The Racket Squad and the Fenways were two very popular Pittsburgh bands led by vocalist and songwriter Sonny DiNunzio. The Fenwasys released singles on several national labels including Imperial, Roulette and Chess along with cuts on Nick Cenci’s Pittsburgh based Co&Ce label. The Racket Squad released two albums and 9 singles on Jubilee Records. Both bands entertained thousands of Pittsburghers from 1964 through 1970 appearing many times on Clark Race’s Television show, Channel 11’s Come Alive show, and with appearances opening up for the Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Roy Orbison, and many other acts. They performed at area night clubs sometimes seven days a week. Their singles “Hung Up” in 1965 and “Walk” were hits on Pittsburgh radio stations KDKA, KQV, WMCK, WIXZ and more. In Billboard Magazine the Fenways were billed as “Pittsburgh’s Answer to the Beatles”. As instrumentalists they played back up to the “Vogues” on their number 4 national hit “You’re the One”. The Vogues recorded Sonny DiNunzio’s original songs “True Lovers’ that is featured on their “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” albums.
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Sonny DiNunzio and the Chaps
Sebastian (Sonny) DiNunzio, who grew up in the Kiski Valley, joined the doo-wop vocal group The Three Chaps while attending Apollo High School in 1959. The Chaps were comprised of George Esposito, Joe Cesario, Bob Savastano, Sonny and his friend Ron Fulton. They performed on the Pittsburgh record hop circuit. Sonny’s sister brought the Chaps to the attention of her boss record producer and label owner Nick Cenci. Cenci recorded the Chaps singing two of Sonny DiNunzio’s songs "One Lovely Yesterday / Perfect Night for Love" and released a single on the New York based label Brent Records in 1960. The single was aired on Pittsburgh radio and led to local television appearances. For their second single the Chaps worked with Lennie Martin, who had arranged the Skyliners hit "Since I Don't Have You". Martin recorded DiNunzio’s tune "Heaven Must Have Run Out of Angels" with Lou Christie singing backup vocals. The Chaps broke up when the single failed to get airplay. Cenci recorded DiNunzio’s song “True Lovers” and the song “Will You or Won’t You” but did not release them until 1965 on the Co&Ce label.
Missed the big Shindig
Joe Cesario, George Esposito and Bob Saastano moved to Los Angeles where they restarted the group and found work in the LA club scene. Cinvincing Sonny to join them on the West Coast they became the Four Chaps. Del-Fi Records owner Bob Keene, who had produced Richie Valens, gave them a big break. Keene got them an audition for the brand new TV music show Shindig. In early 1962 they won the audition and performed in the pilot of Shindig that was titled "Young America Swings the World. They appeared with Jackie DeShannon, P.J. Proby and Dionne Warwick. Wearing red-jackets the Chaps performed the song "Lonesome Traveler" backed by the Glen Campbell on guitar. The producer Jack Good wanted to make the Four Chaps regulars on the show. But the pilot sat in the Jack Good’s closet for two years after the networks passed on it. The Chaps big break fizzled on timing. Sonny DiNunzi returned to Pittsburgh. Producer Chuck Barris viewed the pilot tape in 1964, love it, and launched the show. Shindig finally went on the air on the ABC-TV network in September of 1964. It was a top rated show that ran until January of 1966 when it was replaced by Batman.
Back in Pittsburgh Sonny DiNunzio joined the group the Townsmen who had formed in 1964. They renamed themselves the Fenways. The members were Sonny DiNunzio as lead vocalist, bassist Ronnie George, drummer Alan Bills and guitarist Bob Ainsworth. Diunzio and the Fenway turned to Nick Cenci again to record their music. Cenci produced several singles that the Fenways released in 1964. They released their first single with two Doo Wop style ballads “The Number One Song in the Country: and "Nothing to Offer You" on Nick Cenci’s Ricky C label in the summer of 1964. After the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 the pop music world shifted. Doo Wop was dead. The Fenways grew the hair and became a Brit Pop rock band. Their second release was the bright Brit Pop tune “Be Careful Little Girl” which distributed nationally on Roulette Records. Nick Cenci released the Fenway’s pop single “Humpty Dumpty / Nothing To Offer You” on his Bevmar July of 1964 that was distributed by Chess Records. Billboard Magazine listed the single as a “hot record” in July of 1964.
Opened for the Stones, Dave Clark Five and ......
As the Fenways popularity grew through airplay in Pittsburgh, they we added to the bills of the biggest shows in Pittsburgh. The Fenway’s song “Humpty Dumpty” was a hit on Pittsburgh radio in the summer of 1964. On June 5 of 1964 the Fenways opened for the Dave Clark Five at the Civic Arena. On June 17 1964 the Fenways opened for the Rolling Stones at West View Park. They performed for 14,300 fans at the Civic Arena on December 28, 1964 at the KQV “Christmas Shower of Stars” concert. Starring Roy Orbison, the 4 Seasons, Bobby Rydell, Reparata and the Delrons, Vic Dana and the Fenways the show broke the then Civic Arena attendance records. The Fenways made many appearances on Chuck Brinkman’s local TV dance show "Come Alive". They also performed at concerts with the Shangri-La's, Lee Dorsey, Lou Christie, Chad and Jeremy, and the Skyliners. In between concerts they appeared at Pittsburgh area clubs sometimes performing seven nights a week.
A Walk to the Top of the Charts
The Fenways signed with Imperial Records, the label of Ricky Nelson and Fats Domino to release their most successful single “Walk / Whip And Jerk” that was produced by Nick Cenci. “Walk” reached the top of the Pittsburgh airplay charts on KDKA, KQV and WMCK in March of 1965. Receiving national airplay Walk also landed on the national charts. In a Billboard Magazine article on March 13, 1965 the Fenways were billed as “Pittsburgh’s answer to the Beatles”. “Walk” which had a “Pretty Woman” style baseline was their most successful single. It was the number 11 song on KQV’s 1965 Top 100 Chart. The Fenways also released the single “The Fight" / "Hard Road Ahead" on Blue Cat Records in 1965.
“You’re Not the One”
The Fenways recorded a possible follow-up hit single to “Walk” in 1965. It was a cover of the Petula Clark song "You're The One." Nick Cenci produced the recording session in Pittsburgh at Gateway studios. After hearing an demo tape from the Val-Aires, a Turtle Creek group, Cenci came to believe that lead singer Bill Burkette of the Val-Aires was a better fit for the song that Sonny DiNunzio. Cenci erased DiNunzio's vocals. The Val-Aires recorded their vocals over top of the instrumental tracks of the Fenways. The Val-Aires released “You’re the One” on their own Blue Star label. Nick persuaded John Rook, program director of KQV to play the single. With local airplay and strong sales Nick signed them to the Co & Ce label as the “Vogues” and distributed the record nationally. The song became a national hit in September of 1965 reaching number four on the Billboard charts. The Vogues went on to score 14 national hit records. They recorded DiNuzio’s song “True Lovers” on their first album. The Fenways made it to number four as an un-credited back-up band.
Future Jefferson Airplane Drummer Joins the Fenways
In 1966 Sonny Di’Nunzio called drummer Joey Covington of Uniontown offering him a steady gig with the Fenways, Covington had toured as a drummer with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, the Shangri'la's, Billy Stewart, the Supremes, Donald Jenkins and the Delighters and the Shirelles. DiNuzio remembered Joey from his days playing with the Pittsburgh area band the Vibra-Sonics. Covington joined the Fenways playing with them seven days a week at the Staircase, Mancini’s, and other Pittsburgh area clubs. Joey recorded four singles with the Fenways in 1966 that were released on Nick Cenci’s Co&Ce label. The singles were the rockabilly guitar sounding “A Go Go” / “I Move Around” and the “c”/ “Satisfied” release. Covington moved in 1967 to California where he became a drummer and hit songwriter for Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane. The Fenways released their last Co&Ce single “ Theme For Pammy / I'm Your Toy” in 1967.
The Racket Squad
DiNuzio re-launched the Fenways in 1968 as the psychedelic pop rock band the Racket Squad. The members of the Racket Square weresinger Sonny DiNunzio, bassist Ron George, Bob "Hop" Ainsworth on guitar and a series of three drummers that included Alan "Dale" Bills, Joey Covington, and Gene Molenaro. Sonny DiNunzio’s cousin DJ Terry Lee of radio station WMCK managed the band.
The Racket Squad signed with Jubilee Records a New York City based label. During that era on the Jubilee roster were an eclectic groups of acts that included the Cadillacs, Joey Dee And The Starliters, The Happenings, Mary Wells, Emmy Lou Harris and Italian tenor Enzo Stuarti The Racket Squad released nine singles and two albums on Jubilee. The first Jubilee single “Hung Up” was a hit in the Pittsburgh Market in 1967. They released a second single in 1967 (Just Like) Romeo And Juliet / Little Red Wagon. In 1968 they released four singles with the song “Loser”, a remake of a Skyliners’ song, getting significant airplay in Pittsubrgh. Their first Jubilee album “The Racket Squad” was released in 1968.
The “Corners of You Mind” album released in 1969 on Jubilee featured a collection of their previously release sings that included the songs “Loser”, “Hung Up” and the cover of (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet. Mike Lewis co-produced and wrote most of the songs with Stuart Wiener Only one cut was written by the Racket Squad, Jubilee release four Racket Squad single in 1968, two in 1969, and a last one in 1970. Despite the distribution from a national label the Racket Squad was busted in its efforts to land a song on the national charts.
The Racket Squad's repertoire was a mixed bag of songs that ranged from Frankie Valie / Gary Puckett like Pop rock tunes like "Hung Up", "Loser" and "That's How Much I Love My Baby" to psychedelic rock songs such as "Sweet Little Smoke" and "Suburban Life". All of the songs featured the band's strong vocals. Their producers made them into a band in search of a consistent sound.
Both of the Racket Squad albums were reissued as a double CD released Racket Squad/Corners of Your Mind in 1999 by the Collectibles label.
Frustrated by lack of success the Racket Squad broke up in 1970. Sonny DiNunzio formed the lounge band Sebastian that his cousin Terry Lee managed and recorded. Sebastian performed on the Pittsburgh night club circuit. Sonny recorded his song That's How Much I Love My Baby" in 1976 but it did not receive airplay. Sonny died in a car crash in 1978. A concert to benefit DiNunzio’s famil was held at the Stanley Theater in December of 1978. The Vogues, Skyliners and other Pittsburgh acts performed. Station 13Q promoted the concert on Don Bombard's oldies show. Terry Lee released the compilation album “Sonny” in 1978 to honor his cousin’s music