by David Bash and Ben McLane, Esq.
Most pop fans know that Ron Dante was the lead singer on the Archies records, as well as for several lesser known groups. This was hardly common knowledge during the Archie's heyday, for when the world was grooving to "Sugar Sugar" back in 1969, virtually nobody outside of the music business was aware that it was Ron singing lead. The public was content to think of the Archies as merely a cartoon, a result which was brilliantlY orchestrated by Don Kirshner, head of the Archie's label which bore his name Kirshner made his mark in the business by forging a firm imprint on the pulse of American youth, and he knew that the animated veneer would have great appeal, so he asked Ron to promise him that he would remain anonymous as long as the Archie's cartoon and recording output continued. One would think that it must have been excruciating for Ron to keep quiet, but as you'll see this was not the case. This very likable, easygoing gentleman took it in stride, and as you get to know him you'll see why.
We met Ron Dante at his home in Beverly Hills, and he told us his story. Many people think it started and ended with the Archies, but as you'll see Ron's career has spanned decades and genres, and his pipes have graced more pop records than even he remembers.
He was born Carmine Granito 50 years ago in Manhattan, and took up music at a very young age. By the age of 13 he had a band, The Persuaders, and at that point he decided that his name was too ethnic. "The leader of my group, the lead guitar player, was named Ronnie. He was the greatest guitar player so I took his name. Dante was something I saw in a movie and I thought it was catchy." Soon the Persuaders broke up and Ron set out to make his mark in the business. He set his sights on the Brill Building, which housed some of the biggest managers, producers, and publishers in the business. "At 15 I went to the demo studios across from the Brill Building and recorded. Then I would take my demo and guitar and walk over. I'd go to the top floor and work down, and hit every publisher, record company owner, and manager and say 'I'd like to sing for you'...and they'd throw me out. But I persevered and finally got a manager (former child actor Bobby Breed who also managed Dick Shawn, the comic who collapsed and died during one of his performances). I was with him for six months, but I still went around to music publishers. One thing led to another, and I met Don Kirshner."
Kirshner took a listen to Ron's youthful, sweet voice and decided to hire him as a demo singer. At this point (1964) Kirshner was the biggest music publisher in the world, already having monster hits with Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, and Connie Francis. Ron would go to someone like Connie Francis, sing a demo for her live, and then she'd record her version. Around this time, Ron signed his first record deal with Musicor, cutting songs under the name Ronnie Dante like "Don't Stand Up In A Canoe", and "In The Rain", which didn't make a dent in the charts (funny thing-my copy of "In The Rain" is a promotional disc which bears a sticker that says "Hal Fein-#1 Plug." I guess old Hal was a few years too early, but obviously prescient in some way). He also did a guest lead vocal in a group on Roulette records known as the Detergents, who did a "Leader Of The Pack" parody called "Leader Of The Laundromat. " This record peaked at #19 on the Billboard charts in early 1965, and Ron's anonymous lead vocal on the track set a precedent for many to come. Meanwhile, Ron was still "doing demos for everyone, and some came to the attention of Neil Levinson, who had written a couple of hits at the time. He said to me 'I'll get you a deal', so we ended up working together and he got me a deal on Columbia, which was a great kick."
Although none of his records on Columbia hit the charts, Ron looks back on this period with fondness and an appreciation for the mechanics of the record business. "Back then, you'd put out singles, and whatever stuck to the wall, whatever DJ's happened to like, got played. Also, people put out singles left and right. If there was a hit, then they would do an album. I never could figure out singles, but thank God for them because it gives you an opportunity to not spend a lot of money and not do a lot of promotion but nevertheless test the market. At least this used to be done; nowadays, everybody has to have an album deal, but who knows-maybe someday somebody will start a label called singles (author cringes for not telling Ron about Bob Mould's label "S.O.L."-Singles Only Label!!!)."
By 1966, Ron is "singing for everybody", but it's graduated from demos to doing background vocals and some songwriting. "I'm doing backgrounds for the McCoys, Jay and the Americans, and I'm writing for Bobby Darin, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, James Darren, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney, so I'm getting to meet everybody I've ever idolized, and if I'm not writing for them I'm singing background for them" (An interesting aside is that Ron had sung backgrounds on Gene Pitney's monster hit "It Hurts To Be In Love", but they took his vocals off and replaced them with those of Toni Wine, who would later become the female voice on "Sugar Sugar".) Ron was constantly busy, making many contacts, and this diligence was about to payoff in a way that he never could have imagined...
"The Archies was Kirshner's idea, or somebody brought it to him. He had just left Screen Gems and started Calendar records, but no hits were coming out of there, and somebody brought the idea of doing a TV series on Saturday morning. They needed music and Jeff Barry was brought in by Kirshner to do the music. They auditioned singers and they auditioned me." Although Ron had only sporadic recent contact with Kirshner, Don had not forgotten that voice, so he had a clear track toward the position of Archies singer. "After auditioning for a couple of hours and effecting 2 or 3 different sounds...1 even imitated Donovan at one point, and that's the sound they liked." Ron was hired and Kirshner's concept was beginning to take shape, one that was very similar to a recent project that had yielded huge dividends: The Monkees. However, there were some differences. "The Monkees were real live people, the Archies was all behind the scenes" says Ron. "One thing about Don Kirshner, he liked to work with people he knew and really liked. He was a very loyal guy. That's why I worked with him."
The first Archies single was "Bang-Shang-A-Lang", released on Calendar in late 1968. It peaked at #22 on the Billboard charts in December, so you could hardly say that the project was an immediate success. After all, the Monkees had scored a #1 right out of the box with "Last Train To Clarksville". What's more, the next Archies single "Feelin' So Good (Skooby-Doo)" ascended to the "lofty" position of #53 in February of 1969. "Sugar, Sugar" was next, and it looked to be an even bigger flop, at leas initially. Then something magical happened in the summer of 69. "Both RCA (the parent label of Calendar) and Calendar gave up on it, but one promotion man got it on a big San Francisco AM station, and it broke. It became the #1 request record in San Francisco, and when they saw that, they spread it. It had already been out for 6 months! There's a lot of magic involved-people make the hits!"
Many things were happening by the fall of 1969. The TV show was garnering great ratings, and "Sugar Sugar" was the biggest record in the country. Of course, nobody knew who the golden throat behind the hit actually was, but this didn't seem to bother Ron. After all, a deal was a deal. "Don made no bones about it" says Ron. "He said 'This is complete anonymity. We're gonna do a TV show as long as it goes, we're gonna do albums as long as it goes. Is this okay with you? I said, 'fine'. "I was happy to have the gig. I was newly married and needed the income-it was a good deal. And it stayed on three years." "Sugar Sugar" wasn't all that was happening for Ron late in 1969. Its success snowballed into other things, including a gig as lead vocalist for a studio creation known as The Cuff Links, which were also supposed to be anonymous. "We were just gonna do a single ("Tracy", which went to #9 on Decca Records in the fall of 1969), but I said 'Listen, if it's a hit, I'll do another one and I'll do an album (which he did. The album spawned another hit, "When Julie Comes Around", a great song that deserved a much bigger chart peak than the #41 it attained in January of 1970). I had a big hit with "Sugar, Sugar" so...they were very upset when I wouldn't do a second album." It turned out that the Cuff Links did in fact release a second album, with a then unknown singer who would eventually achieve mega status in the early 80s. His name? Rupert Holmes.
With all of this going on for Ron, you would think his forced suppression would finally give way and he would finally reveal himself to the world. However, he had something else in mind. "Sugar, Sugar" and "Tracy" we're both in the top 10 at the same time, so my ego was beginning to pump up. But I did know that if I could get a solo album deal out of this and a big push from the record company (which had changed its name to Kirshner) I would be happy. That's what I asked Kirshner for, along with Jeff Barry as producer. So I got that, the deal and an incredible push. They toured me all over the country. I did radio, press, TV (Dick Clark). I could say who I was on my own." The ironic thing was that after thinking about it, Ron decided that associating himself with "Sugar, Sugar" actually wouldn't be a good move toward creating his viability as an artist. Bubblegum was starting to become completely unhip, and Ron wanted to be viewed as a meaningful artist. In looking at it from the advantageous position of hindsight, it would appear that "Sugar, Sugar" transcended its genre's lack of cool. Wilson Pickett did a gritty, soulful version that hit the top 25 in the summer of 1970. Def Leppard even sampled the "pour a little sugar on me" line in one of their songs. Anyway, Ron's album, entitled "Ron Dante Brings You Up", was released in 1970, but it failed to make even a dent in the charts. Given his heavy promotional schedule, it's hard to see why. "I don't know what happened" Ron says. I can't put my finger on it. Something happened between Kirshner Records and RCA that was political. We thought they (RCA) weren't promoting it like they should, so Kirshner pulled distribution away from them, and that was it. Maybe the album didn't have it, I don't know." All told, there were 4 Archies albums, and "there isn't an Archies cut without me on it" says Ron proudly. After "Sugar Sugar", the Archies had two top 40 singles, "Jingle Jangle", which hit #10 in February 1970, and "Who's Your Baby?", which barely managed to crack the top 40 (#40, actually) a couple of months later. Although the Archies had a relatively short chart life, Ron says that their catalogue is still selling. Their albums are collectors items, particularly the last two, Sunshine and This Is Love, which you often see selling for $25 or so. There are several CD compilations around, issued in various countries, but they are either mastered from vinyl and/or unofficial releases. In fact, the only track on any CD which is mastered from tape is "Sugar, Sugar", which appears on several compilations. Ron isn't very comfortable speculating as to why the Archies material can't be officially released on CD, but he offers some guesses. "Maybe Don is trying to get the best price, or maybe he's sold the rights to someone else, I don't know."
After the Archies, Ron started doing more commercial voice-overs, and this led to the next significant venture in his musical career. He met a young songwriter who was in a little known band called Featherbed. His name was Barry Manilow, who at that stage was trying to ignite a fledgling jingle writing career. "He was doing some singing on commercials as well, so I got him to sing on one that I wrote ( for Tomboy, a drink from Coca Cola that Ron says "tasted like rust"). He sang it well, and a long standing bond was formed. "I told Barry "you're a good writer and you sing well. He said 'I'm working with a girl named Bette Midler. I don't know if she's gonna make it. Why don't you come listen to what I've done with her? I listened to her version of "Do You Wanna Dance" and I loved how he arranged it. Then he played me stuff he had sung and I said 'you really know how to sing'. I said 'we should make records. I'll produce.' So I took him in and we made some records. I paid $7,000 for 4 sides and we did "Could It Be Magic", "Sweetwater Jones", "I Am Your Child", and they all went on his first album. The album was Barry Manilow, and it was on Bell Records." Around this time, Ron was also recording singles on Bell, including "Midnight Show" and "Charmer" under his name, and "Don't Call It Love", under the moniker "Bo Cooper". The first one is a nice ballad and the next two are slices of bouncy pop that exemplified the free and easy style of the time. In 1974 the head of Bell records, Larry Utall, sold the company to Clive Davis. Davis had already made his name in the business, but greatly expanded his portfolio with this label, which eventually became Arista Records. In the meantime, Davis dropped everybody on Bell records except, you guessed it, Ron and Barry. "He even wanted to drop Barry but one of the A&R guys said 'please keep this guy, he's really good'. So he kept him and we did a brand new album (Manilow 2), and while we were doing it Davis said 'here's a new song, "Brandy". Why don't you guys do it'. Barry said 'I hate it', but we did it anyway and it sounded good. The night we did it, we knew we had something." That "something" was a remake of "Brandy" by a little known artist named Scott English (released on Janus Records). As you probably have guessed, this was not the top ten record named "Brandy" by the Looking Glass. Rather, it was a song that Barry Manilow changed the title of to "Mandy". It would reach number 1 in January of 1975, and sell millions of copies. However, that was for the future. Soon after the Manilow 2 sessions were done, Barry parted company with Ron, temporarily as it turned out. "Barry said to me 'I don't like the direction you're taking me. I'd like to do something different'. We parted amicably. Two months later the album comes out and the single of "Mandy" comes out. He calls me from the road and says 'when are we doing our next album? Come on, let's do the album, man this "Mandy" is #1!!!" Ron chuckles at this memory, the satisfied laugh of one who knew all along that Barry would be back. Even though Ron was having much success co-producing Barry Manilow's albums, he still had aspirations to be a big solo artist. "I was hoping that my work with Barry would springboard my solo career a little more, but it ended up being a full time job. One album a year, one tour a year and numerous TV shows. It took a lot more of my time than I wanted it to. I didn't really spend time writing my own stuff, but I still put out singles (besides the aforementioned singles, there was a record under the name Ronny and the Dirtriders, and a disco version of "Sugar, Sugar", which Manilow produced!!!!)."
All in all, Ron co-produced Manilow's first 8 albums, the last one released in 1980, entitled Barry. He marvels today at Barry's versatility "He's a total musician. In person, live, studio work, he canhandle himself. He wanted to be like Nelson Riddle." But then came the second breakup, and this one was permanent. "I told him 'don't break up. We have a wonderful thing going here. We're gaining steam, videos are coming around. We don't have to break up'. He said 'no, I want to work with Georgio Moroder'. I said 'you're out of your mind. The chemistry is perfect, with my pop background and your jazz background'. He said 'it's time to move on', but he could never get the same sound. I don't think there's a chance that I could work with him again. He's so resolved to doing it his own way. But anything could happen. We never had a bad word between us."
Near and after the end of his association with Manilow, Ron did record two albums, "Dante's Inferno", in 1979, which was a disco album, and then a new wave album in 1981, which a then unknown Paul Schaeffer arranged... "I gave him his first gig" Ron says proudly. He also got his hand into theater, producing 17 shows on Broadway, two of which won him Tony awards, Ain't Misbehavin' and Children Of A Lesser God. Ron tells us that Ain't Misbehavin' is presently playing in Texas. "The Pointer Sisters are doing it and it's selling out." Children of A Lesser God, as most of us know, became a hit movie. However, the 80s were a relatively quiet time for Ron. "Most of the 80s I took off. I burned out. I was doing so much. Then I got divorced and decided not to do anything for awhile. I needed to rest."
It looks like there could be a lot in store for Ron and for many old Archies fans in the 90s, along with a great potential for generating a new fan base. Recently, Ron signed a deal to produce the Archies again. "The Archies are going to be a recording group again. I convinced the comic book people during this publicity tour I've been doing for United Cerebral Palsy that the Archies are a viable group again, that people would respond to the sound if we do it 90s style, so we're gonna go ahead and do some Archies albums. The Archies, then The Archies featuring Betty And Veronica, and we may even do a Jughead album(!)" I tell Ron that I hear echoes of Ginger Baker doing a seventeen minute solo version of "Toad". Ron laughs and says of the Jughead album "it's gonna have a lot of drums, and it's gonna be mainly alternative. "As for the rest of the Archies, he says "I don't have the musicians in place, but as for the singers I need one more girl and I'll do Archie. I'll use my sound - it's a pleasant sound and it doesn't sound much different than it did years ago." At this stage, for Ron to put this plan into action, he has to form agreements with several entities. At present, his only deal is with the comic book company. "They've okayed the idea and I'd been after them for 5 years to give me the rights to the group cause I know what to do with it. I wanna do it as pop, maybe go for the preteen market, which is the market for the comic book. Mostly girls between 7 and 13. Over one million of them buy the comic every month." What about another TV show and movie? "Universal's very interested in it. They've optioned the rights for a TV series and a movie. We've been waiting for the script - it's been in development for quite awhile now, so it may not happen with Universal - they don't seem to be moving very quickly on it. I don't know what it is." Ron has a concept in mind as to how the characters would look, but "that's up to the creative development team. My personal thing is that they do it as a time capsule. They should do it as a 60s group so that they don't have to be hard edged or too hip. Maybe a back to the future kind of look. "The author's personal feeling is that what's old has become new again. At least as far as the male characters of the cartoon are concerned, the Archie and Reggie short cropped haircuts are popular again, and as for Jughead, as Ron Dante devotee JimJim of the Vandalias would say "Jughead has that slacker look down pat!"
It's obvious that Ron really wants this project to happen, for a number of reasons. He laments that today's cartoons aren't concerned with songs. "It's almost impossible to take time out for a song. They're too tough and too quick" he says with indignation, so he'd like to slow the pace down with his new Archies. He's gotten the go ahead from the comic company and major interest from Universal, but his big obstacle has been the record labels. He's been talking to many of them about picking up the Archies, but he's come up against an alternative brick wall. "I've been asking labels what they wanted and it seems like every label I know has gone alternative crazy. When they say alternative, I don't know what they're talking about. Are they talking about what is right now? Is Oasis alternative, is Alanis Morrisette? It's like they're excluding the future Elton John, the future Rod Stewart, the future Whitney Houston. They're all saying 'let's just go alternative'. I think it has a lot to do with economics. Alternative is very cheap music to make. But the Archies stuff will not be cheap. It's not gonna be too slick because the Archies were never slick. They were just a bunch of guys in the studio, the same session musicians over and over. Most of the good studio guys in those days played on the Archies records."
Late note: As of late July, Ron informs that the comic book company has put the Archies project on hold. That's a damn shame!Copyright 1996, Ben McLane
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