John Madara and Dave White were one of the leading Philadelphia-based songwriter/ producer teams of the S'pop era. Among the many hit songs they wrote were Danny & the Juniors' 'At The Hop', Chubby Checker's 'The Fly', the Sherrys' 'Pop Pop Pop-Pie', the Pixies Three's 'Birthday Party', the Secrets' 'The Boy Next Door', Lesley Gore's 'You Don't Own Me' and Len Barry's '1-2-3', most of which they also produced. Madara & White masterminded many other hits and dozens of equally great records that didn't make the charts, like Johnny Caswell's 'My Girl', Maureen Gray's 'Goodbye Baby' and Joey Heatherton's 'Live And Learn'. Now based in California, and as busy and creative as ever, John Madara tells his story in this rare interview with Mick Patrick.

[click each image to enlarge]

L-R: John Madara, Dick Clark and Dave White.

With the Pixies Three,
L-R: Dave White, John Madara, Debbie Swisher, Kay McCool, Brooks Arthur and Bonnie Long.

L-R: Jerry Blavat, Billy Carlucci
and John Madara.

L-R: John Madara, Joey Heatherton, Dave White and Jimmy Wisner.

L-R: Tony Danza, Artie Butler and John Madara.

John with his sweetheart, Christy.


MP: I got to meet your old friend Jerry Ross when I was on holiday in Philadelphia last year.

JM: I talked to Jerry a couple of days ago. I told him I was doing an interview with you for Spectropop. He said, "Say hello to Mick for me." I hadn't talked to him in about 30 years. He called me and it was a real joy to hear from him. Back in the day, Jerry was on the sixth floor of the Shubert Building and I was on the second floor. He had Kenny Gamble and I had Leon Huff. That was the beginning of Gamble & Huff. It's a nice thing Jerry and I share together. Who else did you get to see in Philly?

Oh, lots of great people: Steve Caldwell from the Orlons, Earl from the Larks, Wheldon McDougal, Don Gardner. Kenny Gamble was there, but everyone was a bit in awe of him. The main event was in New Jersey, and we met a lot of other cool people there, like Freddie Scott, Sandi Sheldon, members of the Spellbinders, Margaret from the Cookies, Barbara of the Toys, Lillian from the Exciters, Louise of the Jaynetts and lots of others. Anyway, the Shubert Building, that was the Philly equivalent to the Brill Building in New York, right?

Yes. It was right across the street from Cameo-Parkway Records.

Was it all music biz? Who else was there?

There were a variety of different kinds of businesses. Thom Bell was there. Linda Creed. And there were some vocal coaches. Then you'd get all the artists that we were working with them coming into the building all the time - the Stylistics, Jerry Butler, Billy Paul, Len Barry, Bunny Sigler, the Delfonics. There was a lot of action.

Were you born in Philadelphia?

Yes. I moved to California in 1972.

How did you get into music? Were you a musical family?

Not at all. I was the only one of six children interested in music. I took vocal lessons and began my career as an artist. I made my first record in early 1957, a thing called 'Be My Girl'. I was contracted to Prep Records. I was supposed to go in and record my second record. They wanted me to be produced by someone else. At the time, the artists didn't have much say about the music they were making. I had written a song with Dave White called 'Do The Bop'. We played the song for my vocal coach and then we recorded it - Danny & the Juniors sang the background and I did the lead. We played it for Prep Records and they didn't like it. They said it was garbage rock'n'roll. They wanted me to record straight ahead pop. So we went back to Philly and played it for Dick Clark. He suggested changing the lyrics to 'At The Hop'. So we rewrote the lyrics and re-recorded it. Danny, the lead singer of the Juniors, Dave White's group, sang lead. The rest is rock'n'roll history. Poor Dick Clark had a stroke recently. He's working real hard trying to get over it. He's someone who I'll be eternally grateful to for the rest of my life. Without him, there would never have been 'At The Hop'. He's a good man.

How did you get to know Dave White?

I heard this group singing, harmonising, outside. I found out who they were and where they lived and went and introduced myself. It was Danny Rapp, Dave White and the guys. Dave White starting coming down to my place and we started hanging out together. I had some ideas: he had some ideas. One day I said to him, "The kids are doing The Bop on Bandstand. Let's write a song about it." They were doing it to a Jerry Lee Lewis record, 'Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On'. I said, "Let's do something with the piano like that." So we wrote 'Do The Bop'. That's what started our friendship and our working relationship. We did some other records after that, but we didn't really do it full-time until about 1961. I went and produced 'Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay' and I did a couple of other vocal records by myself. I never intended songwriting and producing being my career. I was more intent on being a singer. I met Dave again at a record hop in 1960 and we decided to get together and try writing more songs. We found a young girl named Maureen Gray and a group called Carl & the Commanders. The Maureen Gray records made some noise.

What's the first one you did with Maureen?

'Today's The Day'. It's a really good record. Between 1960 and 1961 I opened a record shop in the black section of Philadelphia. That's where I found Maureen. She was like 13 years old and came in with her mother. It was called The Gold Record Shop. I had my 'At The Hop' gold record and I put that up above the counter. The thing I enjoyed was I was selling the kind of music I liked, R&B. We carried jazz, gospel and R&B music - that was it. There were no pop records in our shop. We did great business. I bumped into Dave, and I told him that I had met this girl, Maureen Gray. I asked him to come by and try and write some songs for her. That's how we got started. I had a piano in the back room. Dave didn't like going on the road with Danny & the Juniors, so he started coming in. Then talent kept on coming through the door.

How did you get 'The Fly' to Chubby Checker?

Carl & the Commanders were like our house band. All the kids were doing a dance called The Fly, so we wrote a song called 'The Fly'. We recorded it with Carl & the Commanders. It was the first master that we owned. But we were young and we didn't really know what to do with it. We thought it could be a big hit, so we went in and played it for Cameo-Parkway. They thought it would make a good follow-up to 'Let's Twist Again' for Chubby Checker. They said, "We'll use your song and your track, but if you put it out by yourselves, or record it with someone else, we'll just cover you with Chubby Checker. Why not let us use your track?" So we let them use the track. They put Chubby's voice on and the record went to #2. That really got us into the record business full-time. At the end of 1961 or so I got out of the record shop and we started making records for Jamie/Guyden. We were at Jamie for about a year - we did Billy & the Essentials, the Harps and the Sherrys. Their dad was Joe Cook of Little Joe & the Thrillers who had that record 'Peanuts'. Two of the girls, Delphine and Dinell, were his daughters. I can't remember how we met them. Maybe we used them as background singers or something. We weren't sure which direction to go in when the Jamie/Guyden door opened up. That seemed like a good place to be. Plus they were giving us advances every week.

Did you find the Pixies Three or did Mercury give them to you to work with.

Mercury Records loved the stuff we were doing. They wanted us to do some of the artists they had, and to bring in some of our artists. We took the Pixies to Mercury. We found them right at the end of our Jamie period at a place called the Venus Lounge. They were just schoolgirls and they were there for a talent night. When the three girls got up on stage and sang I was blown away. Wow, those girls could really sing - great harmonies. They had it together. They were so tight. They all had their mothers with them, so I went over and talked to the moms and had them come by our office. 'Birthday Party' by the Pixies Three was our first Mercury record. 'Cold, Cold Winter' is one of my favourite songs we ever wrote. But the Secrets came from Mercury. They had two other groups too. One was from Cleveland, a black group. We did record them, but I can't remember their name. 'Why Did You Go' was the song.

That would be the Bobbi-Pins.

The Bobbi-Pins! Thank you. And the other group Mercury had that they wanted us to work with was called Bocky & the Visions. We made records with all those groups. The Secrets, the Bobbi-Pins and Bocky & the Visions were all managed by the same person.

Would that be Redda Robbins?


Is that a man or a woman?

A woman.

A black lady?

No, a white lady, a redhead, but the Bobbi-Pins were a black group. I don't remember Redda Robbins too well, but she managed those three acts. The Secrets were really good. They had a unique thing, with the one girl, Carol, with the deep voice - a little magic ingredient. They were terrific - really neat girls and really fun to work with. I'm still in touch with them and the Pixies Three too - I'm good friends with Kaye, we send emails back and forth. We did one session each with Bocky & the Visions and the Bobbi-Pins. We used a similar formula on all of the girl group records we made, but the Bobbi-Pins were a little different. We did two tracks with the Sherrys at Mercury - two really good sides. That single really sticks in my mind as a good one. We really enjoyed writing songs for girl groups.

Where did you make these records, Philadelphia or New York?

Between both places. In Philadelphia, at the time, before Sigma Sound, the studio was called Reco-Art. We did a lot of stuff there. 'At The Hop' was cut there - 'Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay', 'Pop Pop Pop-Pie', 'Today's The Day', 'The Fly'. Then we started using New York. All the Secrets' records were cut in New York. In New York, every time we went into Bell Sound we cut a hit. Bell Sound was our mainstay, but we also used Mirasound. They were our two regular studios.

Did you have any regular engineers?

Brooks Arthur at Mira and Eddie Smith at Bell. Eddie Smith was an incredible engineer. He came from King Records where he did all those early James Brown records. He cut a lot of our hits.

Maureen Gray used to live in England. I met her at a book launch in about 1990 and she told me that she had recorded the original demo version of 'You Don't Own Me'. Is that right? She also said that the song was really 'Don't Make Me Over' written sideways.

When Dave and I wrote the song, we wrote it for Maureen. That was our idea - she had a big range and the song had all those modulations in it. It was our goal to do it with Maureen, but we never did a demo of the song with her, not that I remember - and I have almost everything that we've ever done. We had cut Maureen for Mercury, but I really don't remember her doing a demo of 'You Don't Own Me'. We may well have played the song for her. There was a girl who did do a demo on it, who was a friend of Quincy Jones. We had played the song for Quincy, and he had loved the song. Then we did a demo with this friend of his. Her name was Susan Barrett. After that, there was a Mercury Records convention up in the Catskills, in the mountains in New York State. We were invited along and so was Lesley Gore. Quincy suggested that we play 'You Don't Own Me' for her. She was sitting at the pool and we went over and played it for her with a baritone ukulele. I remember it very clearly. She loved the song. So we went into the main building and found a piano and played it for her again. She said she wanted to record it. So we got together with Quincy and Claus Ogerman, who was the arranger, and we dictated the arrangement to them.

What did you think of the finished product?

There's a story there. They invited us to the session. This was at A&R Studios and the engineer was Phil Ramone, who did all those Billy Joel records later on. When we walked in they were already doing the song. We sat back and listened and Quincy said, "What do you guys think?" Quincy is one of the nicest guys you ever met. We were shy, but in our youthful innocence we said, "Well, there are a couple of things that we had that you don't have in the arrangement." Quincy stopped the session and let us go out there on the floor with Claus and make a bunch of changes. After the session they played back the tape of all the titles they'd cut that day to choose the best one. Everyone in the studio picked 'You Don't Own Me'. Our influence for the song was definitely Burt Bacharach. He was the writer of the era. Dave and I had written 'Today's The Day' and 'I Don't Want To Cry (In Front Of You)' for Maureen, really strong ballads, but we hadn't written a song like this, lyrically - a woman singing a protest song, a woman telling a guy off. As for 'You Don't Own Me' sounding like 'Don't Make Me Over', I'll let you be the judge of that. We did make some records with Maureen for Mercury - 'Goodbye Baby', that was probably the last thing we ever did with her. There was another song on that session, a good ballad, 'Remember Me'. I think the best records we made with Maureen were the ones on Chancellor: 'There Is A Boy', 'Crazy Over You', 'Today's The Day'. 'Dancing The Strand' was a good one - that was the biggest record we had with her. That's my favourite production, but as far as songs go, 'I Don't Want To Cry'. Her performance on that was outrageous. The musicians stood up and applauded when she got done singing that. All the guys, the string players too, stood up and applauded. I'll never forget that. She was 13 years old. Did you spend much time with her when you met?

Not really, but we chatted. She seemed incredibly young. It was almost impossible to believe that she'd made records going back to 1961. She was very slim, beautiful and seemed a bit … eccentric, maybe. But she was very interesting and good fun. Given the success of 'You Don't Own Me', don't you think it's a bit of a drag that you didn't get Lesley Gore's follow-up?

We did do one thing with her called 'Live And Learn'.

Yeah, but that was only an LP track. I think that's a great song, but the version you did with Joey Heatherton is much better. It's fantastic! You produced that, didn't you?

Ain't that a good record? The other side, 'When You Call Me Baby', she did a really good job on also.

Talking of eccentric (laughs). Anyway, that was for Decca Records. You moved there from Mercury, yes?

Yes. Getting money out of Mercury was next to impossible. We'd had that big hit with Lesley Gore, and we owned half of the publishing, but they wouldn't give us any money! So we had to sell our interest in the publishing back to them to get some money. Mercury wasn't owned by a big conglomerate, but it was always difficult getting paid. Decca Records was an old established company.

What sort of contract did you have at Mercury?

A very bad contract! We were signed to the staff as independents. They opened up an office for us in Philadelphia. We were like their Philadelphia branch, seeking out local talent for Mercury. Then we had a co-publishing deal with them, which was Merjoda Music. On the production side of it, Dave and I have never - n-e-v-e-r - seen a royalty statement from Mercury Records. We're about to - with the help of Jerry Ross and a couple of others - try and resolve that. In unity, there's strength. They're controlled by Universal now. It's a mess. We've never seen a royalty statement.

Are you still in touch with Len Barry?

I talk to Len Barry a lot. Lenny is a little … bitter. He has that bitterness in him. Don't get me wrong, Lenny is one of the most beautiful people I've ever met - he's a truly brilliant human being. He's written a book. He has a comic book coming out. We've maintained a great relationship, but he carries that thing that a lot of artists carry. And I understand it. Record companies were very unkind back then. When they gave artists a lot of money was later, the Springsteen era. In Lenny's era, if you were cold for one or two records, they'd drop you - goodbye! Artistry wasn't developed. Promo men went out and got the records played. All they cared about was hit records, not developing artists. As lead singer of the Dovells this guy's voice is on many hit records. He was a major talent and a great songwriter. He was a great singer too, but he didn't get the shot he should have after having one of the biggest records of that era. At the first session we did a track called 'Lip Sync'. That was a local chart record. At the second session we did '1-2-3'. We knew that would be a big record, but the record company almost lost it. The record was selling like crazy in Philadelphia. It was a smash in Philly, but in New York they couldn't even get it played. I called the president of Decca Records and told him, "You guys want hit records. You've got a record that's a smash in Philadelphia, in Baltimore, in Washiington, but in the biggest city of all you can't even get it played?" That shook 'em up. "You guys want to be in the pop record business but you don't know how to get a record played." Then they broke the record and it broke nationally.

Who else did you work with at Decca?

The Sweet Three … Bunny Sigler … Johnny Caswell …

I love the records you made with Johnny Caswell at Mercury. Those singles on Smash are great. 'My Girl', the Spector-ish one, is fantastic! Was that made in Philadelphia or New York?

That was made in Philly, at Reco-Art Studios. That's a great record. We have a bunch of stuff with Johnny that was never released, like a version of 'Hold On, I'm Coming'. And there's a Leon Huff song called 'Walk Off The Hurt', a soul thing. These are gonna be available soon via our website on a CD called 'Hidden Hits'.

Is Johnny still around?

Oh yes. Johnny has done very well. He has a business here in California, Instrumental Rentals. He provides equipment for big rock acts. He's got two big places, one on the East Coast and one out here. He's become extremely successful.

Tell me a little about the Sweet Three.

They did a lot of background work. They sang background on a lot of Bobby Rydell records. They may have recorded previously and were also known later as the Mellow Moods. When Kenny and Leon first got together, part of my deal with them was that they'd do some things for my production company. One of the first things they produced was the Mellow Moods. Jeannie Thomas was the lead singer on 'Big Lovers' and 'That's The Way It Is'. They may have recorded under other names as well, besides the Sweet Three and the Mellow Moods. I have a bunch of stuff by them that was never released.

Were they a black group? There's a girl named Jean Thomas who recorded for Bob Crewe, but she's white.

The Sweet Three were black. Jeannie Thomas was the main girl. She also used the name Grant, which may have been her married name. The other two were Catherine Nichols and Rosa Waters. I have a photo of them. I'll send it to you.

Let's talk about Bunny Sigler.

During that era there was a tremendous amount of talent in Philadelphia. Gamble & Huff moved over the street and bought Cameo-Parkway - they bought the building. You'd see everybody on that street. I'd have conversations with Billy Paul, who I was good friends with, and Bunny Sigler. I produced Bunny for Decca, then I did the Cameo-Parkway things. He's one of the most under-rated artists ever - a sensational recording artist. I always had a smile on my face when I worked with Bunny. We did some really good records with him: 'For Cryin' Out Loud', 'Let Them Talk', the old Little Willie John song, and a song we wrote for Bunny called 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright'. Bunny would always give you a great performance.

You worked with Hall & Oates too?

We have Daryl Hall on the 'Hidden Hits' CD too. Remember the Bunny Sigler song 'Girl Don't Make Me Wait'? We have that by Daryl Hall and a bunch of other things that were great records that were never released or never got any airplay. We also have something by Chubby Checker recorded in 1971 with Daryl Hall playing keyboards. I did a lot of stuff with Daryl Hall and John Oates - we did about 40 sides with them. In fact, I used them as our house band. When Dave and I broke up, I met Daryl, Tom Sellars and a bunch of other people. This was after the Temptones. Joe Tarsia from Sigma Sound sent Daryl over. I listened to Daryl sing and we cut a couple of singles with him. Then John Oates started hanging out at the office and they started writing together. First I did Daryl with a group called Gulliver. When Gulliver broke up we started recording John and Daryl together.

What brought about your move to California?

Dave and I broke up in 1967. He and I still talk every couple of months. He's doing good - working with a couple of new female artists he found in Vegas. He's happy what he's doing. I moved to California because I wanted to try and do different things. And that's what I was able to do. I worked with different kinds of artists and in film and television, which I would never have been able to do in Philly.

I read that in the 1980s you sold your company to Michael Jackson. Would that be your publishing company?

It was Double Diamond Music that I sold to Michael. That was a lot of the Gamble & Huff stuff that I had, and a lot of my stuff, but it didn't include any of my real big hits, which are all published by other companies, like Universal. It was the right situation at the right time. They approached me. I had just gotten out of a divorce, so it was the right time to do it. I never had any other connection with Michael at all. I never met him, although he did call me once on the phone.

Do you have a home studio? Many people do these days.

Yes, I have a small studio set-up. I've been working on a trance instrumental album, on my computer and my keyboards here at home, but primarily I'm working on my movie. We've got a couple of really big stars attached to it already. That's something that we're hoping to start shooting in 2007. It's about Philadelphia and the birth of rock'n'roll - the way that whole era changed music forever. I've got two Academy Award-winners on board, Joe Pesci and Joe Renzetti, who did the score for 'The Buddy Holly Story'. We're very close to raising all the money. I'm producing it myself. I had the opportunity to turn it over to other companies, film companies, but I don't want to do that. I want to do it myself. I've already got the people. I know what I want it to look like. I wrote the story. We brought in a great writer named Michael Killeen to do the screenplay. I wrote two new songs for the film, one of them with Dave White, which is the first song we've written together in many years. Otherwise, it'll be wall-to-wall old music. The new songs are in that style. We're going to do the movie in Philadelphia. Many of the original buildings where the record hops were held are still there, the school auditoriums. We're fortunate that many things are still the same in Philly. We'll be bringing in cars, vintage cars. Here I am as a senior getting ready to do a movie, getting ready to do a television show on health and nutrition - I'm doing all the music. I'm as active as I've ever been.

Have you got a title for the movie?

'At The Hop'. What else?

Illustrations courtesy John Madara, Davie Gordon,
Fred Clemens, Phil Chapman and Mick Patrick.