STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
Back in the 70’s, Johnny’s Dance Band enjoyed a reputation as a uniquely entertaining regional act, offering a variety of genres including rock ‘n roll, ska, hard rock, calypso, swing, bossa nova, rhythm & blues, jug band, cha-cha, jazz, folk, country, traditional blues, ballads and simple love songs. The Band’s alluring live act made them a fan favorite from Boston to Washington, D.C.
Headlining hundreds of concerts and opening shows for the likes of Patti Smith, The J. Geils Band, Bonnie Raitt, Whole Oats (later Hall & Oates), The Youngbloods and Procol Harum, Johnny’s Dance Band left an indelible mark upon music. The Band performed locally at Grendel’s Lair, The Philadelphia Folk Festival, The Valley Forge Music Fair, The Main Point and The Tower Theater. They were the only unrecorded act to ever play the 19,000-seat Philly Spectrum, and they entertained an audience of 25,000 at the first concert ever held at the Penn’s Landing waterfront.
Formed in 1969, Johnny’s Dance Band, today features founding member Tony Juliano (guitar, harmonica, keyboards, congas), Courtney Colletti (lead acoustic and electric guitars, flute, bass, dialects), Bobby Lenti (lead guitar, keyboards.), Su Teears (keyboard, guitar, percussion), Steve Delaney (drums, guitar, bass) and Joey Stout (bass and keyboards).
In their early years, the Band feverishly worked the college and club circuit. The support and exposure from Philadelphia’s WMMR 93.3 FM radio and that station’s legendary disc jockey Ed Sciaky earned Johnny’s Dance Band praise from listeners as “The Best Local Band.” From 1975 through 1979 the group became the biggest local concert draw in the tri-state area.
“We came up with this term many years ago: “Rock and Roll Vaudeville,” says Juliano, speaking on the phone from his home in West Chester. “To us what that simply means is this: in addition to just playing songs, whenever it seems appropriate, we do more than just play the songs. We portray characters within the songs in various ways either with jokes, stories and skits or sometimes with costume and sometimes with caricature ethnicity. (We employ) lots and lots of satire, although some of the music is just plain straight forward good music.”
The Band achieved iconic success at New Hope, Pennsylvania’s John’s Place (later John & Peter’s) after its opening in 1973. The group’s numerous appearances there led fans to line up around the block, eager to fill the 125-seat venue, putting both the band and John’s Place on the map.
Rejected by numerous record labels, Johnny’s Dance Band eventually signed with Windsong Records (a subsidiary of RCA) in 1976 and released a self-titled debut album. Joining a stable of artists that included Kenny Rogers, David Bowie, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Don McLean, Harry Nilsson, The Guess Who, the Band appeared to have gotten the break that they had worked so hard to secure.
“Even though we signed with RCA, they didn’t understand us,” recalls Juliano. “They didn’t know what to do with us, and they strived to narrow the focus. They tried to make us be same, same, same all the time. So, when we started putting out records, it was the result of that pressure from the Company. The records didn’t reflect what the band was really at all. It was a compromise of what the band wanted to be and what the record company wanted us to be and in compromising we lost the idea. So, it was doomed.”
“I think there are some obvious reasons and I think the people that were following us around at the time, especially in the media, would probably agree with what I’m about to say,” adds Juliano. “One of the reasons was the band was far too eclectic for it’s own good. We had no focus. Everybody in the band took a turn in the spotlight, which was part of the reason we refer to it as rock and roll vaudeville. From one song to the next, not only would there be a different lead singer or a different focused individual, but there would also be a different style to each song covered in maybe a dozen different genres throughout the course of the show. When a major record or management company wants to promote an act, they want it to be very narrow in focus. They want the act to always appear the same way, to always sound the same way and to always focus on an idea. We resisted that. We didn’t like that. We had all done that and found that to be rather boring. So we relished the idea of being that eclectic. But, at the same time, it hurt. We left the label in 1981.”
“We had stopped doing anything at all for the better part of 20 years, the 80’s and 90’s,” recalls Juliano. “When we got to 1999, we decided to have a 30th anniversary concert at John and Peter’s in New Hope with some of the original members. That was so successful that we kept it up for a year and then that stopped. Then, every once in a while we would find a reason to do another reunion or anniversary. We decided recently to only perform a few times a year because we all have a lot of irons in the fire. We just don’t have a lot of time. Also, if we do it less frequently each show is more special and has a good healthy turnout.”
“Being a part of Johnny’s Dance Band was the single greatest creative success and creative achievement of our careers, despite anything else that we’ve done,” says Juliano. “The reason why we say that is because we reached a lot of people. We weren’t a national success, but we were what they used to call a regional success. I’ve always tried, as much as possible, to maintain the original concept. That’s my number one priority — to be true to the original concept.”