Up-staged or partners?
Legendary 1960s bubble-gum pop songwriter Tommy Roe took a career full of stories with him when he appeared at BB King’s earlier this year.
But so did his musical director/guitarist/business manager Rick Levy. Levy has kept his own career going since the ‘60s, as manager and musician. His clients over the years, as well as Roe, included fellow rock ‘n’ rollers Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Barbara Lewis, Dennis Yost of the Classics IV, the original Box Tops with the late Alex Chilton, and – for 35 years – Levy’s fellow Allentown, Pa. native Jay Proctor of Jay & The Techniques fame.
In Allentown, Levy attended the University of Pennsylvania and now lives in St. Augustine, Fla., and formed his first band, The Limits. “It was one of the early garage bands,” said Rick, talking about the British Invasion-influenced group formed in 1964. “We used to play (Tommy Roe’s breakthrough hit) Sheila, and Herman’s Hermits’ Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.”
Speaking of whom, Levy served with Herman’s Hermits as Peter Noone’s lead guitarist/bandleader from 2000-2002. In 1969, he and late Limits’ bassist Beau Jones formed another band, Wax, with keyboardist Rob Hyman (later in The Hooters and co-writer with Cyndi Lauper of “Time After Time”), drummer Rick Chertoff, who produced both The Hooters and Lauper, and lead singer David Kagan.
“It was an amazing band, and was managed by John Kalodner, who became one of the biggest record company A&R reps in history,” says Levy. “We got signed to an Atlantic imprint label that wanted a progressive rock band – which we were – and got a $50,000 advance and started recording at the Record Plant in New York.
“I had just turned 20, and The Who were tracking songs for ‘Who’s Next’ in Studio A, and John Lennon was in another studio – and three weeks into our session the IRS shut down the label and we never finished the album!”
Wax broke up in 1971, shortly after the band did record a live studio session. This tape was recently rediscovered and restored and released in 2010 as Wax Melted – a memorial to Jones, who died of brain cancer that year. The disc was hailed in Rolling Stone among the year’s best “Under-the-Radar” albums.
After the demise of Wax, Levy started Luxury Records and resurrected The Limits. He recorded and marketed an album that he also licensed to France and England, thereby learning the mechanics of the music business.
But in the mid-80s, Levy shifted gears. A single dad, he was teaching a general fifth- and sixth-grade school curriculum when he reconnected with Proctor, who wanted “to get back into the music business game and play out again,” Levy recalls.
“He’d put Allentown on the map, and now it was the first real wave of the ‘60s revival. I came to a rehearsal of Jay and his original partner Lucky Lloyd, and I went, ‘Holy ****! This is what Otis Redding would have been!’ He’s a great, great soul singer – except his band sucked. “So I put a band together in 1985 and kept it going until 2008 when the economy tanked for everyone who wasn’t an iconic figure.”
Peter Noone called Levy in 1999, seeking a “more authentic, jangly pop band”—which Levy led for the next three years.
“I was managing and playing, and one thing led to another,” he said. His legendary clientele included the Box Tops, whose lead singer Alex Chilton went on to hugely influential fame in alt-rock band Big Star, but also continued to front the Box Tops, off and on, up until a year before his death in 2010.
“I was always friends with Tommy. After he retired, some five years ago, I’d nudge him every few months about going out again and, finally, last year, he said if we were to do it, it couldn’t be just an oldies show or package tour, but ‘An Evening With Tommy Roe’ type of show – electric and acoustic, with A-sides and B-sides, and stuff from his latest album. If it were just an oldies act, it couldn’t play B B King’s.”
Meanwhile, Levy plied his background in education to produce seven DVDs covering the history of music styles – including rock, jazz, Caribbean and Latin. He’s also involved with the David Lynch Foundation in providing instruction in Transcendental Meditation to at-risk soldiers.
Levy continues to perform select dates with the surviving Limits, and leads local St. Augustine R&B band the Falling Bones, who perform ‘60s music on about 80 nights a year. If that’s not enough, he returned a couple of years ago to pottery, which he dabbled in during high school. He now sells his wheel-thrown wares via his website.
“And I’m working on an auto-biography, basically about finding passion and how to stay with it your whole life,” says Levy.
Music, he maintains, has become “just a piece of information for young kids: It’s not their life anymore.” “We grew up when the mold was made. At the end of the day, I feel honoured and humbled doing what I do – after having had great years and crap years. Yes, I’m the perennial bridesmaid – not the bride. But it’s a role I honour and love – keeping the legends working and honouring the music.”
“I’m the kid in the candy store!” he laughed.