Anyone who was a kid in 1969 when "Sugar Sugar" hit the radio can tell you who The Archies were. They'll tell you wrong, but they'll tell you. Archie, Jughead, Veronica, Betty, Reggie and Hotdog were cartoon characters making bubble-gum music. What else could they make? Face it, we pigeon-holed ol' Arch from the beginning, never allowing him to follow his dream of melding Celtic-folk music with eastern sitar sounds, or any of his other music dreams. Listen to the steel drum solo in "Together We Two" if ya don't believe me.
Don't weep for poor Archie, though. The money was delivered to DC Comics and RCA Records by the truckload. I personally accounted for sales of at least three copies of Sugar Sugar, each worn out by my cheap phonograph in short order. It was the flip side that made me dance. "Melody Hill" was great pop with a great harmony hook, and I played that song to death. 31 years later the innocence of the song is kind of amusing, but the hook still grabs me. It's out there, readily available, along with scads of other Archies tunes. A quick glance at CDWorld even revealed a few CDs that were selling for under five bucks. The music is now poppin' out of my speakers (because it just can't blast). Pass me a chunk of Bazooka, please. I want the full effect.
The voices I'm hearing aren't those of Archie and Veronica.
I'm sorry, that was very insensitive of me. I really should have broken it gently. "The voice" was Ron Dante, a studio singer with quite a resume of hit songs to his credit, including The Cuff Links' "Tracy" and "Leader Of The Laundromat." The singing voice of Veronica was actually Toni Wine. On the screen, the songs came from those goody-goody cartoon kids, but in the very real world behind the scenes, Ron Dante, Toni Wine, Jeff Barry, Don Kirshner and a few other VIPs were The Archies. Kirshner was the man behind the hits of another pretend band, The Monkees, who eventually fired him after a long string of hits because he didn't treat them like a real band. Which they weren't. Silly, when you think about it. With The Archies, Kirshner finally had what he really required: a band that couldn't talk back.
Left to his own devices, Kirshner set out to make a cartoon band a hit. And it worked. "Sugar Sugar" was number one on both sides of the Atlantic, staying in the top spot for two whole months in England. "Jingle Jangle" also cracked the top ten on both sides. The morning cartoon's ratings shot way up, kids bought merchandise as fast as they bought records, and for a time you could find records on the back of cereal boxes. You cut around the dotted line and a few minutes later you were screwing up your needle. Brand new, shiney Archie lunch boxes replaced the battered Monkees boxes, kids knew the songs by heart and everybody was happy. Hey, it was happy music. And it was being sung by a happy guy who, thirty-one years later, is still happy. Ron Dante counts his blessings daily. He learned the craft of record production during his three years as an Archie and the following years as a commercial jingle singer, and he put it to good use by producing a lot of hit records for artists like Barry Manilow, Irene Cara and Cher. His schedule is always packed to overflowing, but being a very nice guy, he squeezed this interview in for us.
Cosmik: What got you interested in music and in the business in the first place?
Dante: Actually, I was inspired by seeing Elvis on TV when I was a little kid, like 9 or 10. It inspired me to go out and make music. It's funny, but that summer I broke my arm, and they said I had to exercise my wrist. They said "you can either squeeze a ball or take up guitar. So I took up a guitar, and I started to write and sing, and by the time I was 13 I had a little group that performed all over the New York tri-state area. I was lucky enough to live near Manhattan so I could get in there and visit the Brill Building area and visit publishers and managers and record companies. I'd walk in and say "listen, do you want to hear my song?"
Cosmik: And they were open to hearing it?
Dante: Some of them were, some of them threw me out, some of them thought I was crazy. I just worked the offices. There were hundreds and hundreds of publishers and record companies in that music area up there around 50th and Broadway in Manhattan. I just kept going until I found someone who wanted to manage me, and then he got me into other offices.
Cosmik: So you were right in the middle of the legendary Brill Building thing.
Dante: I certainly was.
Cosmik: Were you working in the studios already at this point?
Dante: I got into music professionally in the early 60s, and I was mostly a studio singer. I wasn't really playing guitar or keyboards on sessions. My talent was to sing and do backgrounds. All my work was as a singer. I sang backgrounds for tons of groups in the 60s, and did demos for other groups, like Gene Pitney, Bobby Vee, Johnny Mathis, Jay and the Americans, I sang with them right after they had "Hang On, Sloopy" ...
Cosmik: I loved The McCoys. Which songs did you do with them?
Dante: I was on "Fever" and one of the other records. I did backgrounds with the guys and had a lot of fun.
Cosmik: I was 10 when "Sugar Sugar" was out, but I was already a liner note and magazine reader, so I remember that you also sang "Tracy"...
Dante: That's right, I was the voice of The Cuff Links.
Cosmik: ... which was one of my favorite 45s when I was a kid.
Dante: No kidding? Well, "Tracy" comes back all the time. It's been on Ally McBeal twice. They had Tracy Ulman on, and when she'd come on they'd play my record. And it was great, because I got all this e-mail from people saying "where can I get this record?! My girlfriend's name is Tracy," or "my wife's name is Tracy," or their daughter. It was a lot of exposure.
Cosmik: That was such a well-crafted and catchy pop song.
Dante: Well, the guys who wrote it, Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, were real hit-makers. They wrote a song called "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."
Cosmik: You're kidding!
Dante: They wrote it for Bryan Hyland and it was a huge hit. They also wrote "Catch A Falling Star," which was a very big hit in the 50s. They were very talented songwriter-producers.
Cosmik: What were some of the other songs you sang on?
Dante: The big ones, of course, were "Sugar Sugar," by The Archies, and we had four or five other singles. One was called "Bang Shang-a-Lang," which was top-10, "Jingle Jangle," which sold a million and was the follow-up to "Sugar Sugar," and a few other singles and five albums that we put out, all under The Archies. Under The Cuff Links, "Tracy" was the big million seller for us, and "When Julie Comes Around" was the follow-up, and then "Sally Anne." We always had girls names for our Cuff Links [songs]. Those three all charted big. Then I was with a ghost group called "The Detergents" in the 60s, and we had a record that was a take-off on "Leader Of The Pack"...
Cosmik: "Leader Of The Laundromat"!
Dante: [Laughs] Yeah, another Paul Vance/Lee Pockriss special. That was funny, because we actually toured with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars with that group for two years. I was on with everybody from The Rolling Stones to The Animals to Herman's Hermits to Freddy and the Dreamers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, everybody was on these tours. I'd get to meet and play on the same shows with these people that I grew up [listening to].
Cosmik: My bubblegum leanings are obvious here, because you named all these great people and I jumped when you said Herman's Hermits. I loved that group.
Dante: Weren't they great? I just did a whole remake of all Peter's [Noone] hits. It's all on his website, www.peternoone.com. He re-cut them perfectly. He said "you know, I can't find any voices that sound like my group," so he had me come in and do backgrounds with him. Peter's a terrific guy.
Cosmik: Hey, before I forget to ask you... what was the flip side to "Tracy"? It's been driving me bats trying to remember.
Dante: Mmmm... "Life Goes On," maybe?
Cosmik: I just remember I loved it. I always ended up liking flip sides as much or more. As much as I loved "Sugar Sugar," my favorite song was the flip side, "Melody Hill."
Dante: I loved "Melody Hill"! That was my second favorite record. I just thought it was a really good song.
Cosmik: Very strong. Incredible pop structure.
Dante: Oh yeah, [Ron sings a few words from the song and wow, there's that voice!]. The guys who wrote it, Mark Barkan and Richie Adams, wrote a lot of Archies stuff. They were the other writing team, and they were very talented.
Cosmik: I played that record, flipped it over, played it, flipped it over, until I'd worn out three copies.
Dante: That's great, man, thank you! A lot of singles were sold on that one. I was proud of that record. It was my first #1, and what a thrill. It was #1 for like four weeks here and six weeks in England. It was a monster in England. They got sick of it after a while (laughs). It never goes away!
Cosmik: How did you end up working with Don Kirshner?
Dante: I'd known Donny from the early days. He was the first publisher to sign a deal with me as a singer/songwriter, when I was about 15 or 16. So I had known him, and when he did The Archies project I heard about it because I had friends in the studio group playing on it. I called him up and said "can I come audition," and I went to the RCA studio in New York City and auditioned for Don and Jeff Barry, the line producer, and I did four or five variations on voices and they finally liked one sound I make that they used. After about an hour, I got the job.
Cosmik: So you have a chameleon voice. You can make it sound pretty much like you want it to sound.
Dante: I could sound a lot like a lot of different groups at the time. All my background singing and demo singing for different publishers and songwriters around the city, you know, you had to imitate a lot of people. My voice was a tenor that was similar to a lot of artists at the time. I could sound like Donovan, I could sound like The Association, I could sound like The Grass Roots... I could sound like a lot of the big groups at the time. I could even sound like The Turtles.
Cosmik: You could sing like [Mark] Volman?
Dante: A little bit. Yeah, he's one of my favorite singers. What a great singer. I just saw him in concert last year and he was still great.
Cosmik: I didn't know if he was still out there doing it.
Dante: He's out there all the time. Turtles must do 30 to 40 dates a year.
Cosmik: Who were some of the other's involved in The Archies?
Dante: The major voice in the group was a girl named Toni Wine. She was a wonderful singer, and she was signed Kirshner also as a staff songwriter with me. We were kids together. She got the job to do the "I'm gonna make your life so sweet" lead on "Sugar Sugar."
Cosmik: The Veronica voice.
Dante: The Veronica voice. She sang on the first two or three albums. All the backgrounds are just her and me together, multi-tracking our voices. Then after a while we started to bring in some other people to sing some background, but we were the major voices on all that Archies stuff. Jeff Barry, the producer, often put a bass voice on some of the stuff. Toni wrote a song called "Groovy Kind Of Love," which has been a hit two or three times, and she also wrote "Candida" for Tony Orlando and Dawn. She was going to name her baby Candida, but she didn't have a baby, so she put it on a song instead.
Cosmik: Andy Kim was involved, too, wasn't he?
Dante: Andy was writing with Jeff Barry, and being produced by him, so Kirshner said "why don't we get Andy to write a couple songs for The Archies?" After we had one single out, "Bang Shang-a-Lang," Kirshner asked Jeff to bring Andy in. I just saw Andy last week, and he told me the whole story. He wrote "Jingle Jangle," the follow-up, and then he wrote "Who's Your Baby," which was another Archies single. He wrote about half a dozen songs for The Archies. He never sang on any of the records, but he definitely was a big influence on the [success], and his songwriting ability sure came through on "Sugar Sugar," boy.
Cosmik: Despite the fact that it was really a perfect pop song, were you all a little surprised that it went number one?
Dante: I really was, because we recorded maybe thirty or forty songs in a three or four week period, and "Sugar Sugar" was just another song. The only thing I really remember about the session is that we worked really hard on the vocal sound. Jeff didn't just accept the first thing that came out of my mouth. We worked it and worked it and worked it until we got the sound he was happy with, and it was one of our longer vocal sessions.
Cosmik: Now, Jeff Barry was the working producer in the studio...
Dante: He was the line producer. He'd produced The Monkees, he'd written "Leader Of The Pack," "Chappel Of Love," "Hanky Panky"... He'd written hundreds of hits, he and his co-writer at the time, Ellie Greenwich. He produced The Monkees hit, "I'm A Believer." He was a talented guy. So he was brought in by Don Kirshner to do The Archies. They wanted to do another Monkees kind of thing, you know, with a TV show, records, the whole multi-media trip. So he did all the line production for the first two or three albums.
Cosmik: What was Kirshner's function? Was it mostly just top-end management?
Dante: Donny did the promotion, he made the deals, got the merchandising all geared up, and he helped choose the songs. He was a great song man. He was the moving force behind the music, but he didn't go in and do the line production. It was executive production.
Cosmik: Kirshner got such a bad rap from The Monkees. In fact, they fired him. And to hear them tell it, it was a pretty oppressive environment working with him. What was the studio environment like when he was there? Or did he even come into to the studio?
Dante: Oh, he was in the studio a lot with us. It was a pleasure to be in the studio with Don Kirshner. He was a gentleman, there was always food and drinks, relaxation, a great atmosphere, he was warm, always telling jokes... Kirshner's like your best uncle. I understood that The Monkees were frustrated with their situation, but Donny was giving them number one records, selling a gazillion records for them, and they were just actors hired to play a singing group. They were not musicians hired to be musicians. They were actors. So he took four actors, gave them an image, a TV show, brought in the best producers like Boyce and Hart, Sedaka, Greenfield, Jeff Barry, tons of great people, and he had access to every great song in America through his publishing facilities. He was the number one publisher in the country. Nobody talks about that he was the number one music publisher in the country, but working at Screen Gems-Columbia as their president of the music division, he was not just a suit: he was a song man. I love this guy. I understand The Monkees' rap, but I think when they left him the truth came out. They couldn't get themselves arrested after a while. They just self-destructed, because the musical ability was not really there. They were talented actors, and a couple of good singers. Mickey and Davy Jones are good friends of mine, and I love them. They're super talented guys. But Kirshner gave them the best songs, I felt.
Cosmik: They kind of lost sight of what was really happening and what it was really all about.
Dante: I think they did. I think two of them did.
Cosmik: Mike and Pete?
Dante: I think Mike and Pete were the self-destructors.
Cosmik: Probably because they were real musicians and they were pissed.
Dante: I'm sure they were the most frustrated, and I understand their position, but history will prove them wrong.
Cosmik: Did you produce some of The Archies' records?
Dante: I did. I produced the last album, This Is Love, and I produced cuts on the earlier albums. I got my chance to do a few things with them toward the third year of the series.
Cosmik: Was that your first taste of production?
Dante: I'd been producing new groups that weren't being hits, but I was producing things before then. The Archies records, that was my first hit artist as a producer.
Cosmik: Did the Archie thing end suddenly, like they just came in and said "we're pulling the plug, clear out of the studio"?
Dante: After about three seasons and five albums, and a Greatest Hits, it just kind of petered out. When the show went off the air, the records stopped soon after. There wasn't any need to put out records, because the sales were dropping. And three years was a very good run.
Cosmik: What did you do next?
Dante: I did commercials. Because of the [success] of "Sugar Sugar" and "Tracy," I got lots of commercial work, and I sang for every product known to man, I think. McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi, sun tan lotions, cars, you name it. I was a regular on two or three major jingle houses, and they would call me for almost all the jingles, either lead or background. I did that for years and years and years.
Cosmik: And that's very lucrative.
Dante: Very lucrative, and I didn't have to tour and run out. I'd still do singles on myself, you know, put out a single here and there, and if it hit I'd go in and do an album, if it didn't, I'd go on and do something else.
Cosmik: Just out of curiosity... the Coke commercials wouldn't have been the "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" ads, would they?
Dante: It was. I sang the one where the people are on that hill.
Cosmik: Oh! That's the one I was just visualizing!
Dante: If you listen to it you hear the whole group singing, and I'm in the group, "I'd like to buy the world a coke," right? And then you hear me sing "Coke is." It's on www.yesterdayland.com. They actually play that commercial. You hear me singing and I talk about it.
Cosmik: I can hear it like it was yesterday. And that's exactly the ad I was thinking of, because I was picturing that great helicopter shot at the end, when the camera backs out and you see how many people are on that rock.
Dante: It was a great shot. It won more CLEOs, which is the big award for commercials, than any other commercial. I also did the Christmas tree lighting one for Coke. I got to sing some legendary commercials for both Coke and Pepsi.
Cosmik: This was just about the time you started doing some big-time producing work, too, isn't it?
Dante: Doing commercials you get to meet a lot of people. I ran into Luther Vandross doing commercials, Melissa Manchester, Ashford and Simpson, and one guy I met was Barry Manilow. He asked me to produce him, and I did, and I ended up producing "Mandy" and all his big hits for the next ten years.
Cosmik: Did you meet him right after he left Bette Midler?
Dante: Just as he was leaving. In fact I was the one who convinced him to leave Bette Midler.
Cosmik: Quite a good move on his part.
Dante: A very good move. He went from making four hundred dollars a week to four hundred thousand a week.
Cosmik: I can't even fathom that. You produced Cher, too, didn't you?
Dante: Yes, I produced many of the cuts on her Take Me Home album. That was a great job, working with her.
Cosmik: Was this a big jump as far as production responsibility, going from what you'd done before to what you were doing at this point?
Dante: Not really. I'd been producing all along, and learning as people produced me. I was learning as I did commercials, where they do short hand arrangement to get to the hook quick, and to the key change quickly. I was very lucky to have that experience. I'd learned all that, so by the time I got a chance to produce, I was ready.
Cosmik: And Barry Manilow was the first big name?
Dante: After The Archies, he was the first major artist that I took from nowhere to somewhere.
Cosmik: When I was researching for this interview I found a quick mention somewhere that you had worked with Paul Shaffer [David Letterman's bandleader].
Dante: Paul was co-producer with me on one of my solo albums.
Cosmik: I don't think most people realize what a great music guy he is, how much knowledge he has.
Dante: He's out there every night. He's one of the most famous in the world. He's a big fan of music. Learned his craft in Canada.
Cosmik: You worked with Pat Benatar, too, didn't you?
Dante: I produced her first three sides. I did "Heartbreaker" and "You Better Run." I was the first one to take her into the studio.
Cosmik: I was looking at your schedule and I noticed that it's jammed. You're a busy guy.
Dante: I try to keep busy producing, performing and writing, and then living my life. I'm very lucky to still be having a great time at it. I get out to perform, too. I'm going to Orlando next week, and going to Nashville the week after. Then we hit Minneapolis St. Paul the month after that. There's a call for this kind of music. It's great music, and people really like hearing it, so I'm going to get out there and perform.
Cosmik: Is it similar to the music you were doing in the 60s?
Dante: Well, right now I have an album called Favorites, and I recorded my favorite 60s songs. I'm working on Favorites II, where I'll do my favorite early 70s songs. I'm trying to do three volumes, so maybe I'll get to the late 70s and early 80s with volume three. But I find that people really like that. Band music has come back very big, where you have a five piece band of real musicians playing. That's a very popular type of music now, and that's very similar to the 60s, so if I just stay true to the songs, they'll sound great and the people appreciate it.
Cosmik: What are some of the songs on those albums?
Dante: I did "Temptation Eyes" by The Grassroots, I did "Cherish" by the Association, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by The Four Tops, I did "Jackie Blue" by Ozark Mountain Daredevils...
Cosmik: Oh, I love "Jackie Blue." Gives me goose bumps.
Dante: Isn't that a great song?! I just always loved that range that the singer could sing in, you know? Almost falsetto. There's like fifteen or sixteen cuts on my Favorites album.
Cosmik: What label is it on?
Dante: It's on RKO Unique. A small label out of Las Vegas. They're at www.rkounique.com.
Cosmik: I'm almost afraid to use the term bubblegum, even though it's a term of endearment for me. You've worked in all kinds of music, and you're certainly aware that some people don't take some of that music very serious, and that the term bubblegum is sometimes said with rolled eyes, but there's something about it that makes it appealing even today. I was wondering what you think the key to that is. What makes bubblegum great?
Dante: I think it's the innocence of it. It doesn't deal with serious issues. It's love songs, or fun songs. Good time rock and roll. It's also danceable and appeals to the very young and people who think very young. I think the power-pop of today is very similar to the bubblegum of the late 60s, and I must say, the bubblegum of the late 60s is very popular today. Continues to be popular, gets played every day on thousands of stations across the country. People love the music. They come and support the artists when they perform live. It's okay if people want to put it down; it was not meant to be compared to Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones, but it's just as relevant in that it's very sound, musically. Great sounding records, great singers, and very memorable songs. The Turtles were bubblegum with "Happy Together," but that's a great record, great song, great vocal. So I find that pop music, in all its incarnations, stays around because it gets to the most people. "Sugar Sugar" sells six, seven million records. That's a very good seller, and that's not just selling to teenagers. It sold to everybody, including people who didn't even know who The Archies were.
Cosmik: Very similar to when The Monkees first records came out, ahead of the first episode of the show, and nobody knew who they were but they bought the records anyway because the songs were so strong.
Dante: The songs were very strong. "Last Train To Clarksville" was a strong song.
Cosmik: What's interesting to me is thinking about bubblegum music being made now, because obviously it's still being made. But I have trouble imagining anyone singing N-Sync songs thirty-one years from now. What do you think the big difference is between what was gum then and what is essentially gum now?
Dante: I don't know. The bubblegum of today is more like Hansen, Christine Aguillera, Britney Spears, even the boy groups like N-Sync and Backstreet Boys. It's very similar to The New Kids On The Block of ten years ago. Some of it is good and memorable, but I don't know how much of it will last and how much won't. I really like some of the songs N-Sync does. I love Savage Garden. I think they put out some really nice songs. I think there's some memorable stuff. You have to realize that ninety percent of all the stuff that is released is going to be forgettable, but that ten percent... you can't really bag yet. You don't know what's going to be memorable ten or twenty years from now. There are a lot less great songs being written today because writing is a tough craft, and a lot of people are using what has come before to write. Like they're writing a rap record around a Sting song, and I don't think that takes as much creativity as writing something from scratch. So there's a lot less creativity, a lot more retro-writing going on, people leaning on what has been done, so you're going to get a lot less memorable stuff. Some of the rap stuff, they're not songs: they're a musical idiom. They make a statement, but I can't call them songs. There's not a song there, it's a moment in time and an interesting sound. I mean, sonically, some of the stuff is really cool. It can be very interesting because they do different things, like they don't use a bass or whatever. It's very interesting nowadays, but the songs that will last a long time are few and far between.
Cosmik: And I guess that even back in the 60s they were few and far between...
Dante: It's just that we've forgotten them. (Laughs.) Out of the top one hundred, there were five or six that were really good that month, while the rest of them were just being pushed up the charts by promotion men. There's always a lot of fluff and filler. I think the Internet will start to cut that away, though, because you'll see the really good stuff rise to the top of the Internet at some point, and people will be able to judge for themselves.
Cosmik: The Internet's a pretty amazing thing.
Dante: It's a revolution. It's going to change the world of music as we know it. It's evolution, too. We have to go through this.
Cosmik: You think it'll give the music to the people, puts the power in their hands?
Dante: It certainly does. People still want to hold something in their hands. They want the pictures, the liner notes, the copy that's theirs, instead of burning their own CD. That's fun, but it'll never be quite the same as getting that real piece. With all this hubbub about record people worried about the Internet, the record business is up ten percent. Instead of ten billion, it's thirteen billion this year, so I'm not too worried. I equate it to when TV came in and the movie business thought nobody would ever go out to a movie again. Instead, it helped the movie business. It made the movie business change: 3D, cinerama, big productions. Remember that the video business was going to kill the movie business, too? Everything seems to be working together. Instead of shrinking the market, it expands the market. Everything is going to change, but for the better.
Cosmik: You have a huge career to take stock of, but when you do, what stands out?
Dante: It has to be the first successes. Those are the things that stand out. The first major TV shows I ever performed on, Dick Clark Show or Shindig or Hullabaloo or one of those great 60s shows. The first number one record, "Sugar Sugar," which was number one world-wide. That has to stand out as an incredible step for a singer. I was on the Ed Sullivan show. The cartoon band played on the Sullivan show and there was my voice. What a kick! That was a first. My first major jingle, a Pepsi spot called "You've Got A Lot To Live." It was one of the biggest Pepsi campaigns of 1970. They must have done twenty commercials and I did them all. The first number one as a producer, "Mandy," has to stand out as an all-time life achievement. It got nominated for a Grammy, and "I Write The Songs," also got nominated. Being recognized as one of the five best records of the year by your peer group is an incredible experience. So that stands out. I also became a Broadway producer at one point, and produced a couple shows with my music money. The first show I produced was called "Ain't Misbehavin'," the Fats Waller musical, and it's been touring the country for about twenty years now. That won the Tony for best musical, so I got to get up on stage and get a Tony from Gene Kelly! So lets face it, that stands out as awe-inspiring for me. I co-produced that with two or three other people, a couple of my friends. But it was a musical, and I'm a musical guy, and all my friends said nobody wins on Broadway, but they were wrong. Those are firsts that I remember, the things that stand out for me. And you know what? I expect a few more to come my way.