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Thursday, March 5, 2009

50 years later, the Skyliners' heartbreak hit still endures
Thursday, March 05, 2009

On Feb. 13, 1959 -- it was a Friday the 13th -- The Skyliners appeared on "American Bandstand" lip-synching a song that host Dick Clark called "an old standard

But "Since I Don't Have You" was hardly an old standard.

Joe Rock and Jimmy Beaumont had just written it several months before, and it was recorded the previous Dec. 3 in New York. Perhaps Clark was confusing it with the jazz standard "Since I Fell for You." Or perhaps "Since I Don't Have You" was just one of those songs that sounded like an instant classic.

Whatever the case, it came true. This weekend at the Roots of Rock and Roll show at the Benedum, singer Jimmy Beaumont celebrates the golden anniversary of the song and of the Skyliners.

Beaumont, from the city's Knoxville neighborhood, was just 18 when it all happened. Rock, a promo man working with Beaumont's group the Crescents, jotted down the lyrics as he sat in his car at a series of stoplights, lamenting that his girlfriend was leaving for flight attendant school on the West Coast.

Roots of Rock and Roll
  • Featuring: Jimmy Beaumont & the Skyliners, Terry Johnson's Flamingos, The Vogues, Kid Kyle and more
  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
  • When: 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday
  • Tickets:$25.75-$39.75
  • More information: 412-456-6666

"He was such a great lyricist," Beaumont recalls of his late friend. "The words just jumped off the page."

Rock took them to Beaumont, who wrote a melody just as quickly as Rock wrote the words.

"I had been listening to all the doo-wop groups from that period -- The Platters, The Moonglows. I guess just from listening it came out of me."

But first, there was a little more heartbreak. Thirteen labels rejected the song based on the demo.

"They said the song was too sad," Beaumont says. "They said, 'Make it, "Since I Have You," make it a happy song.' They also said, 'There's too many you's at the end of the song.' "

The long series of "you-oo's" was a happy accident, added by Crescents member Janet Vogel when she didn't know the demo tape was running. Rather than an early fade-out, they let it roll on 13 times and then held on to the idea.

Unfettered by rejection, Rock and Beaumont sent it to the local Calico Records (based in the old Carlton House Hotel, Downtown), who set up the Crescents -- Beaumont, Vogel, Wally Lester, Joe VerScharen and Jackie Taylor -- in Capitol Studios in New York with 18 musicians, including strings, a rarity for such a group.

"Actually, it was kind of my idea," Beaumont says. "Joe VerScharen and I went to school together and after lunch they would play records in the auditorium. The Platters were the first to use strings, and we were saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to have to have violins on it?' "

Calico didn't want to use the name the Crescents -- why? "I don't know," Beaumont says with a laugh -- so the group took the name The Skyliners from an old Charlie Barnett hit "Skyliner." They released the record in late December 1958, and in short order it went to No. 1 in Pittsburgh, prompting the "Bandstand" invitation. From there, it took off, going to No. 12 on the Billboard Pop chart on March 23, 1959, and No. 3 on R&B charts. In Cashbox, the Skyliners became the first white group to top the R&B charts.

When Clark put the group on his Caravan of Stars tours, with the likes of the Coasters, Paul Anka, Duane Eddy, Bobby Darin, and Deon and the Belmonts, people expected them to be a black group.

"At the Apollo Theater in New York," Beaumont says, "everyone was laughing and pointing to each other when we came out. They couldn't believe we were a white group. They got real quiet during the song, then when we went into the 'you's' the women in the audience were all singing along."

Pennies from heaven

For the past four decades, the song has taken on a life of its own, remade by the likes of Barbra Streisand (1974), Patti LaBelle (1977), Art Garfunkel (1979), Don McLean (1981), Ronnie Milsap (1991) and The Brian Setzer Orchestra (1998).

"I enjoyed Patti Labelle's version," Beaumont says "She did it her own way. Streisand's was great."

Rock and the Skyliners were smart enough to hold on to their publishing rights and even shared the royalties with the entire group, a rare act of generosity. Lester says it was a lesson learned when they played the Apollo in the early '60s and met a singer for the Moonglows, one of their heroes, begging for money, having sold his publishing rights.

The biggest pay day for the Skyliners family came when Guns 'N Roses turned it into a power ballad on "The Spaghetti Incident" in 1994, sending it to No. 69 on the Top 100.

Beaumont says he liked Axl Rose's version, but who wouldn't? The royalties split among the six parties, Lester says, were in the hundreds of thousands.

The movies have been profitable, as well. The song was used in George Lucas' 1973 period classic "American Graffiti," set in 1962, and also turned up in "Lethal Weapon 2" and "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," among others.

The good things from Rock's heartbreak keep coming. Beaumont says he was honored that Stevie Wonder played the song at the Mellon Arena in 2007, and he also read an interview with Wonder where the legend said among the artists he'd like to meet are the Skyliners.

The oldies circuit

The Skyliners were spared from one-hit wonder status when the group hit No. 26 in Billboard with a second ballad, "This I Swear," in June 1959, and then a cover of "Pennies From Heaven" a year later. Beaumont says there could have been more. " 'How Much,' which came out in 1960, was one of our best efforts. It should have gotten more airplay," but he theorizes that in the height of the payola scandal, there was something a little troubling for DJs about that title.

The Skyliners split in 1963, when the vocal group style was starting to fade. "When the Beatles came on the scene," Beaumont says, "there wasn't much you could do, 'cause with all of the music coming from England, ours was put aside."

The other members went on to pursue other careers, such as Lester, who became eastern sales manager for Clairol.

"It was hard to stay enthusiastic about the [music] business," says Lester, who is now retired in Southport, N.C. "I was on the road for four years and really didn't like it. Riding the bus and all that crap. Plus, I had to get my high school degree. As Chuck Noll would say, it was time to get on with my life's work. I didn't want to be a background singer in an oldies group doing oldies shows. Jimmy and Janet were the real talent."

Beaumont persisted. The only time he had a non-music job was right around the time the Skyliners reunited for an oldies revival concert in 1970 at Madison Square Garden. He drove a cab from '70 to '74, because the group could only work weekends and he had to do something.

"It was a little strange for a while," he says of picking people up in his cab and having them recognize him as a former hitmaker, "but it kind of made me a little more determined to pursue this full time."

In 1975, the Skyliners squeaked into the Top 100 again with "Where Have They Gone," and it was just enough of a spark. Beaumont, 68, has kept the group going in one form or another ever since as the only remaining original member. Vogel took her own life in 1980, and her high harmony spot was filled by Donna Groom. VerScharen died in 2007, and Beaumont hasn't seen Taylor in 30 years

The current Skyliners are rounded out by Nick Pociask (who joined in '93) and Dick Muse from the Laurels ('98). They still tour nationally and last year were part of the Ultimate Doo-Wop Tour with The Contours, Kathy Young, The Flamingos and others.

In plenty of oldies revival groups, they bring in a young stud to handle the leads, and the original is there for cred.

"I haven't had to do that yet," Beaumont says. "People still want me to hit that high note. I've lost a little bit, but I'd like to think not much. I'm not going to retire. People will retire me when they stop coming."

So far, so good.

"As a younger man, I did the 25th anniversary of the Skyliners," says Roots promoter Henry DeLuca, "and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could do the 50th?' You know, a lot can happen between then. But here we are."

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.
First published on March 5, 2009 at 12:00 am