Get Real with Carla Stockton
The moment I ask Lou Christie my last question, I know it’s a good one. Which is thrilling to me. If I were a photographer, and the shutter had just closed, I would be confident I had just grabbed the money shot. Which matters to me because Lou Christie, a megastar in the rock’n’roll world of the 60s and 70s is my new hero.
I just asked him what the major forks have been in his life. “You know, the professional ones, the places where you could have gone one way, but you chose to go another. . . ?”
“Oh, wow,” he effuses. “That is such a question… The best question I have ever had asked of me.” We’ve been talking for nearly three hours already, and I think I understand why he is so visibly moved, why he likes the question so much.
Lou Christie has been doing what he’s doing for most of his life, and what he’s been doing is reinventing himself, reconfiguring the formulae he uses to create and recreate his persona and his career.
We are surrounded by the colorful iconography that adorn his walls and shelves, seated on orange furniture in his cozy, New Mexico-inspired sitting room. What used to be the roof of a 1940s tenement building in Hell’s Kitchen is where Christie has lived since the early 1970s. He bought the apartment on the top floor of the building when it went co-op, and the landlord was selling dirt cheap. Knowing exactly what he wanted and being ever in control of his destiny, Lou simultaneously bought the air rights so that he could add this second story, his own design, which is connected to the first by a picturesque spiral staircase and lit by sunshine from a skylight and a sliding glass door that leads to a patio with a view of lower Manhattan and the Hudson River.
Despite the low price, the decision to purchase the place took some deliberation. Hell’s Kitchen was among the least desirable neighborhoods at the time, a rough area dominated by mobs and youth gangs. But Christie recognized an opportunity to get in on the first wave of gentrification, and by the 1980s the whole west side had metamorphosed. He had bought himself a haven; he transformed a perfect example of simple, utilitarian working class architecture into a Southwestern style country dasha–a brilliant alteration.
And, perhaps, it is perfect metaphor for the man’s life.
When Lou moved into Hell’s Kitchen, his star had just begun to rise. His insistent falsetto, half pleading, half scolding, half simply celebrating the fact that it could get that high, played on all the hit radio stations. WABC’s hitmaker Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, was a fan, as was WNBC’s gravel-throated Robert Weston “Wolfman Jack” Smith. If those guys liked you, you were in. By taking control and choosing his path wisely, Christie had, by the time he was in his early twenties, found a great degree of fame.
“I was so focused. You know. I gave up a lot, like my teen years, but I got exactly what I wanted because I went after it. You know that book The Secret? They must have been following my life…because that’s what I did. I concentrated my efforts on getting what I wanted, and I made it happen every time.”
A farm boy from Glenwillard, PA, Christie, born Lugee Giovanni Sacco, had always loved to sing. His father–a descendant of the Count Cacozza, a potentate from the days before Italian unification–was Lou’s first role model in breaking rules. He had chosen, instead of medicine or the priesthood as his family expected, to become a steel mill worker, who went home at the end of his shift to farm his 100-acre property. Lou’s father and his mother were also musically inclined, music always a part of life in the Saccos’ home.
Lou was the second of six children; when Lou was nearly fourteen, his parents solved a marital crisis by having four more kids: Mary, Marce, Seana and Peter.
“We all had to chip in then,” he muses. “We never knew any different; we just took care of one another, helped mom with the house and dad with the farm. But we were always singing. I don’t remember ever not singing. I mean, we weren’t the Osmonds or anything, but we loved making music.”
From the beginning, Lou was the family lead singer, and his sisters and brother naturally provided the backup.
In Lou’s mind, this was the first fork. “I knew I wanted to be a singer. But I had to make some choices. Am I better off going into Classical? My teacher thought I should do that. Or should I find great standards to sing? But wait, should I write my own stuff? I had a great range – I sang the lowest bass in my school choir and the highest tenor with equal ease.” And he had a counter tenor range, the ability to sing the really high notes. “So now, what voice should I choose?”
He went with his falsetto and rock ‘n’ roll. “I didn’t want to be a choir boy. My father was a great bread winner; all day long he was a slave in the steel mill, and then he came home and farmed his land. I was a happy kid, but I didn’t want to be like him. Not me. I wanted the Levis, the painted jeans, the purple shirts all the way. I just knew this was it,” he asserts. “And I knew instinctively how important it was to remain master of my own career.”
He got wind that there was a guy in Pittsburgh who recorded local artists, and he went to him for lessons. After a single session, the producer sent Lou home to make a demo tape, telling him that his voice was already good enough. What the producer really needed was a group to do backup singing.
“I’ve got my group,” Lou said, “We have a sound you’ve probably never heard. Kinda like three mice. Because I sing high, and I have another guy, and he sings up here too, and a girl. . . So he [the producer] said, ‘go put something together, make me a demo tape, and let me hear what you got.’”
When Lou brought the demo back, the producer was impressed enough to put Lou’s group on the vocal backgrounds for a song called Ronnie Come Back, by a girl called Marcy Jo. Everyone loved the sound of the background, and the record was a big hit, climbing the national charts and reaching the top 20. But Lou and his mice never got paid.
“We did a follow up with Marcy called When Gary Went in the Navy, and four more, and they were all hits though they never paid us. Heck, I was still in school. I couldn’t even drive yet.”
Lou decided to chose a new path and set his own standards. He created Lugee and the Lions. “I was Lugee, and my sisters and the same group of little kids that were always around me sang as the Lions.” Lou’s dad drove the group all over Pittsburgh, where they sang for weddings, mall openings, parades and the like, and eventually the positive attention brought him Twyla Herbert. And thus he reached yet another fork in his road.
He knew right away, he says, that Herbert was “pure genius.” She proposed working together, but, as he has at every turn, Lou questioned himself extensively.
“There you go. Another fork. Do I keep all my ideas to myself? Or do I throw my hat in with this talented woman?” Herbert was twenty years older than the young Lou Sacco. She had a degree in classical music, was a classical pianist, and “didn’t know a doo-wop from a dust mop. But she was brilliant. Just brilliant. And I could see we could be good together, really good!”
He chose to give collaboration a go, and together, Christie and Herbert wrote The Gypsy Cried – it took them all of fifteen minutes. He said the experience was surreal, something like what he imagined an acid trip would be like, though he had no experience with drugs. “There was something about our chord patterns. They were more classical or more international, made the music more interesting instead of the standard 4 chord progressions, the usual wha wha wha…” The song established a partnership that would span the next 47 years, until Herbert’s death in 2009.
“I never wanted to make a record that sounded like anyone else. My voice had this falsetto, these octaves to work with, and I didn’t want to record anything that wasn’t uniquely mine. I could sing higher than my girls. And I wanted to use chord progressions that would sound the best.”
By the time Lou and Twyla wrote Lightning Strikes, Lou Christie was a national sensation. The new song shot almost immediately to #1 on the European billboard charts, then the next day on the American charts, and Lou knew beyond a doubt that he had made the right choices both in creating songs with Twyla Herbert and in sticking to his falsetto.
“I knew it all really came from what I wrote. Because that’s what dictated how everything had to be done. My sisters and I, when we wrote, we put the backgrounds in it too. I didn’t go to an arranger and ask him to put in the backgrounds. No. Each record had to have that sound. That sound was my sister Amy or Twyla’s daughter or both. It was us knowing exactly how to get a weird sound, placing the voices. I would sing in the background with them to get another kind of sound. It was all part of creating that thing.”
Lou Christie had told his family while he was still in high school that he would like to be managed some day by Bob Marcucci, who handled Frankie Avalon and Fabian, and he wanted to live in the house where Marcucci sheltered his tribe of singers. By the time Lou was 19, Marcucci was his manager, and he lived in the house that both Avalon and Fabian had just recently vacated.
“Do you believe it? I was living with this man who I said at 14 or 15: I want this man to manage me.”
Still, the path was never smooth.
“You know, even good managers can be really dumb. Bob Marcucci tried to sway me from my path, and I had to fight tooth and nail to stay the course.”
After Lightning, Marcucci told Lou that he should grow up, lose the falsetto, sing more standard arrangements of old songs. He hired an arranger, the man who did Bobby Darrin’s classic stuff, and that arranger put together a whole knew repertoire for Lou. Lou was skeptical.
“I thought, ‘are you kidding me? I have a hit that sold over 2 million copies, and you want me to lose my style?’ But I figured maybe he knew something I didn’t know. So I went to my gig in Framingham, outside Boston, and I sang all the standards, all the classics. ”
Lou was booed and heckled. The crowd –a huge crowd – wanted Lightning Strikes, Gypsy Cries and his other hits. They were not interested in the deep baritone of Ol’ Man River.
“Can you see me doin’ that?” Lou moans. “I’m boring myself just thinking about it.”
On his way out of Framingham, Lou tossed the songs into a dumpster, and from then on he trusted his intuition. He toured extensively, singing the hits, bringing his audience to its feet in adulation as they sang along. He knew what worked, and his easy style on stage, his natural delight in being there sold him.
From then on, Lou’s concerts were always packed. He toured all over the world, sang as one of the Golden Boys with Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian; he toured with Diana Ross and the Supremes, did duets with Lesley Gore. But he always did things his own way, maintaining his own backup singers: Twyla’s daughter Shirley, his sister Amy, a friend named Kay Schwemm and another named Bill Fabac–people he knew and trusted and trained himself.
While touring and living in England, he faced another choice. “Talk about forks. Do I get married? Or not? Everything in my life is going to change if I do.” He did. He married Miss United Kingdom Francesca Winfield, and together the couple had a son Christopher and a daughter Bianca. “Every choice I made then, even the professional ones, I made trying to make my wife happy, but, in the end, you have to realize you can’t make someone else happy.”
Francesca took the children to live near her parents in Texas, and Lou continued touring and recording. Lou maintained a close relationship with both his children, but last year his son was killed in a race car accident. The family dynamic has not yet managed to find its equilibrium.
“You don’t get over something like this,” he tells me. “But you learn to live with it. Like everything else life hands you, you have to take it as it comes.”
“Whenever I wished for more or wished I had come further, I reminded myself that I am what I am supposed to be at this time, I am where I am supposed to be. There are lots of people out there you can use to take yourself further. But I only wanted it to come from me because I have to be the one to live with it. I am not thrown by other people’s success, or by wishes.”
“And now I’m sayin’ to myself,” Lou laughs. “I’m 72, and I’m sayin’ ‘See? It still works. I’m still here.’”
He sure is. For 72, the guy looks great. His skin is smooth, his tall lanky frame is still muscular and taut; he’s got a full head of hair, and his green/gray eyes still sparkle under full lashes. This is not a rocker who abused himself; he’s stayed clean, took care of his instrument, and he is very well preserved.
But lately the industry itself has betrayed him. “The internet opened Pandora’s box for all of us,” he sighs. “The industry’s dead…It’s nothing anymore. I know what I was getting paid as a writer, producer, publisher, singer… No more! It’s all gone. You put out a record, and anyone can take it. Nothing belongs to you. Paul McCartney couldn’t even get a hit with his last album. Paul McCartney.”
Not long ago, Lou played a gig with Neil Sedaka and Natalie Cole. They sang one of Sedaka’s songs together, and, he says, “Natalie approached me and said, ‘We’ve all got to get together and do something about this.’ But what is there to do?”
Lou’s most recent addition to his extensive discography is Turquoise Trail, a mesmerizing collection of songs that are part mellow country, part folksy, and part good ol’ doo wop. At least in part because of his own history in the military service, Lou collaborated with other Pittsburgh legends to record The Soldier, to benefit US Veterans, and he donated an original song of his own called Drive-In Dreams to the Hope for Warriors Foundation, which benefits wounded veterans. (All can be found at Lou’s website.)
He admits, though: “I don’t write as much anymore, but when I do, I can write anywhere, on the street, at a restaurant, anywhere. But I’m not sure what’s the point anymore. You can’t protect your songs, and no one buys them.”
Yet, true to form, he has redefined himself again, hosting shows on Sirius Radio. He continues to perform the oldies, chooses themes around which to build his shows, and he signs a lot of autographs. His fans, he tells me, are the same people who loved him in the sixties, but now they’re bringing their children and grandchildren to the concerts, increasing his fan base.
But Lou can be restless. He’s always looking for the next project that will entertain him, absorb him. He thinks maybe he’ll write “that book.”
“So far, I’ve always shared only smoking mirrors, I only wanted to share the good side, the fun side because I don’t believe you can make a career out of talking about all the bad things in your life. But maybe it’s time to start mentioning it. Everyone thinks I’ve had a flawless life. Part of the reason is I project that kind of forward thinking, a peaceful person. If I began to tell some of the things… But I don’t want to get stuck in my anger or my bitterness. There are a lot of people out there who live on bitter – it’s more of an addiction than any wine or beer or shot or pill. I don’t want to be one of them.”