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Teen girls, 2 pros revive doo-wop, R&B

The TeenSations — though they’re not all teens

The TeenSations — though they’re not all teens yet — from left, Julie Hart, 16; Kendra Lee Canavan, 13; Kennedy Campbell, 11; Erica Johnson, 12; and Tedi McLendon, 14. (May 11, 2013) Credit: Heather Walsh

It was a "cast call" notice on the website DebsWeb that launched a teen singing group whose future takes its cue from the past.

Bill White, a professional magician and booking agent, and Chuck Arcuri, a singer, former band leader and choral director, had known each other only in passing before an event they attended three years ago. They had chatted about the state of current pop music culture as they saw it and realized that they shared a similar nostalgia for the doo-wop and R&B music of their teen years, hits like the Platters' "Twilight Time," "This I Swear" by the Skyliners, and the still-popular "Stand By Me," by Ben E. King.

They decided to form First Time Around Productions Inc. to revive the genre.

"The few groups that still sing those tunes are aging, and the music is fading away," said Arcuri, who lives in Bethpage. "We thought it was worth a shot at bringing it back."

But with a twist: To breathe fresh life into their favorite music, they wanted minors with major talent. The partners were looking for five budding divas who radiated enthusiasm and who had dreams, ambition and parents to match.

After what White, a resident of Seaford, said were "a lot of failed attempts to recruit young singers who were enrolled in school music programs," he and Arcuri posted a listing on DebsWebJunior.

"That's how TeenSations got started," White said. "The listing finally brought results."

TeenSations' members are Kennedy Campbell, 11, of Wheatley Heights; Kendra Lee Canavan, 13, of Great River; Julie Hart, 16, of Roslyn Heights; Erica Johnson, 12, of Bohemia, and Tedi McLendon, 14, of Ronkonkoma. Each girl performed in school or church groups before joining the group.

"I'm so excited about this opportunity," said Hart, who has already racked up an impressive resumé of professional gigs. "We're working so well together I may choose a local college next year in order to stay with the group."

Despite the group's mission, doo-wop isn't the only offering on the music menu.

"We also sing some contemporary music like original rock, and that's what will attract the younger listeners," Canavan said. "But I like doo-wop," she added. "It has a lot of harmony, and it's beginning to grow on me."

From the beginning, Arcuri, the group's music coordinator, said he and White, TeenSations' business manager, made sure everyone understood that the commitment to the group was taken seriously by all concerned. Arcuri also stressed that "school comes first and that they had to maintain their grades, that we would consult with their parents on this. We told them that they must come on time for rehearsals, that parents would bring them and were welcome to remain as chaperones."

The girls, each of whom carries a recorder and practices at home, have taken the charge seriously.

"I had to give up some things, like soccer and a play I could have been in, and I don't have time to play my trumpet much lately, but I just love to sing," said McLendon.

Campbell, one of the two TeenSations who has yet to enter teenhood, even shows up early to rehearsals.

"I like to come a little early so that I can hang out with the others for a while," she said.

That's music to her mother's ears.

"Kennedy is a little shy except in the church choir, where she's a real belter-outer, but this experience is helping her to be more outgoing," said Teresa Campbell.

Though the group is enjoying its gig and each other's company, White and Arcuri concede that putting together an ensemble of young, talented singers was harder than it sounds.

"It was tricky," said White. "It took months finding five kids with the right sound, the right look, the firm commitment and -- very important -- the right parents. We spelled out our mission, goal, methods and rules. No money was exchanged; Chuck and I would foot the bills for out-of-pocket incidentals like business cards and recording studio rentals for cutting demo CDs. The girls would go through a period of training led by Chuck in his home studio learning to sing in an unfamiliar retro style, develop team loyalty and a lasting work ethic."

The parents didn't just sit on the sidelines listening to sweet music. Teresa Campbell volunteered to coach the girls with some simple dance steps, because, she said, "moving with the music adds such an attractive layer to a performance."

With the help of Dina Hart, Julie's mom, the girls bought their own matching outfits for about $100 each. Hart purchased huge assortments of styles and sizes of pants, shoes and sequined jackets for the girls to choose from, arranging with stores like J. C. Penney to return the rejects.

"Lugging around all those bags and keeping everything sorted out was a challenge, but I love to shop, and it was a lot of fun," she said. "And this was not a job for the guys."

While the girls hone their craft, they appear onstage at no charge at events just for the exposure and to get accustomed to working in professional venues. They have sung for Mickey B's WGBB radio show and his Solid Gold Dance in Bellmore. In February, TeenSations was the only all-girl group to sing at the Patchogue Theater's Winter Spectacular, for which they were paid, and they are scheduled to sing at Cruisin' for a Cure, a prostate cancer fundraiser, in September. There have been several off-Island appearances as well.

White, who handles the bookings, said paid gigs are split evenly between the group, him and Arcuri, and that they all signed a 30-month contract.

"My partner and I had been trying for three years to put together a professional singing group of youngsters that we could train to sing with a band or a cappella, traditional rhythm and blues and rock and roll the way it was done in the '50s and '60s," Arcuri said.

"We wanted to revive a dying genre, to bring back the sweet and melodic sounds that we grew up with."

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