Jun 05, 2009 ellen leahy Uncategorized
The Dean Brothers Band enter Syracuse Area Music Award’s Hall of Fame
Before Guitar Hero and Apple’s Garage Band — American teenagers would take actual working musical instruments and nuts around in their realgarages or basements. Basically, the best music studio was the most stripped down area in a house where one could get as far away from parental units as possible.
Forty years ago a group of neighborhood youths in Skaneateles did just that. These kids eventually became known around New York and beyond as The Dean Brothers Band.
Last night, Thursday June 4 The Dean Brothers were inducted into the Sammy Hall of Fame upstairs at the Dinosaur Barbecue on Franklin Street in Syracuse.
The original band was comprised of John, Robert “Berto” and Peter Dean and their neighbor, Holland “Holly” Gregg III.
“The sixties was a seminal decade for rock and roll and popular culture in general,” Gregg said. “We were part of an explosion of new, creative and electrifying ideas.”
Essentially they were jazzed about rock & roll. This was the era of the British Invasion, with bands from England dominating the airwaves. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Zombies and countless others were all the rage. Vocals were an essential ingredient for these bands, as well as for the Deans.
If Tim Robbins’ character Griffin Mills in the 1992 Altman Film The Player had to describe the Deans, he would have said, “James Taylor and family meets the Eagles.”
Nature or nurture or location, plus talent
It sort of began in 1956 when Rosemary and Bill Dean moved to East Lake Road in Skaneateles. A year later Holland and Josephine Gregg built a house across the street. Meanwhile, the Whitings were raising a family just down a piece on a lane off of East Lake Road. And to make matters a bit more musical — Little Georgie Rossi hadn’t been conceived yet just around the corner from the Gregg’s on Gayle Road.
Music was always in the air at the Dean household. Mom Dean was on the bench of her Hammond B-3 organ whenever she got the chance. Dad, Bill Dean, Sr., was an electrical engineer. At home he was constantly tinkering with anything electrical, including audio gear.
All of the Dean kids inherited their mother’s musicality and played instruments in the school band. Early rock & roll was exciting enough, but when folk music hit the radio, the elder siblings latched on to it and began figuring out songs and harmonizing vocals.
“Their harmonies and grasp of music came naturally and without any pretense,” Gregg said. “It was amazing to watch it develop.”
But this story is about the younger siblings, Berto, Tom and John were moved by the reckless nature of rock & roll and were soon performing at Skaneateles High School’s All-School Entertainment. Around this time Joe Whiting jumped into the Dean mix and formed a band with Tom, Berto and John. They named it The Ridgewoods inspired by another of the Dean’s hometowns, Ridgewood, NJ and a popular band at the time The Fleetwoods (hold the Mac).
Gregg said upward of 100 teenagers would show up at the Dean’s house to listen to The Ridgewoods jam sessions. Smitten, Holly Gregg said he bought a guitar and began playing along. Meanwhile, the youngest Dean, Peter, took up the drums. Tom got off stage and instead became the band’s official audio engineer, a position that makes or breaks the quality of a live performance, and also that of a recording. The always-energetic John Dean, the Ridgewood’s drummer, switched to guitar and together with Holly, Peter and another friend, bass player Rob Howard, formed a second unit with the unfortunate name of The Gay Blades.
At that time most rock & roll enthusiasts favored either the rowdy Rolling Stones or the more intellectual Beatles. Joe Whiting split off and teamed up with the multi-talented Mark Doyle (Auburn) — together they moved more toward hard rock and eventually Whiting ran with the blues. The Deans took their lead more from vocal harmony based on legends such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Byrds, Beach Boys, and also, The Beatles.
“It was rare to hear live, local rock & roll music with blazingly powerful harmonies,” Peter Dean said. This was always the trademark of any configuration of The Dean Brothers Band. And when not harmonizing, their lead vocals were just as strong and prominent.
Russ Tarby has been writing about entertainment in CNY for four decades, he said, “I first caught the Dean Brothers performing at a Route 11 nightclub back around 1974. They were particularly strong on vocal harmonies, so they did great Beatles and Beach Boys covers. But what was more remarkable was that The Dean brothers always kept things upbeat and fun.”
An actual Commodore (not the band), Tim Taylor, is just one early fan who also grew up in Skaneateles. He has since seen the world as a naval officer and still counts the Deans as his all time favorite band. He said upon hearing of the band’s induction to the SAMMY’s Hall of Fame, “You guys took inspiration from The Beatles. However, you didn’t just play their hits that every other band was doing, but brought to life their ‘other’ songs that the radio wasn’t playing. My favorite was When I Get Home, which I still maintain you guys improvised and improved the tempo (faster) and sang better than The Beatles. I thought that it could’ve been your own ‘Ticket to Ride’ to better things. It was your improvisation of so many songs to make them into ‘danceable’ tunes that I think set you apart from the other bands.”
Off to college
As much as their parents encouraged their musical creativity — college was in order. The Dean boys and Holly Gregg scattered to colleges from Central New York, to Albany to Boston. But also they kept making music weekends by converging in Albany and playing in a popular college band called The Clouds. They recorded their first record in that band.
Time away at college inspired the members of The Dean Brothers to begin writing their own music, which was based on melody, harmony and acoustic guitars. At this point a Manhattan-based record promoter took them on, but the Deans were not convinced he was right for them and dropped him.
After college, the band started a full time career in music. In 1971 they rented a house in Marcellus and began writing songs seriously and making demo tapes. They now called themselves Brandywine, but soon discovered that another band had taken the name. They chose Gallery as their next band name, but a record label they had shipped a demo tape to released a record using the name Gallery. Okay, finally they choose a name all their own –The Dean Brothers Band.
In 1973 the Deans moved to Ithaca, which was and still is a thriving musical community, and played the live music circuit for several years, honing their sound and developing a powerful stage persona. When they performed in Syracuse they would play either The Brookside or The Boardwalk.
After nearly five years, the band had gained tremendous popularity throughout New York. John Perialas, owner of an Ithaca-based recording studio, Pyramid Sound, and a music publishing company, was helping them to pursue a record deal.
But as time went on, a couple band members got married and wanted to start families. The band began to question whether it could sustain its members and their broods. In the summer of 1976, they decided to disband The Dean Brothers, but instead of Taps, they went out with a proverbial drum roll producing their own long-playing record album, As They Are. It was released in the fall of 1976 and immediately sold out.
“Back in those days, local bands could still get airplay on local radio stations,” Gregg said. “We pushed that record hard and made appearances at dozens of local radio stations.”
The effort paid off because the band’s first single Sell My Misery rose to number five on the local music charts. Three months later, Who Loves You? (With pedal steel guitar played by guitar legend David Torn), went to number six.
One of the top local broadcasts on the radio back then was the Rick and Ron show on WOLF-AM. “Rick Gary and Ron Bee really supported us back then when AM radio ruled. They invited us quite often to play live,” said Berto Dean.
The Deans made similar appearances throughout upstate and sold thousands of records. However, as was planned, the band began to dismantle in 1977. Gregg was the first to leave.
Dean’s rise again
Peter, John and Berto Dean continued to play and formed a new configuration with Fred Lawrence (from Cross Creek) on keyboards. Several months later Peter and Fred departed and a new band was formed with CNY legendary drummer Jimmy Johns, Cliff Spencer on keyboards, Ithaca’s Annie Burns (of the Burns Sisters) on vocals and Jeff Steele (originally from Fayetteville, but living in Ithaca) on lead guitar. The band, still called The Dean Brothers, again gained in popularity.
In 1978 Gregg, who was now married to Patience Brewster (also originally from that neighborhood in Skaneateles) and employed at an advertising agency in Philadelphia, decided to help produce songs and showcase the new Dean Brothers Band to labels and producers.
Eventually they were noticed by Paul Atkinson, a former member of The Zombies and then an A&R representative from Columbia Records (now Sony Music). They were invited to New York City to audition at CBS’s studios. The band assembled an all-star line-up that consisted of John, Berto, Peter, Holly, Jeff Steele on lead guitar, and Cliff Spencer (who would later join Bob Halligan and Pictures) on keyboards.
“At that time, CBS was the premier label in the music industry, with artists such as Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro and countless music icons,” Gregg said. “We were really intimidated by that hallowed ground.”
The Deans were not offered a contract from CBS, which required a unanimous thumbs-up from a nine-member A&R department. According to Gregg, Atkinson (who later discovered Huey Lewis and the News and Bruce Hornsby & the Range) was crushed, but he told them to take the CBS demo tape to any other label and they’d get a deal.
“I think the disappointment of that CBS decision really derailed the band,” Gregg said.
So many starts and stops
According to Gregg, the group began to disagree about the direction in which it should go. Should they pursue the country rock harmonies that they had developed, or start from scratch and follow the funky styling of the music of that time?
Gregg said their fate was sealed by two major events in the music industry at that time:
1. The drinking age was raised to 21 years from 18 years.
2. Disco. Suddenly the live music scene was changing from live to recorded music. Club owners, who had lost the younger drinkers, invested in elaborate sound and lighting systems and discontinued costly live music. It was simply cheaper and easier.
So, The Dean Brothers again decided to disband in 1979. The central four, John, Berto, Peter and Holly, all went on to pursue careers in other fields and to focus on raising their young families.
Of course, this didn’t stop their love of music and performance, as during subsequent years, the Deans have gotten back together for reunions, mostly for fundraisers, but also for friends and fans special events such as weddings and anniversaries.
Holly Gregg, Berto (now “Bob”) and John Dean still write and arrange music. Many of their children are musicians and write music, as well. Kate Ellen Dean, Bob’s daughter, fronts Jacksons’s Kid Summer, a 2009 Sammy-nominated band that plays out in Syracuse regularly. John Dean has been playing out in Ithaca. His daughter Emily, a contemporary cellist and his nephew Sam Dean a keyboard player and singer (Tom’s son) have sat in.
The Sammy’s Hall of Fame
“Those were truly some of the happiest days of our lives because we were on a musical adventure that most people will never experience,” John Dean said. “We learned some fundamental lessons of life during that time. We learned what it takes to run a business: it’s teamwork, blood, sweat, sacrifice and tears. None of us would have traded that experience for anything in the world.”
What’s next? This is certainly a band of musicians that is driven by their craft. It was always about making and playing music. We’ll just have to wait and hear what they come up with next. Pretty sure the wait won’t be long.
Jan 17, 2017