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For a brief, shining moment in early 1964, Canonsburg was the focus of the nation's music industry. Two natives of the town of 12,000 people - Bobby Vinton and Joey Powers - owned the Top 10, and in some cities, had both the No. 1 and No. 2 songs. Forty-five years later, such a feat (or lucky coincidence) would have been noted on "Entertainment Tonight," "People Magazine" and dozens of other pop culture-obsessed entities. No doubt it would have been a delicious tidbit for Casey Kasem as well, but his "American Top 40" had yet to begin.
Even then, though, the "teen idol town" was mentioned in pop magazines of the day, even if reporters were a bit careless with the information.article
Powers, for starters, was not a native of Canonsburg, but of Washington, although he indeed had Canonsburg connections. As a high school student in the 1950s, he had competed in sports in Canonsburg, he had at one time played in a band with Vinton and Andy Balent and he had Canonsburg native Perry Como to thank for his recording career. But he never called Canonsburg home. (The teen magazines weren't the only publications to get it wrong. Norm N. Nite's critically hailed rock encyclopedia, "Rock On," claims Powers was born in Canonsburg, and that his hometown was "Little Washington.")
Another error was the claim that the songs were simultaneously No. 1 and 2 in their hometown. It never happened. As was common in those days, Pittsburgh stations often jumped on new artists before the rest of the country, and Powers' "Midnight Mary" was up and down the chart before Vinton's "There I've Said It Again" climbed to the top. In the nation's music bible, "Billboard," however, Vinton was No. 1 and Powers No. 10 for two consecutive weeks in January.
Even locally, the feat was quickly overshadowed. After four weeks at the top of the nation's chart, "There I've Said It Again" was eclipsed by a new band - the Beatles - with "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The Como connection
In a 1979 interview, Powers (real name Joe Ruggiero) explained how he got into the music business. "To put it simply," he told me, "I loved to show off. I loved applause ... I really believe you have to have that desire first. The creativity can come later."
Under the name Joey Rogers, he recorded "Who Can Explain?" at a local studio. It didn't do as well as expected, so Ruggiero left Washington for New York City in 1959. His parents had arranged a meeting with their friend, Como, who got him a job as a page at NBC. Eventually, Johnny Mathis's producer, Paul Vance, signed Ruggiero to RCA - and changed his name. "Jimmie Rogers was a big star at the time, and Vance was afraid there would be confusion." He got the 'Powers' moniker from the late actor Tyrone Power.
Sadly, none of Ruggiero's RCA recordings clicked, and he was dropped from the label.
The 'Mary' moment
In the early '60s, Ben Raleigh and Artie Wayne had written "Midnight Mary ," which was based on an Iranian girlfriend Wayne was seeing secretly. Despite Raleigh's credentials ("Tell Laura I Love Her," "Wonderful Wonderful,"), the song was uniformly rejected by record companies.
According to Powers, "It was really written for the Everly Brothers, but they turned it down because they had just had a hit with "Take a Message to Mary."
So Wayne, who had become good friends with Powers, had Joey cut a demo. It, too, was rejected. However, Jerry Landis (a.k.a. Paul Simon) suggested the demo be given to Larry Uttal who was starting Amy Records. He loved it.
"Two weeks after we cut the song, radio stations began playing it," Powers said. "It became the biggest song the label had." Unfortunately, that was essentially the end of Powers' recording career, although he did cut a second album with Roy Orbison and Bobby Bare called "Special Delivery" that was intended as a country-pop release.
Looking back on those halcyon in 1979, Powers said, "When I had the No. 1 song being played all over the country, I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have. I think you have to be a carnival person. No one in the recording part of the industry can be secure. When you're cold, there is no next paycheck."
Powers soon became a booking agent, and also operated a recording studio in New Jersey for many years.
Life after 'Midnight'
When we next talked with Powers in 1989, he was in the middle of another career phase - producing and recording music. He had produced Paul McCartney drummer Joe English's solo album, as well as managed Phantom's Opera - the pre-Bon Jovi band that included Richie Zambora, Tico Torres and Alec John Such. He also worked with Billy Falcon ("Power Windows") and did numerous Christian music albums.
He was most enthusiastic about his Christian music connection, particularly a band called Rosanna's Raiders. While he peppered his conversation with names of music industry friends such as Dion, George Benson, Jethro Tull and others, he seldom talked about his own career, which included fronting a band, "Powers Flower" in the late '60s and early '70s.
We were unable to reach Powers after '89, but located an e-mail address a few days ago while researching information for this column. Powers has not yet replied from his home of seven years - St. Petersburg, Russia, where he works in an orphanage ministry and has a recording studio for Christian music.
That's quite a journey from his days of seeking applause in the Washington Junior High School Chorus. As he said in '79, "I've had a very wild, hectic life, and I've never been tied down. That's always been most important to me. You only come this way once. And I want to try everything."
He seems to be fulfilling his wish.
Terry Hazlett covers TV and radio for the Observer-Reporte