“Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)!” Spotlight on Dennis Tufano, Original Lead Singer of The Buckinghams
Dennis Tufano is the original lead singer of The Buckinghams and whose voice you hear on such great 1960's hits as “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Don’t You Care,” “Susan,” and The Buckinghams’ 1967 #1 chart-topping smash, “Kind of a Drag.”
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Tufano and asked him about his musical childhood, his rise to fame with The Buckinghams, his work as a solo artist/songwriter/actor, in addition to what he’s been up to these days.
Spotlight Central: You grew up in Chicago in a musical family where your dad sang and played violin, saxophone, and harmonica. Is it true you got to see your dad perform professionally when you were a child?
Dennis Tufano: Yes, one time — I think it was when he was going to retire from being a musician and get a regular job to support the family. I was about five years old when my mom took me to this little steakhouse where his quartet was playing and I got to see him up on stage. It was really a shock to me to see my dad in that environment, but I was really impressed, and from that point on I knew my dad was musical.
Spotlight Central: In addition to playing standards for you on his saxophone, your dad would play music in your home including recordings by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Connie Francis. As a kid, did you enjoy that kind of music?
Dennis Tufano: Oh, yeah. Growing up in the ’40s and the early ’50s, all of that music was on the pop charts; it wasn’t separated like it is now. So, basically, that’s what popular music was — Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and all those people — and my dad also had a couple of opera 78s with Caruso. So I just took everything that I heard coming in. My parents would put on records and I would sit there listening and I got the input; I got inspired.
Spotlight Central: We know your mom was a dancer but, we’re told, you started off in music playing the harmonica. How did that come about?
Dennis Tufano: I guess I was about 12 or 13, and you know when you’re that age and you’re staying at home and your parents go out and you make sure they’re gone and you go and check out their drawers? [Laughs] You look around to see what’s going on, wondering “What kind of people are these?”
Well, when I first opened up my dad’s top drawer, there was a harmonica sitting there, and that’s the thing that jumped out at me. It was a little Marine Band in a case and I was going, “Wow, look at that; it’s an instrument!” I picked it up and I tried to play it a little bit, but then I cleaned it off and put it back and went, “Oh my goodness!” because my dad might be home soon. Of course, as adults, we know where everything is supposed to be, but I didn’t put the harmonica back in the same spot.
Spotlight Central: So you got busted?
Dennis Tufano: Yeah, I got busted! My dad said, “Did you go into my drawer tonight?” and I was looking at him silently and wasn’t going to confess. Then he said, “Did you play my harmonica?” and I said, “Yes, I did.” He was holding the harmonica in his hand at the time and he gave it to me saying, “OK, it’s yours,” and that was kind of the start of that.
I mean, when I was six years old I had taken accordion lessons for a year, but at six I didn’t really pay that much attention to it so I kind of let it go — and, actually, I still have the accordion that I played back then.
Spotlight Central: Wow! And speaking of things you had back when you were a kid, we read that one of the first records you ever bought with your own money was “Wear My Ring” by Elvis Presley. What was it about that song that appealed to you?
Dennis Tufano: It just seemed accessible. One reason I heard it so much is because we used to go to this little lake in the summertime and, at the lake, they had a little shop — a little kiosk — where they sold drinks and hot dogs and stuff. They had a big loudspeaker on the top of the building and they used to play records while people were at the lake. They played a lot of different stuff, but they played a lot of Elvis records, and that’s one that really got me. I learned the words to it immediately and I was singing along with it every time we went there. So, yeah, that Elvis record was one of my first, and I listened to it over and over and over again at home.
Spotlight Central: Growing up, you started listening to music like The Everly Brothers, R&B, Motown, blues, and jazz. What would you say was your strongest musical influence?
Dennis Tufano: I think they all had the same sort of effect on me because I was always attracted to good harmony, lyrics, and melody. There was just something about all those genres back then that did that for me. Take the Everly Brothers — it’s from them that I learned how to sing. I learned about harmony by listening to their records. And, really, all the music from that period had an effect on me.
Nowadays, I don’t have the same kinds of choices, so I always go back to those influences, actually. My early days listening to music focused on Motown, R&B, good harmonies, and duets, and I’m still attracted to that kind of music as most of the CDs and things I have today are not new music.
Spotlight Central: The first musical group you were a part of was an a cappella group. Can you tell us about it?
Dennis Tufano: Yeah, we kind of threw that together around my last year of high school. It was four guys. We used to sing together at parties and stuff and we thought we sounded pretty good together. We used to get together twice a week and we would learn songs in one of the guys’ basements. Then, we would take our little song list to a dance and when the band came off the stage we would run up on the stage, grab their microphones, and do our a cappella stuff.
Spotlight Central: Was that group called The Darcels?
Dennis Tufano: Yes, The Darcels — and The Darcels was just a name like The Marcels. All the group names sounded alike, so it didn’t have any hip meaning at all; it just had a popular sound.
And that group is actually where I learned, most importantly, to listen. Because, you know, you’re just vocally naked there — there are no instruments playing behind you — and you have to really “close the gap”; you have to really make your vocal performance sound like a solid song. So I learned about harmony, and about listening, and about what’s important in a song, and that helped me a lot. It was really a good basic “101” course in music for me.
Spotlight Central: That said, after high school, you decided to become a graphic artist, didn’t you?
Dennis Tufano: Yeah, my last couple of years of high school I was kind of majoring in architectural drawing and I was really fascinated with architecture, so I was planning on becoming either an architect or something in the graphic arts world like that.
Spotlight Central: So how did you transition from becoming a graphic artist to becoming a professional musician?
Dennis Tufano: What happened was: we had this a cappella group, and then there were a couple of tries at putting some bands together before The Pulsations/Buckinghams thing happened.
I got an apprentice job at an art studio in downtown Chicago; they used to do catalog work, and newspaper ads, and things like that. For a year while I was still testing music, I was working at the art studio every day punching a clock. The second year there, I actually got promoted and became a novice graphic artist, but during that same year the band took off initially — I mean, we didn’t record anything yet, but that’s when we started working more and I started realizing that it was more fun to be yelled at by young girls than having my art director pummel me when I didn’t do something right on the drawings! Also, I felt that I was making about the same amount of money on the weekends so why should I go downtown all the time and do that? So, yeah, I kind of transitioned into the music.
Spotlight Central: And the group you mentioned was called The Pulsations. You guys were playing around Chicago, but then you won a Battle of the Bands contest and, as a result, were featured as the house band at WGN-TV on a variety show called All Time Hits. What kind of songs were you playing on the show at the time?
Dennis Tufano: We played whatever the top survey songs were, or anything pop or in the pop/rock world. So we would do things like “What’s New Pussycat.” Our band was the only live band there — everything else was prerecorded — and we would back up other singers who would sing songs like that. We would do a lot of Beatles songs and some Roy Orbison — whatever was popular that week; the producers would just tell us what they wanted to hear and then we would work up the songs and do them live.
It started out that we were to do the show for 12 weeks. This was 1965, of course, and it was pretty primitive as far as technology was concerned, but it worked out pretty well because WGN was a big station in the Midwest and it went out to about six states. That gave us our first marketing hit where people who watched the show said, “Wow, who’s that group?” so it was a really good place for us to launch.
Spotlight Central: While appearing on All Time Hits, however, you were asked to change your name from The Pulsations. Why?
Dennis Tufano: Well, as I said, this was 1965 and the British Invasion was happening, so they came to us and said, “Since you’re a local band, would you mind changing your name to sound more British, because of the British Invasion?” And we thought, “Well, we like The Beatles and we like all the British stuff going on,” and we figured it wouldn’t be a problem because we weren’t that popular yet with The Pulsations name out there — we were just a regional band — so we said, “OK, we’ll think about it.”
The next day we came back for rehearsals and a security guard — a young guy named John — came up to us and said, “I heard what they asked you to do. Would you like to look at a list of names I thought you might want to call your band?” and we said, “Great, thanks.”
We looked at his list — and there were some great names on it — but the one that jumped out to us was The Buckinghams. It was short and it was very clear, and plus, in Chicago, there’s a fountain in Grant Park called the Buckingham Fountain, which is a landmark — it’s this gigantic fountain that lights up in colors near the lake — so we said, “This will be great because ‘Buckinghams’ sounds English but, at the same time, we’ll also have our other foot in Chicago.” And, as it turns out, the Buckingham Fountain is in the background on the cover of our first album, Kind of a Drag; we’re standing in front of the Buckingham Fountain to solidify our reaction to it. So we figured we gave them what they wanted — and we also got a pretty good new name; in fact, after that, they started advertising us on the show as “royalty in rock and roll.” So that’s the beginning of where “The Buckinghams” came from.
Spotlight Central: At the time, it’s said that The Buckinghams were influenced by another local band in Chicago called The Mob — a group that featured a guitarist named Jim Holvey?
Dennis Tufano: Yeah, Jim Holvey wrote four hits for The Buckinghams, and we actually did more of his songs on our first album, too; I think we did three or four other originals of his, which were nice songs.
But, yes, The Mob was the first horn band, I think, we ever saw in Chicago — at least as far as R&B and pop was concerned. We’d go to these ballroom dances and stand there and watch this band and just go, “Oh, man! This is great!” — the horns, the singing, and everything was just great.
So, yes, The Mob was influential for a lot of bands that came out of Chicago. They were like a cult band at the time; they were all over the place. They used to open shows in Vegas for all the big acts there. And, actually, The Mob was the backup band on the road for the Dick Clark tours back during that time, like in ’65, ’66.
In fact, we were doing a Dick Clark show — a full weekend of concerts where the local bands got to perform in the afternoons and then the big acts came in at night. The Mob was there — and we had already met Jim Holvey some time ago — but our manager back then, Carl Bonafede, went to Jim and said, “Do you have any original songs?” because Jim wrote a lot of songs for The Mob which were R&B flavored. And Jim said, “You know, I just wrote a song not too long ago and I don’t think it’s gonna fit with my band’s repertoire, but if you come up to my room, I’ll play it for you on the guitar.” Jim ended up recording it on a little three-inch reel-to-reel tape with a plastic microphone, and the song he played was “Kind of a Drag.”
Spotlight Central: Wow!
Dennis Tufano: Yeah, it was pretty amazing! I mean, we didn’t hear it until we got the tape. We kept listening to it over and over and over again, and we just started really getting involved with it, you know? And it worked out really great. To this day, I still talk to Jim about writing me some new songs.
Spotlight Central: The Buckinghams signed with U.S.A. Records and recorded “Kind of a Drag” at Chess Records in Chicago, a blues label, which was kind of appropriate because, even though your music was pop, it did have an element of R&B and soul to it, didn’t it?
Dennis Tufano: Yeah. I think the studio at Chess Records was iconic. It had some magic to it. It was a small studio with an 8-track recorder — I don’t know how we got all that music on eight tracks — but the engineer there was Ron Malo, and he’s the guy who worked the magic. The room was just a funky little room with stained walls, you know? Just funky! But it sounded great, and he did a great job mixing it down and making sure everything got on the recording.
Ron was a very creative guy. One day, we were looking for a sound for a guitar solo. While we were playing the track he just said, “Wait a second. Give me 15 minutes.” He took the guitar amp, unplugged it, dragged it down the hall to the bathroom, put the amp in the bathroom, plugged it in, got a mic cord, brought that out there, and set the mic up in there. And our guitarist, Carl Giammarese, stayed in the other room — in the studio — playing his guitar, and we got this amazing sound on the guitar. You know, it had to be organic, because they didn’t have sound pedals back then like they have now. So here Ron was making things sound great.
And part of the sound of that record, too, was the horns. A man named Frank Tesinsky arranged the horns and he played trombone on the recording, too. It was pretty amazing because this was one of those projects that just wasn’t that sophisticated. It was like the horn players came in and listened to us do the basic tracks and then Frank started writing charts, trying to figure out what would be good to put in there. So we were very fortunate in that we had people who really loved music and loved what we were doing and tried to help us as best they could to make our sound happen.
Spotlight Central: It must have been very gratifying to you given the fact that both of your parents got to hear you on the radio once you made it. What was it like for you and your folks to hear your #1 song on the radio for the first time?
Dennis Tufano: It was especially exciting for my dad, because he had given up his musical career to raise the family, so he was very excited.
My mother was excited, too, but she couldn’t believe that I was up on stage singing. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “Well, you were a very quiet boy when you were young,” adding, “As a matter of fact, in Kindergarten, you were cast in a Kindergarten play as this young lead” — like this Romeo love-interest kind of character — “and you only had this one line to say and you wouldn’t say it!”
Apparently, the teacher called her and said, “Look, Dennis is perfect for this part, but he won’t say his line. Every time we ask him and say, ‘OK, it’s your turn,’ he just stands there” — I guess I was probably frozen with fear. And so my mom said to me, “I can’t believe you’re out there now in front of everybody doing what you do, because it’s more than one line!”
But both of my parents were great about all this, because when I decided to quit my graphic arts job, the band was starting to play every weekend — at least from Thursday to Sunday — all over the Midwest, and I went to my parents and said, “Look, I think I really want to commit to this. I want to quit my art job and I want to do this instead.” Both of them looked at me and said, “Well, OK, but don’t come back to us if it doesn’t work out and say that we told you do to this, and I said, “That’s a deal,” and the rest was history.
And my dad really used to relish the whole thing. When we were on the road that first year due to our recording success, people in the neighborhood knew who we were and they knew where we lived. We used to rehearse in my parents’ basement, and all the kids from around the neighborhood used to come over and stand around the side of the house and look into the basement windows to watch us rehearse. And when I was out of town, people would come up to the door and say, “Hi,” and my dad would say, “Yes, what is it?” and they’d say, “Do you think Dennis could give us an autographed picture?” and he’d say, “Let me see if he’s not too busy,” when I wasn’t even there.
He’d go inside — and somehow he’d had this stamp made that said, “Best wishes, Denny,” which was of my signature that he had copied — and he’d just stamp the pictures and have a ball lighting their faces up. So I was so happy my parents got to see that, especially my dad.
Spotlight Central: And The Buckinghams started to appear on lots of TV shows. Many, at the time, required singers to lip-sync but some didn’t. What was the situation with two of your biggest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour?
Dennis Tufano: I got to sing live both on The Smothers Brothers and on The Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, there was a stagehands union thing — or something like that back in the day — where the band couldn’t play, but the singer could sing. It was fine — I had a good time singing live — but, yeah, on other shows like American Bandstand, we had to lip-sync. And some people watch clips of those shows on YouTube today and they say, “Aw, look, man. They’re lip-syncing! They can’t even sing their own songs!” So I’ve had to make comments on YouTube explaining, “You know, there was no technology to record us on TV!” The little microphone I used on Ed Sullivan — which you can see if you go to YouTube — is one of those little silver Silvertones, which, I think, were used mainly for people talking. And so that’s one of the reasons they couldn’t deal with a band playing. And what happens is — especially on Ed Sullivan — at the end of each song we did, they stopped the tape and the band played the last chord. Whenever it was a fade-out song, they kind of just brought the volume down and then the band — which was actually plugged in — just played the last chord so it seemed like a real ending.
Spotlight Central: We never knew that before!
Dennis Tufano: Yeah. That’s how it was in those days — but we were really flying high at the time. Everything was exciting, you know? The Ed Sullivan Show was way over-the-top exciting because you don’t just get put on that show — in fact, when we got the call we were going on there, we could hardly sleep! But it worked out well.
Spotlight Central: After The Buckinghams broke up in 1970, you and your Buckinghams’ bandmate, Carl Giammarese, worked together. You recorded a demo of three songs with a Canadian producer, Jack Richardson, known for producing The Guess Who. Is it true that members of a certain country-rock band played on your demo?
Dennis Tufano: Yes, the members of Poco played on it! One of the producers who worked with Jack Richardson was producing Poco at the time and the group happened to be in Chicago. They liked our songs and we said, “Come on over,” so we could create a nice demo for us to use to find a label. The Poco guys were all really good players, and we did these three songs and they came out sounding really good — the band played great on them. So it all worked out and we now had this great demo, which is the one we sent to Lou Adler.
Spotlight Central: Lou Adler — who was famous for producing Carole King and The Mamas and the Papas — liked you so much he wanted you to come out to Hollywood, didn’t he?
Dennis Tufano: Well, we had been turned down by every other major label we sent the demo to because, first of all, what worked against us was ourselves. We had been a singles-oriented pop group, but now we were doing, pretty much, ’70s acoustic songs, and all of those labels just wanted the old Buckinghams sound again and wouldn’t sign us.
But John Poulos, The Buckinghams’ drummer, who became our manager after the band split up, read an article about Lou Adler. John knew we were pretty depressed since no one was signing us, and he said, “I’m gonna give Lou Adler a shot. I think he’s a clever guy and he should pick up on what you guys are doing.”
So John sent the demo to him and Lou Adler called and said, “Look, I really like the demo. I’d like to fly you out to L.A. and audition you two in the studio, live. We want to record you ourselves and then listen to what we’ve got,” so we said, “Great!”
We flew out and we went to A&M Records Studio B, which was another Chess Records as far as I’m concerned, and had so much magic to it — so many people have recorded in that studio. We went in and they hooked us up with our acoustic guitars, face-to-face, with four microphones — microphones in the guitars and microphones everywhere — and we just played for about 50 minutes, just one song after another, live.
Before we left, we were amazed when we heard some of the playback. Even though there were just two acoustic guitars and two voices, it sounded like an orchestra! But the engineer, Hank Cicalo, was the engineer who did Carole King’s Tapestry. So we had, again, some of the best people working with us, to make it right. The next day, we called Lou and said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Well, I definitely want to sign you to the label, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to produce your first record.”
Spotlight Central: And you said, “We don’t mind!”
Dennis Tufano: [Jokes] Oh, no, I don’t think so! [Laughs] No, we said, “Definitely, definitely!” So, yeah, we went in and recorded our first album that he produced, Tufano and Giammarese — which they called 33 and 1/3 — and it was really a good album. To me, the Portraits album by The Buckinghams and this Tufano and Giammarese album are two of my favorites, where we really got it right — it sounded good and it was just a really nice, honest approach to moving on with music.
Spotlight Central: And either despite your childhood experience on the stage in Kindergarten that your mom talked about — or maybe because of it — in 1976, you decided to study acting and started doing commercials and live theater, and even appeared in the Cheech and Chong movie, Up in Smoke. Interestingly enough, however, you ended up working with a group that did improvisation and voice-overs for movies and television. Can you explain what that was all about?
Dennis Tufano: Yes, they’re called “loop groups,” but what it’s technically called is “ADR,” which stands for “automated dialog replacement.” In the backgrounds on TV shows and movies, the people that you see are not really talking — they’re just moving their mouths — because they have to record the primary actors and get their sound clean. So, for instance, if there’s a restaurant scene with a lot of people in it, all the people in the background will just be moving their mouths, not making any sound at all. And then we would come in as a group and we’d pick people out in the scene and try to figure out what they’re saying. Of course, the editors used to have a list of what they wanted to capture, but we would come in and improvise based on the topic of the show and fill that room up with real voices.
Spotlight Central: And you worked on hundreds of these projects?
Dennis Tufano: Oh, gosh, yes, I think I did probably around 800 movies and shows! I did it for about 15 years, and I worked on some great movies. I had a ball working on them, and the group I worked with was great. And then after about ten years with one group, a couple of guys and myself started our own group called the L.A. Mad Dogs, and we booked ourselves on stuff which was a lot of fun. Improvisation is quite a fun thing — [jokes] dangerous, but fun — but, yeah, we did all kinds of good movies.
Spotlight Central: And one thing we never knew about you until we just found this out very recently is that back in 1979, you collaborated on songs with Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin. How did that come about?
Dennis Tufano: I was doing my acting thing — along with doing some music demos, too — and I was hanging out at Lou Adler’s little club on Sunset called On the Rox. Even after we stopped recording with him, we still had a decent relationship with Lou and he said, “Any time you want to come over, just come on in and have a beer.” So I used to go up there and hang out and meet people and talk. One day, this girl I knew from Chicago came in with Bernie Taupin, and she said, “Oh, my God, Dennis, I haven’t seen you in years! Where have you been?” I said, “I’m doing great.” She said, “This is my friend, Bernie,” and I said, “I know! That’s Bernie Taupin!”
That night, Bernie and I talked a little bit and, after that, we’d end up there a couple of times a week. One night, we started talking and Bernie said, “What do you do during the day?” I told him I was an actor, but that I was also doing some demos with Tom Scott. And Bernie said, “You know, maybe I could hear some of your demos because I’m planning on doing a solo album and I’m looking for ‘new-sounding’ music. A lot of people want me to go out and hook up with a big songwriter, but I already work with a big songwriter, so I’m looking to find something new and fresh.”
I sent Bernie my demo tape and he liked it. He said, “Come over to my place and I’ll give you a set of lyrics. Let’s start there and see what we can come up with,” and I said, “Great!”
I went over to Bernie’s and he handed me this set of lyrics. It was a big two-sided sheet of paper, typed out with no repeats. I looked at it and thought, “Wait a second, this is poetry. This is verse. This isn’t like song lyrics,” and then I realized immediately, “So this is what Elton does! He gets all this story and then he somehow has to break it up to put it to music,” and I also thought, “Nobody could write a song with all these lyrics — it’s just too long.”
So I took it and started to mess around with it. And this set of lyrics was for a really beautiful song called “The Horrors of Paris.” It was very cool — kind of a tender song — but it was very long. So about two weeks into this, I called Bernie and said, “Look, Bernie, this song’s pretty long and I don’t want to go any further unless you think I’m going in the right direction.” He had, kind of, given me a little color as to what he had wanted me to do with certain songs, but that’s it.
So I went over to his house and I sat down with my little Pignose amp and my guitar and I was about to play what I had of the song for him so far and he gets up from behind his desk and sits right in front of me on the floor. So I’m on this chair with my guitar and he’s sitting right in front of me, and he puts his head down with his hands over his eyes and I think, “Oh my God.” Then I play the song, and he looks up and he goes, “That’s it! That’s it! Great!”
After that, he grabs this folder from his desk and there are at least 12 other songs in there. So we go through all of them and he tells me where he’d like each one to go — like rock and roll, or punk, which was popular back then — and it turned out to be a pretty interesting album. He sang everything on it, and I sang with him a few times doing backgrounds. And we had Elton singing backgrounds on one of the songs, which was pretty crazy for me because I was able to press the little button in the studio and say, “Elton, can we try that one more time?” which I felt very afraid of saying, but Elton was like, “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about…”
So I was accepted into this circle of high rollers and I was very impressed with everything going on around me at the time, and we worked really well together. The album is called He Who Rides the Tiger and Bernie sang all the stuff. Overall, he did a good job on it, but the album didn’t sell. I don’t think anybody realized Bernie was a singer; they were more interested in his lyrics, and the lyrics on that album are just gorgeous.
But it was a big project for me; it took awhile and, after that, we remained friends for about 18 or 19 years. In fact, in the ’90s he called me and said, “I’m doing another solo album.” The project was with a band called Farm Dogs and I got to work with some really good people including Jim Cregan, who is a really great guitar player from Rod Stewart’s band, and with Robin Le Mesurier, who played with Johnny Hallyday and Rod Stewart — I mean, these guys were two of the best guitar players I’d had ever seen and they did it like it was nothing. So it was great to work with them and with Bernie on the Farm Dogs album — a very rootsy, very nice album — but that didn’t sell either.
Spotlight Central: As your career developed, you also had the privilege of working with Olivia Newton John in her live stage show, singing on the Family Ties TV show theme song written by Tom Scott, and creating a Bobby Darin tribute show. And isn’t it true you once got to sing with Bobby Darin’s actual back-up musicians?
Dennis Tufano: Yes, it was very strange because I had been doing my show for about six or seven months. I had done a lot of research before I did the Darin show — about who was in his band and what Bobby Darin thought about certain songs — because I wanted my show to be as authentic as possible. And one day, the phone rings and I pick it up and a guy says, “Is this Dennis Tufano?” And I say, “Yes.” And he says, “This is Billy McCubbin,” and I went, “Oh my God,” because I knew he was Bobby Darin’s bass player, and I thought, “He’s gonna tell me to cease and desist, or something.” [Laughs]
But he said, “Look, we’ve seen some of your show on video and we’re doing this annual concert in Vegas for the Heart Association and the Bobby Darin Foundation and we’d like you to come out and sing some of his songs. There will be a couple of other singers, so if you could send me your set list of songs you already know, that would be the easiest thing for all of us.”
I said, “I do all of the songs in the same key as Bobby Darin, so that’ll be fine,” and I sent him my list, which had about 23 songs on it. After he saw the list, he called me back and said, “Well, you’re going to sing a little bit more than the other guys.”
So we went to the South Point in Vegas and did that concert and it was amazing because it had the best guys playing. I look to my left and there’s Billy McCubbin playing bass, smiling his ass off at me, and on my right is T.K. Kellman, Bobby Darin’s guitar player, and I’m looking back and forth at these guys and they’re just cheering me on with their smiles while we’re playing and I’m thinking, “Oh my God!”
And then, also, the audience at that show was filled with members of the Bobby Darin fan club. They were just a little bit older than me — and there were around 800 of them — and I was nervous because they don’t take anybody messing around with Bobby Darin lightly; they just don’t like it. But it all worked out really great. I got the blessing from the fans, and I met Bobby Darin’s archivist, Jimmy Scalia, out of New York — he runs the Bobby Darin website and all that stuff. He came up to me and said, “My God, you do Bobby’s music with such respect. Nobody does it that way — so many just ‘lounge’ it up,” and he said, “Man, whatever you need, let me know, and we’ll work it out.” So they kind of gave me their blessing to do my show, which was great. And, here again, I ran into people I didn’t plan on meeting, who actually helped me with my sound and to do what I wanted to do, so, yes, there are definitely angels out there!
Spotlight Central: Over the years, you’ve gone on to tour all around the country. In your shows, you’ll often do a Bobby Darin medley, in addition to all the great Buckinghams’ hits — many written by Jim Holvey — including “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Don’t You Care,” “Susan” and “Kind of a Drag,” and sometimes you’ll even do one of our favorites — “Back in Love Again.” Do you find that a tough song to do live?
Dennis Tufano: No, it’s not tough — it’s just that some of the bands that I work with haven’t learned it. It was The Buckinghams’ last single, but that’s when everything kind of fell apart with the record label and management and all that. So the song went up into the charts, but everything disappeared after that. Columbia didn’t promote it, but people do request it now because they love the record.
Spotlight Central: Since there haven’t been many concerts lately, what have you been up to?
Dennis Tufano: [Jokes] Concerts? What are concerts?
Spotlight Central: We know that music fans can’t wait to enjoy concerts again, but we figure it must be even worse for the performers!
Dennis Tufano: Oh, yeah. For the first few months, it wasn’t as difficult as it is now — back then we thought, “Maybe things are going to clear up soon and we’ll be fine” — but it kept getting deeper and deeper, and as of March 1st, it’s been a whole year since I’ve worked! And I have to tell you: the strangest feeling goes on inside of you. Around 8 o’clock at night it’s like I start getting this adrenaline rush, like my body’s getting ready to go on, you know? It’s very interesting that all the other singers and performers I talk to — we constantly text and FaceTime each other, and I just Zoomed with a bunch of guys, too — and we’re all asking the same thing: “Remember what we used to do?”
And every one of them also said, “In my worst years as a performer, I’ve never not worked for a year.” And, you know? It’s tough. I’m grateful we’re not ill — we’ve been very cautious about doing things around groups of people — and I did just get my first vaccination, which is good. At the end of January I was supposed to do a show with concert promoter Joe Mirrione in Florida, but the situation here in Los Angeles was pretty bad and I had to beg off of the job. Hopefully it’s going to get safer — most people are talking about things happening in May and beyond — so I’m looking forward to being back out there again soon.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of being back out there again soon, we know that you have a very devoted fan base — many of whom have been with you for over a half-century now. Do you have any “words of wisdom” or anything you’d like to share with them?
Dennis Tufano: Oh, yeah, the fans are the best! They lift you up when you have the worst day ever; you get to a gig and they are there. And the fans are so supportive on Facebook, too. I’m always a little embarrassed about some of the comments that they make — the positive comments — because they’re so personal.
I’ve always loved the fans, because without fans — and DJs, too — I wouldn’t have a job. To me, that’s how simple it is. In fact, I tell the DJs that all the time. They always say, “Man, it’s great talking to you; thanks so much,” but I say, “No, you have to understand that without you, I wouldn’t be here!”
So, yeah, the fans are the best. And most of the fans whom I’ve had relationships with have now become friends, and it’s really gratifying because, then, you’re never alone. Any city I go to where there are fans who come to the show, I don’t feel like I’m a fish out of water; I feel like I’m welcome there. And that’s who you perform to. You perform to the people in your mind — for the people who are there who you know — and that way you have a personal connection to your audience. And then I make more friends after that, because I really believe that without the people liking what you do, you couldn’t do anything.
And talking about 50-years, like you just said, I just did an online interview with a DJ. There was this chat room connected to it, and the DJ asked me if I’d join the chat room and I did. One guy made a comment saying, “I wonder if all of these acts that we love are aware of the fact that we can connect their songs and their voices to specific days in our lives?” And I answered, “Yes, it’s true.” Some of the most amazing stories ever told to us after shows are about what our songs have meant to listeners, or how their lives are connected to a song, or a time they remember a song from and how every time they hear it they go right back to that moment, which is great. So it’s good traveling art!
And people also keep saying that they can’t wait to get back to concerts again, and that’s a good thing because then we’ll have good shows. They’ll be sold out because people are so anxious to get back to them — but I can tell you this, for sure: nobody’s more anxious than we are!