye.
“It was horrible. Johnny and I were devastated,” says Ricciardella. “We were on the verge of doing something.”
Cerniglia concludes, “We weren’t finding the success we wanted. Plus, there were differences of opinion musically. Unfortunately, we didn’t get where we wanted to go.”
AFTER THE ILLUSION
Four of the five members of The Illusion reunited in the late ‘70s to form a new pop rock group called Network. The band was signed to Epic Records by Tommy Mottola, who also served as the group’s manager.
“John Vinci, Rich Cerniglia, Mike Maniscalco and myself came together once again, this time with Howard Davidson on bass, Jean Paul Gaspar on percussion and George Bitzer on keyboards,” says Illusion drummer and co-founder Mike Ricciardella.
The self-titled debut album was released in 1977 and featured the single, “Save Me, Save Me,” which was co-written and produced by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. The song was later covered by Frankie Valli on his 1978 album, “Frankie Valli … Is the Word” and Dusty Springfield on her 1979 album, “Living Without Your Love.”
The second album, “Nightwork,” was released in 1978, however the lineup changed. Vinci was replaced on vocals with new member B.G. Gibson, but the group wasn’t as successful.
After Network broke up, Cerniglia and Ricciardella formed the hard rock band Aviator with lead vocalist/guitarist Ernie White and bassist Steve Vitale. The group only released one self-titled record in 1986 on RCA Records.
“Aviator was the best studio effort in our career,” says Cerniglia. “At the time our manager Tommy Mottola was also managing Hall & Oates, who was on RCA which is where he put us. But, then he pulled Hall & Oates from RCA to go with Clive Davis at Arista and all our power disappeared. RCA wasn’t happy about Tommy leaving with Hall & Oates therefore Aviator just went nowhere. The record company let our album die.”
— DAVID J. CRIBLEZ