The Demensions are a vocal group from the early 1960's out of Bronx, New York. Lenny Dell was spotted by a music teacher in high school and was asked to join the chorus. Before long, he was a part of an elite group of gifted singers called "The Melody Singers." It was in this group where he became friends with fellow singer Howie Margolin. They would sing together after school and decided to form a group. They recruited Marissa Martelli from City Island, and Charlie Peterson from their neighborhood, and The Demensions were born. They worked on their repertoire and arranged a unique version of the Judy Garland classic "Over The Rainbow". After showing it to a friend of Lenny's musical father, they were invited to record it, and it became a huge hit. This would lead them to appearances on The Dick Clark Show and performances in many classic venues throughout their career. The Demensions are still going strong today. I recently caught up with Lenny Dell.
R.V.B. - Hi Lenny, how are you.
L.D. - I'm doing good Rob.
R.V.B. - So you're a Long Island guy?
L.D. - I've lived on Long Island for the last forty years.
R.V.B. - Where about?
L.D. - Commack, Long Island.
R.V.B. - Oh, I grew up in Smithtown.
L.D. - Well then you know this area very well.
R.V.B. - Did you ever go to the Commack Arena?
L.D. - Oh sure, when it was alive and well, and then they turned it into a flea market. They knocked it down and made a big shopping center.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I think it's a Target now.
L.D. - Where are you now Rob?
R.V.B. - I'm out in Coram, by Port Jefferson. I moved here from Smithtown in 1991. Smithtown was real rural back then.
L.D. - Smithtown is still nice. My son has a house out in Smithtown. We're in Smithtown Township here, in Commack. Townline Road separates Huntington from Smithtown township as you know. I'm on the Smithtown side.
R.V.B. - So I guess the guy rode the bull all the way around there.
L.D. - (Hahaha) He probably did yes. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - When you were young, what kind of music was floating around your household and how did you get involved in singing?
L.D. - My dad was a professional musician. He worked at the "Copa Cabana" for twenty five years during his career. He was an excellent trumpet player. He played for Sinatra, Bennet, Darin, Tony Martin, Jerry Vale... you name them. I started playing piano at about 9 years old. My sister is nine years older than me and was a concert pianist. She worked with a really wonderful piano professor from Julliard. She was a great inspiration on the piano. I used to listen to her in my living room, playing the piano. My dad was always practicing the trumpet, keeping his lip in shape. We had a lot of talent in the family and I guess I followed suit. I was taking piano lessons from a good friend of my fathers, who lived about nine or ten blocks away from where we did in the Bronx. I started to understand how to read music. Then high school came around. I had never really had gotten into the vocal end of it, but by that time I was a pretty decent piano player. I always loved to sing on my own, but I was never one to really push that, until I was picked by the choral instructor. I attended Christopher Columbus high school. I guess he realized that I had some quality in my voice, and asked if I would be interested in joining the regular chorus in school, which performed the auditorium. He had worked with me, when he realized I had some potential. I would stay after school and he would teach me certain breathing techniques etc. He was almost like a guru for me. I did love music so I took him up on it. From there, he elevated me to an elite group called "The Melody Singers." It was a group of about twenty to twenty five singers. I became part of that as a baritone second tenor. That is where I met Howie Margolin. We got to be good friends. He was a baritone and I was a second tenor. He said "Lenny, why don't we get together and do some harmonies. Come over my house." He had a piano and he was very musically inclined also. He never had any lessons but he had a lot of innate ability musically. We became good friends and I would go over his house on Lydig Avenue in the Bronx, and he would come over my house, just for the sake of singing and enjoying music and harmony. One day we looked at one another and said "You know what, why don't we see if we could get a couple of more members from the "Melody Singers" and maybe form a group?" We loved doo wop music and it was certainly prevalent at the time. My dad had giving me a lot of encouragement. I had gone to see him at the "Copa Cabana". He had brought me there many times and I had the opportunity of gaining a lot on insight from all of these great professionals. So, between what Howie and I did, and my father and my sister being musicians in the family... between me loving music, one thing led to another and we did get a fellow by the name of Charlie Peterson to join us... he was a tenor. Now we had a baritone 2nd tenor lead which was me, Charlie Peterson as a first tenor and we started rehearsing together singing "In The Still Of The Night, or One Summer Night." Whatever we could sing and enjoy. We started doing this more and more, and getting a little serious about it. Howie and I looked at one another... we loved Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliner's and had a lot of respect for their sound, their harmonies, and their beautiful music... and thought about maybe shadowing that situation. They had Janet, that wonderful soprano in their group. I said "let's try to be different, like The Skyliners and The Platters. At that time, there weren't that many vocal groups around 59 or 60 that had a girl soprano singer. We got a hold of Marissa Martelli, who had just come from Italy five years before... to come to America with her family. She lived in City Island and she had just an absolutely gorgeous voice. She was a beautiful girl physically and had a voice like an angel. She used to love to sing and we knew that, so we approached her one day and said "Listen, we're putting a group together and see if we can try to do something in the record industry... would you be interested in joining the group?" She was all for it, and that's how the Demension's really started. After Howie and I came up with the idea for doing "Over The Rainbow"... and me being the musician in the group with piano experience and chordal experience, I came up with doing "Over The Rainbow" in a very different way. I turned it around completely and actually created a different song.
R.V.B. - It's a beautiful arrangement.
L.D. - Thank you. That's exactly what our focus was and where we wanted to go with this. We wanted to be different and have our own recognition. I don't mean this in a demeaning way but we didn't want to be just another doo wop group. That's why we put Marissa in the group and asked her to join. I felt the best thing to do was to take some of the old standards and do them our way. Change melody, change harmonics and incorporate our sound and our concept. I'm sure you know Rob, how different "Over The Rainbow" was from Judy Garlands version.
R.V.B. - Oh yeah, like I said It's a beautiful arrangement. Now in that time period in the late 50's, why was New York, the Bronx, and Brooklyn a breeding ground for vocal groups?
L.D. - I wish I could answer that. (Hahaha) I can only elude to the fact that the Bronx and Brooklyn had a lot in common. A lot of famous vocal groups came out of there. Larry Chance came out of the Bronx. Bobby Darin was a Bronx boy. Dion who is a friend of mine, even before things really got going with us. Of course, I'm a Bronx boy from the Allerton Avenue area. Marissa was from City Island. Howie was from the Lydig Avenue Pelham - Pelham Parkway area. Charlie Peterson was from the Pelham Bay area. We were all in close proximity and we all went to Christopher Columbus High School. I just think that... you mentioned the terminology "Breeding ground" and it was just natural.
R.V.B. - Did you sing on the street corners also?
L.D. - Oh yes, absolutely. We use to do that all the time even before I got together with Howie. I'll never forget, there was a drug store called Liscio's, and it was about three or four blocks away from where I lived. A lot of the guys used to get together. We were all ball players. I've been an athlete my whole life and I'm still playing ball... believe it or not at this ripe old age. I'm still playing full court basketball on occasion. I try to stay in shape and always loved sports, exercise and things like that. There were a lot of guys who played ball together...softball in the schoolyard at P.S. 89, which was a grammar school that we attended. That was right across the street from this drug store I was talking about. We would commiserate and get together on that corner and certain guys had musical talent, vocal talent and I would get together with anybody and sing. We'd find hallways, we'd find bathrooms in the school where there was a natural echo. Like Kenny Vance and the Planetones "Looking For An Echo". We would do that readily. Then along came Marissa, Howie, and then getting together with my uncle Phil. Charlie Peterson decided that he didn't want to pursue a career in music. I think his parents were very much against him getting into the music industry. They wanted him to concentrate on college. By the way, my father was the one through his connection at the "Copa Cabana", with Irv Spice who owned Mohawk Records. Once I thought we were ready... we rehearsed and we had Marissa in the group, we almost had "Over The Rainbow" completed, but the bridge was not really complete... we had enough of it together to show my father that we could sing and we had something. I believed in it. I said "Dad, I don't know if you would believe in it or not, but I would appreciate it if you would listen to the group. If you believe in the group, maybe perhaps some of your connections at the "Copa" would come into play, and you might be able to get us heard by somebody." So my father said "Sure Lenny, bring the group over. I'll listen to it and we'll see where we go from there." He was very impressed with the group. Irv Spice was one of the musician fellas who contracted all the strings for all the big stars. He was a bass player that my dad was close with. My father knew that he had a small record company by the name of Mohawk. He told Irv about me and the rest of the group and said "Irv, why don't you come over to the house, some Monday or whatever, and they'll audition for you, and tell me what you think. Maybe we can do something?" Sure enough, Irv Spice came over the house that next Monday... we were all ready to go at that point. Howie and I had written a little thing called "Nursery Rhime Rock". It's the flip side of "Over The Rainbow". We were able to do that for him. It was a little novelty thing that we had taught the rest of the group. We also showed him the arrangement that we had for "Over The Rainbow". My dad really helped us with the bridge on that song. Having the musical knowledge that he did, he helped us really put it together and complete it. Spice came over the house and heard "Over The Rainbow" and completely flipped out. He loved the group. He thought it was something very, very beautiful and different. He believed in it. A couple of weeks later we were slated for a studio recording session. Before that happened, Charlie Peterson gave me a phone call two weeks before we were ready to go into the session, saying that his parents did not want him to pursue the career in music and wanted him to concentrate on his studies. It completely destroyed me and even my father at that time. I was like "What do we do now, we don't have a first tenor?" We were about to sign a contract. We're an Italian family, and my mother was downstairs eating dinner. I went down there and I told them what happened with this phone call. I said "Where do we go from here? I'm so disappointed." We were eating and thinking together as a family and my mother said "Lenny, what about your uncle Phil?" This was my father's younger brother... with a tremendous voice and a tremendous talent. I looked at her and I said "Mom, uncle Phil is great, and he's got the best voice in the world, but he's seventeen years older than we are." We were like 16 years old at the time, and uncle Phil is like 34 years old. My mother was a very insightful individual and she said "Your uncle is very young at heart. He's 34 but he looks more like 21." He was very youthful in his appearance. He loved music and he loved to perform, make people happy, had a great personality. Long story short... we thought about it, and thought about it, and my dad and I looked at one another and we said "What do we have to lose? Let's call uncle Phil and see if he's interested in coming over the house and learning the song... and maybe be part of the group." Well, no sooner did we call him, and a half an hour later... he lived in Massapequa... a half an hour later he was over my house with bells on, wanting so much, to be a part of this. He did not care about the fact that he was older than us. I was very close with him as my uncle anyway. So Phil became the tenor and the rest is history. We taught him his part and went into the studio, and right after we recorded it, it came out on May 13th and Bruce Morrow was the first one to play it. He called us "The kids from the Bronx" and the rest is history Rob.
L.D. - It was on 7th Avenue and Broadway, If I'm not mistaken. It was called "Dick Charles Studio". It was more like a demo studio. Bell Sound back then was very big studio for recording the big stars that were out at that time. Irv had a very small company. It was very humble all the way around. "Dick Charles" really had a good sound. We recorded "Over The Rainbow" in that little studio on 7th Avenue. The recording was certainly professional and it was fine. Bruce Morrow believed in the song and he believed in the group and he called us "The kids from the Bronx." "They're new... listen to this song and what they did with "Over The Rainbow"." The song broke in New York before it broke anywhere else. It's very unprecedented. It's not the kind of thing that happens... as you must know Rob, very often. It usually has to go through places like Cleveland, and Chicago, and test areas, before New York becomes heroic and says "You heard it first in New York." (Haha) But in this case "Over The Rainbow” was certainly heard first. Thanks to Bruce Morrow... he was definitely the catalyst that helped to spark the sale of that record.
R.V.B. - Did you have to immediately go out and support it?
L.D. - Yes, we must have traveled 50,000 miles all over the United States promoting the record. The record was really taking off in all different areas of the country. They started to distribute it all over. We had Yankee Distributers, if I remember correctly. A guy named Jerry was head of Yankee Distributers. He started getting the song to radio stations all over. Where ever we started to break with the song, Marissa's father... don't ask me how, I still don't know to this day, how he had the time to do what he did, but we used his station wagon to go all over. He was like the road manager and of course he wanted to keep an eye on his daughter. I can't blame him because as I said, she was a very attractive young lady. He just wanted to make sure everything was on the up and up and ok. He loved the group also, and he was very into what we were doing, and he was very proud of the fact that his daughter was part of this.... just coming over from Italy. My father and he were Italian and they got together, the same as us. So Mr. Martelli became our road manager and took us all over the place: Philadelphia, Ohio, the mid west, you name it. He took us in that car. There were all kinds of hops at that time. That's how you promoted your record at that time. We were at outdoor theaters. They were very big at that time also. We were on the concession stands. We worked at Philly very, very often with Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, who was a friend from way back and still is a good friend. We still perform at Westbury Music Fair on the same bill. He closes a lot of the shows that we do. Dick Fox produces it at Westbury. We did a venue for Mickey B. also and he's another guy who really liked and promoted the group on B103. I'm just trying to give you a breakdown of all the things that have taken place to make "Over The Rainbow" happen.
R.V.B. - Let me ask you this? On your original tour with "Over The Rainbow", are there any shows that stand out?
L.D. - Yeah. (Hahaha) I would say "Dick Clark" was the top of the heap... so to speak. We did Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and that was nationwide. It was great to be with Dick Clark. He really liked the group. Not only did we do his Philadelphia show, we did his New York show. He had the Saturday night show in the city. We did that two or three times. If anything stands out, that certainly stands out the most. At that time, we were all but 17 years old and it was just a great thrill. Another great thrill was the fact that we were still in high school when "Over The Rainbow" became a hit record. I was graduating that year with Howie, and the whole school celebrated the fact that we had this success. We were honored by the principle. There was an auditorium gathering, just to honor us. It was just a great time in general for me and the rest of the group.
R.V.B. - Did you get to play in your own school?
L.D. - Oh yeah, before "Over The Rainbow" came out, I actually played the whole score of "My Fair Lady" in the school auditorium. I played the score on the piano. I backed up the entire presentation. Howie and I did a lot of solo work as part of the "Melody Singers" in front of the parents in the auditorium. We were just very much part of the auditorium.
L.D. - Let me just back up a little bit. In 1962, Irv Spice decided that maybe it was a good idea that we go on to a bigger and more capable company. I think he did just about all he felt he could do. Let's face it... he was one person. His cousin Johnny Goldfein was a lawyer and a partner with him. There was just so much money that he could afford to put into promoting us at that time. I guess he thought it was a good time to gain some financial revenue by selling us, and giving us the opportunity to be with a company that could get behind us and give us a little more promotion. I think he corresponded with Henry Jerome of Coral Records. He was the big A&R man for Coral Records, which was part of Decca Records... Brunswick, Coral, and Decca were one company. Brunswick and Coral were the two satellites, and of course Jackie Wilson recorded for Brunswick. We were in very good company. The McGuire Sisters were part of Coral. There were a lot of big people involved with that record company. As much as it was a little difficult for us to leave him... because he gave us a start, we really didn't have too much to say about it. I think he was looking to capitalize financially, from the success we had and to give us an opportunity to go with a company that could promote us bigger and better. That's when we went to Coral Records with Henry Jerome, and we were talking about coming up with an album. It takes a lot of money to record an album and to promote it, etcetera, etcetera. Henry Jerome said to me "Lenny, I really think it would be a nice idea to try to come up with an arrangement for another standard. Maybe you can do what you did with "Over The Rainbow". Something that would be very close to it or in that category." So I was going through a fake book which had many, many standards with great big hits. It's one big volume of songs, that you could pick up for hardly anything through the musicians union... instead of buying individual sheet music. So I'm just scanning through that, and I came up with "My Foolish Heart". I looked at the melody and I said to my father "Dad, I think this will be a beautiful song for the Demensions to do. Maybe I could come up with a brainstorm like I did with "Rainbow" and come up with an inventive arrangement for that song". I started working on it and came up with a skeletal idea... brought the group in... they gave me a few ideas. We put our heads together, and that's how we came up with "My Foolish Heart". We realized it came from the beautiful motion picture bearing the same name. It was from back in the late 40's. They still play it on Turner Classic Movies to this day. I just believed in the song, I believed in the melody, I believed in the lyrics, and I believed it was the kind of song that I could adapt the kind of arrangement the Demensions were known for, to that particular song. That's exactly how it came about.
R.V.B. - So around 1964, these long haired guys from England came over and shook up things.
L.D. - (Hahaha) Yeah, They had such an impact on the entire world as well as the United States. All of a sudden groups like ours were really hanging on a string. Nobody was paying attention to doo wop after The Beatles came into play.
R.V.B. - That had to be a little tough on everybody. Not only doo wop groups like the Demensions.
L.D. - It was everybody. My group was one of them, but everybody suffered. Everyone had a career in front of them, and wanted to obtain more recognition and get more hit records. They were hung out to dry. Let's face it, doo wop was really stopped in its tracks.
R.V.B. - How did you make it through that period? Did you continue to play music?
L.D. - After that, like many other groups... my group broke up. There was really nowhere to go. The record companies didn't want to invest in us or any of the other doo wop groups anymore. A new era had come into play with The Beatles. They were looking for more acts like that. They were signing more English acts then you could shake a stick at. Getting back to your question... with me... Henry Jerome believed in me as a talent. Not only as part of the group but he believed in my vocal ability as a single artist. He was going over to U.A. at that time. He was leaving Coral. The group had really broken up at that time, because we had nowhere to go. Everybody went their own way after that. Henry Jerome gave me a call one day and said "Lenny I'd like to take you over to U.A. with me, as a single artist." I was elated by that. He wanted to create something with me alone. I signed with U.A. and recorded some very, very nice songs. Rob, do you have "My Foolish Heart - Hits and rarities" by any chance?
R.V.B. - I don't think so. I have the "Over The Rainbow" 45 as a vinyl collector.
L.D. - I'll bring a copy for you at the LAR Show. I want you to hear that. It has the things I did as a single artist as well as the Demensions. I did a big band, Bobby Darin type, New Orleans version of "Over The Rainbow". You'd take a step back if you heard this. It's a whole different side of me. I am somewhat of a jazz musician. I don't begin and end with doo wop, is what I'm saying Rob. I've played piano, and have sung in clubs and restaurants my entire career. After "Over The Rainbow" and "My Foolish Heart" faded, I had to make a living. I still wanted to stay in music, and I did that as a piano player and a singer for my entire life for the most part. I did some different things... I was part of a music studio/recording studio at one time. I also had my own music studio where I taught kids. I was involved with a landscaping business with my boys when they were going to college. I did have different ways of making a living but music was always the priority. I have sung standards my whole life... a diversity of music. I sing in Spanish, I sing in Italian, I do a lot of different things that people don't know about. A lot of the members in my group go further than the two big hits, musically.
R.V.B. - That's great that you diversify like that. I listen to any kind of music, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Rock and Roll, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin...
L.D. - It's pretty much like myself, I guess. My dad worked with Tommy Dorsey at one time. I think he was with Whiteman at one time in his career. Of course the "Copa Cabana", he worked at the "Latin Quarter", he worked at the "Fountain Blue" in Florida. He did nothing but top notch venues when he was in the business. He was also the first trumpet player for Carman Miranda. Do you remember her?
R.V.B. - Yeah, she was the one with the bananas on her head.
L.D. - That's right. You know that hat of fruit that she wore on top of her head? That whole Brazilian, Latin thing... she was the one that created that. My mom and dad took me all over the country with her... all over South America. I was on stage with her. My mom and dad told me that she used to pick me up and take me on the stage. There's a lot of history in my family when it comes to music. My dad was also part of The Eddie Duchin Story. He has about a three or four minute segment with Tyrone Power, playing at the Waldorf Astoria. My dad wasn't playing trumpet. He was also a Latin percussion instrument specialist. He learned that by playing Latin music so much of his life. He was with Frank Marty and Mike Dorso at the Copa for many, many years, so my dad was very versed in Latin music. Being of Italian heritage, there's that Latin blood there too. My dad fit right in to that whole scenario. He played an instrument called cabasa. Do you know what that is Rob?
R.V.B. - I believe so?
L.D. - It's like a big coconut, and it has beads around it. It's a Latin American rhythm instrument. Try to get the DVD of the movie. The part where Eddie Duchin comes back from the war and starts his band up again... they open up at the Waldorf Astoria and my dad is right at the belly of the piano when they're playing Brazil. It's a great Latin samba. They hired my father because he was only one of eight people in the entire United States who played that instrument authentically. They knew that because he used to play that at the "Copa". He would put down the trumpet and play that. Another great part of my life was... I was invited to the Waldorf Astoria, along with my mom and my sister to be part of the listening audience for that movie. I had a lot of great experiences when I was a young man.
R.V.B. - That's great. I'm kind of jealous actually.
L.D. - (Hahaha) Don't be. It's not that big of a deal, but to me it was.
R.V.B. - Well the music community is proud of your accomplishments and I'm sure you are also.
L.D. - Well thank you. I appreciate hearing that from you. I have to add to the conversation that at that time Judy Garland sent a telegram to Mohawk Records complimenting us on what we did with "Over The Rainbow". Did you know there were eighty to ninety versions of "Over The Rainbow"? I just found that out, not too long ago. The Marcels did one, and I can go on and on and on. We were the only one's besides Judy Garland to have a worldwide hit with it. We were number one in Italy and Germany, with that song. So there's a lot to be said for what happened with "Over The Rainbow".
R.V.B. - You're going to be playing at Hauppauge right?
L.D. - Yes with Rob Albanese and LAR Productions. I'll be there Sunday April 13th.
R.V.B. - I appreciate you taking this time to chat with me.
L.D. - Your very welcome Rob.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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