Saturday, February 16, 2019

Hats off to Larry Finnegan

"One-hit wonder from the early sixties" is the usual reductionist treatment that Larry Finnegan receives in his home country when it comes to his 1962 #11 hit record.  However, “Dear One” continues to evoke responses of "I love this song," and "You don't hear this song that often,” whenever it is played on oldies radio or heard streaming over a computer.  When it comes to attribution, "Dear One" is frequently mistaken to be an early Del Shannon song. While Finnegan did not have the same level of consistent commercial success in America as Del Shannon, Larry certainly made his own distinctive mark in terms of international hits, songwriting and producing records for a host of others.   Thanks to the internet, it is now easier to hear a reservoir of his recordings beneath the lightning strike moment of "Dear One." Equally important are the opportunity for others, outside of Sweden, to discover more about the underrated musician, composer, and producer behind a substantial stack of sweeping sixties sounds. 

The Inside Track
Larry was actually a student in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame when he had his worldwide hit in early 1962. When he arrived at Notre Dame in 1959 from Jamaica Estates, Queens, NY., he was already a versatile musician who was said to be competent on guitar, piano and drums. "Larry never took any music lessons," reveals his wife Sharon Finneran.  "He had an ear for music and was self-taught."  Larry came from a family of 9 children with 7 boys and 2 girls.  Both of his parents were born in Ireland and his father worked as a security guard for the New York Daily News.  Prior to Notre Dame, Larry attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn and ran for their track team.


Woodshedding, WLS & Courting Sudden Fame at Notre Dame
The legend at Notre Dame begins atop a creaky wooden floor of a dorm room in a collegiate Gothic-styled residence hall. "Larry Finneran was an extremely nice, unassuming guy. Our rooms were a few doors apart on the fourth floor of Morrissey Hall," recalls author Rich Wolfe. "He was also very quiet and often could be heard in his room playing his guitar. The big radio station in those days for ND students was WLS-Chicago. “Dear One” by Larry Finnegan started getting a lot of air time on WLS, particularly by Dick Biondi, their star DJ. Also, Arnie “Woo Woo" Ginsberg was playing it a ton in Boston." The dichotomous experience of being a recording star and student was just beginning for Larry.   Rich Wolfe elaborates: "One day I jokingly said to Larry, 'This guy Larry Finnegan is trying to live off your name.' He replied, 'That’s me.'  I laughed...a few days later found out it was true. It was so incongruous. He was the total opposite of what you would expect.  When the song later would come on WLS many rooms on the fourth floor would turn the volume on high."  Probably to the surprise of his Notre Dame classmates and many others, "Dear One" was not Larry's first record.  In 1959, Decca released "I'll Be Back Jack" a solid first effort, but it came nowhere close to the charts.  The song was later re-released on their Coral imprint in 1962 after the smashing success of “Dear One," but it sputtered again. Its commendable flipside "Ain't Nothing in this World" ambles easily along with its integration of a fluid banjo.



Old Town in New York
Another seemingly improbable aspect was that Larry's pop hit was released on Hy Weiss' Old Town Records which was a New York City label deeply devoted to R&B and doo wop. Hy Weiss was one of those colorful record industry characters who recorded and released the street corner sound as an owner of a step-ahead independent. (Interestingly, Weiss even has a co-writing credit for the Velvet Underground's "Foggy Notion" to his name.)  Larry co-wrote "Dear One" with older brother Vincent Finneran who at the time was in his senior year at Boston College.  In typical show-biz fashion, Hy Weiss changed Larry's surname of Finneran to the stage name of Finnegan. Being mistaken for a Del Shannon song factored in early on "Dear One."  This misidentification certainly helped to propel the song up the charts and eventual classic status. Still, Vincent was looking out for his brother. "A story I recall is that Larry said his brother shopped “Dear One” around NYC," conveys writer Cappy Gagnon. "One record label loved the song and felt it would be a good one for Del Shannon, Larry’s brother insisted that the song must be sung by Larry."  In addition, ace studio musicians like Gary Chester on drums and Dick Pitassy (Notre Dame class of 1965) on piano helped the recording breakthrough and stand out from the competition of the time.  "There was supposed to be a guitar solo on "Dear One," reveals musician Dick Pitassy. "Little did I know in the recording session that my piano playing would become the song's solo in the finished take." Hy Weiss was refreshingly true to his word when it came to supporting Larry and his family.  "Hy kept in touch with me even after Larry died, sending me money off and on," states Sharon Finneran. A well executed cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" is one of the highlights of his follow-up attempts on Old Town Records.  1963 saw the release of “Pick up the Pieces” and features a suitable arrangement by space-age guitar whiz Billy Mure.  Despite the lack of another hit in America, there is no denying that  "Dear One" made waves around the world and launched his professional career which would first take Larry to the recording meccas of Nashville and New York City.


RIC (Recording Industries Corp.) Records
After graduating from Notre Dame in spring of 1963 and completing his stint on Old Town Records, Finnegan next stop was RIC Records, a label, helmed by Joe Csida, with operations in both Nashville and New York City. The label's two bases seemed to perfectly coincide with Larry's affinity for pop country. The label’s initial offerings were the one-two punch of Rosie Grier, then a professional football star for the Los Angeles Rams, and Larry Finnegan.  Bobby Darin actually produced Grier's Soul City album in 1964. (Darin bought the Trinity Publishing company in 1963 from Joe Csida, who was formerly Bobby’s manager.)  For Finnegan, RIC went the sequel route with "Dear One, Part Two," but it failed to connect. The flip featured "Baton Rouge" which continues to stand the test of time. This lively and rollicking number was written by his brother Vincent and casts a celebratory mood.  Larry's next effort was a derivative novelty number "A Tribute to Ringo Starr -The Other Ringo" which spins off the 1964 Lorne Green's hit "Ringo," but ultimately tries too hard in its attempt to cash in on some of the Beatlemania.  While there was no chart success during his tenure, Larry gained invaluable experience in several facets of the music industry.



At RIC, he worked on the composition and production sides for a wide array of then peak-period pop styles (surf, soul and girl groups). These rare releases are aural testaments to his professional adaptability and skillfulness. 1964's "Surfin' in Bermuda" by the Cannon Brothers is a low-fidelity surf vocal number coated with the landlocked grit of  the Riverias and the Trashmen while West Coast harmonies and melodies can be detected under the haze.  Larry also composed and produced the soulful girl group rarity "Coolie" for Venita and The Cheries.  One of his most intriguing productions is "I'll Take You Back Back Again" from the Pittsburgh singer Florraine Darlin.  In its initial incarnation the song started as keyboard instrumental with an organ lead by the aforementioned Dick Pitassy.  Later the vocals of Florraine Darlin were added along with several additional layers of instrumentation-resulting in a catchy mid-tempo summer 1964 pop song that anticipates folk-rock while simultaneously echoing the Everly Brothers. Operating without a hit, momentum slipped away for the singles-oriented RIC Records by the mid-sixties. With the British Invasion in full effect, Larry saw the writing on the wall for heartland American acts.


One of his most intriguing endeavors during his time in New York was a 1964 girl group gem “Don’t Let it Happen Again” by the Kittens.  It actually featured two of Larry’s sisters (Mary & Christina) and is credited as a Finneran/Csida production and arranged by Dick Pitassy. It is also an example of the vast musical talent running in the Finneran family.  In addition, brother Vincent wrote the flipside “Nothin'." These days, this 45 exchanges hands in the amount of three figures.



The Tivoli Circuit-Summers ‘63 & ’64 in Sweden 
While his subsequent releases failed to return him to American charts, he was able to proceed forward with a successful career-extending move to Sweden.  Old Town releases like "Pretty Suzy Sunshine" raced up the charts in Sweden.  Sonet Records, lead by Gunnar Bergström, invited Larry to tour Sweden in summer 1963 and later signed him as a singer and songwriter. Dick Pitassy was part of Larry's backing band which included the Hi-Grades from England.  "We mainly played at what are known in Sweden as tivoli or fairgrounds," recalls Dick Pitassy. "Our musical performances were held in conjunction with other fair attractions and stage acts-even a beauty pageant one time." While Sonet Records gave Finnegan the initial incentive to break away from the rapidly changing American scene, his courageous and fortuitous move to Stockholm in 1965 quickly propelled him to stardom in Scandinavia and later in Germany. For Larry, Sweden was not totally foreign territory.  Finnegan's first exposure to Swedish sensibilities actually occurred at Notre Dame as a Communications Arts student. Finnegan, according to Claes-Hakean Olofsson, "Developed an interest in the Swedish welfare system (healthcare, disability pension, child allowance etc.) and as early as 1960 was describing Sweden as a leading country in these areas."   While he would have been on the periphery in the U.S., Larry could be on vanguard with his celebrity status in Sweden. "When I had my first child, Larry, Jr., Larry had me come to Sweden as we were living in more affordable Switzerland and presented me with a mink coat that had belonged to Princess Christina Magnuson," fondly remembers Sharon Finneran.  "A big picture of us was published on the back of one of their Expressen newspapers"  Larry's adventurous, ambitious and daring spirit propelled him beyond preordained domestic expectations and into seemingly uncharted worldwide realms.



Compounding his star status with his initiative, resolve and recording skills allowed Larry to become a major player in the Swedish music industry.  In Stockholm, he partnered with Swedish musician Rune Wallebom (a singer for the Violents) and established the record label Svensk American.  He also resurrected his publishing company Seven Brothers Music which was aptly named after his brothers of the same number.  In addition to producing and releasing several hits from Swedish acts like Sven-Ingvars, the label became home to several of Larry's own successful singles along with fittingly titled "My Type of Country." album.


Everyday, Everybody and Everytime
Besides refining his production skills during these years, Larry reached the peak of his own musical powers by straddling pop and country in Sweden. Along the way, he continued to develop his own distinctive guitar style which formed the back bone of "Everytime."  Obviously inspired by Buddy Holly's chiming and charming "Everyday" and Tommy Roe's inclusive "Everybody," Larry reeled off the lovely little "Everytime." This understated number is accented by a springing guitar tone where Finnegan is mostly likely utilizing the whammy bar in the best way. "Notice how it's in perfect sync rhythmically. It sounds pretty organic too, not to mention that it would be a pain to do that with a pedal or an amplifier effect," explains musician and writer Mike Fornatale. "As far a gear, I'll guess it's a Gretsch with a Bigsby vibrato." Overall, Larry's durable sounds satisfies listeners affinity for straightforwardness, sincerity and the plain-spoken, while convincingly expressing Larry's commitment to what he stood for and believed in.




The Crossroads of the Sixties in Sweden
Things truly did come into focus for Larry in Sweden. Stylistically, his records are at crossroads of pop, country and rock 'n'roll. Unquestionably, it’s the sound of middle and southern America played out in on Scandinavian stages during the mid-sixties.  It took a transatlantic crossing to have success with a sound that had the strongest distilled American elements.  It could be said that many of these Swedish releases were his most innately American thematically and stylistically.  These records continued to reflect the deeply rooted influences of Marty Robbins, Don Gibson, Johnny Horton and even Elvis. Larry could most authentically be himself playing this down home vernacular sound in foreign lands. While, 1966’s "Bound for Houston" will easily draws comparisons to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," it stands on its own with a chugging rhythm, requisite twangy and coiled guitars and a dollop of doo wop.



Somewhat hidden as a flipside, there is one intriguing musical departure with "Song for an Unknown Soldier." This could be said to be Larry’s Pet Sounds moment as it was released in 1966 and it addresses not only the sad plight of the solider, but also the senseless destruction of mother nature and human life itself through a series of striking vignettes. Musically it is reminiscent of the Beach Boys' "I'm Waiting for the Day" with its sectioned orchestration between the elucidating vocals. His unrivaled star status in both Sweden and later Germany allowed Larry to simultaneously retain his roots, while branching out in striking new directions.


Suzie  (and the Sunny Girls)
While Larry achieved Gold Record status in the States and celebrity status in Sweden as a recording act and singer, his arrangement, composition and production accomplishments tend to get overlooked both here and abroad. In Sweden and later in Germany, Finnegan continued to make strides in both the creative and technical sides of the recording process. For instance, he wrote and produced for the Dutch/Swedish singer Suzie (born Maria Pereboom in Holland) including her biggest Euro-hit "Johnny Loves Me" (not the "Johnny Angel" follow-up  by Shelley Fabares.)  Astoundingly, in October 1963, the Beatles opened for Suzie in Stockholm, Sweden!  In 1965, she married Mike Watson the bass player for the aforementioned backing group the Hi-Grades, the Lee Kings and later on intermittently for ABBA. Larry Finnegan was said to be fastidious in the studio and would require take after take.  Larry’s professional relationship with Suzie could be compared to Quincy Jones’ mentoring role and exacting production work with Lesley Gore.  Larry’s studio skills helped Suzie become one of the biggest stars in Sweden and in several other European countries.  Suzie’s “Johnny Loves Me” was even released in United States on the APT label in 1965. “Don’t Let it Happen Again” was the flipside.  Yes, that’s the aforementioned song previously recorded by the Kittens that featured two of Larry’s sisters almost a year earlier. Suzie also recorded "Don't Let it Happen Again" in German and Swedish. For a brief time 1967, Suzie led the Sunny Girls who have become international cult favorites over the years with the P.F. Sloan song "From a Distance." Larry & Suzie's musical relationship ended on a strong note in 1969 with an enthralling German-English cover of  "Da Doo Ron Ron," This record perfectly encapsulates Larry's production ability to capture that flash feeling of heart-lifting excitement.



Germany and the Race to the Moon
Thanks to Bear Family Records, his German language recordings originally released on Vogue Schallplatten became readily more accessible due to their inclusion on their "Komm Doch Zu Mir" CD release from 2000. Larry's quick and strong grasp of the German language and the Schlager style is presented in stunning sonic clarity. The Youtube era revealed one of his last and most adventurous undertakings before it was removed for some reason. His production on "Race to the Moon" by Gordon Young and the California Brass has almost an otherworldly Joe Meek feel to it.  Besides both producers being deeply enamored by the sound of Buddy Holly, there are other overlapping connections and small degrees of separation.  During it time on charts, Joe Meek took notice of “Dear One” and had Tony Victor cover it with the Tornados of “Telstar” fame supplying the rhythm backing on their rendition. Joe Meek also worked with the legendary Swedish rock & roller Jerry Williams.  Jerry Williams (Sven Erik Fernström)  recorded  his 1964's "More Dynamite" album with the aforementioned Dick Pitassy who composed "Race to the Moon."

1969 Larry Finnegan production of a Dick Pitassy composition


Back Home Again in Indiana
In 1970, Larry returned to South Bend, Indiana and a drastically changed America after five years of being overseas. Larry appeared to make the disorientating transition back in his usual genial, dignified and resilient manner. "I don’t recall when I first learned that Larry was a Notre Dame guy, but I became a fan.  Five years after I graduated in 1966, I was back at ND as Assistant Director of Admissions.  I became a Big Brother.  A year later, I was the Director of Big Brothers," relates Cap Gagnon. "A year later, Larry volunteered.  I can’t recall what his job was then, but I seem to recall that he said something about having formerly been a singer………and I said something like, 'You’re THAT guy!!'"  Gagnon continues: "He was a wonderful and modest man.  I asked him what happened to him after Notre Dame.  He said that he went to Sweden.  When I asked why, he said 'After the Beatles, the music tastes changed and guys like me couldn’t get arrested'  He mentioned a long list of folks who were in Europe with him.  The only one I remember was Big Dee Clark (“Raindrops”), although I believe he also mentioned Jackie Wilson."  It could be conjectured that it was a difficult shift in situation as Larry went from doing things on pretty much his own terms as a stratospheric star in Europe to quotidian workaday life between the prevailing blue-gray skies on the flatlands of South Bend.  However, Larry once again demonstrated his adaptability and ingenuity.  "When we returned to South Bend, my home town, he went to work as an advertising manager for Wheel Horse Products," explains Sharon Finneran.  "He invented a safety lawn mower which I have the patent for."  Wheel Horse Products was a South Bend-based manufacturer of lawn and garden equipment.  The company was later acquired in 1986 by the Toro Company.  In July 1973 everything came to a halt as Larry tragically died of a brain tumor, only a week after being diagnosed, at the way too young age of 34.  He was buried in the Cedar Grove Cemetery on the Notre Dame campus.   


Going Global into Crossover Country 
His radical (at the time) relocation to Sweden allowed Larry to freely express a middle American rock-pop-country aesthetic deep in the '60s.  Meanwhile, his early '60s pop contemporaries (e.g, Terry Stafford, Curtis Lee, Johnny Tillotson, Tommy Roe, Brian Hyland) had to navigate the tricky path, with varying results, to stay viable in the post-British Invasion era of American pop music of the mid to late '60s.  All in all, he didn't need to recast himself into something he was not in order to get with the capricious cosmic times. In a sense, Larry followed the brave tradition of American roots musicians who made the bold break to Europe where they were better appreciated in many cases-while blazing his own international and independent path. Larry was also before his time as country and pop did not coalesce together in the United States in the mainstream until the breakthrough of Glen Campbell.  Photographs from his time abroad reveal a look of quiet self-determination on his face as he pushed himself into new territories both musically and culturally. In the face of numerous challenges, he found opportunities to continue as a musician while also evolving as arranger, composer and producer.  The break away from the familiar allowed him to realize his hopes, dreams and aspirations as a crossover act on international and stylistics levels.


Out of this World
Finally, Larry is remembered  as a class act, a steadfast worker and most importantly as a good person by those who were fortunately able to interact with him during his too short time on earth.  Wherever his captivating record "Dear One" is played, Larry's musical spirit is readily recognized even if he himself is not. On one level, this seems appropriate as he seemed to be one to let the music speak for itself.  However, his wide-spanning, yet unsung life story is so remarkable that it simply compels long overdue acknowledgment and "Hats off to Larry." 

Acknowledgments & Sources: Sharon Finneran, Mike Fornatale, Jörgen Johansson, Dick Pitassy, Rich Wolfe, The Spectropop Discussion Forum Archives, Bomp List Refugees, Bear Family Records, 45cat.com, Discogs.com

Special mention and thanks to Cappy Gagnon and Kathleen Herzog as their enthusiasm, responsiveness and willingness to help provided the momentum to make this project possible.