It’s hard for Stan Zizka to imagine being in any profession other than show business. All duded up in a black tuxedo and satiny red shirt, matching tie and pocket square, the Patchogue-based performer looks tailor-made for the stage. The once jet-black hair is now silver, and he looks as dashing as he did more than 50 years ago when he and the Del Satins sang backup on some of Dion’s biggest hits.
“Everyone remembers Dion and the Belmonts,” says Zizka, 75, “but we had a bunch of hits with Dion — ‘The Wanderer,’ ‘Runaround Sue,’ ‘Donna the Prima Donna.’ ”
After Dion parted company with the Belmonts in 1960, he brought on Zizka’s group as his backup singers, recording as a solo artist and keeping the Del Satins in the background, literally.
“At the time we were OK with that because we wanted our own identity,” Zizka says about the group’s desire to eventually record its brand of blue-eyed soul. “We didn’t want to be Dion and the Del Satins. It was kind of a mutual agreement because Dion didn’t want to have another ‘Dion and the Belmonts’ or Dion and whatever. Now we look back on it and say it was kind of a mistake.”
But often, time has a way of correcting mistakes. After years of being dormant, Zizka’s group is touring again. The reincarnated Del Satins — which includes original member Tom Ferrara and newcomers Charlie Aiello, Edie Van Buren and Emilio — will be the star attraction at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts today at 3 p.m. In late July, they’ll perform at the Summer Jamboree music festival in Senigallia, Italy. They’ll headline a free show at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow on July 7. In the past two years, they opened for Jay Leno when he played the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, and have recorded three albums since 2011.
Zizka got the idea to revive the Del Satins six years ago. He contacted original members, brothers Tom and Fred Ferrara. Les Cauchi came back also, and the group picked up where they left off, Zizka says. “It was like we never stopped. I said, ‘Hey remember this one,’ and we started singing the song. Everybody remembered every part, every word,” he says.
The group’s current members signed on following the death of Fred Ferrara in 2011, and Cauchi’s move to North Carolina two years ago. The newest member, Emilio, who goes by one name, joined last year.
“Back in the early ’60s when I was with the Dovers, we had the same manager,” says Emilio, 70, of Mount Sinai. “Singing with them I felt like we connected right away. I’m a lead singer to begin with, so I had to start doing backup, but it’s been great.”
Zizka is especially excited about playing Italy as well as a gig in Barcelona, Spain, set for next year. “The doo-wop scene in Europe is like it was in 1958 and ’59,” Zizka says. For Italy’s Summer Jamboree, people dress in poodle skirts and other ’50s fashions, autos from the era are on display and there’s lot of dancing in the streets. The Del Satins will be performing all of the songs they recorded with Dion and on their own.
“My group today is better than it was when it first started,” Zizka says proudly.
STANDIN’ ON THE CORNER
As a kid in uptown Manhattan, Zizka had two very different inspirations on his musical journey. One was the opera (“I used to sing ‘Pagliacci’ in the bathtub,” he says) and the other was his grandmother.
“She made me dress up in white for Easter Sunday — white pants, white shoes, white socks, even a hat — and I had a guitar,” he says. “I was 8 or 9 and sat on the steps of my building, and I would sing to the girls on the street. I knew nothing about playing the guitar. There was no chords; I was just making noise and I was singing.”
By the time he reached his teens, Zizka was still doing vocals. At 15 he and some friends formed a group and sang on street corners, hoping to get noticed. They were: “People would yell and throw water,” he says.
A neighbor found them a rehearsal room, which turned out to be fateful for Zizka. One night after a practice session, Zizka heard another group harmonizing in the next room. He dropped in and was invited to sing for them. They liked what they heard and asked Zizka to join the group. They named themselves the Del Satins — a hybrid of the Del Vikings and the Five Satins, two successful doo-wop quintets.
The group landed a manager who arranged an audition for them with Dion, who was then with Laurie Records, shortly after his split with the Belmonts.
“They were off-the-charts rough and ready — the group sound was powerful and amazing,” says Dion, 77, who now lives in Boca Raton, Florida. “I’m listening to them doing an epic rendition of ‘Earth Angel,’ not only on the song but I’m listening to their unique approach to this great song. They add a note and a chord here or there that should be on the original recording. Why didn’t the Penguins [who performed the 1954 hit] think of that? You can tell they approach the songs from the inside, not just doing a copy.”
Dion says he decided, “These are the guys I need to back me on ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Runaround Sue.’ Their voices are perfection, like New York City raw and rough silk.”
Over the next five years, they recorded hit after hit with Dion and also made about 30 recordings of their own songs, of which only “Teardrops Follow Me” gained traction. In 1963, the Del Satins began appearing regularly on “The Clay Cole Show,” a sort of New York City-based version of “American Bandstand” on WPIX/11.
The group also fielded an offer to record for producer Phil Spector, which they turned down to stay with Dion when he moved to Columbia Records. After an appearance at the Brooklyn Fox theater on a bill with The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and more Motown acts, Robinson approached them about recording for the prestigious label, but Zizka says the Del Satins’ manager at the time wouldn’t sell the group’s contract.
Not long afterward, Zizka left the group and the Del Satins announced their farewell on “The Clay Cole Show” in 1965. A few replacements for Zizka joined the group, but none clicked until Johnny Maestro. Ultimately, the Del Satins evolved into Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge and had the smash hit “The Worst That Could Happen.”
John Menechino, the Del Satins’ U.S. manager (European manager Stephanie Göebel arranged the Italy date), who lives in Wantagh, says, “The Del Satins are one of the most underrated groups.” Back when doo-wop ruled the pop music world, “They never caught the break. It’s incredible how all these years nobody said, ‘Hey, these guys are great. Let’s do something with them.’ ”
LIFE AS A SOLO
After leaving the Del Satins, Zizka performed with other groups, and started his own band called Stan Sommers and the Unusuals. More successful is his group called Tangerine, which plays a blend of disco and Top 40 at clubs and restaurants on Long Island. Del Satins members Van Buren and Aiello are also members of Tangerine.
Zizka, who is divorced, was married for 39 years and has a daughter, Nicole, who works as a speech pathologist in Clermont, Florida.
He’s proud of being sober for seven years, after battling a drinking problem that went back to his days with Dion. “I was one of those guys who would fall down and hit his head on the window,” Zizka says. “I’d break a door and not remember the next day.”
At the time, Zizka says, he was unaware he had a problem. In the ’60s, he says, drinking and smoking pot onstage were not only the norm for performers, but encouraged. “The owners of the club would give it to you. They’d say have a couple of drinks,” he says. “And being in the business, you never had to pay for anything. It was there. That was a benefit that I thought was a great thing. I thought, ‘I can’t wait to get to the gig tonight because I can get whacked-out.’”
Over the years, the drinking escalated and it wasn’t until seven years ago that he finally hit rock bottom. “He was playing at this club, and he was so smashed, he just fell down and was out of it,” Menechino says. “He went home, and after that night, he never drank again.”
Zizka says he woke up the next day and said, “I’m not thirsty,” and hasn’t touched alcohol since. Now he’s happy that his dreams for the Del Satins are coming true, nearly 60 years later.
“The whole idea of being in show business has absolutely nothing to do with money. It never did,” he says. “If I play for you for $10,000 or nothing, it’s the same thing. It’s the audience that counts. The most important thing in this business for me is recognition. You want to be the best you can be and have people appreciate it and say, ‘I really enjoyed that.’ That, to me, is the reward.”
WHAT Stan Zizka’s Del Satins perform their Dion hits and their own songs. Also on the bill are Vito Picone & the Elegants and the doo-wop a cappella group The Tribunes.
WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m. April 30, Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St.
INFO $20-$40; 631-207-1313, patchoguetheatre.org