A FEW MINUTES WITH… Dennis Tufano of The Buckinghams
By Don Wilcock
Billboard Magazine called the Buckinghams the most listened to band in 1967. “Kind of a Drag” went to No. 1 on the charts. It was followed by four more Top 20 hits: “Mercy, Mercy Mercy, “Don’t You Care,” “Susan” and “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song).” And then as quickly as they came on the scene, they disappeared. Dennis Tufano, the lead singer of the group, reprises those hits 51 years later this Saturday (April 6) at the Sixties Spectacular at Proctors in Schenectady. He’s fourth on the bill behind Jay & the Americans, The Vogues and the Brooklyn Bridge. But in 1967 he was riding high when the band signed with America’s biggest hitmaker, Clive Davis at Columbia Records.
“We met with him a number of times,” Tufano recalls. “When we first signed, he was very, very excited and very up.” It was all downhill from there. “We never got to talk to him much,” he continues. But when they finally did, the bandmembers were in for the shock of their lives.
“Clive said, ‘What about the heroin problem you have?’ And we said, ‘Excuse me? We don’t have a heroin problem.’ At that point we hardly even smoked much, and we’re going, ‘What are you talking about? Heroin? Do we look like we’re on heroin? We look pretty fucking good. What is your problem?’ He goes, ‘Well, that’s OK. You don’t want to talk about it.’ We said, ‘No, let’s talk about it. We’re not drug addicts.’ He says, ‘Well, the meeting’s over, and we’ll see what we can do.’
“So, he gets up, and we’re stunned. ‘Susan’ was in the charts at the time, so we had a hit record climbing the charts, and he turned his back on us. We opened the door, and here was our manager who we were suing, and he said, ‘How did the meeting go, boys?’ So, we knew right away that he’d set us up and lied about the drug thing so the label would dump us. To this day we don’t know why would take and make five hit records with us and then try to make the band diminish.”
“Kind of A Drag” indeed!
In 1981, The Buckinghams did a reunion show in Chicago and decided to go on the road again. “We had disbanded in 1970-71. And I was off doing so many things after those 11 years in Los Angeles, and I was working with other people, making other records and writing albums with Bernie Taupin and Tom Scott and different things like that,” Tufano explains. “I had a real world going on, and I told them, ‘Look, thanks for the invite, but I don’t want to go back to that. I’ve already gone forward to something else. And I think I want to just keep pursuing that because I love the challenge of it,’ and I said, ‘If you guys really want to do it, you were part of the band. You have my blessing. Go off and do it.’
“The only negative thing that was connected to that is that when I came back singing full on, they tried to cover my tracks. They got litigious with me, and they got, ‘Hey, you can’t do this, and you can’t do that,’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can. I’m on the records. As long as I don’t use the name like you use it, I’m fine. This is who I truly am – Dennis Tufano, the lead singer of The Buckinghams, the original voice. As long as I do that, you have no call on me, and I’m fine. Just go out and do what you’re doing. You’re doing fine.’”
Tufano went on to tour with Olivia Newton-John and Cheech & Chong, appeared in several movies, and hit the road with a Bobby Darin tribute show. But almost a decade ago, he started singing the Buckingham songs on the oldies circuit again.
“I do the hits exactly as they were made. That’s part of the charm if it. I’m so gratefully that the songs hold up today. A man in his 70s can sing the same sentiments and the same ideas that came out of those songs. The music was very sophisticated for that time, and it holds up today.”
“I still have a ball like a kid on the stage,” he says at age 71. “And I find the other acts to be like that: Jay & the Americans, the Vogues, all those guys. They’re like kids. It’s like turning into kids again, even though we shuffle on stage sometimes, but we make it work. That’s the whole thing.
“Part of the pill that you take is the music. You keep the music in yourself ’cause you’re forced to do it. It’s part of your life. It’s in your DNA. So, you keep doing the music, and that keeps centering you. That brings you back to what you’re there for because I always considered myself a channel.
“When I go up on stage and sing, it’s some energy going through me and coming out to the audience, and I enjoy it while it’s happening. That’s the feeling right there of being in the channel and performing. Like I tell people, I say, ‘I get this energy on stage that I can’t believe I have when I grab that microphone. I’m 19 years old again.’
“So, the universe has a way of taking care of us as long as we pull ourselves up to it, and I think that’s why I’m a survivor because I enjoy what I do, and I love the response that people give me. I love the interaction of the audiences. I love the stories they have connected to the songs we did, and it’s quite moving sometimes. We
end up in these love circles hugging each other, and it’s just great.”
WHAT: The Sixties Spectacular
WHO: Jay & the Americans, The Vogues, the Brooklyn Bridge, Dennis Tufano of the Buckinghams, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Oldies Show
WHERE: Proctors, Schenectady
WHEN: Saturday (April 7), 7pm
HOW MUCH: $39.75-$54.75