When junior high student Ken Bolognese saw his classmate Ray Carlisle singing, he thought, “If he can do that, I can do that.” It was the mid-50s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and it wasn’t long before the youngsters were “hittin’ tunes” in a quartet. Bolognese, Carlisle, George Campbell and Frankie Cacapardo sang often in school shower room for the great echo.
After reducing to a trio, the boys picked up a manager, DJ Paul Landersman, who got them on a show with Danny & the Juniors. The latter group was impressed and invited them to sing for Bernie Binik. They did the audition on the fire escape of the Colonial Theater while Landersman did his radio show inside. Binik was close with Bernie Lowe of Cameo Records and the result was a 1958 release as Kenny, Frank & Ray. The record reportedly got played on American Bandstand, but little else happened.
Bolognese, as Kenny Beau, had two subsequent releases on Landersman’s PL label, one of them backed by a local band called the Whirlwinds. The trio was then called to Lancaster to sing background on a session for a singer remembered only as “Johnny something.” While there, Bolognese got a day job at a J.C. Penney store. During a lunch break one day he heard John F. Kennedy speak at the town square, an experience that has remained with him.
He also met songwriter Bix Reichner (“I Need Your Love Tonight,” “Papa Loves Mambo,” “Teen Age Prayer”) who told him about an opportunity in New York with manager Herb Wiener. Wiener had a duo with a chart record and one member was leaving. The Tree Swingers - Art Polhemus and Terry Byrnes - were just coming off their #73 hit, “Kookie Little Paradise,” (Guyden 2036) in the fall of 1960. (Jo Ann Campbell charted at #61 with the same tune). They had cut a follow-up (Only Forever/Kissin’ And Cookin’ - Big Top 3058), and Byrnes had decided to split. Bolognese stepped in, did the tour, and - since actor Jeff Chandler had always been a favorite - soon chose the stage name Kenny Chandler.
Wiener took Chandler into a small studio across from the Brill Building and did a piano/voice demo for $15.00. “We took it to 10 companies and had 10 companies wanting to sign us,” said Chandler. “Herb said, ‘We’ve got to go to Leiber & Stoller because they’re the hottest.” However, because of other commitments, the famous team was reluctant to sign a new artist. “Jerry said he thought they were too busy,” recalls Chandler. “Then he said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to go to the men’s room. Herb said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So we’re in there, Herb’s talking to him, he’s taking care of business, and all of sudden Herb said, ‘Hit it!’ I go into the Five Satins ‘To The Aisle,’ we go back to the office and he signed me.”
The result was “Drums,” Chandler’s first solo release. “Stan Applebaum did the arrangements,” said Chandler. “We had 16 voices, 40 musicians, and Brooks Arthur was the engineer. We had the best, but I didn’t like the record. I didn’t like my performance, and the arrangement was too martial.” The record bubbled under at #112 in Billboard. Chandler toured with the Belmonts, Del Shannon, Brian Hyland, Jamie Coe, and the Chantels. “I was a big fan of the Belmonts,” he said. “Two years earlier I was on the street corner in Harrisburg imitating them, and now here I was on tour with them.” (It was a kick to discover that, during that 1962 tour, Chandler had come into a Fargo, North Dakota, club where our band was playing. Carlo of the Belmonts came up and sang with us and Chandler remembered the night). Chandler subsequently signed with Laurie about the time Dion was leaving the label for Columbia. The company was probably hoping he would be their next star, and the second release looked as if it might fulfill that hope.
“Artie Polhemus (of the Tree Swingers) had become a recording engineer,” related Chandler. “He was working at Dick Charles Recording Studio right near Times Square. They were famous for doing songwriters’ demos. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil went in and made a demo of ‘Heart.’ When they left the studio, he called me and said, ‘I’ve got the song that’s perfect for you.’ I went down, he gave me the dub and he said, ‘Don’t tell anybody I gave you this.’ I listened to it, loved it, and I rushed over to Laurie. They called Screen Gems Music to get a license to record it. Screen Gems said, ‘You can’t record that song. Bobby Darin has an exclusive for Wayne Newton on TM Productions.’
“Eddie Mathews, Laurie’s national promotion man, said, ‘If there’s a lead sheet with the Library of Congress in Washington, anybody can record it.’ We checked and there was a lead sheet on file. We recorded it and had it out in two weeks. Bobby Darin was furious. It’s a wonder he didn’t have me erased. I was supposed to be on Bandstand. Dick Clark had supposedly gotten a call from Bobby Darin, and Darin said, ‘Put Wayne Newton on.’ I never really knew for sure. If I had gotten on Bandstand, who knows how high it would have gone?”
Chandler did win the battle. His record entered Billboard’s Hot 100 April 6, 1963 and got as far as #64 during a seven‑week run. Newton’s entered three weeks later, only made it to #82, and dropped off after four weeks. Newton, however, had a #13 follow-up, ‘Danke Schoen,’ which virtually established his career.
Chandler said he got a lot of mileage out of the hit, but lost his voice for nearly a year in 1964. During that time he taught himself to play guitar and, as his voice returned, began singing in Central Park. “It saved my life,” he said. He took a club gig and developed a following on New York’s East Side. Later, through the help of Bobby Vinton, he signed with Epic, and recorded a different ‘Heart’ (from Petula Clark’s second album). Some of his records, especially “S.O.S. (Sweet On Susie)” got airplay in Canada, and Chandler did extensive touring there.
Two years later, on Tower, he cut a remake of “Sleep,” a 1924 Fred Waring tune that Little Willie John had updated in 1960. Chandler moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to further his career. He and partner Guerin Barry formed a club act, working Reno and opening for Jackie Mason. The duo broke up when Guerin joined Sha Na Na. Around 1980 Chandler had a European release on a duet with Gail Farrell, formerly of the Lawrence Welk Show.
Chandler had begun to diversify his career in the late 60’s while still in New York. He got into acting and he had considerable success writing jingles from 1965-75. He did voice-overs and produced video commercials. He had small parts in The Six Million Dollar Man, The Buddy Holly Story, and Elvis (as one of the Jordanaires). He appeared on Edge of Night for a year in the early 70’s, and was a regular on a Smothers Brothers’ TV show called Fitz & Bones.
Born November 21, 1940 in Harrisburg, Chandler had an interesting career. “I had the ability to imitate well,” he said. “On one hand it was a good thing. On the other hand it was a terrible thing, because I never found out who I was and what I could do.” In the mid-90’s he said, “I feel that, at the age of 54, I’m about to start doing what I’m capable of doing. I’m really looking forward to this career that I’ve been following for 30 years. I feel it’s all been a training ground.”