Brooklyn’s own Alive N Kickin’ is celebrating a half century of performing its unique brand of rock ‘n’ roll. The group officially formed in 1968 when the six members were still teenagers with a friendship based on their love of music. The original lineup featured vocalists Pepe Cardona and Sandy Toder, Bruce Sudano on keyboards, Woody Wilson on bass, John Parisio on guitar and Ron Pell on drums.
Thanks to their friend, pop recording artist Tommy James, they landed a recording contract with his label Roulette Records under the guidance of label owner Morris Levy.
James originally offered to let the group record “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” a song he had co-written. Ultimately he decided to keep it for himself and it became a No. 2 hit for Tommy James & the Shondells in 1969.
James did offer Alive N Kickin’ the opportunity to record another song he had written, “Tighter, Tighter,” which he also produced for the group.
The song was released in May, 1970 and remained on the pop chart for 16 weeks. It sold over a million copies and climbed to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. A second charting single “Just Let It Come,” didn’t fare as well, only reaching No. 69, and the group’s next two singles, “Good Ole Lovin’ Back Home,” and “London Bridge,” failed to chart in 1971.
Recently, the group appeared as part of state Sen. Marty Golden’s Concerts in the Park event at Marine Park. Golden presented Cardona with a Senate proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of Alive N Kickin’, whom he called “Brooklyn’s Band.”
Cardona took the time to answer some questions for this newspaper.
Home Reporter: Congratulations on 50 years of Alive N Kickin’. That’s quite an accomplishment. What’s the story behind “Tighter, Tighter” and your friendship with Tommy James? How did you meet and how did he end up producing you?
Cardona: Sandy Toder’s brother Richie was married to a girl named Doris who happened to be very good friends with Ronnie, Tommy James’ wife, at the time. Doris somehow managed to get Tommy to come see us perform at a little club in Coney Island. I can still picture Tommy sitting all alone on the side watching us.
Home Reporter: Tommy was huge at the time with a string of hit records.
Cardona: Yeah, and he liked the band. We didn’t think anything would come of it at the time. But he did get Bruce and our lead guitar player Woody Wilson to come up to his apartment in New York and together they wrote “Ball of Fire,” (a top-20 hit for Tommy James & the Shondells in 1969). So, that kind of cemented the relationship a little more and in 1969 Tommy brought us the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” We rehearsed it and we were excited about it, but then Tommy came down and said he was going to record it on his own. He promised to get us another song, and eight months later, he brought us “Tighter, Tighter.” He said this was a better song for us because it had a girl and boy part so Sandy and I could duet on it.
Home Reporter: What was it like to be signed to Roulette Records? There are so many stories about Morris Levy and how he conducted business.
Cardona: Well, we were signed to Roulette for two years. It was great for us and to tell you the truth, we weren’t privy to any of the background of Morris Levy and how he did business. As far as we were concerned, we had a record deal and that was great. The excitement of hearing your song on the radio overrode everything.
Home Reporter: Where were you the first time you heard “Tighter, Tighter” on the radio?
Cardona: I was driving in a Toyota Corolla along Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues by the Junction around Brooklyn College. I’ll never forget it. I heard the intro and couldn’t believe it. I remember listening to it on WABC and then for some reason switching over to WMCA and they were playing it too.
Home Reporter: How long was it between the time you recorded it and the first you time you heard it on the radio?
Cardona: We recorded it in February, 1970, and it was released in May. And then it started to go up the charts. I still have all the charts – every issue of Record World, Cashbox and Billboard – I judiciously bought every single copy, every single week. I have them all in order, from when “Tighter” first entered the charts.
Home Reporter: Why do you think the follow-up single didn’t do as well?
Cardona: You know, I didn’t know if any of the songs we had written for that album were better than “Just Let It Come,” but one thing’s for sure, “Just Let It Come” wasn’t the best choice. That we know. But Morris Levy brought it to us and said, ‘Look, this is your next single.’ So we had no choice. He said if we didn’t want to do it he would get somebody else to do it. Any of the other songs on that album, “Kentucky Fire” might have been a good one. There was also “Mississippi Mud.”
Home Reporter: “Jordan” is my favorite song on the album.
Cardona: Yeah, “Jordan” was a good one. We performed “Jordan” on a couple of the TV shows we did. Bruce co-wrote it with Woody.
Home Reporter: Another subsequent single, “London Bridge,” was written by David Gates, who went on to great success with the group Bread. Why do you think it failed to perform for you?
Cardona: Levy wasn’t interested in it. They just shelved it and did nothing to promote it. If Tommy had continued to be a part of our process of getting a follow-up single, or perhaps writing us a follow-up single, even after “Just Let It Come” bombed, we might have had another hit.
Home Reporter: You recently received a proclamation from state Sen. Marty Golden. That must have been a very rewarding experience.
Cardona: That was really awesome. It was at Marine Park and I was totally surprised by it. It was very cool and a lot of people showed up. It was like a mini-Woodstock with the people stretched out on the lawn.
Home Reporter: Does it bother you when people call Alive N Kickin’ a “one hit wonder?”
Cardona: Alive N Kickin’ broke up shortly after “London Bridge” bombed. We were very disgruntled. Woody Wilson and I left the band and Sandy Toder continued as the single lead singer with the rest of the band for next three months, and then they broke up. Three years later in 1976, I put the band back together again, but this time with no aspirations of having a hit or anything And you know what, 50 years later I have Alive N Kickin’ and I don’t look back.